Right in the center of Mexico City lies the Zócalo. The massive plaza has been the heart of the city for centuries, from the days when it was the ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec capital, to today, when every September 15, the president of Mexico stands on the National Palace’s balcony and hails in the country’s Independence Day celebrations with three shouts of ¡Viva México!
“Back in the day, whenever there was elections or the president of Mexico had to say something, or there was some big activity, this is where everybody would culminate,” says Baldemar Rodriguez, the Alley Theatre’s manager of community partnerships. “That’s what El Zócalo is, a big place where people come and gather for celebrations.”
Practically every city in Latin America has a location like this, he says. For the past few years, the Alley has been trying to carve out its own similar space here in Houston through El Zócalo, its educational and community engagement initiative to “grow and interact with Houston’s diverse Latin culture and artistic community.”
Since El Zócalo kicked off in 2017, the company has continued to add events and activities, but it took things to the next level this year with a month of virtual programming in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs September 15 through October 15. Already halfway through, the Alley’s programming includes virtual readings, workshops, and music. The company’s even utilizing social media for its celebrations: Hispanic members of the Alley’s staff have also been answering questions about their work during the company’s Tuesday Instagram series, #AskTheAlley.
Throughout the month, members of Houston’s Latinx community have been sharing original stories they’ve written as part of Primer Borrador (First Draft), a virtual writing residency through the El Zócalo initiative. Three videos have been shared so far in this “Historias, Memorias y Recuerdos” (meaning "stories, memories, and heartstrings," says Rodriguez) series, and about two new videos are being uploaded each week.
At the same time, Houston-area actors and special guests, including State Rep. Christina Morales, Council Member Robert Gallegos, and Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, are reading chapters from Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border, the 2018 memoir of Texas-born playwright Octavio Solis, whose Don Quixote adaptation, Quixote Nuevo, played on the Alley stage back in January.
Additionally, Alley staff is holding virtual readings of children’s books published by the Houston-based Arte Público Press, the largest Hispanic press in North America, as part of its partnership with the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans’ Early Childhood Development Center. All of the stories will be presented in Spanish, adds Rodriguez.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a true celebration without music, and so the Alley has teamed up with the Houston Mariachi Festival to also offer video performances from Irma Infante, daughter of Mexican acting icon Pedro Infante, and Latinx opera singer and Houston native Vanessa Alonzo during live Zoom events on September 30 and October 15.
The Alley’s Heritage Month celebration, the first the company has ever held, had originally been planned as a three-day, in-person festival, says Rodriguez. When the coronavirus epidemic exploded across the U.S., shutting down just about every theater-related event in its wake, those plans moved online.
Though the pandemic prevented the Alley from enacting its full Plaza del Zócalo vision, the Hispanic Heritage Month festivities have still managed to capture the spirit of the Mexican city center and of the company's own goal of carving out a space for Latinx voices in Houston’s creative community.
“The fact that the Alley is doing content, not just Latinx-English content, but Latinx-Spanish content, is paramount,” says Rodriguez. “Right now the largest growing community in Houston is the Latinx community, more specifically the Mexican community. It’s wonderful that we can really cater to this growing demographic in Houston.”
Thru Oct 15. More info at alleytheatre.org.