By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The small crowd huddled inside and around a tent pitched on a vacant lot on Good Latimer near Swiss. The weather hit below-freezing temperatures, and the TV news broadcasters stirred panic over a coming ice storm that never came. But the citizens and city employees who collected here had waited too long for the groundbreaking ceremony of the new Latino Cultural Arts Center--roughly 15 years, to be precise--to let the coldest day of the new winter keep them away. For those lucky enough to be seated inside or standing at the front of the unsheltered rows peering through the tent's opening, a host of luminaries took their turn to herald this still-to-be-built institution for the city's Latino population. One problem: Most of these crowing roosters--Mayor Ron Kirk, City Councilman John Loza, City Manager Ted Benavides, a priest who led a prayer to the Virgen de Guadalupe--had contributed little substance either to the Latino Arts Center specifically or Dallas' Latino arts in general.
Their presentations made one absentee from the podium roster all the more conspicuous. She was at the ceremony, seated inside the tent, noticeably and uncharacteristically quiet--a small, striking woman with straight black hair. Cora Cardona, artistic director and co-founder of Teatro Dallas, serves on the artistic advisory board of the Latino Cultural Arts Center, but unlike the ceremonial heralds who trumpeted this moment in Dallas history, she was helping to make that history happen way back in the early '80s, when people convened weeknights at her theater to discuss the embryo of an idea for such a center.
She was, of course, a natural choice to conduct such conversations. She'd arrived here from Austin in 1984, and almost instantly became creator of some of the city's bloodiest, sexiest, most sophisticated theater, often commissioning new work or translating existing Latino scripts from Mexico and Spain and Portugal into English world premieres. For her annual International Theater Festival, she imports cabaret singers and puppeteers and dancers who've often played nowhere else in the United States. She also has been an outspoken, opinionated advocate for increased arts funding, lobbying (some say pestering) city council members and budget heads and cultural center planners. Often, it's her art she's scrambling to get financed, because maintaining an artistic standard as steely and provocative as Cardona's requires perpetual stumping. "I am not good at PR," Cardona confesses in her rich, unabridged Mexican accent. "I am not a good bullshitter. It is not in my nature."
A bit of bullshit, however, can make the wheels of private and public donations turn a little faster, especially for an artistic entity like Teatro Dallas, which does not fit the friendly socket of "multiculturalism" as defined by civic and cultural visionaries. In the purest sense of the word, Cardona's work is more "multicultural" than what people usually mean--Mexican-American or African-American or American Indian--when they say the word. She showcases Cuban performers and tinkers with Aztec ritual and symbolism and strives to demonstrate the African link to Latino culture. Once or twice a year, Cardona and her troupe represent the United States in festivals around the world. But she is more interested in art, or at the very least a suspenseful story, than "affirming ethnicity or celebrating diversity." Although she's certainly addressed them, the assimilation experiences and immigrant tales are not her primary interest; her influences are likely to be as foreign to a Dallasite of Mexican descent as to an Anglo resident. In a city where the Chicano voice grows ever more confident in elected and appointed offices and with institutions like the Latino Cultural Arts Center, she's a bit of a loner even among her fellow Latinos. To some degree, though, she's proud of her independence, her unclassifiability.
But on the last night of their 1998 Dia de Los Muertos performance, Teatro Dallas' rented space at Commerce and Central burned to a crisp hollow, with expensive equipment lost. Cardona and her artistic associates have been valiantly producing in temporary homes--including, at one point this year, holding shows in a tent at Samuell-Grand Park. But the quality of the work has been hobbled by their itinerant status; the audience they'd spent 13 years nurturing has begun to disperse, weary of following them to so many places.
Cardona has got to wonder, Will Teatro's audience stay with them if they can't find a permanent space? And will the single-minded passion that has often alienated Dallas' cultural, political, and theatrical community hamper her attempts to get that space? During the years that led up to Teatro's displacement, many leaders in the Hispanic community either didn't know Cardona existed or dismissed her because she does not make proud artistic statements about being a minority in America--even though she's trained a generation of young Mexican-American actors with little or no previous theatrical knowledge. Ironic, because in many ways Cardona is Latino theater in Dallas, or at least the wellspring from which most of it has come.
Still, anyone who has seen the best of its work and truly understands what the phrase "world class" means knows that Dallas needs Teatro as much as Teatro needs a home. And if Dallas needs Teatro, it needs Cardona, the heart of the troupe--not only because the city is lacking in quality Hispanic theater in proportion to its exploding Latino population, but because we cannot lose another theater of fervor and risk. The company is not without allies--Margie Reese, director of the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, is trying to help Teatro land its own space through the city's facility reimbursement till--but there has not been a community call from Latinos and other stage artists for assistance to match its importance to the city. In a time of need, Cora Cardona stands apart now as she always has.