By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Sitting across from Cora Cardona in the dimly lit Library at The Melrose, I was treated to a command performance from a woman whose intense, florid manner makes chatting about newspaper headlines sound like a reading of Lorca. Born in Mexico City 50 years ago to a prosperous family, Cardona's father was a nationally known poet, journalist, and radical; her mother died when she was only 12. She studied theater at the prestigious National Institute for Fine Arts in Mexico and has trained and workshopped all over the globe. She combines a mime's fervor for gesture--she motions, she flags, she points--with knowledge of how cultures overlap and intertwine. Never baptized in the Catholic Church, she converted to Judaism when she married Jeff Hurst, has a houseful of books about Jewish law and philosophy, yet insists that the idea of the state of Israel--that is, any state whose foundation is religious--is wrong. She says she can understand the powerful allure behind la Virgen de Guadalupe, the so-called "Patroness of the Americas," but declares that la Virgen was little more than a political device created by imperialist Spain to keep the Mexican Indians down. And what's her idea of a great name for an arts center or a space of her own?
"Cesar Chavez," she says, dramatically emphasizing all four syllables of the organizer of American migrant workers. "A farmer and a revolutionary leader whose people bled in the fields for him. He waved a flag that said, 'There are no countries. The world is our country.' Can you imagine anything greater than coming to the Cesar Chavez Theater to see Japanese Noh?"
An outlook divergent, perhaps, from the commercial capital of Dallas, where planners of the Latino Cultural Arts Center briefly but seriously flirted with the name "Jose Cuervo Center" if it meant getting a fat corporate gift in return. Cardona admits she had to adjust to this city after she'd lived in more bohemian cities like San Francisco and then Austin, where she met her husband in 1978. Cardona and Hurst, a cameraman and film/TV lighting tech, came here because there was so much production work available. Eventually, she says, she began to look at Dallas' relative newness and reputation for entrepreneurial encouragement as offering possibilities unavailable in other places. But Cardona's initial attempts at trying to get city support were rebuffed, she says.
"I called the Office of Cultural Affairs [then known as the Division of Cultural Affairs], and they said, 'We have nothing for you,'" she remembers. "And Jeff said, 'Call them back; they're set up to help artists.' So I called more times. I think they thought I was a crazy woman. Then a woman named Vicki Meek answered. And I thought I was in heaven. It was the complete opposite. She listened to me. She said, 'Let's set up a meeting.'"
Meek steered Cardona to an alliance of middle- and upper-class Mexicans who loved the arts--"it was a social scene with a cultural touch," says Cardona--and they served as an umbrella organization under which Cardona produced her first Dallas play at the Bath House Cultural Center, a tale of a Puerto Rican woman and her Americanized granddaughter in New York City called Maggie Margarita. Every night was sold out, Cardona's name began to circulate among arts funders and public officials, and she decided that this was the city where she wanted to do theater full time. She and Jeff got their nonprofit status, assembled a board of directors, appointed Vicki Meek as the president, and switched on the Teatro Dallas marquee. As Cardona's imagination expanded and grew wilder--more sex, more blood, political satires that looked skeptically at gender roles, absurdist theater, tragedies about vampires, comedies about children living with dead, decaying parents--she encountered mixed reactions from all sides. Scott Latham, a Dallas actor who's worked with Cardona on many occasions, half facetiously sums up Teatro's shows as always containing some combination of three elements--he points to his heart (love and hate), his crotch (sex), and then the sky (spirituality, transcendence from death). The quality of Teatro's performances, her direction and her performances, and her eerie, smoky theatrical atmospherics were often hailed, but some critics in the city consistently found different work than what they expected.
"Some Anglo critics said, 'You're not Mexican enough, you're doing avant-garde, which is European," she says. "And I was like, 'This is avant-garde Latin American theater, about our experiences as Indians and blacks and Spanish.'" As for the Mexican-American population, Cardona says, "I was really hit hard with how segregated the city is. In Mexico City, I wasn't questioning my identity, so I could watch Mexicans perform German and British plays and not be bothered. I didn't have to worry about, 'Is it enough like me?' But I think the audience we grew for Teatro Dallas began to realize, 'This is not the '60s anymore. This is not all about us. We're part of a family that includes Central Americans and South Americans and the Spanish and Cubans.'"
Vicki Meek is now director of the South Dallas Cultural Center, but during her stint helping Teatro build a base of supporters, she recalls some frustration at a tangle of agendas, misunderstandings, and conflicts that she claims continue today.