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"The work [she does] is a hundred times more provocative than what I see the Latino community doing in New York or L.A.," Anthony insists. "Places like Bilingual Foundation for the Arts will not touch the sensuality, the urgency, the confrontationalism. They're muddled in this niceness. Multiculturalism isn't supposed to be this neatly packaged dish that's going to please everyone. Cora does stuff our community doesn't want to talk about. I hate to say it, but silence is a very big part of the Latino culture. Cora is not silent. Some people dislike her, but I don't think they could exist two days in her shoes."
Of Cardona's directing style, Anthony says, "She can be brusque. She's very hands-on. She doesn't take notes; she stands and moves around the theater. Cora takes you and walks you across the stage the way she wants you to walk. That can make you feel powerless in the creative process. But when you finally hit that place, she makes you feel like the greatest actor on the planet. She'll actually tell you, 'Baby, you're the greatest actor I've ever seen.'"
About Cardona's acting chops, which Anthony initially describes as "kick-ass," the former disciple remarks more thoughtfully about an essay she'd read in a collection of theater musings by David Mamet called True and False. The playwright vividly described a time many centuries ago when the best actors so moved their audiences, the latter became scared by their own responses and feared some force within the performers had drained something from them. Occasionally, the actors were hunted down and impaled with stakes, like vampires. "When I read that, " she remembers, "I thought, 'Cora is a vampire.'"
Back in 1992, Cora Cardona and Jeff Hurst cemented their reputation as "certified rabble-rousers," according to one source, when City Councilman Domingo Garcia proposed a radical change in civic arts funding. Emboldened by voter approval of the 14-1 council structure, Garcia, with the very vocal support of Cardona, Hurst, and others, complained--as many still do--that the Dallas Symphony and the Dallas Museum of Art were elbowing the small, specifically ethnic companies away from the trough. Garcia introduced a radical plan for 50 percent "parity" that merely reflected the city's statistical makeup. It failed, but in the following years, with Cardona and Hurst making frequent appearances at City Hall, advocates were able to pressure the council into expanding the percentage of the cultural budget devoted to minority groups to 25 percent.
"The big guys felt threatened by us," Cardona remembers. "We never expected they were going to react like that. It was like we were stealing food off of their plates." As Hurst puts it, "Sometimes you have to bang your head on the door again and again so that other people can walk through it."
Two of what Cardona describes as "mainstream ethnic arts groups" initially distanced themselves from Teatro Dallas, going so far as to insist to city council people in public presentations that Teatro "doesn't speak for all of us." Cardona says she was angered and hurt by the talk, but understands that "when you've had very little, and you get a little more, you're absolutely thrilled at what they give you. You jump up and down. And when someone pushes for more, you say, 'Don't rock the boat.'"
Cardona is, needless to say, not as easily ignored by the city council or the Office of Cultural Affairs as she may arguably be within the mainstream of Dallas' Hispanic community and performing arts circles in general. After the ethnic arts funding fracas of the early '90s, she continued to attend council meetings with her friend Clara Hinojosa, especially during the many moments when progress on funding and building the Latino Cultural Arts Center stalled. She spoke as an artist about the importance of such a venue--although this was well before her own space burned. And she made impressions on some of the right people.
Despite controversy that has surrounded her tenure, Margie Reese of the Office of Cultural Affairs is widely regarded as the strongest advocate for small arts groups that's ever been appointed to a city post. She professes admiration for Cardona and regards her as a "forward-thinking woman."
"We are committed to helping Teatro Dallas find a space, based on what they bring to the community," Reese says, confirming that Teatro Dallas has applied for and received funding from the city's Facility Reimbursement program, which helps homeless companies lease private spaces for performance. "It takes time for a product of the kind Teatro Dallas offers to work its way into the cultural system of the city. We lose a lot of organizations because space is such an issue, and there is no chance for any kind of longevity for these groups."
On the question of whether Teatro Dallas could receive some kind of resident status at the proposed Latino Cultural Arts Center, Reese acknowledges that no rules exist to prevent an organization from being first in line for production slots at a cultural center. Indeed, 14 or 15 city buildings, she notes, from the Dallas Museum of Art's facility to the Meyerson, contain single entities that have contracted full seasons. Reese makes final decisions about the Latino Cultural Arts Center and will continue to do so through the Office of Cultural Affairs until she leaves for Los Angeles this August. That may include the appointment of a director who will make programming choices, but she demurs at this early stage about making any promises to any troupes.
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