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Discovering the Power of the Arts in Peñasco: Burke ’16 at Wise Fool-Peñasco Theatre in Peñasco, New Mexico

This fall quarter I am co-oping in Peñasco, New Mexico at the Peñasco Theater Collective. (Check out their website here How do I succinctly describe the Peñasco Theater Collective and their mission? In short, they are Alessandra Ogren, Rebekah Tarín, and Serena Rascón, a group of both visual and performance artists who live and work here at the theater. Although they host resident artists and have live performances in the theater, I would say their biggest focus right now is their youth programing and education. They teach afterschool classes in the fall and spring, currently they are teaching performance and visual arts classes to the La Jicarita Commmunity School here in Peñasco, they host a teen camp in the summer, and they have a youth dance and performance company some of whom will be performing in Wisefool’s production of Circus Luminous this Thanksgiving. They are also applying for grant money right now so that they can further radicalize their existing programs.

My role here at the theater is one of half student/half teacher. I assist in classes when and where I can, as I am still learning so much. I am learning as much as I can, about the community here and its history, about the different art and performance styles we teach here, and about myself and my relationship to art and to this community. I am learning what it means to enter a community, especially a community of largely people of color, and how to find my place in it.

Youth learn all different types of performance and art- they do stilts, lyra, fabric, trapeze, acrobatics, dance, drawing and painting. But, the theater doesn’t stop at just teaching cool skills and tricks to students. Because, art is an extremely powerful tool, especially for youth who are just learning how to express themselves, who are just learning who they are in the world.

Watch La Jicarita students practice stilt walking!

Students work and push themselves to get over their fears. They work on both mental and physical weaknesses in their classes. Almost everyone can stilt walk, you just have to get over the initial mental block that tells you that you can’t. Almost everyone can paint, you just have to get over the mental block that tells you you’re doing it wrong. The women behind the Peñasco Theater Collective are pretty freaking incredible. Not only are they all ridiculously talented, but they are also just really on it, if you know what I mean… And what I mean is, they are doing some seriously important and necessary work in the world!

Peñasco itself is a small town mountain town in Northern New Mexico made up of primarily of Latino and Native people. It is a historically underprivileged area where many live under the poverty line. The theater being situated in this town gives good context for the work they are doing here. Social justice is a huge aspect of their mission. They are working to promote access of art and performance to typically underprivileged and marginalized groups of people.

Students gain confidence in themselves and become empowered in their art classes. They learn to use their bodies and are given the freedom and space to express themselves. They are not shut down or further silenced but given room to grow and expand and be themselves. Themes of identity and heritage are often themes in their classes. And sure, performance is fun but students also learn about responsibility, discipline, and hard work in their classes.

In a time where arts and performance funding is being cut from public schools, we’re all addicted to sugar, oceans are filled with plastic, and kids are taught for standardized tests not their own learning, the Peñasco Theater is doing the opposite. This fall the K1 students from the La Jicarita School are writing a play about where their food comes, highlighting the strange and probably toxic chemicals in junk food and farms and gardens where real food is grown not processed.

In June of this year, 16 year old Victor Villalpando, a young dancer and performer who learned from and worked with those in the theater community, was shot and killed by police in Española, New Mexico. Last month the women behind the Peñasco Theater Collective organized an art action in Santa Fe protesting police brutality and Victor’s death. The action was complete with a giant puppet of Victor and was held in conjunction with the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality.

An article about the action can be read here:

I made a video compilation (using my newfound love of media) of some of the video and audio from the action. Sorry bout the sniffles, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t crying throughout much of the action. Not only was their action beautiful and well executed, but it was also effective, powerful, honest, and brave.

The performance and words speak for themselves. Watch the video here:

After having been involved in some of the action and protest surrounding the death of John Crawford by police in Beavercreek Ohio over the summer, it was extremely poignant for me to come here to New Mexico to be at the epicenter of another tragic case of police violence against an innocent young man. The action performed in Santa Fe was unique in that it accessed and used art to express emotion and charge the space in a way that I have not seen at a protest before. I only wish more people had seen this event.

Please share the video so that others may see what a small community in Northern New Mexico is doing!

Wow- I ended up writing quite a bit I guess, even though of course there are almost always more stories to tell and more details to add, but that’ll have to be it for now. Mostly I just hope people catch on to and feel inspired by the amazing work being done by the Peñasco Theater Collective!

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