Seven women in white peasant blouses and pleated pastel skirts gather at the front of an East San Jose meeting hall and begin to speak. They speak of domestic violence, of the wounded souls of their men, and of a conspiracy of silence. Tears stream down one woman’s face.

“We want dignity, equality, and respect!” says one.

“We are powerful!” says another.

“We are triumphant!” says a third.

“We are women, we are life!” they all say together.

The ten-minute performance ends in a standing ovation. The women blush and beam.

These are the members of Teatro Familias Unidas, an acting troupe of Latina immigrant mothers drawn from the East San Jose neighborhood of Mayfair. The performance was for a gathering to commemorate forty years of Latino activism in San Jose. The troupe is the creation of Somos Mayfair, a community organization and Hewlett Foundation grantee that provides a range of services to the neighborhood’s residents.

While the Foundation’s grant comes from its Performing Arts Program, the work of Teatro Familias Unidas is far more than theater. The troupe is one of an estimated fifty to a hundred grassroots theater ensembles throughout the United States that use community issues as the subject matter to educate and involve their audiences in addressing local civic problems.

What differentiates this theater company from these other troupes is that it’s part of a community-based agency providing a broad range of social services and community organizing.

The troupe is also a fitting tribute and evolution of the work of Cesar Chavez, who as a child lived in the Mayfair neighborhood when it was known as the barrio called Sal Si Puedes (Get Out If You Can). In 1965 the United Farm Workers, which Chavez co-founded, created the union’s cultural arm El Teatro Campesino, or farm workers’ theater, which enacted events inspired by the lives of its audiences. (El Teatro Campesino, for many years a Hewlett grantee, remains in existence under co-founder and playwright Luis Valdez.)

Still Hard Times Today

Today Chavez’s old haunts east of downtown San Jose remain a poor and working class enclave. The neighborhood of 22,000 people is ethnically diverse, but recent and first-generation Mexican immigrants still predominate. Residents’ median income is significantly lower than the city’s as a whole, as is their education level. Housing often is substandard. Gangs are a problem.

The Hewlett Foundation’s involvement in Mayfair began in 1996, when it partnered with what was then known as the Community Foundation of Silicon Valley and community leaders to launch the Mayfair Improvement Initiative. The initiative worked to reduce poverty and raise the quality of life for residents by improving social services, reducing substandard housing, supporting economic development, and enrolling children in health insurance programs, among many other projects.

Over time, as the multiyear investments of the foundations drew to a close, some of this work was assumed by Somos Mayfair, which in 2003 began its experiments in participatory theater.

Scripts for Teatro Familias Unidas, which are performed in Spanish, come from the community itself. For months, troupe members work with Somos staff several hours a week, telling stories about community life and reflecting on their meaning. They employ a method developed by Brazilian director Augusto Boal in the 1960s that uses oral history, research, creative writing, collaborative forms of storytelling, and drama therapy exercises – not to mention cultural traditions – to explore the themes troupe members introduce.

“We teach people to learn from the text of their own lives,” says Aryeh Shell, Somos Mayfair’s program director for Community Engagement who, along with Artistic Director Arturo Gomez, works with the actors to create the plays.

Shell says the process enables participants to gradually view their experiences more objectively and to begin to formulate actions they can take to solve problems. Along the way, the women develop their theatrical skills in voice, projection, animation, and movement. But what they really develop is confidence.

Theater that is Relevant to their Lives

The short play that emerges typically tackles a single issue facing the community. To date, the troupe has completed five: one each on domestic violence; obesity, diet, and diabetes; the environment; civic engagement; and planting values to resist gangs and achieve success in school and society. A sixth is in the works. Audience members, primarily Mayfair residents, are invited onstage to participate in performances and afterward take part in hour-long discussions of the issue explored. Last year, the full troupe of fourteen women performed thirty-nine times for about 3,600 people.

The third leg of the work is community organizing, in which troupe members and other Somos Mayfair activists work to address the social issues highlighted in the plays. A recent effort involved improving the quality of food neighborhood residents eat, both by developing a community garden and lobbying local schools to offer more healthful fare.

One of the troupe, Maria Teresa Barcenas, said she decided to join five years ago when she attended a Somos Mayfair meeting about education where Teatro Familias Unidas performed. She was drawn onto the stage from the audience to participate in a scenario in which a father was refusing to let a daughter study for school. “I like to learn and participate and help educate my community,” she says, speaking through Shell as an interpreter.

In an evaluation of the troupe conducted by Somos Mayfair in January, all of the women involved said they had grown as community leaders, increased their sense of confidence, and developed a deeper understanding of the causes of their problems. Typical of the responses, one woman said, “I have learned to be firm and consistent and have the courage to defend my rights and instill the same courage in others.”

Indeed, the power of the troupe’s performances grows not from their professional polish but from their clear origin in the actors’ lives and from the empowerment the audience sees blossoming before them. For most women participating, this may be the first time in their lives that they feel the power to influence events – the first time they have been heard.

It’s not a role they ever envisioned for themselves, these mothers who spend most of their waking hours preparing food, keeping their children away from gangs and in school, and encouraging their men, for whom work is hard to find and rarely lucrative. At Teatro Familias Unidas, they control the script and learn how to extend that ability beyond the confines of the stage.

In the words of Somos Mayfair leaders, the community has begun to transform Sal Si Puedes (Get Out If You Can) to Si Se Puedes (Yes, We Can!).