Forty years ago, Noe Montoya came to San Juan Bautista on a visit from Fresno. El Teatro Campesino was staging a puppet show at La Calavera theater on the history of Mexico, and Montoya was in the audience. The curtain to the outdoor show kept blowing down and a call went out for an audience member to stand by it to hold it steady. Montoya volunteered, taking part for the first time in an El Teatro production.
Now a veteran Teatro performer, the 66-year-old Montoya recently spent time working on the soundtrack to that same puppet show for a video version of “La Conquista de México,” written by El Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez in 1968. The video is part of the theater’s educational outreach program, now available online for the first time through Google Classroom.
Releasing the video is one way El Teatro has adapted to the coronavirus. “Right now we would have been working with nine classrooms of seventh graders, taking over their history classes with art and music lessons with Teatro teaching artists, working to engage them on a more creative level,” said Christy Sandoval, El Teatro’s managing director.
The twelve-part education program is in its seventh year of production and emphasizes Mexican culture and history, taking students through a series of different projects based around visual arts.
“We teach them painting techniques in that style and how to tell their story with only images,” Sandoval said. “We teach music, particularly around a drum. They construct a small ‘huetl huet’ drum out of recycled materials and we teach them the significance of the drum, the heartbeat to daily life.”
El Teatro actors and musicians worked with the idea of distance learning to adapt lessons into video presentations. Montoya produced a music lesson on indigenous instruments for the education program.
“It was a little more complicated because I had to video myself, he said. “I recorded it in sections and edited it together for them, cleaning it up some. It’s been good, kept me from watching TV all day.”
Cristal Gonzalez, an El Teatro regular who recently produced and directed the Palabra showcase, has taught the education program for the last four years. She said moving to the online format has been a big shift.
“It is a hard reality because we rely on the interaction with the students,” said Gonzalez, 33. “Getting their responses in real time is part of what makes the program exciting.”
COVID-19 might have halted the in-person lessons, but Gonzalez said teachers reached out for a way to continue lessons.
“We were asked to change gears and do it online through video,” she said. “It has been exciting to rethink the way we are teaching. It posed a question to me as an artist and a facilitator, looking forward to getting as animated as we could with the lessons.”
When students pick up assignment packets from school on a weekly basis already, El Teatro’s materials are included with the rest of the work.
“We are sending them the creative materials they need for the lessons,” Gonzalez said. “The students will have access to four lessons at a time so the student could do the whole project in a day or two rather than over four weeks.”
The first project is the creation of a codex, an ancient manuscript text in book form. Students are asked to preserve a moment or a memory from their lives based on the ancient pictographs of early Mexican culture.
“It is a way of showing the students how art stands the test of time, that we can look at these codices and have an understanding of a different world all through visuals, no words,” Gonzalez said.
The finale of the program is the puppet show “La Conquista de Mexico.”
“The play recounts the history and the trajectory of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico,” Sandoval said. “We encourage the students to think behind all the implications of what this meant. It’s interesting that the classes we share this with, sometimes the teachers don’t get to cover this unit on Mexico.”
This year’s performance was pieced together remotely by Teatro voice actors, musicians and media technicians. Ryan Terry, a Teatro regular, has participated in the puppet show since the education program began.
“I perform ‘Friar Bartholo’ who gets overly excited about converting the tribes to Catholicism,” he said, “and ‘Tlaxcala’ who gets wrapped up in the Spaniards’ lies and it doesn’t quite work out in the end.”
For Terry, recording his voices remotely presented a new challenge.
“Previously we would all stand in front of the mirror and work our puppets to get the animation to go with the puppets,” he said. “This year we all remotely recorded our lines and sent them in to be put together. You can’t feed off the reaction, when there are laughs or where silence lets you know you need to hurry things along to get to the next funny part.”
Once the dialogue was recorded and mixed together, Montoya began work on the soundtrack. Orchestrating the performance for video was a different experience for him, trying to capture what is usually an improvised performance.
“I never remember what I did the last time, so I had to pay attention, work with the tempos and sound effects,” he said. “I had to keep asking myself ‘what did I do here and here?’”
For Montoya, the puppet show stands as the most important part of the lesson for what it says about Mexico and the Spanish Conquest.
The play is a satire—tongue-in-cheek in the Valdez style—until the end when the Spanish kill Moctezuma, ruler of Tenochtitlán, in their quest for gold, and his brother Cuitláhuac speaks the concluding lines to his people.
“‘Even though we were conquered, we are still here and we still continue. We lost because we turned against each other and we have to be united,’’’ Montoya recited. “It is a very powerful message.”
One side benefit of the new video lesson plan is that El Teatro Campesino can now offer the program to schools around the country.
“We did this out of necessity, but it raises questions and possibilities,” Sandoval said. “Looking at the digital platform we will see how we can use these resources and technology to expand outside of our community.”
Whether the program is produced live or captured on video, the lessons’ messages remain the same, emphasising history, craftsmanship and inclusion.
“We try to find the positive, and the message is we are all a mixture of many things and many cultures, and that’s what makes us unique and special,” Sandoval said. “We all come from the same place and the same land. That’s the lesson we’re trying to get through.”
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