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Westside Oratorio at Su Teatro: An Inspiring Musical Production


 

By Luis Torres

 

El Centro Su Teatro’s current production of the musical, “Westside Oratorio” is an early Christmas gift to our community and a major artistic contribution to Denver, Colorado. The “Westside Oratorio” was originally written by Anthony “Tony” García and Daniel Valdez, performed by Su Teatro in 2004, restaged since then, now being performed at Su Teatro, 721 Santa Fe Drive in Denver, December 1-18. This reviewer wrote an original review of the play upon its first production, printed in The Weekly Issue/El Semanario, revised and updated here, as with the play itself.

 

The music for “Westside Oratorio” was created and produced by Valdez, the actor, musician, and film producer noted, for example, for his role as Henry Leyva in the movie “Zoot Suit” and his production of “La Bamba.”  The lyrics and narrative were written by García, artistic director of El Centro Su Teatro, an educator and well-known civil rights advocate in Denver, CO.

 

The “Westside Oratorio” is a musical historical rendition of Denver’s Westside, including the section now housing the Auraria Campus of Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State University, and the University of Colorado Denver. According to García, the co-author, it is not a documentary, but it is based on real events, histories, and experiences of individuals and the community. It is the story set to music and lyrics of the growth and rise of the Auraria section of Denver’s Mexicano Westside, the area targeted for demolition to build the Auraria Campus during the late 1960s and early 1970s. As the play reveals, such dispossessions are cyclical, but resisted and superseded by its residents.  For the former residents, the wounds from that displacement are still agonizingly painful.

 

Photo: Su Teatro “Westside Oratorio” is the story set to music and lyrics of the growth and rise of the Auraria section of Denver’s Mexicano Westside, the area targeted for demolition to build the Auraria Campus during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

For its 2004 production, articles detailed that removal. The Denver Post article, “Auraria Picked for Metro Site,” of October 29, 1967, indicated that the Trustees of the State Colleges of Colorado had chosen the “184 acre site” of the Westside of Denver for the campus; the article claimed the neighborhood was “a declining area.” In the March 10, 1973 edition of The Rocky Mountain News, the article “Official Demolition Starts in Auraria” noted, “Three homes of the 900 block of Ninth Street were bulldozed Friday, in the initial phase of land clearance for the Auraria Higher Education complex.” These and other articles reveal part of the history told by the “Oratorio.” In marked contrast, the “Oratorio” serves to assert about the Westside, “It was a sacred space.”

 

We owe a debt of gratitude to El Centro Su Teatro for speaking so eloquently about our ancestors and for giving this gift to our heirs.

 

One of the most significant artistic achievements of “Westside Oratorio” is its variety of genres and styles of its thirteen songs, with oral interludes interspersed between each song. The styles include a polka in the song “Ruby Hill Polka,” a corrido in the Norteña style in “El Corrido del Inmigrante,” a children’s song in “Aye Mamacita No Llores,” a swing Doo Wop style in “Veteran’s Doo Wop (No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed),” and a cumbia in “La Rueda de la Vida.” There is a contemporary ballad in “Westside Friends” and a song in the tradition of Chicano Movement protest songs in “Chicano Movement Suite.” The lyrics and oral narratives give the chronology of the seven generations which span the history of the Westside, with each style representative of its historical milieu.

 

“Mahk Jchi” is the first song, in the original Lakota language, written by Pura Fe, Soni, and Jen-Samponi, with a translation by Lawrence Dunmore. The song sets the stage for the narration in the song “Where the Rivers Meet,” about the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indigenous nations living among “The confluence of the two mighty rivers and the buffalo path / Caused the Arapahoe and the Cheyenne to follow their food source,” the Platte and Cherry Creek, which once were rivers.

 

As we are told, 

 

The summer grasses were thick and the buffalo had grown fat,

 

It was in this sacred triangle that life began,

 

As it had been preserved for the ancestors before them

 

They would gather to protect the land

 

Generations later, it would fall to the Chicana/o community living on the same land to once again fight to “protect the land,” the action and narrative of the play.

 

The brilliant, masterful song “Seven Generations” follows, at once introducing the philosophical wisdom of how generations build on each other and the prologue to the poetry and vision of the play. “Seven Generations” could serve as a delineation of the Indigenous principle that how we live today was set in motion as far back as the seventh generation of our ancestors, with its corollary that what our generation does today will follow on for the next seven generations of our posterity.  We are the heirs of our ancestors, and we will be the ancestors of our heirs.

 

At the heart of “Westside Oratorio” is the “protect the land” determination from “Where the Rivers Meet,” updated to the late 1960s and early 1970s when the Westside was slated for the destruction of its neighborhoods to make way for the Auraria campus. These plans followed the arrival of the Mexican refugees from the Mexican Civil War of 1910-1920 into what became the Westside, as they disembarked from the trains and moved the few blocks to the west to the then-developing area. Lurking unsuspected by the residents was the insidious U.S. Government real estate practice known as “redlining,” the method of literally drawing on a map of Denver a red line around neighborhoods dominated by especially Blacks and Mexicans. That was the fate that interrupted the generations of Mexicanos in the westside. While they were recent immigrants, they were predated as early as 1857 by Mexican prospectors who found gold in the Platte River coursing through what would become Denver. Among other gold strikes in the area, this caused a rush of prospectors from back East that transformed the area into the establishment of Denver in 1858.

 

The U.S. government, through its Federal Housing Administration, established by the National Housing Act of 1934, began the “redlining” practice by 1938. A residential map, still available to us today, created by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1938, shows the effect. The Westside at the time included as redlined the southern part of the current Auraria campus, with the rest labeled an “Industrial” area. It extended south of Colfax, and included from Osage on the West to Delaware and Acoma on the East, to Bayaud in the south. Along with other redlined areas in Denver, such as Five Points, the residents of Westside were noted as not worthy of receiving real estate mortgage loans, making it difficult if not impossible for the residents to purchase homes for their families, leading to an impoverished area, sending rent money outside of the neighborhood and enriching others with increasing home equity.  (Type “History of Redlining in Denver” in your search engine for information.)

 

Perhaps the controlling metaphor of the “Oratorio” is that of rivers, not only the physical Platte River and Cherry Creek, but also the rivers of people who came to and left from the Westside. “Los Tres Rios” establishes this metaphor, with the refrain, “Tres rios me llevan a mi” out of México and into the United States, the story of this reviewer’s father, uncle, and two aunts, left orphans by the Mexican Civil War.  This metaphor of a river of people is expanded in the next number, “El Corrido del Inmigrante,” the story of a large number of Mexicano immigrants to Colorado. During and after the Mexican Civil War of 1910—1920, approximately one million Mexicans fled their country because of the violence and social disruption caused by the War. Most had to leave by the major transportation means available, railroads and trains, from México converging in Juárez, and across the Rio Grande from El Paso into the United States. The rails led in three directions: Los Angeles to the West, Chicago to the Midwest, and Denver to the North.  “El Corrido del Inmigrante,” then, is not only the story of the populating of Denver’s Westside but of much of the rest of Northern Colorado by Mexicanos.

 

Several of the remaining songs also depict the unfolding history but also are lyrics of love, separation, loss, and achievement. There is the beautiful “Christmas Memory Song,” sung wonderfully in soprano by the singer. This is the story of a young child waiting for his or her father to arrive home from work: “He works ‘til long after dark, / Loading the mail into trains / For Christmas… Mama says, it’s good to have work / At Christmas.” The child can’t stay awake and falls asleep but knows that his or her Christmas present will be the father’s loving whisper of “Goodnight” when he returns.

 

There is also the “Veteran’s Doo Wop (No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed),” with the subtitle taken from signs which used to be posted in some businesses in Colorado. The irony is that the narrator of the song has just returned from the Korean War:

 

I served in Uncle Sam’s Army,

Damn proud to wear my uniform…

I can’t find a job any more…

No dogs or Mexicans allowed here,

Sign seemed to stand out in the crowd….

Adding to the dramatic irony was the upbeat tempo of the music, with the singers swaying and dancing, in marked contrast to the “No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed” lyrics.

 

The remaining songs and narratives point to the heart of the Oratorio, the loss of the neighborhood lamented in the poignant “Chicano Movement Suite.” There is also “Westside Friends,” a song longing and even aching for the loved ones separated by the destruction of the Westside.  As is said in “Chicano Movement Suite,” “We will come and then go / What remains is memory,” followed by the “Westside Friends” lines, “They reminisce of the places they miss / On that Westside of Denver.”  We are also told, in the final narrative, “The Ghosts of the Westside,” the former residents “offer you memory, / That which is the true gift / From the seven generations before you” to do with as we will.  Our first debt to them is to remember.

 

“The Westside Oratorio” is an artistic rendition of the historical function of an “oratorio,” a musical form which originated in Italy in the 1550s, originally a form for religious worship without acting or staging.  The etymology of “Oratorio” is “chapel,” or a place of worship. Major Oratorios such as Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and Handel’s “Messiah” continued this religious musical tradition, but the form changed to include secular themes adapted to the form while still retaining a devotional tone.  This devotion to the Westside in the play is the ultimate effect of “The Westside Oratorio” in depicting the area and the people.  Rather than the Government Housing Authority which demeaned the citizens with their redlining, and the Colorado Legislature’s and media’s depiction of the neighborhood as “declining” and fit for bulldozing, the “Oratorio” treats the memory of the people, buildings, and land with dignity and even devotion. We owe a debt of gratitude to El Centro Su Teatro for speaking so eloquently about our ancestors and for giving this gift to our heirs.

 

The Westside Oratorio continues through December 18. Tickets are available at Su Teatro or call 303-296-0219. All audience members are required to wear a mask while inside Su Teatro’s facility.

 

 

Luis Torres, Ph.D. is an educator. He retired in 2016 as Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Deputy Provost for Academic and Student Affairs, and professor of Chicana/o Studies.

 

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