Celebrating Latinidad: Latino Arte provides theatrical and cultural experiences for oft-forgotten audiences

If you want something done well, do it yourself. That was what Annamaria Cavallone and Mario DelaRosa decided 21 years ago, after becoming frustrated by the lack of Spanish-language arts programming in the Reno area.

Cavallone, a native of Chile, came to Reno in 2000, having fallen in love with the area during a road trip. But there was something she didn’t love, which she frequently expressed to her writer/journalist husband, Mario DelaRosa.

“When I came to Reno, there was no theater for the Latino community. So I said to Mario, ‘I want to see theater, but there is no theater.’ I’d say this every three or four months,” she said, turning to Mario, who sat beside her during the interview. “And what did you say to me?”

“I said, ‘You’re complaining too much. Why don’t you make it?’” DelaRosa said.

Cavallone had earned a bachelor’s degree from the University for the Arts, Sciences and Communication in Chile, with an emphasis in theater, while DelaRosa, a native of Mexico City and a graduate of the University of Nevada’s journalism program, was a skilled writer and editor. The two had met at Ahora, Reno’s former Hispanic-American newspaper, where DelaRosa had been the editor, and Cavallone a reporter. They were knowledgeable, creatively talented and connected to the Latino community. DelaRosa’s idea was a good one.

Cavallone posted an ad in Ahora inviting people who wanted to act (or who were willing to learn); four women and seven men responded. She had her theater troupe, Brown Eyes Too, which Cavallone says is still only one of seven Latino troupes in the country, and certainly the only one in Nevada.

But they still needed plays to perform. So DelaRosa sat down to write a play about a young woman who wanted to go to college, but whose husband insisted she should only focus on her wifely duties. The short bilingual play, Carmenzita’s Dream, was performed in 2003.

Having originated in two different Latino countries, the couple realized they’d tapped into a huge need for more arts and culture opportunities that were inclusive of all members of the Latinx community. While there is often a tendency to ascribe similar traits to all, they are each distinct. For example, Cavallone had no experience with the tradition of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which is widely celebrated in Mexico. Their theater company could become a way for her, and others unfamiliar with the tradition, to learn about it.

Once again, DelaRosa penned a play for the company—Dia de los Muertos—which bilingually traces the history of the holiday through the voices of children.

Cavallone and DelaRosa, together with their ever-growing troupe of local actors, both amateur and seasoned, have produced 10 plays altogether, usually springing from their desire to learn about people and cultures, be inclusive of others and explore themes that connect us all. These have included a popular Spanish-language production of The Vagina Monologues and the original bilingual production of LGBTQIA+ Latinx.

A photo from last year’s Day of the Dead Festival. This year’s is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 29.

More than theater

The couple’s work began to grow beyond the bounds of theater into special events. The first of these, Fiesta on Wells, they created to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month. The popular annual event takes place over four blocks on Wells Avenue, with dozens of vendors and community organizations showcasing their offerings, and live musical performances representing various Latino backgrounds.

Another important feather in their cap is the annual Dia de Los Muertos festival, held on Pueblo Street in front of Reno Little Theater. In addition to booths for vendors, it hosts an original play by DelaRosa and Cavallone telling the story of the holiday, featuring two 12-foot-tall Catrinas, in costumes made by the pair.

Working under the umbrella name Latino Arte, their mission is to expand opportunities for celebrating and learning about Latinidad and sharing it with new audiences.

“We represent diversity,” DelaRosa said. “We want to be included, but we also want to be inclusive.”

Brown Eyes Too, now Teatro Brown Eyes, is still the theatrical arm of Latino Arte, enjoying its status as a resident company at Reno Little Theater for the last eight years. In 2020, the couple secured nonprofit status for Latino Arte, enabling them to commit to the venture full time—after years of working tirelessly on a volunteer basis while maintaining full-time jobs. They are also committed to paying their performers stipends as well.

With the help of grants from various local and state agencies, Latino Arte has extended its programming to include last June’s Mariachi and Folklore of the Nations Festival, honoring the art and stories of Indigenous peoples, as well as the bilingual Poetry Encounters event that made its debut in early August, featuring readings from local Latino authors as well as a Spanish book fair, to address another void in the community: Spanish-language books and bookstores.

Brown Eyes Too, now Teatro Brown Eyes, is still the theatrical arm of Latino Arte, enjoying its status as a resident company at Reno Little Theater for the last eight years.

The company’s growth and increased popularity has also helped it secure evening access to the Activity Center building at Teglia’s Paradise Park in Reno. The large space provides them with a venue for rehearsals, their weekly Native Drum Workshop and other activities.

And there certainly are plenty of activities. The Latino Arte company—which has grown in its 20 years to include a roster of more than 100 actors—is gearing up for this year’s Fiesta on Wells, taking place Sunday, Sept. 24. And its fourth-annual Day of the Dead Festival will extend to five separate area locations on Sunday, Oct. 29: Pueblo Street, the University of Nevada campus, the Nevada Museum of Art, the Carson Valley Community Center in Gardnerville, and a location to be determined in Carson City.

Teatro Brown Eyes will reprise last winter’s bilingual production of The Wizard of Oz in February 2024. The show will appear both in Reno at Reno Little Theater and, thanks to grant funding, in Carson City (at venue to be determined).

Despite their commitment, they say it’s an uphill battle to raise awareness of what they do.

“It’s really hard to bring the Latino community to the theater,” Cavallone says. “For events, it’s not so hard, but now we have so many events taking place on the same day here. So we hope that now we have this building, it helps.”

For more information, visit www.latinoarte.org.