Raising the curtain

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By Patricia A. Bonn

Grand drama. Vaudeville slapstick. Biting satire. Latino theater in Phoenix over the past century had it all.

Theater was the most popular genre of fine arts in Hispanic communities throughout the United States. It provided social and cultural cohesiveness and national pride in the face of racial and class pressures of a Spanish-speaking public living in English-speaking American society.

Phoenix certainly was not in the league of Hispanic theater centers of Los Angeles, San Antonio, or New York City; nor could it compete with the established artistic community of Tucson.

Smaller communities hosted road shows and developed their own amateur theater companies. They presented entertainment and cultural education through community and religious organizations.

Theaters and companies of this period advertised primarily by the use of handbills and posters. Fortunately, Spanish-language newspapers provide glimpses into the cultural life of la colonia Mexicana. El Observador Mexicano, published by P. Bonillas y Salazar, has left a legacy of articles and advertisements from the late 1890s.

After the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, all of Arizona territory was in American hands. Frontier Phoenix developed to provide supplies to Fort McDowell, which was established in 1875. Hispanics comprised almost half of the 1,708 persons counted in the 1880 census.

The advent of rail transportation made theater more accessible. In July 1887, a 26-mile branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad connected Phoenix to the line at Maricopa.

The decade of the 1890s were years of great change in Phoenix. Phoenix was named capital of the territory and the city drew new residents dramatically. In 1895, another branch railroad, the Santa Fe, Prescott and Phoenix, connected with the northern Arizona mainline.

By the end of the decade and century, the population swelled to 4,544, of which 14 percent were Hispanics. Discrimination accompanied their minority status. Acting Gov. Nathan O. Murphy (1892-1893) of the Territory of Arizona recommended territorial legislation that Spanish and Mexican fiestas be abolished “because American participation in these events had made them outrageous and a disgrace to the territory.”

During the turn of the century, troupes of itinerant players began touring Mexico, then established regular circuits from Texas through New Mexico to the California coastal cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.

On Oct. 2, 1897, El Observador Mexicano announced that La compañia Yucateco No. 2 de bomberos voluntarios was making arrangements to produce a comedy as a fundraiser and the newspaper proclaimed that “without doubt it would be a happy success.”

Phoenix Opera House, located at 16 South Center (now Central Avenue), opened in 1886 as an 800-seat theater. In the spring of 1898, the Phoenix Opera House was the venue for a powerful play titled 1492 that indicted empire building with its inevitable sins of pride, arrogance and unrestrained exercise of power. Set in Granada after its fall to the Spaniards, four friends are caught up in the horror of the Inquisition. The ad in El Observador Mexicano announced the one-night only performance had a cast of 60.

A tragic drama of jealousy, revenge, and betrayal from the time of Carlos V was announced in the April 9, 1898 edition of El Observador to be staged in Tempe by the Club Dramatico. The three-act play was titled Armandina o El triste fin de una hija.

The next month a serious theater piece was offered by La compañia de bomberos voluntarios. The opera, El Conde Lotario by Spanish composer Jose Eschegaray, starred Señorita Lolita Moreno in the role of Clotilde. The newspaper called upon la colonia Mexicana to appreciate this opportunity and support the La compañia de bomberos as they serve nuestra raza on whom they depend for success.

Latino theater reinforced a sense of community by bringing all Spanish speakers together in a cultural act: the preservation and the support of the language and the art of Mexicans and other Hispanos in the face of domination from a foreign culture.

Condensed from Raising the Curtain: Latino Theatre in Phoenix 1880-1980 by Patricia A. Bonn. The full version can be viewed at

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