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Luis xago Juarez — Cultivated in Alisal

Luis xago Juárez

Actor, playwright, activist

Luis Xago Juarez  

When playwright and actor Luis xago Juárez digs deep into his memories, he discovers that it was at Alisal Community School where he got his first taste of the power of live performance.

“It was my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Dirkson, and his love for history resonated with me,” Mr. Juárez said. “I remember seeing him direct the Battle of Chapultepec. It was so dramatic and so intense, I will always have that memory of the U.S. Army forcing its way into Chapultepec Castle. It was a history lesson, (my classmates) were acting out and I was an extremely captivated audience member.”

Born in Salinas, Mr. Juárez  remembers he had Ms. Green as his kindergarten teacher, Ms. Fajardo in first grade, Ms. Kearney in second, Ms. Lowe in third, Mr. Strand in fourth, Mr. Dirkson in fifth, and Ms. Watkins in 6th. Growing up in Alisal he felt secure and without the stress he sees many students these days suffer from. It also may have helped that his own mother, la señora Juárez, was employed there as a teacher’s aide.  

“It felt like a positive experience. I had a place. It was able to walk to and from school, only two blocks away from where I grew up and where my mom still lives today. It was innocent. It was special,” he said.

As part of a converted movie theater, the auditorium at Alisal Community School even back then served as a place for assemblies, and Mr. Juárez remembers participating in the occasional folklorico presentations.

“The space to genuinely hold and celebrate the culture was definitely felt. I remember a Chicana educator leading an assembling as a Pachuca, with a call and response performance, and for a moment I remember thinking, “can she do that?” as if pachuquismo was not something to be shared in such an institutional setting.  Those moments of collective exploration and discovery of who we are brought so much joy to us.”

From fourth to fifth grade, Mr. Juárez remembers participating in extracurricular activities: he played the trumpet in the school band and other music programs, experiences that made him feel he was part of something. Then, Prop. 13 was approved by California voters and he saw all those programs dry up.  

“There was no music program at El Sausal Middle School (back then a “junior high”). The band program was gutted at Alisal High by the time I got there,” he said.

A friend of Mr. Juárez convinced him against enrolling in a computer class in his sophomore year and taking theater instead. And he was hooked.

“I felt there was a place for me there. It’s important that educators were able to see that, recognized that, and cultivated those grounds for growth. I got lucky. We were all brown kids learning to do these plays.”

It was the 80s, and Mr. Juárez said he felt there was not a strong enough cultural identity in Alisal, and a dearth of role models to guide the youth. Theater provided a good base, and after he graduated from Alisal High he enrolled for a summer workshop with El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista.

“They taught me I did not have to go running after an audience in L.A. or a big city,” he said. “Your audience is in your own home, next door, people you grew up with. A few months after that, I put together a solo show called ‘Zero’ where a kid discovers the Mayan concept of zero. I took a solo show on a tour around this (Alisal Union) school district, and at the end of 1991, with the help of some active mentors, we produced ‘A Christmas Carol ¡Y Qué!’”

Mr. Juárez and other Alisal High graduates founded Baktun 12, a theater group with the mission of edutaining their East Salinas neighborhood — linking their efforts to the overall impact that the uprising of the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) had on civil society, and deeply inspired by El Teatro Campesino’s work in the Chicano Movement of the 60s and 70s.

Inspired by Culture Clash, Mr. Juárez and Baktun 12 members spent time in ‘96, ‘97 and ‘98 doing theater everywhere in East Salinas  while attending Hartnell College.

“We just loved making each other laugh, we were really inspired by (comedy shows), Saturday Night Live, but understanding that this was for our community, shows designed for our neighbors,” he said.

Mr. Juárez transferred to UC Santa Cruz in 1999, and after finishing his bachelor’s degree he worked for Salud para la Gente in Watsonville for two years, then moved to Oakland, where he continued to do theater. When he began his first documentary theater 10 years ago, he returned to Salinas, putting him on the radar of Building Healthy Communities and on a path of community advocacy through theater.

“I’m trying to create teatro work that is as inclusive of all, as real of a reflection as possible. There’s so many degrees of what that is and what it looks like.”

These days you’ll find Mr. Juárez either teaching Chicano theater through Hartnell College or supporting facilitation efforts in partnerships with community organizers, or curating civic action teatro (interactive theater presentations) projects that look a lot like real life and are meant to inspire civic engagement.

“We all play a big part, bigger than anybody ever told us we do,” he said. “We’re too busy working our daily lives, which doesn’t allow us to reflect how incredible that is. Our daily lives don’t have room for deep reflection, so the power of homegrown theater that can unpack the messy and the beautiful can allow us to recognize our value as residents, that what (may seem) as ordinary is pretty extraordinary. The sacrifice of a lot of our neighbors, the risks, the conditions that our youth from our community go through and have to push through to survive, nobody talks about any of that. All of that is trauma that’s taking place, the trauma silences and we don’t realize the beauty of being here. A big part of our mission is to commit to hearing as many voices as we can with the capacity we have. What does that mean? It means that everybody plays a part, audience and all.”

Note: This is the twenty-eighth installment of "Cultivated in Alisal: Homegrown Heroes," a first attempt at documenting and celebrating the history of Alisal Union School District. For more information and other profiles, click here. To submit your name to be profiled, or suggest somebody to be featured, click here