In 1972, Chicanos (Americans of Mexican ancestry) were required to take a remedial reading class in order to attend the University of Colorado Denver. Finding this requirement demeaning, university faculty member Rowena Rivera proposed something else entirely — she wanted to create an intro-to-Chicano theater class. Thus, Su Teatro was born.

Since 1972, Denver’s much-celebrated Su Teatro sits in a unique place in Denver’s culture and identity as a city. A direct result of the Civil Rights Movement, Su Teatro is headed by company veteran and Executive Artistic Director Tony Garcia, who explains that the vast majority of Su Teatro productions are dedicated to telling Chicano, Latino and Hispanic stories that are specific to Colorado.

Actors during a performance at Su Teatro in Denver, Colorado“I’ve written more than 40 original productions myself,” says Garcia. “We do a lot of our own work, and a lot of it is about Colorado[…] so many stories about Latinos in Colorado were not being told, or they’re imported.”

Although quiet between events and performances (with that special, undeniable energy that performance spaces tend to have), Su Teatro is a busy place in general. The mural-covered building puts on performances 20 to 30 weekends out of the year, in addition to other events.

“We have morphed into a cultural arts center,” Garcia muses. When asked if he has a favorite production, he chuckles in response, saying it would be like choosing a favorite child. “It depends on which one is in the room at the time.”

Beyond theater itself, Su Teatro is home to beloved Denver events such as the Chicano Music Festival, WordFest, XicanIndie FilmFest and beyond. These events cover a lot of cultural ground — music, storytelling and films telling the stories of artists of color are all given a much-deserved and often otherwise inaccessible spotlight.

“XicanIndie is the largest regional Latino film festival,” Garcia notes. “That’s kind of a good thing and a bad thing[…] but there’s so many of us. There should be more of these.” Garcia isn’t worried about potential competition, believing instead that the market is more than large enough to support multiple theater companies telling these stories and hosting these events. “I think the more people that are doing it makes us better, makes us stronger, reaches our community more.” 

There’s still a massive educational mission for Su Teatro through the Cultural Arts Education Institute (CAEI), which is the largest component of Su Teatro outside of the theatrical programming itself. The program has worked with more than seven school districts across Colorado, and has had the pleasure of working with thousands of students. The program provides detailed theater training, including acting, singing and technical elements (costume design, set design, etc.) in addition to developing standards-based reading, writing and communication education. CAEI is also home to VolARTE, a free after-school theater program for Denver youth (aged 7 to 20) and El Teatro VolARTE, which is an award-winning youth acting company. Note: These programs are not limited to Chicano or Latino students. They are open to all Denver youth.

Su Teatro is by no means just for Latinos — but the makeup of the audience tends to correlate to whether the name of the production is in English or Spanish. When something is titled in English, it gets more of a broad representation of the Denver community. This was demonstrated with one of Su Teatro’s more recent productions, “Cuarenta y Ocho,” which is about a set of bombings that rocked Boulder’s Chicano community in May 1974. This is not just a Chicano story, but a Colorado story as well. Yet the audience was largely Latino, homogenous in a way that is less frequent when a production has a title in English.

Actors during a performance at Su Teatro in Denver, Colorado“Forty-eight just doesn’t have the same ring for me,” Garcia says.

He believes that this is rooted in the fear that the productions with Spanish titles will be too Latino, too brown, and thus not relatable to a wider audience.

The irony is that Su Teatro’s internal culture is one that emphasizes community togetherness and comfort over social convention – it is the perfect place to explore the wider swathe of cultures in the Denver area with no judgment or “othering.” It’s the little things. Families with small children (and their associated noise) are welcomed.

“There’s a social aspect of theater,” Garcia mentions. “That’s the way our community is. It would be a mistake for us to argue that it is just our space.”

This desire to foster an environment that truly feels like it belongs to the community doesn’t involve any drastic changes, but instead revolves around relaxing the usual theater “rules.” Didn’t finish your tamale and glass of wine during intermission? That’s fine, you can bring it into the theater and enjoy it as you watch the show. Do you want to move around? There’s plenty of space to do that. The little one is crying? No worries, there’s a place to take them to calm them down. Su Teatro’s place in the community also relates to how affordable and therefore accessible their prices are.

“Our ticket pricing is among the cheapest in town. $20 is the highest rate, and then it gets cheaper,” adds Garcia. At Su Teatro, there’s room for everyone, and that’s intentional. “[If you do things the usual way] you’re working against your own best interest. We let people be comfortable, and then all it costs me is somebody for a couple of hours to clean up after. We want our families and community here.”

Above all else, Su Teatro’s aim is to continue to tell otherwise untold stories about Coloradans and the rich Chicano culture that is omnipresent here.

“We are not a foreign entity,” says Garcia. “We’re a local entity[…] we’re not from someplace else. We’re from here. This is a historically Chicano neighborhood and in many ways it still is — our flavor is local. Having openness to that is the best way to support us.”

“We’re building multigenerational work that will sustain us, hopefully, as our community grows,” Garcia says, smiling. “We’ve been such a part of the identity here.”