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In 'Barrio Stories,' Downtown history comes to life

The recently previewed Barrio Stories Project, stories of the demolition of the historic heart of Downtown Tucson almost five decades ago, will come to life outside the Tucson Convention Center in a series of performances by Borderlands Theater this Thursday through Sunday.

In the late '60s and early '70s a historically rich Mexican-American neighborhood in downtown Tucson — 80 acres of houses, theaters, stores and buildings — was razed to make space for the Tucson Convention Center.

The project — born through collaboration with Borderlands Theater, the University of Arizona and the TCC — consists of several shows during the first week in March. Audiences can take part in a walking tour where artistic installations and a series of vignettes will come together to portray this chapter of Tucson’s history.

UA Mexican American studies professor Lydia Otero’s book “La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City” was the inspiration behind the Barrio Stories Project.

The book, released by the University of Arizona Press in 2010, received huge applause when mentioned at the recent Barrio Stories preview at Playground.

To help realize the project, the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry awarded Otero a 2015 Faculty Collaboration Grant.

“The playwrights contracted for this work had the imagination to take the story to that place where it engages people through the beauty of the arts,” said Otero. “It is in a way very magical.”

It was a difficult process, according to Lydia Romero, head playwright for the project, to write the play capturing the true emotion of the event, as so many families were impacted.

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“The passion that she experienced as a person from the neighborhood and the loss she felt was what I really tried to capture in my pieces” said Romero.

The dramatic history of the Barrio District is one that has had a lasting impact the local community for years.

“I left here in the mid '70s” said Otero. “Every time I came back to visit my mother and my family I never felt like it was quite right. I never got used to it, I never accepted what had happened.” These feelings are what inspired the author to write her book.

“Tucson is a rich bicultural community and I think it continues to be so, this separation of people was unnecessary I think we lost something that cant be regained. You cant fix it and that’s why it lives on as an injustice,” said Romero, echoing Otero’s feelings. “Every time we look back and think about it we get mad again, like it just happened.”

The installations of the Barrio Stories Project promise entertainment along with education about the historical events that occurred in the '60s and '70s, said Javier Durán, director of the Confluencenter.

“Local history has the power to tell stories in a way that people can relate to. People can see themselves in their local history,” said Otero. “This is not a play that is generated to make people sad or angry, it really is a play to make people feel good, proud and reenergized.”

According to Otero, one of the main goals of the project is to make Mexican-Americans feel visible again in the Downtown community. The historical facts of the Barrio District destruction are solid and unchangeable, but the way that the local community is dealing with the events of the past is changing, said Otero.

“Its inescapable, its an uncomfortable history but I think that like anything else, its best to just deal head on with these episodes,” said Otero. “If you try to distract, cover up, or minimize them, they never really do get erased, they keep coming back.”

Working with the TCC to produce this particular show has been a touchy subject, according to organizers.

“This is an opportunity for the TCC to work toward reconciling that history,” said Otero, “And that's always good.”

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The show will not take place inside any of the TCC’s many music halls, however, but outside on the grounds.

“It was interesting for the playwrights because we had to visualize these pieces being outside and not in the theater space and that created different demands for each piece,” said Romero. The challenge lead to many rewrites and revisions, she added.

One of the vignettes that Romero wrote relates directly to the outdoor setting. Her play, named ‘Dirt’ “has to do with the earth and all the different histories of that same earth, all the different people and communities that have been on top of it” said Romero.

Because of the nature of the performances, the project will be highly interactive, according to Romero and Otero.

“The event has a lot of installations that the audience can spend time with, look at and participate with,” said Romero. “Amidst the performances there are more quiet elements that will give people the chance to interact.”

The first two days of performances, held on Thursday and Friday,  will be centered around education. Borderlands Theater is working with local schools to arrange field trips for students to watch the show. Organizers are expecting over 1000 students to attend.

For Otero, the education aspect of both her book and the Barrio Stories Project is very important.

“A lot of students that are from Tucson, never learned about Tucson in high school” said Otero. “They learned all about Boston, Philadelphia, and places in Europe but they never learned about their own back yard.”

According to Otero, teaching local history is the best way to preserve the mosaic of individual communities that make up Tucson. She works to help spread her knowledge of history at the UA and now through the Barrio Stories Project as well.

“Its free history and that's so cool. The foundation of that is history for everyone, and in itself that's a pretty radical idea,” said Otero. “What more powerful message can you send to try to make people come.”

Production of Barrio Stories has included around two years of planning, and many in the community are involved. The plays will include 41 principle actors, 75 extras, 10 mariachi groups, four giant puppets and over 1000 paper flowers. 

Most of the actors are from Borderlands Theater, however, many are from local high school drama departments and clubs and many of the sets have been designed by students from Pima Community College.

"It really is a family affair," said Marc Pinate, producing director at Borderlands Theater. 

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Marc Pinate

'Barrio Stories' features Borderlands Theater actors bringing to life the oral histories of the residents whose homes were lost to the construction of the convention center.

If you go

Where: On the grounds of the Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave.  $10 suggested donation (no one turned away for lack of funds) at the entrance. Two entrances: off of parking lot A, Church St. and parking lot C, Granada St.

There will be food for sale.

When

10 a.m. Thursday and Friday

11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday