Chances are that you’re rarely going to see Ricardo Gamboa’s name associated with any mainstream Chicago theaters. And that’s how they like it. Instead, these days you’re more likely to find them at the Storyfront, a theater in Back of the Yards that just a year ago was a storefront, camouflaging with audience and community members who curiously wander in to performances of Meet Juan(ito) Doe. They always break this facade at the end of the performance to express their gratitude and urge audience members to share their stories and reviews with them. Last, they urge the audience to keep using the Storyfront as a community and arts space, letting them know about events that are occurring there in the future and encouraging anyone to reach out to them with ideas of how else to use the space. All this is part of Gamboa’s role as a “triple A”—an artist, activist and academic—committed to making radical, intersectional work centered on people of color (POC).
“What I’ve been trying to do for the majority of my career is create stuff apart from those systems that don’t really care about us, don’t really care that we are losing our lives, don’t really care that we’re not living full lives, that our lives get compromised, that only include us or incorporate our talent when it is profitable or when it serves them,” Gamboa explained. “So, part of what I’ve been trying to do is create what I call an ‘alternative cultural ecology’ where we own the means of our own representation.”
Crucial to creating this new cultural ecology is embedding their work within the communities that they seek to represent. That’s why, last fall and then again in these past couple months, they produced their new play, Meet Juan(ito) Doe. They produced it with Free Street Theater, a company established in 1969 that has a long history of engaging racially, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse audiences, and in the Storyfront theater. In spaces like these, Gamboa can hold themself and their work to a higher, real standard of cultural integrity. They can make sure that their work is created with and for Blacks, Latinxs, queers, radicals, and others from the “hood.”
Gamboa is a Mexican American from the South Side—they describe their upbringing as taking place in Pilsen and Little Village as well as Mount Greenwood, where they went to a predominantly Black high school, an experience that was formative for their politicization. Their parents are second-generation, working-class Mexican Americans who grew up in front of Cook County Jail, an area also present in Gamboa’s childhood memories. After graduating from New York University, Gamboa returned to Chicago to pursue a career in theater. However, the more they became involved, the more they realized that they were “seeing largely absent [the narratives] of people like my parents. And all the Mexican Americans, Mexican hyphen Americans, that grew up here that have their own cultural particularities and singularity.”
“It’s not about the usual narrative of ‘I’m trapped between two worlds,’” Gamboa said. “It’s about straddling and effectively doing it and becoming something else. And that’s a different type of empowerment that is often taken from us because of the fact that there are no affirmative images of it and because we don’t get the resources to make our own representations.”
This last year Gamboa was at the helm of several projects that cultivated this “alternative cultural ecology” and worked not only to increase the representations of Mexican-Americans (emphasis on the hyphen) but also to socially engage communities of color. At the beginning of 2017, in the wake of the presidential election, Gamboa went on to write and host a bi-weekly live radical news show, The Hoodoisie. Each show, which takes place every other week in different gentrifying neighborhoods, is organized around a specific theme and invites a panel of specialized guest speakers to help deconstruct the topics and lead conversations that radically engage the community. Past themes have included environmental justice, Chicago education reform, the criminalization of Black bodies, and most recently, imperialist state power. At these events, Gamboa and the other Hoodoisie panelists always create a collaborative atmosphere that welcomes audience participation and questions. The Hoodoisie not only provides a space for these communities to have these conversations in a radical, POC-centric framework, but also consistently offers its audiences tools with which to radically engage with these issues in real life.
Last year also saw the release of Brujos, Gamboa’s web series that they wrote and act in. The series follows a group of four gay Latinx witch-academics as they “navigate magic, sexuality, and surviving a witch-hunt led by a secret society of white heteronormative male descendants of the first new world colonizers.” The first season has attracted a loyal following since its full release, but what makes its popularity all the more meaningful is Gamboa’s commitment to centering traditionally erased narratives and making sure the filmmaking process was community-based. Here, too, Gamboa centered the communities they belong to: the show primarily takes place in Pilsen and Little Village, two predominantly Latinx neighborhoods in Chicago that are fighting against gentrification. In its presentation of queer brujos who engage in anti-colonization work through magic and spirituality, the show delivers a fresh, urgent take on how to engage the community, and the most marginalized within it, in the fight against gentrification in these neighborhoods.
Next to The Hoodoisie, one of Gamboa’s most involved projects of the past year has been Meet Juan(ito) Doe. Gamboa wrote this play with Free Street Theater and, along with Ana Velazquez, co-directed the production. A community-based play that took about ten months to develop, Juan(ito)offers several fresh perspectives on what it means to be “brown, down in Chi-Town.” From its inception, Gamboa and Free Street were invested in producing a play that would not only be reflective of different Chicago Mexican experiences, but that would also engage the very communities it seeks to represent. Juan(ito) was so popular that in its original run it sold out nearly every show, and was extended twice.
“There was not a day that wasn’t sold out,” Gamboa said. “That to me is crazy and I think about that all the time.” When the play was revived for a second run this past March, it was intended to run through March 28—but was once again extended due to popularity until April 20.
The Storyfront, the theater that houses the play, is located on 43rd and Ashland and is the newest theater on the South Side. When they began to conceive of Juan(ito), Gamboa knew that it was important to locate the play somewhere geographically accessible to the communities that they were representing. Given that many of of Chicago’s Latinx and Black communities reside on the South Side, they found Back of the Yards to be an ideal location. The Storyfront space, which was once a storefront belonging to the Guerra family, possesses a history that is “emblematic of many of our brown, down, Chi-town families,” Gamboa said, making it a perfect location for the stories it houses. The space has been rented out to Gamboa and Free Street Theater for one dollar a month. With the help of Alonzo Torres, Velazquez’s husband, the Juan(ito) team converted the storefront to a multipurpose theatrical space.
While small and cozy, the space offers the perfect intimacy for the shared moments delivered on stage—and, already, for a life beyond the stage. As Gamboa has promised, the space is becoming a community center for the neighborhood, and some artist-led resident groups have recently borrowed it as a performance and fundraising space. Las Topo Chicas, a femme and queer people of color collective based in the South Side, for example, used the space to fundraise and for their first tianguis, a market where handmade goods and crafts were sold by local femme and queer people of color. In the future, Free Street hopes to offer more programming out of the space which could include youth and adult acting classes, more original productions, and educational workshops, such as immigrant know your rights workshops; last month they teamed up with ProPublica Illinois to hold a workshop about the misrepresentation of Latinx communities in the media. For now, the Storyfront is the home of Meet Juan(ito) Doe on Monday and Friday nights.
The play is simple in its design and execution, but that only heightens the emotional intensity of what is shared. The actors, most of whom were untrained just a year ago, use only themselves and whatever props are already found in the space to create their worlds. The play takes the form of a series of monologues thematically connected by short interspersed vignettes and drawn from stories that the Juan(ito) team collected from community members at different events. From drag-lotería nights where the ensemble shared coming-out stories and invited others to do the same, to karaoke nights where the community sang prompt-based songs and then shared their associated memories, all of the monologues are inspired by real stories of Chicago’s Mexican community. Gamboa worked with the ensemble to adapt these stories into the different monologues. From this they arrived at the range of stories presented onstage, from that of a queer youth who refuses to succumb to the pressures of their homophobic and machista family (played by Sebastían Olayo), to that of a long-established community bar-owner, played by Anthony Soto, who swears by the curative properties of mezcal and fights against gentrification. Together, they produce a collective, and at times nostalgic, experience of Chicago’s Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant community. For those that are unable to attend performances, or even just want to revisit the stories, Gamboa and the Juan(ito) team are working on developing a mix-tape that will include the monologues and other primary sonic elements of the play.
The beautifully creative aural landscape designed by Jacuelyn Carmen Guerrero (CqqchiFruit) is one of the details ingeniously interwoven with the monologues to create a recognizable past and present. Throughout the play, empathetic chuckles could be heard throughout the room as the speakers played everything from the theme song to 1970s Mexican sitcom Chavo del Ocho to classic rancheras that everyone has heard an enthusiastic relative sing along to at a Mexican family gathering. This feeling of cameraderie is only heightened by many of the props used on stage. The iconic, ridiculously feline-faced cobijas and the traditional arroz con leche dessert that is shared with the audience bring an unimaginable warmth and sense of familiarity to those who understand the nostalgic tones of these items but also invites those who don’t to participate and share in that nostalgia. To use a term coined by the loveable stoner played by Keren Díaz de Leon, this play is anything but “estilo de güeros” (white people shit).
From the onset, the play reminds us of the importance of telling and retelling these kinds of stories. They might start out as tales of brave stupidity told by a chismosx relative, but they contain the contents of a unique history and culture. Telling these stories is one of the only ways that we can ensure that our communities are not erased from a society that is all too willing to write us out. The stories Gamboa and their collaborators tell in Meet Juan(ito) Doe—as well as in Brujos and The Hoodoisie—go beyond the importance of representation, but are tools for the survival of vital cultures and communities.