“I just want to have a community theater that is in Español — everything is in Spanish –and that also tells [stories] about our culture from our perspective,” said Monica Cliff, founder of Teatro ñ, Madison’s first Hispanic community theater company. “The more that we can all get engaged in the making of our own community and the healing of our own community, the better.”
Cliff has been wrestling with the idea of a Hispanic theater company since she arrived in Madison 16 years ago.
“Since I arrived my first question was, ‘Where is the Hispanic theater here?’”
Starting two weeks ago, Cliff began posting about Teatro ñ on local Facebook groups and was immediately met with a multitude of community support.
“I just got replies right away like ‘yes’ and ‘signing up,’” she said. “So those responses just told me that there is craving, there is a need, and there is an interest.”
Teatro ñ, Cliff noted, is a way to create “community through art.”
“The Latino community [in Madison] has many challenges. It had many challenges before the pandemic and right now there are layers of challenges that we are facing,” Cliff said. “And we have to be able to take that in and digest and transform all this energy that is happening. I’m not reinventing any wheel in this sense. I’m just trying to like, ‘OK, we don’t have this here, can we have it?’”
The name of the company, as Cliff noted, is a way to “embrace” the Spanish language because “ñ is so representative of the Spanish language.”
“For me, it’s an attempt to embrace this language, the Spanish language. The Spanish letters make our language, and just sort of being a symbol of the Hispanic community in some ways,” Cliff added.
According to its website, Teatro ñ is currently accepting applications from any and all who “like theater, acting, dancing, singing, and entertaining an audience.”
However, despite the program being for all ages, Cliff is interested in starting with the youth, with the majority of those signing up being kids ages 8-11.
Cliff added that the program will hopefully allow youth to express themselves and their Latino identity.
“There is something about the kids feeling like they want to belong and, typically, if [there] is not a large Spanish-speaking community, they will start trying to assimilate to the larger community, which is the Anglo community,” Cliff said. “So what I want us to do is to make a circle around these children and say, ‘we’ve got you and that’s it totally cool that you speak Spanish.’
“I just want them to feel power through art, and basically just have this permission to talk in Spanish. It sounds funny and it sounds silly but that is something that we don’t really have,” she added.
Cliff further emphasized the importance of allowing youth a space to reject the notion of immigrant assimilation into the dominant culture.
“I immigrated here like 16 years ago, one of the first things that I heard was like, ‘Well, if you’re an immigrant, you got to assimilate, you have to adapt to our culture,’” Cliff explained. “And that sometimes means that you have to let go of things and I don’t think that that is right. I don’t think that one thing means that you have to renounce two other things. I feel like that is exactly what makes us, as American melting pot culture, unique, strong, and creative as a culture. So in order for this to happen, it is important to have groups of people forming in communities to retain the value of Latino culture and our Latino identity.”
In the future, Cliff hopes to evolve Teatro ñ into a teatro ambulante or “traveling theater” in order to reach the variety of pockets of Madison’s Latino community, which she believes is “scattered” across the Madison area.
Currently, Cliff is reaching out to local Latino Facebook groups to garner more community support and encourage more applicant submissions.
“My next step actually will be reaching out to the parents right now to have children signing up,” Cliff said. “And I want to have the first meeting only with the parents, to hear what expectations they have, what will they like. I don’t want to come and impose anything. I just want to be able to hear what the community wants and then I can just provide some of my ideas. I feel like there should be a complete organic type of process where it is not like a top-down type of approach. I want this to be a community project where everybody has their input.
“We have to start planting those seeds,” she added. “…And if it’s not now when, and if it’s not us, then who?”
Teatro ñ is still accepting applicants via the application on the Inventiza Works website.