John Moore Column sig

Tony Garcia can walk across the Auraria campus and point to five different houses he lived in by the time he was 15.

Only, the houses aren’t there anymore. In their places are classrooms, parking lots and even a tiny open-air amphitheater where a rowhouse once stood. Perhaps it's fate’s winking way of recognizing that the mischievous teenager who grew up and out of this very spot would one day run Su Teatro, now Denver’s oldest theater company.

There’s also the occasional historical marker to remind people that this was once Westside, Denver’s first and oldest neighborhood — a 150-acre triangle bordered by Speer Boulevard on the east, Colfax Avenue on the south and the South Platte River on the west. For a century, this flood-prone patch of dirt was home to a poor but proud community of 300 families that were ultimately displaced in the late 1960s to make room for the three glistening colleges that make up the Auraria Higher Education Center: Metropolitan State University of Denver, the University of Colorado Denver and Community College of Denver.

They left behind a neighborhood where seven multi-ethnic immigrant generations lived, dreamed, worked and died before being scattered to parts all over Denver. By then, decades of flooding, redlining, segregation and selective municipal neglect had taken their toll. With downtown on the verge of a renaissance, the Westside was the easy choice from among 17 possible sites as the most feasible location for the new college campus.

When the city, the Catholic Church and finally Denver voters all backed the forced exodus, many in the Westside community felt betrayed.

But Garcia wasn’t surprised.

This was a civic trade-off: The disruption and displacement of the Auraria families has made the dream of higher education a reality for tens of thousands, including, eventually, Garcia and other Westsiders who were offered free tuition. The question Garcia still asks, though, is why poor communities of color are always the ones who are asked to sacrifice for the greater good.  

But, in its way, the dismantling of the Westside also gave Garcia his life’s purpose. The college would soon give rise to Su Teatro, a proudly political theater that for five decades has moved the stories, songs and tradition of Denver’s Chicano community from the margins to the mainstage.

In English, it means “Your Theatre.”


Students walk behind Su Teatro Executive Artistic Director Tony Garcia as he looks onto St. Cajetan's Church, where he attended church and school as a child, on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, on the Auraria Campus in Denver, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Gazette)

The origins of Auraria

White gold-diggers first descended on the South Platte River and its Indigenous populations in 1858. It’s a coincidence that the new township was called Auraria, which means “gold” in Latin. No, it was named after the hometown of the Georgians who claimed it.

People came in immigrant waves — Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews — along with an occasional Brit and even a Filipino. While it was native Mexicans who first discovered gold in the South Platte in 1857, they didn't settle into the Westside neighborhood in large numbers until 1916.

Those who lived in Auraria were mostly farmers and small-time merchants who aspired to move up one day to Capitol Hill. Flooding was a constant concern in the Westside, so the further out and up you went in elevation from the river, the higher your economic status.

Garcia has been called every toxic Mexican slur that’s ever been dreamed up, even though all but one of his grandparents were born in the United States. The Garcias moved into Westside in 1940, when Tony’s maternal grandmother moved north from Pueblo. His mother, Molly, was 6 at the time.

By the time Tony was born in 1953, “this was a totally segregated community,” he says. “My whole world was Chicano.”

And the religious, cultural and social epicenter of that world was St. Cajetan’s Church, which is where, Garcia jokes on cue, “I got my first communion, my confirmation, and my ex-communication — all in the same spot.”


Su Teatro Executive Artistic Director Tony Garcia stands in the courtyard outside St. Cajetan's Church, where, he jokes, 'I got my first communion, my confirmation, and my ex-communication – all in the same spot.' Garcia was reflecting on growing up in the Westside neighborhood that was displaced in the late 1960s to make room for the Auraria Campus in Denver, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Gazette)

The parish moved a few miles southwest in 1973, but the church at Auraria still stands as a symbolic reminder of what it once represented at Ninth and Lawrence streets. So, too, does the one city block of the old barrio — 14 period homes built between the late 19th and early 20th century — that have been preserved as the Ninth Street Historic Park.

“There were three churches, a synagogue and three bars,” Garcia remembers. “In the mornings, everyone met in the churches. And In the afternoons, everyone met in the bars."


Su Teatro Executive Artistic Director Tony Garcia stands in a small amphitheater where one of the homes he grew up in once stood at what is now the south end of the Ninth Street Historic Park on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, on the Auraria Campus in Denver, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Gazette)

Garcia remembers his first house at 721½ Champa Street, which faced into the back of one of those bars.

“My mother protected us from all the crazy things that were going on in that bar,” he says. “She would come out with a 2x4 and run off the stalkers and the window peepers.”

Garcia comes from a complex family tree. He has 14 brothers and sisters, five shared with the same mother and father. The unique way his tree branched off gifted him with a riddle worthy of the Sphinx: “I'm the oldest, the youngest and the middle kid — all at once,” says Garcia, whose expanded bloodline serves as a tight metaphor for how he saw the Westside as a whole: As a close-knit community that acted as one shared family. He remembers playing endless touch football games in the middle of the street. Walking with his dad to Bears Stadium (now Empower Field) to watch minor-league baseball games. Exactly where a dog bit him 60 years ago. Sneaking into the Mercantile, where the owner lined the back wall with photos of naked women. He takes me to one of the 14 preserved homes and demonstrates how his buddies turned the Torres family’s front porch into a stage.


Su Teatro Executive Artistic Director Tony Garcia sits for a portrait on the back steps of what was the one of his good childhood friend, Mateo Torres’ home, and is now a school building on the Ninth Street Historic Park on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, on the Auraria Campus in Denver, Colo. Garcia recalls playing a game they called “Make Me Laugh” using the front porch of the home as a stage trying to get one-another to crack up. (Timothy Hurst/The Gazette)

“When we were about 10, we used to play a game called ‘Make Me Laugh,’” Garcia says. “You had to get up on this stage and stay here until you did something that made somebody laugh. And if you were the one who laughed, then you had to come up here next. So, you tried like hell not to laugh.”

Garcia spent a lot of time up on that stage “because everything cracked me up,” he says.

On this random day on campus, Garcia has run into his childhood friend Carlos Frésquez, the acclaimed Indigenous artist who was also baptized at St. Cajetan’s Church — and feels compelled to counter any possibility that Garcia might be painting an impossibly nostalgic picture of their glory days.


Su Teatro Executive Artistic Director Tony Garcia, right, jokes with History Colorado chief of staff Annie Levinsky and Carlos Frésquez, a renowned artist at teacher at Metropolitan State University of Denver, in front of St. Cajetan's Church on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, on the Auraria Campus in Denver, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Gazette)

“We chased the cockroaches out for our fun,” Frésquez interjects with a laugh. “We played with shards of  glass.”

The two giggle like schoolboys at the joke. They do that a lot. Garcia points out a church plaque that invokes the word “erection.” (And, by the way, correctly!) No matter. It still makes Garcia snicker like a 10-year-old.

“You can see my humor has not evolved,” he deadpans.

The triangle that once bounded the Westside may have been invisible, but to Garcia, it was an electric, protective fence that kept danger (and pretty much all white people) out – except for those who had to get their Mexican food fix at the Casa Mayan restaurant.

“Inside those boundaries, our neighborhood was a safe haven,” Garcia says. “But we knew the outside world harbored racism and economic oppression that made it not safe for man or beast."

He learned that the hard way at just age 14.

By then — 1966 — Garcia had seen cumulative effects of social and economic neglect turn into crime and alcoholism in the neighborhood. One night Garcia’s 15-year-old friend, Louie Pinera, was breaking into used cars in the O’Meara Ford lot right across the street on Colfax. A Denver cop spotted Pinera and shot him twice in the back. Garcia equated this prematurely ended life with this prematurely ended neighborhood in “El Corrido del Barrio,” a play with original music that Su Teatro has staged seven times since 1973.

The cop insisted Pinera went after him with a knife.

“Now, I'm not a genius,” Garcia says, “but I really don't know how you can stab somebody with your back to them.”

The death hit young Garcia hard. Pinera’s cousin, John Tafoya, was the drummer in Garcia’s band at the time.

Where Garcia grew up, the line between him and those who went to jail or died was always razor thin. But there is a powerful, guiding force within Garcia, one that is also indigenous to Chicano culture:

"I am," he said, "what I was."

The teenager’s death woke up the neighborhood, and awakened a sense of activism in Garcia.

"What I remember most was there not being any redress," he recalls.

By then the writing was on the wall, and it spelled change. The South Platte River flood of June 1965 was one of the worst natural disasters in Denver's history, killing 24. Garcia came home from summer camp to a flooded basement bedroom and many ruined neighboring houses. The city was putting no resources into repairs, he says, and the slow exodus began.

“Soon it was just neighbor after neighbor disappearing,” Garcia says.

Not everyone went quietly. More than 150 families filed lawsuits to try to stop it. But in 1967, the Garcia family moved about a mile south and west to 13th Avenue and Elati Street, an area that has itself since gentrified into The Golden Triangle.

But to Garcia, this was no sad scene out of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“We were poor, so we were always moving,” he says. “It was just part of what we did. The worst part was that, as a community, we were just not centralized anymore.”

Su Teatro's raucous beginnings

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While the Chicano theater movement exploded in the 1960s with César Chávez’s marches to protest the unjust treatment of farmworkers, Su Teatro was born in 1972 when University of Colorado Denver professor Rowena Rivera went rogue and turned her remedial English class into an “Intro to Chicano Theatre” class instead. This was a time of Vietnam, social activism and consciousness-raising. And college officials were trying hard to recruit local Chicanos to enroll at the new campus. Which was something that CU regent Joe Coors (of the Coors beer family) bluntly opposed.

“Coors said that allowing so many minorities in would lower the overall academic standards of the university and cause problems with their accreditation,” Garcia said. “So they insisted that incoming Chicano students had to take and pass a remedial reading class.”

To Rivera, “remedial” anything implied an existing deficiency and presumed failure. Instead, she used improvisational theater techniques as a way of exploring the dynamics of politics, class, race and struggle. The students wrote and performed their own plays in English and Spanish, an exercise that more than exceeded all of the school’s literacy requirements. Little did Rivera know that by creating this class, she was birthing Su Teatro as a theater company right across the street from the campus in what is now called, ironically, the Hotel Teatro.

Garcia was not part of that first UCD class. He was studying at the nearby Community College of Denver instead. But when he saw Su Teatro perform for the first time, “it was mind-boggling for me,” he said. He was well-versed in American dramas like “Death of a Salesman,” but he had never before heard Spanish uttered on any theater stage. “The first skit I saw was about a welfare worker coming to a house in our neighborhood, and I recognized all the characters because it was as if they were all in my own family,” he said. And it was funny. “When the welfare worker says: ‘Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of a Mexican!’ we laughed like crazy.”

Garcia was reading Edward Albee and Arthur Miller at the time, but they sure weren't writing about welfare workers going after Chicano families that might be harboring secret male wage-earners.

"When I was at Cathedral High School, we were doing ‘The Sound of Music,’” he says. “And let me tell you: If the Nazis had a problem with those little white kids, believe me, they would have had a much bigger problem with little Mexican kids.”

That summer, UCD brought the famed El Teatro Campesino to the Auraria campus to perform a play called “The Tent of the Underdog,” which ends with the death of a family patriarch. “Much like Willy Loman (in “Death of a Salesman”), he dies from having given so much of his life to support his family that he no longer has value,” says Garcia, who watched the play in a packed auditorium with 250 Chicanos.

“I was in the back row with all these tough guys, and we’re all crying underneath our very serious Wayfarer sunglasses,” Garcia says. “I knew right in that moment I wanted to make people feel like that when they see what I'm writing.”


Executive Artistic Director Anthony Garcia asks all the actors in the audience to stand and be applauded during a mortgage burning party on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, at the Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Denver, Colo.

The new theater company had everything Garcia was looking for at 19: Namely, rabble ... and Babel. “There were a lot of older women involved,” he admits with a laugh. “We’re talking like 22 and 23!”

Garcia didn’t have much to offer the company at the time. He owned only a guitar and a pen, and he used them to tell urgent and unprecedented stories of the Chicano experience.

“I have never been one of those Chicanos who can pass for anything other than who I am, so there was never any confusion,” he says. “At that time, I was fueled by the Vietnam War, by injustices I had seen in the fields, and by our relationship with the police. That’s when I realized that there was a whole genre of stories to be told — and that I could write them.”

His first original piece was “El Corrido del Barrio,” inspired by a walk past the then still-standing skeletons of Westside homes in 1973.

“Some were torn down, some were boarded up, some had people still living in them,” he says. “It was like I was walking down the street surrounded by ghosts — and seeing a way of life die in slow motion.”


Executive Artistic Director Anthony Garcia gets a hug from his friend Shannon Daut during a mortgage burning party on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, at the Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Denver, Colo.

Garcia took over as Su Teatro’s artistic director and resident playwright in 1974 — and took Su Teatro to the streets. Inspired by the activism of Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzales, he cut his teeth writing and performing agitprop that played out on picket lines and street corners, in parks and prisons.

Over the past 50 years, Su Teatro has presented plays, concerts, poetry, dance, films and educational programs. Garcia has staged about 150 plays in that time, many with original music written by Daniel Valdez.

The company found its first real home in 1989 in the former Elyria Elementary School in northeast Denver. Garcia jokingly credits presidential brother Neil Bush for making it possible for Garcia to buy the building for the bargain basement price of $142,000. Bush was one architect of the savings-and-loan scandal, which depressed Denver's real-estate market and cheapened property values.

Su Teatro Exterior

After 14 years, Su Teatro has completed its $790,000 purchase of the former Denver Civic Theatre.

In 2007, Garcia announced Su Teatro would build its own arts center at 215 S. Santa Fe Drive with the encouragement and backing of then Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. But when the New Denver Civic Theatre went into foreclosure right up the block at 721 N. Santa Fe Dr., Hickenlooper nudged Garcia into simply moving in there instead. The city of Denver bought the building for $790,000 and extended to Garcia a bridge loan — Hickenlooper even put up $50,000 of his own money. Su Teatro took occupancy in February 2010.

Colorado Poet Laureate Bobby LeFebre was among those on hand to celebrate Su Teatro's 'mortgage burning' after completing its final payment on the former Denver Civic Theatre. The troupe moved into the space at 721 Santa Fe Drive in 2010 with help from then Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.


Executive Artistic Director Anthony Garcia, left, tosses a crumpled-up page into the fire pit with others during a mortgage burning party on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, at the Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Denver, Colo.

Today, the Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center consists of a 320-seat mainstage theater, a smaller studio theater and an art gallery in the heart of the Santa Fe Arts District. And in January, Garcia burned the mortgage.

For years, the start time of any Su Teatro performance was curiously set for exactly 8:05 p.m., a sentimental nod to the exact time Garcia’s daughter, Mica Garcia de Benavidez, was born.

"That and because everyone knows Chicanos are always late,” he says with an implied rim shot. It was a sweet tradition that Mica herself put an end to when the company moved into the Civic. “It was time,” says Mica, the company’s longtime managing director.

Debra Gallegos

Debra Gallegos will be honored by Su Teatro.

Give Garcia an opening, and he will name dozens of others who deserve recognition for Su Teatro now celebrating its once unthinkable 50th anniversary season, including continuing core company members Debra Gallegos, Manuel Roybal, Angelo Mendez-Soto and Yolanda Ortega, who in November ran to be a University of Colorado regent.

“Tony was like a big brother to all of us growing up,” says Gallegos. “We were like his muses, and in return he wrote all of these parts for us that were freaking amazing. From the beginning, Tony built this thing as a family. And through it all, we have all supported each other and taken care of each other.”

Among active Colorado theater companies, only the Little Theatre of the Rockies in Greeley, Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder, Longmont Theatre Company, Creede Repertory Theatre and OpenStage in Fort Collins have reached 50. No one else in Denver has.

Hickenlooper, now a U.S. Senator, believes he backed the right playwright.

"Tony Garcia is one of the most creative and talented people in Colorado," says Hickenlooper, whose personal support for the company dates back to 1989. "Few people have had as long a career creating the foundation and contributing to the vibrancy of community theater."

Even though most of his childhood stomping grounds are gone, Garcia still spends significant time there. In addition to running his theater company, he has been an adjunct professor at Metro State for 25 years. In his writing, in his activism and in his teaching, Garcia is, in his way, helping to heal this wounded land that remains sacred to some, soiled to others.

Every December, Su Teatro returns to campus to organize a community-building effort known as the St. Cajetan’s Reunification Project. It is a largely symbolic gesture commemorating the barrio that was sacrificed to build the campus, while also calling attention to the ongoing gentrification of the surrounding area.

“Our memories are lost so quickly, and when we lose them, we lose the identity of our city,” Garcia says. “Sadly, we are doing it all over again right now. I think the lessons that we did not learn from Auraria have been repeating themselves on a large scale all over Denver over the past eight years. As a city, we went for profit. We went for the next wave of modernism.


Angel Mendez-Soto tosses a page into the fire pit during a mortgage burning party on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, at the Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Denver, Colo.

“And as we continue to take people’s land in the name of progress, we are now doing all of these land acknowledgments before performances. We’re saying, ‘We’re sorry we took your land — we won't do it again.’ But of course, we are doing it — and we are doing it constantly. By taking away land and memories, we're depriving our children of something that should really have value for them. I absolutely know that this is true in my life, because I was fortunate to have my elders tell me stories of what came before me, so that I could share them with the next generation.”

Without Garcia, and without Su Teatro, says longtime company actor Jesse Ogas, “the identity of Denver’s Chicano population absolutely would have been lost by now.”

Su Teatro El Espiritu Natural.jpg

Su Teatro's 50th anniversary 2022-23 season continues with 'El Espiritu Natural,' with Lauren Michelle Long and Adriana Gonzales, through March 26.

Su Teatro: Eight seminal plays

(All written by Executive Artistic Director Tony Garcia)

Yolanda Ortega El Corrido del Barrio

Yolanda Ortega, right, considers herself a pro-arts regent candidate.'“I think in any profession, if you don’t have an appreciation for the arts, then I don't know how you can see the beauty in what your profession is all about,' she said. She is pictured in Su Teatro's 'El Corrido del Barrio,' which she considers to be her most representative role.

"EL CORRIDO DE AURARIA" (1982): Musical retelling of the forced exit of the Chicano/Mejicana neighborhood to make room for the Auraria campus. The original production was invited to move to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts for an extended run. The title was changed to "El Corrido del Barrio" and has been mounted six times since.

"INTRO TO CHICANO HISTORY: 101" (1986): Presented at the Public Theatre's Latino Theatre Festival in New York at the invitation of legendary producer Joseph Papp. The show, covering 500 years of history, returned to Denver and opened Su Teatro's first permanent home at 4725 High St., followed by tours of the Southwest and Mexico.

"SERAFIN: CANTOS Y LAGRIMAS" (1989): The story, based on the diaries of Anthony Garcia's father, told of an aging drunk's struggle to maintain his dignity in the face of oppression. Ran three months and was named Denver Drama Critics Circle's best new play.

"LUDLOW: EL GRITO DE LAS MINAS" (1991): Recounts the infamous mineworkers strike and subsequent massacre from the perspective of the Mejicano miners. Later performed in San Antonio and New York.

"LA CARPA AZTLAN PRESENTS 'I DON'T SPEAK ENGLISH ONLY'" (1993): Garcia's futuristic, vaudevillian satire about the bleak prospects for multiculturalism in the current social climate. Played extended runs in Denver and on both coasts. Su Teatro's most successful show.

"THE SUN THAT YOU ARE (EL SOL QUE TU ERES)" (2005): An original musical variation of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth with music by Daniel Valdez. Five years in the making and presented in collaboration with the University of Colorado-Denver, it was the largest undertaking in Su Teatro history.

"ENRIQUE'S JOURNEY" (2011): Su Teatro opened its 40th season with the most significant production in its history, the world premiere adaptation of Sonia Nazario's gritty odyssey of a Honduran boy who braves unimaginable hardship and peril to reach his mother in the United States.

"NORTHSIDE" (2019): Bobby Lefebre's unsparing comedy about Denver's skyrocketing gentrification captured the zeitgeist of the city at a very unsettling moment in time like few plays ever could. The initial run sold out for 23 straight performances, was brought back for a return run and ended with a raucous performance in La Raza Park. In all, more than 10,000 saw the play, obliterating Su Teatro’s nearly 50-year attendance and revenue records.


Students walk between buildings as Su Teatro Executive Artistic Director Tony Garcia recalls his childhood in the neighborhood on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in front of the King Center performing arts complex on the Auraria Campus in Denver, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/The Gazette)

John Moore is the Denver Gazette's Senior Arts Journalist. Email him at [email protected]