Arts and Culture

Su Teatro: Meet Me at the Theater

A Story of Place and Belonging
A Su Teatro cast member singing enthusiastically to a crowd.

Storytelling runs in the family for Tony Garcia, executive artistic director of Su Teatro. “My mom was a storyteller,” Tony recalls. “She would tell scary stories, she once showed up at a party at my house and began to weave her stories to a group of my adult friends, nobody wanted to leave... they stayed until 4 o'clock in the morning. My mother told stories and held the floor for that long.”

Tony claims that no one will ever be able to tell stories like his mother. But he did inherit his mother’s love of storytelling. And it’s that love that he channels into Su Teatro: a nonprofit that has created space for community storytelling for the past 50 years.

Four cast members act out a scene on stage.
Four cast members act out a scene on stage.

For the people

“Su Teatro” translates to “Your Theater” in Spanish. Through productions, readings, and educational programming, Su Teatro invites community members into a collaborative environment that welcomes their thoughts, perspectives, and stories.

“Our community knows a lot more than I do. I’ve learned that sometimes my ideas are not big enough for what [they] see,” says Tony. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that there is such a thing as a community standard, and our community will hold us to that standard. I respect that.”

To encourage Su Teatro’s community to feel at home in this space – to feel like the theater truly is their own – Tony makes sure that their theater in downtown Denver feels warm and welcoming. There’s a space for everyone, Tony says. He jokes that even noisy kids in the audience can stay — although they may need to sit in the rear of the audience.

“The Teatro is filled with color,” Tony describes. “There's papel picado hanging from the ceiling. You can get tamales and you can get coffee... you can take it into the theater and eat while the show is going on.”

Su Teatro's "Fire in the Streets" tells the story of student protests and police violence.
Su Teatro's "Fire in the Streets" tells the story of student protests and police violence.

Telling overlooked narratives

Born from the Chicano Civil Rights movement, Su Teatro has been building identity and place for its community for the past 50 years. The organization views the arts as forms of activism and solidarity, providing avenues for its community to celebrate, mourn, and come together through the stories dearest to them.

Su Teatro’s 50th anniversary production of “War of the Flowers” tells the story of the five Chicana women workers who led the Kitayama Carnation Factory Strike in 1968. In protest of unjust working conditions at a small floral plant, the women went on strike to advocate for fairer treatment. On the last day of the strike, they chained themselves to the plant’s fences to block strikebreakers from coming in. The Weld County Sheriff’s Department approached them and teargassed the women at point-blank range, to the point that the women collapsed.

The testimonies of these women shed light on what was going on behind the scenes at the Kitayama Carnation Factory and woke up the community to this ongoing injustice. While working conditions ultimately didn’t improve much for the women who went on strike, their heroism paved the way for better treatment for those who followed them.

Before Su Teatro produced “War of the Flowers,” many members of their community – even those who identified as Chicano – didn't know this story. But within a year of doing the show, the women who led the strike were not only recognized by their community – they were honored by the Latino Leadership Hall of Fame and voted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.

“When I came to the show, we had a lot of our students from the university there, and the students mobbed [the women] like they were heroes,” Tony recalls. “One of the women said, ‘When I saw the play, I realized that we didn't lose. That the students represented the progress and pride that we fought for and we actually won.’” Tony believes that stories can help people and communities recover from traumatic experiences. Says Tony, “How can we give [people] the tools artistically to take their pain and put it into something that's healing?”

An early photo of executive artistic director, Tony Garcia (center), and fellow actors on set with instruments.
An early photo of executive artistic director, Tony Garcia (center), and fellow actors on set.

Investing in BIPOC community arts spaces

Having a storytelling space run by and for BIPOC artists is particularly important in downtown Denver. Despite having made invaluable contributions to the vibrant culture of the city, many of these artists are at risk of or are actively being displaced by rising housing prices. Community arts spaces like Su Teatro put front and center stories that have long been overlooked – like that of the Kitayama Carnation Factory Strike – and advocate for these communities’ right to live, create art, and tell their own stories in a neighborhood they’ve called home for decades.

Like the community it serves, Su Teatro is pulled between its desire to stay downtown and rising costs. And Tony faces challenges that many other nonprofit leaders don’t: in a funding environment that often prioritizes white-led nonprofits, Tony must fight hard to build deep relationships with funders. Despite lack of access to funding and the difficulty to pay staff competitive salaries, establish organizational infrastructure, and promote Su Teatro’s programming, the organization continued to persevere.

“We’ve been having conversations about sustainability since the nineties... that has always been core to what we tell funders,” says Tony.

“We need to pay our people,” Tony also shares. “Being able to continue to be competitive in terms of being able to pay our people has been a high, high priority.” This isn’t just a challenge for Tony; offering competitive pay, employing enough staff, and staff burnout continue to be among top staffing challenges for many nonprofit organizations, according to NFF's 2022 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey.

In 2017, Su Teatro began working with NFF as part of the Leveraging a Network for Equity (LANE) program’s first cohort. The LANE program is part of the Comprehensive Organizational Health Initiative (COHI) led by a partnership between NFF and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

LANE works with performing and visual arts nonprofits and rural nonprofits that are led by people of color or primarily serve people of color – nonprofits that have historically been underfunded. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided much-needed assets like general operating support, recovery and change capital, technical assistance, and consulting. As part of the change capital, Su Teatro was able to address their staffing needs – an essential part of their growth and sustainability.

NFF administered these grants and supplemented them with financial management consulting on budgeting practices, forecasting, financial storytelling, and more. LANE helped equip organizations like Su Teatro, with the financial tools and knowledge they need to thrive in ways that are consistent with their values. 

“When we went through the process with NFF and the LANE project, they gave us more money than our budget was,” says Tony. “And you know what? It’s five years later, and we're in much better shape than we have was transformational.”

The financial analysis and consulting showed Tony the bigger picture. “When you're a small organization,” Tony shares, “you're looking at ‘What's the next thing that's happened? When’s the next check going to come in?'”

“You can grow bigger than that,” Tony declares. “You can.”

A black and white photograph of a group singing and playing guitar while wearing face paint.
Bold costumes and music are an essential part of a Su Teatro production.

A continued vision of sustainability

The change capital grant allowed Su Teatro to grow their major programmatic activities like The Main Stage Theatrical Season, the XicanIndie Film Festival, The Chicano Music Festival and Auction, and more. It allowed for professional development and coaching for existing staff, the creation of support staff roles, and technological upgrades with improved marketing and donor acquisition tools.

With NFF’s consulting and financial analysis, Su Teatro was able to determine their need for change capital, allowing them to plan for growth in a sustainable manner. With this information, Su Teatro and NFF requested a $760,000 change capital grant from the Mellon Foundation to support Su Teatro’s organizational capacity over the course of three years.

Su Teatro and Tony are both celebrating milestone birthdays: Su Teatro turned 50 in 2022, and Tony will turn 70 in 2023. Today, Tony is thinking about the next chapter of the organization he’s dedicated his life to. 

And in their 50th year, Su Teatro celebrated another huge win — paying off their mortgage. On January 27, 2023, the organization gathered with community members for a “mortgage burning party,” to celebrate that Chicano arts and stories are here to stay in downtown Denver.

“It doesn't mean I'm going away because this is what I do. But ...we're really in a place of talking about what long-term investment and long-term stability look like,” Tony shares. “We really have to keep the young people that we have here now ongoing through my transition, when that takes place, so that [the organizational] memory will already be there.”

Want to learn more about how we partner with organizations like Su Teatro? Visit the Consulting page of our website.

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