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Latino Theater Company's 'Virgen' may not play at L.A. cathedral [Updated]

November 21, 2011 | 10:00 am

La Virgen

Since 2002, the Latino Theater Company has offered a free holiday gift to the community: its annual production of the pageant "La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin" at Our Lady of the Angels cathedral in downtown Los Angeles. More than 7,000 people attended last year's production of the show, which celebrates the Mexican Roman Catholic story of how the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous peasant, in 1531, in what was then colonial Spanish territory.

But this year a financial shortfall may require the company to break its tradition and cancel the production at the cathedral, José Luis Valenzuela, the company's artistic director and a UCLA theater professor, told Culture Monster this week. Despite vigorous fundraising efforts, Valenzuela said, the current economic downturn has made it difficult for the company to raise the necessary $50,000 to produce the free show Dec. 8 and 9 at the cathedral.

"I've been on the phone calling my friends saying, 'This is the time to help,' " Valenzuela said. "But I don't have 1,000 friends to give $50 each."

About 130 actors, dancers and musicians take part in the musical pageant. A handful are professionals, including Suzanna Guzman, an East L.A. native and internationally renowned mezzo-soprano, who performs the role of the Virgin, and Sal Lopez, a film and TV actor ("ER"), who plays Juan Diego. But the vast majority of performers are community volunteers, many of them Latinos, including some recent immigrants to the United States.


Valenzuela believes the story of Juan Diego resonates particularly with the millions of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants living in Los Angeles -- a big reason why the L.A. archdiocese is the nation's largest.

Like many Latino immigrants, Valenzuela said, Juan Diego was a man stranded between different cultures. Initially, the Spanish bishop in colonial Mexico "refused to believe that the Christian mother of God would manifest herself to an Indian, especially in the form of a dark-skinned woman speaking the Aztec Nahuatl language and resembling the Aztec Earth deity Tonantzin," as a 2008 L.A. Times story put it. Juan Diego also was spurned by other indigenous people for his newfound Christian beliefs.

But eventually the Catholic authorities embraced Juan Diego's story, and used it to proselytize their message in the New World. Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego in 2002.

A Kickstarter campaign for the pageant raised about $2,500 toward the production in a week, but the Latino Theater Company remains far short of its fundraising goal.

"If we charged [admission] we could pay for it, but I think we would sort of lose the point," Valenzuela said. "I hope the people come forward, because it belongs to them."

[Updated 1:15 p.m.: Evelina Fernandez of LATC writes in an e-mail to Culture Monster: "The fundraising is slow, but coming along.  Many of the participants are offering to perform for free or for reduced fees. We may be able to do it on a shoe-string budget. We'll see...."]


The 'Virgen' appears again

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Immigration debate takes to L.A. stages

-- Reed Johnson

Photo: Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman in rehearsal with the Latino Theater Company in "La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin" for its annual production of "La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin," at Our Lady of the Angels cathedral in 2010. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times