Can a Bilingual Theater Company Thrive in the Age of Trump?
A large, terra-cotta orange building dominates the corner of SE Stark Street and Seventh Avenue, stretching a half block on either side. It’s a 21,000-square-foot chunk of prime real estate in this rapidly developing east-side hub—somewhere you might reasonably expect to see a newly minted tech company or a sleek new restaurant or hip coffee shop in 2018 Portland. Instead, it’s the home of the city’s only bilingual theater company, Milagro, a word that translates—perhaps aptly when it comes to describing an arts organization with its own permanent home—as “miracle.”
Formed in the 1980s by husband-and-wife duo Jose González and Dañel Malán, the company decided to produce exclusively Latin American theater for audiences in Portland some 25 years ago, and hasn’t looked back. But there’s no denying it’s a niche act in an art form that’s already struggling to hold audiences. Now the very community Milagro both represents and serves is in post-election crisis. So how does a Latino theater company in a second city survive the Trump era?
González, originally from Texas, trained as a scenic designer; his wife was a costume designer. Their post-college plan: to find work in their fields in Portland. To get their names out there, they put on a play. Which led to another, and another, until they found themselves with a theater company. Missing the diversity of his home state, González thought of moving back to Texas. Malán dug in her heels.
“I said, well, if I can’t go down there, maybe I can bring it up here, at least in the sense of its flavor,” he says. “Then the thought occurred to me that there might be others here feeling out of place or homesick. So that year, 1989, we launched Portland’s first Hispanic cultural festival.”
It was, at least creatively, a success, says González, and introduced them to more than a hundred Latino actors eager to work with him. That epiphany played a part in his decision, three years later, to focus exclusively on Latin American plays.
Since then, the company has performed world premieres, organized touring productions, staged play reading series and salons, collaborated with theater companies nationwide, and organized an annual Day of the Dead celebration. Milagro fosters its community of artists, actors, and audience members with work that hops between languages and explores complex subjects, including sex trafficking, homelessness, LGBTQ issues, and environmental concerns.
Thirty-four seasons in, Milagro faces a whole new set of challenges, however, in Trump’s America. Audiences are down, even as the population of Latin Americans in Portland continues to rise. González says it’s hard not to correlate diminishing box office returns with the changing social landscape for the company’s Latin American audience, many of whom are afraid to leave their homes.
“Whether you’re documented or not, you see much more examples of anti-immigrant violence everywhere,” he says. “So I think it really is a much different period in time that you’ve got to contend with.”
Milagro has lost season subscribers, too, possibly due to a slate of plays that deal with serious, difficult subjects. González says Milagro’s current season coalesces around the notion of standing up for oneself. (Its world premiere of The Mermaid Hour, a play about the parents of a mixed-race transgender daughter navigating the challenges she faces, is followed in May by season finale Watsonville: Some Place Not Here, the story of a group of Chicana women who take part in a strike at their cannery while politicians debate the merits of an anti-immigration bill.) “I think it was just all that harsh rhetoric, the instability, the uncertainty, the stress electing Donald Trump caused,” the director says. “When [subscribers] looked at the overarching theme of the season, they just didn’t want to deal with that.”
Milagro’s survival is helped in no small part by an opportunity González and Malán jumped on back in 1997, when the owner of the building they’d been leasing offered to sell it to the long-term tenants. “We got an incredibly good deal,” González admits, as we tour the company’s offices, basement rehearsal space, prop storage room, 121-seat theater, and huge windowed flex space dubbed the Zócalo, frequently rented for events.
“This was, at that time, a very dormant, inactive area,” he says. “We knew that at some point this would be the hot place, and if we didn’t buy, were we going to be out on the street?”
His words ring particularly prescient in a moment when arts organizations across the city are finding themselves homeless or in flux as affordable spaces disappear: Northwest Dance Project, Third Rail Repertory, and Shaking the Tree are among the many displaced in recent years, while Conduit Dance Company closed down entirely in 2016, citing “lack of affordable space.”
Good fortune, canny business sense, sheer doggedness: Milagro has thrived against the odds, while cleaving to a theatrical mission to make clear the commonality of our human experience, even in times of division. “Portland gets culturally siloed for various reasons,” González says. “The white people just talk to each other, the middle-class people are all together, and the rich people are all together. And theater is an opportunity for that to break down a little bit.”