Welcome to Meet Our Partners, a new blog series highlighting the local arts and music organizations we’re fortunate to count as part of the MMI network. The organizations we partner with bring vital music, theatre, and arts programming to young people from Frayser and Orange Mound to Soulsville and across South Memphis, creating spaces for young people to use their talents, their voices, and their aspirations toward a more just future.
Today, meet Cazateatro Bilingual Theatre Group! Founded in 2006, and relaunched in 2010, Cazateatro’s mission is to spread and share Latin-American culture through the scenic arts in order to create a unifying bridge for our communities, stressing the importance of bilingual education and the richness of our diverse cultures. MMI recently sat down with Executive Director Dorimar Ferrer and Artistic Director Monica Sanchez to talk about how Cazateatro has changed over the past 11 years, why it’s important to learn about your community, and what you can expect from this year’s Latin Fest celebration on September 25.
MMI: Hi Monica and Dorimar! Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds. How did you come to Cazateatro?
Monica Sanchez: I studied theatre in Mexico. When I came to Memphis, many years ago, I was working in a radio station. There, I met Giovana Lopez and Sandra Garcia, who also had theatre backgrounds. At that time, Gio led this group called Cazateatro Independent Theatre. Ultimately, she had to put the program on hold because not enough people participated. So we talked about it, and I said, "Let's revive Cazateatro, let's try to do it again. You do theatre, I do theatre, Sandra does theatre so let's do it." In that moment, we decided to bring Cazateatro back. Then Dorimar and a few other women joined. And that's how Cazateatro Bilingual Theatre Group was born.
I've been the artistic director almost from the beginning. We didn’t set out to make Cazateatro a family theatre group, but when we started it, everyone had small kids. We’d have kids running around, popping in on our rehearsals, and so I’d say, “Everybody's going to have a part in this play.” The kids became part of the production. Of course, when they became teenagers, not all of them wanted to continue, but we kept bringing families in. We’ve been a family group now for 11 years.
Dorimar Ferrer: I’ve done theatre my whole life. When I was in second grade I said, “This is my thing. I love theatre. I need to do this forever.” When my husband and I decided to move to Memphis, I was really worried that everybody would speak only English, and that I wouldn’t be able to get involved in theatre. Once we were here, my husband suggested I get out there and see what was available—that there could be something for me after all. Around that time, one of my friends invited me to check out a theatre group. She said they were preparing a show for the community. That friend was the founder of Cazateatro, Gio Lopez.
MMI: When did you become the director, Dorimar?
Dorimar: Cazateatro became a nonprofit in 2014. Monica and I were the crazy women there who said, “Let’s figure it out.” We were told it’d be too hard. We didn’t have a plan, but there came the point where Monica and I decided who’d be in charge of different aspects of the organization. We were sure that we wanted to make a change in the community. We wanted to give voice to our Latino community. I became the director because someone needed to be in charge of the documents! (Laughs)
MMI: How have you seen Cazateatro grow and evolve in the last 11 years?
Dorimar: Every day is an adventure and every day is an opportunity to educate the community. But it’s hard, especially when it comes to resources. We know we can open the door to the Latin community. And we're opening that communication, that relationship, that connection with other cultures. But it can be challenging. It’s a rollercoaster, for sure.
Monica: At times it's been hard, but it's also been fun. Sometimes people hear about us and they say, "Oh, bilingual theatre, that sounds nice.” Especially English-speaking Americans. They say, "I would like to be part of it, but I don't speak Spanish." But you don’t have to speak Spanish! You just have to be ready to be part of something different and be open to learning. That's the main thing here. To learn about another culture, about the community, the Latino community that lives here in the Mid-South. And it’s been wonderful.
But we know we still have a long way to go. Even when we say we’ve been active for 11 years, we feel we still are a young organization. A lot of people, even some Latinos don’t know about us! So we try to educate the community through the arts. We used to do a Day of the Dead play every year. Five years ago, we didn't have a space at the theatre to do the play, and Dorimar came up with the idea to do a Dia de los Muertos reverse parade instead. So we went to the Brooks Museum with our idea to see if they’d be interested in partnering. We were ready for our idea to be shot down immediately. Instead, they said, “Let’s do this.” The first year we hosted the parade, we had almost 5,000 people come through. We didn't expect that. So we thought, surely the Brooks will say no to next year’s parade. But we got a call from them asking when we were going to start planning for next year! We’re still hosting the parade. So the best part is that as we’ve been growing, we’ve been able to collaborate with other organizations, like the Dixon, like Opera Memphis.
MMI: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced as Cazateatro has grown and become more well known?
Dorimar: Resources, definitely. There are so many things we’d like to do, but we just don’t have the resources to pull off. Other times, if we’re faced with a challenging issue, we can pivot a little and move forward in a slightly different direction. That's what happened with the parade.
We’d love to have theatre classes, too, but we don't have space. That is a challenge for us, because the people call us about classes all the time. Monica and I are both volunteers, and we love our mission, we know we need to do it. We are advocating for our culture and now our community. But sometimes we have to say no.
Monica: For example, during Hispanic Heritage Month, we get calls from schools and organizations who would like to have us there. But there’s no way we can do it totally for free. And we would like to be there free of cost, of course, but we don't have a grant, support to buy the materials, money to pay people for their time, and so on. That's one of the things that makes us feel bad because we want to keep doing this. But money is a big issue when you’re operating in the arts space.
MMI: That's an interesting position to be in, having to say no. Because it’s great that people know you exist and want to experience your craft, but there’s that gap between the desire to see a performance and what you’re actually able to deliver. I’m sure it’s hard to say no.
Monica: Yes. And then sometimes, when people ask us to perform, they’re expecting a dance group. They want dancers, huge dresses, and things like that. But here in Memphis, we have such a diverse Latinx community, with different types of artists. So that’s a misconception we have to work against as well.
Dorimar: We are more than that. We have a wonderful and very diverse culture.
MMI: Is there a specific memory or a big win for the organization that stands out to you as being particularly exciting or empowering?
Dorimar: Well, for me, every event is huge. We celebrate every event as a new opportunity for education. I always remember the day of our first parade, in 2017, because that was huge for the Latinx community. We were so excited! Then it started raining. And I couldn’t believe it—we had worked so hard! And then people around me said, “No, we need to do it anyway.” And they started singing something from Columbia to move the water out or something like that. Everybody was singing and very happy. And I’ll never forget that because the community was ready to go forward with the parade, no matter what. It’s funny, though, every year we have the parade it seems to be raining!
Monica: The other moment that stands out in my mind was when we did our first Latin Fest event two years ago. We had so many people coming, and stopping by to say thank you. It was a great event. And at the end of the night, when we started cleaning up, somebody said, “This has been fantastic, do you do this every week?” [Laughs]
And then there are smaller moments that make me think that we're doing this right. We have a new member—a young lady, about 12 years old. I give her rides to the rehearsals. One day I was driving her back home from rehearsals, and she told me she had a project in school, to create an enterprise of some kind. I asked her what hers would be, and she said, “I’m going to create something like Cazateatro, because I think it’s great. I want to provide that for the other kids.” This is why I do what I do. There are long days when you can’t do what you want to do, or you don’t have a certain sponsor, or you have to change something about your programming or event—when those things happen and you hear from a young person that what you’re doing matters, you don’t care about hearing “no” so much. I care about the “yes,” and the little seed that we plant that's going to grow and change the community.
MMI: So, Hispanic Heritage Month starts on the 15th, and I know you have a celebration coming up on the 25th. What does Latin Fest look like this year? What can attendees expect?
Monica: They can expect to experience a lot of culture. Community organizations will share their missions. We will have two guests: a samba group from Nashville, and a Puerto Rican group from Chicago. We’ll also have children’s programs, snacks from Latinx countries, and more. The idea for our program and the Latin Fest is to show the diversity of Memphis’ Latinx community. So we’re trying to include a little of everything—something from Puerto Rico, something from Mexico, something from Venezuela.
MMI: And Hispanic Heritage Month runs until October 15, right? Are there ways that people can get involved the whole month? What would you suggest for people who want to learn more?
Dorimar: We have something called the cultural passport. Different organizations will be celebrating during the months of September and October, for Hispanic Heritage Month. For example, the Orpheum is going to have an open tour free and in espanol. Participants will have a chance to take a tour of the Orpheum and learn about its history. Of course Latin Fest is also part of the celebration. In general, if you check our website you can stay up-to-date on what’s happening. Most of the events are family-friendly events.
Monica: My suggestion for the community is to go outside, and get to know your community. Some people here think everyone in the Latinx community is from Mexico, from Venezuela. They don't really know their community. Ask questions. Get to know the Latinx organizations around you. Know the Latinx artists in Memphis. So get out there—and not only to Mexican restaurants. There's so much culture here.
About the MMI Grantmaking and Capacity Building Program: MMI invests in local arts and music organizations through grant funding and technical assistance to support organizational sustainability, improve program quality, and build a robust, vibrant Black arts community in Memphis.