Latin American Influences in San Francisco Theatre

Embracing Community Arts

1976, San Francisco. Community Theatre Arts Workshop Flyer by Jane Norling. Latin American Influences in San Francisco Theatre

1977, San Francisco. Community Theatre Arts Workshop Flyer by Jane Norling. Latin American Influences in San Francisco Theatre

Believe it or not, in the 1970s public media like KQED-TV was federally mandated to give public access to community groups. Seeing artist Jane Norling’s flyer for my bilingual acting workshops  from the 1970’s evoked my memories of Latin American influences in San Francisco theatre local art scene. It was a time of great opportunity for community and minority artists to find training and performing around the Bay Area. KQED, our local public television station, broadcast the performances that our workshops created.

Jane Norling worked for the Neighborhood Arts Program, part of the San Francisco City Arts Commission. The city hired talented artists like Jane Norling and Joe Ramos among others, to help community arts groups reach larger audiences. In those days before the internet, flyers and posters were our major outreach tool. Xerox copying had just become widely available and we could print as many as 100 or 5000 flyers depending on our budgets.

My Latino focus came with me in my role as Artistic Director and Chief Administrator of Community Theater Arts Workshop, a non-profit always scrambling for small grants. The workshop announced in this flyer taught theater techniques popular in the people’s theater movement in Latin America. I had learned them working with two Latin American theatre artists: Cuban Huberto LLamas and Argentine Humberto Martinez, whose works deeply influenced and inspired me. I was eager to use them to mobilize people for change and help awaken to the world around them.

1973, San Francisco, California. Nina Serrano on the phone.

I first learned some of these techniques in Cuba in 1974-75 working with Huberto Llamas in rural theater. We trained peasants and dairy workers to use theater to solve their concrete daily problems by creating and acting in theaters productions for the local community. Working with Llamas among the cows, cowboys, and milkmaids was not so different theatrically from my earlier experience in San Francisco before and after the Summer of Love (1967-1968). I was developing and directing an agitprop truck theatre that roamed the streets performing musical skits for peace during the Viet Nam War from the back of a pickup truck. We had to gather an audience on the sidewalk, get our message out fast, using a sound generator for the music and signs for the dialog and then, take off pronto before the police showed up.

In Cuba, where we did not have to run from the police, I joined Llamas in leading group discussions that included a community social worker to pin point the issues. We used improvisation, movement exercises, and theater games to explore the problems and to build the actor’s craft. Slowly a storyline with themes would emerge and we would create a play. The larger community would support our work building beautiful outdoor stages bedecked with palm fronds and greenery. I was always amazed at their great enthusiasm and skills. The beautiful Caribbean sky was the backdrop.

Nina Serrano and Humberto Martinez, 1979. Screen shot from KQED performance of La Cantata de Santa Maria de Iquique.

Nina Serrano and Humberto Martinez, 1979. Screen shot from KQED performance of La Cantata de Santa Maria de Iquique.

When I returned to San Francisco, I met Argentine political refugee and theater artist Humberto Martinez. He came from Argentina during the years of the dirty war (1976-83) because of his association with the outlawed leftist Monteneros group. He was forced to flee to San Francisco after he had produced the Chilean miner’s strike story “La Cantata de Santa Maria de Iquique” in Argentina performed by a group of workers. We met through my association with a trio of impoverished Argentine refugees. They were avant-garde theater performers who I fed and housed briefly. They introduced me to Humberto while he was recreating La Cantata again here in the Bay Area. This time he was working with a group of local Chicano and Chilean immigrant cannery workers in a church in San Jose.  Unlike Llamas who created his scripts from the community to help solve their problems, Martinez worked from the recording of Quilapayún’s “La Cantata de Santa Maria de Iquique” to create the physical movements for the cannery workers performing La Cantata. In my work with Llamas and Martinez, the theatre proved to an effective way to mobilize people for change and help awaken them to  the world around them.

Jane Norling’s flyer announced a series of long ago classes that I remember with great satisfaction. In the days before the digital revolution, Latin American theater influences traveled with me in stacks of flyers I carried to post at cafes, laundromats, and other places where the flood of Latin American immigrants gathered as I went through my days. Those cluttered billboards kept me in tune with the local arts scene and helped recruit students and actors to appear on our KQED Open Studio productions by Community Theater Arts. They helped create today’s rich multicultural arts community here in the San Francisco Bay Area that is a lively part of the resistance movement and makes San Francisco a sanctuary city.

Jane Norling's Balmy Alley Mural depicting the 1980s Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign.

Jane Norling’s Balmy Alley Mural depicting the 1980s Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign.

For more information about Jane Norling’s work check out

About Nina Serrano: Nina is a well-known, international prize-winning inspirational author and poet. With a focus on Latino history and culture, she is also a playwright, filmmaker, KPFA talk show host, a former Alameda County Arts Commissioner, and a co-founder of the San Francisco Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. Oakland Magazine’s “best local poet” in 2010, she is a former director of the San Francisco Poetry in the Schools program and the Bay Area’s Storytellers in the Schools program. A Latina activist for social justice, women’s rights, and the arts, Nina Serrano at 82 remains vitally engaged in inspiring change and exploring her abundant creativity. For more information go to ninaserrano.comor contact her publisher at For more detailed information about Nina see About Nina on her website.

About Estuary Press: Estuary Press is the publisher of Nicaragua Way. It is also the home of the Harvey Richards Media Archive, a repository of photography and video documentaries of various social change and political movements during the 1960s and 1970s. Contact Paul Richards (510) 967 5577, or visit for more details.

MEDIA – For photos & interviews: Paul Richards (510) 967 5577;



Latin American Influences in San Francisco Theatre — 1 Comment

  1. What a great time. I learned a lot from doing these kind of performances and I got to show others what I went through in my home country and the rest of the world. And I loved that I got to work with a lot of people from different countries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.