Bilingual theater program in suburban high school embraces growing Latino community, presents world premiere

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The auditorium — full of high school students — remained silent while Daniela Castro acted out the part of a play where a young girl attempts to cross the border from Tijuana, Mexico, without authorization to reunite with her mother in Chicago by putting herself in a suitcase.

It’s a story of immigration that many students and their families at Leyden High Schools in Northlake can identify with, said Victor Pilolla, the district’s longtime theater productions manager and technical director.

Castro was a part of the cast of the latest production of Teatro Leyden, the award-winning dual-language program in District 212, which provides versions of the same plays in English and Spanish in separate performances.

This latest one is special, Pilolla said. Leyden commissioned a play written by Chicago playwright Nancy Garcia Loza, with student input, in 2019. Last weekend it offered the world premiere of the play, “Wave: Las Olas Van y Vienen.”

The play tells the story of a young girl named Dahlia who lives in Tijuana, near the border, waiting to head north to reunite with her mother in Chicago. It portrays the feeling of “stuck-ness” between borders and the separation of families that is often stigmatized, Loza said.

The subject matter resonates with an increasingly Latino student body. Latinos are more than 80% of students at West Leyden High School and more than 55% at East Leyden — a number that has doubled over the last 10 years, according to school officials.

Teatro Leyden has allowed more students to feel heard and included. It has also opened wider the doors to the arts, which had been predominantly a white and English-dominant space, said the director, Frank Bavone.

Pilolla, who will be retiring this year, began his career in District 212 in 1984, when “you couldn’t find a Latino person here,” he said.

Teatro Leyden was created seven years ago when Pilolla and several other theater directors in the district realized that the demographics in the schools were changing and many students were discouraged from participating in theater because they did not feel comfortable performing in English.

Recognizing the importance of the life skills built both onstage and behind the scenes, Pilolla and other faculty fostered the program, which has since put up more than five plays in English and in Spanish.

“We realized that there was a huge underserved population at Leyden. All the kids who spoke Spanish and did not speak English good enough did not think they could be in a play,” said Pilolla.

He recalls casting a student who had just arrived from Colombia a week before auditions for the main role of the first play they put together: “She was a fabulous actor, could not speak a word of English.”

Four years later, the superintendent highlighted her story, he said.

Beyond providing the students with “invaluable and transferable” life skills, the program fosters inclusivity and diversity in the school by normalizing and encouraging bilingualism, Pilolla said.

While Spanish-speaking students get a chance to be a part of the theater program, English-dominant students also practice their Spanish by participating in the dual-language productions.

In 2018, the district won the Magna Award for the program. The national recognition came with grant money that allowed them to commission the play by Loza.

Like many of the students at Leyden, Loza is a daughter of Mexican immigrants and shares the experiences of navigating the theater world where, she said, more than often “our stories aren’t told.”

Loza said she wanted to write a piece that resonated with the student body but also made an impact on those who are foreign to the immigration experience.

“This is a story that the students can own; these are things we go through, these are stories we talk about in our kitchen at home, but that so deeply affect us,” Loza said. She called “Wave” “a protest piece.”

Christian Jimenez-Garcia, a senior at West Leyden, began working on his role three years ago; he plays the same character in both versions of the play.

For him, the play is like “looking into a mirror,” he said.

Jimenez-Garcia said he was brought to the United States when he was 2 after his mother followed his father north.

Oliver Prus, a junior at West Leyden, said the play helps viewers understand that while people don’t all come from the same countries, the sentiment is the same for all immigrants.

“I understand the pain of not seeing family, since most of my family is in Europe — its feels lonely,” Prus said.

Loza, who was a student at Joliet West High School almost 25 years ago, recalls thinking that there was no place for her as a writer there. She commended Teatro Leyden.

Director of curriculum and instruction Michael Manderino said the district is committed to celebrating the diversity and multilingualism of the schools.

“We want to create opportunities for students to develop their linguistic abilities in all of the languages; it’s a gift, it’s an asset,” Manderino said.