Cornerstone Theater Company


Café Vida: The Healing and Transformative Power of the Arts

“The biggest change that I see is them owning their voice and they are speaking from a place with more confidence…Their vision of their life has expanded by being part of a community outside of Homeboy [Industries] and becoming part of another family [Cornerstone Theater Company] with a direct mission has really helped them become agents of transformation.”— Shirley Torres, Homeboy Industries

In these past months, I have been privileged and inspired to witness the transformation of the community actors through the production of Café Vida. I am reminded once again that the arts are an important avenue wherein healing and growth can occur, as well as lead to the building of engaged community[-ies]. When one experiences the stories unfold in Café Vida, one is witnessing the power of stories to bridge so called “differences,” because in the end we as human beings are all linked in our daily life struggles. Our voice[s] are tools that truly help us liberate and humanize the world in which we live—more specifically the City of Angels we call “home.” The arts are the perfect tool to tap into that transformative power of change and social justice.

I wanted to discuss some of these ideas with my friend Shirley Torres, who is the Director of Curriculum and Training at Homeboy Industries. Shirley has worked there for over 8 years and I first met her when I walked through the doors to volunteer teach in 2005. The model that is created at Homeboy is one of a “therapeutic community” where as she relates, begins at this most basic level: “How do we find safe learning spaces for people to first of all connect to their story because we know that is what healing is about. Who am I really at the core? And who am I struggling to become?”  The classes that are offered are about helping people connect to “their story” and include academic ones, personal growth and skill(s) building, as well as the arts (poetry, acting, music, yoga, etc.). It is an environment that offers these men and women unconditional love and support without judgment. Shirley further explains the significance of the  “Homeboy Industries” title:

“The word “home” is in it. And this place stands as a home for men and women walking through the door. It’s a safe place for people who never had a home. And that’s why I love it. It conveys a message that we are trying to engage…when people leave here, not only are they members of society, but they are spreading the message. This place is about the roads that Homeboys and Homegirls are navigating and it’s about life and death. Every day they come here, they are choosing life. We are here to witness that and we are privileged that they want to share their stories with us.”

We talked about some of the changes she has witnessed in the community actors through their participation in Café Vida. One of the most visible differences she has seen is “finding their voice.” She mentioned that when she first saw some of them walk into her office, they could barely look her in the eyes or share their stories. Then when they were cast in the play, some of them doubted that they could learn their lines or act, but through the program that Cornerstone Theater created, they transformed into more confident people. They are also learning to build kinship with other people who are outside of their “comfort zone”—like the people at Cornerstone Theater Company—and Shirley states this helps them see “possibility in their future.”  A wonderful outcome is that some of the community actors realized they wanted to pursue careers in the arts:

“An awakening is happening…you see them believe that a dream is possible. That is what Cornerstone has done for them.”

Café Vida not only allows viewers a humanizing look into the lives of people trying to change their lives, but the play allows the community actors a chance to connect to their wounds and find hope and healing in the process. Shirley believes that “on the stage you do not have to hide the wounds, the themes are real of the play. People sometimes believe that transformation is a straight line. That recovery is a straight line. Everything is about rupture and repair and that is how we grow as human beings … the resiliency to get up and move forward with courage. It is important that people see that and not judge the fall.”

One of the biggest lessons I learned through my observations of the process of Café Vida being brought to the LATC stage is that we all are on our own journeys, not only as individuals, but as communities. The Arts provide the perfect medium to feel those human connections and allow for growth and transformation. I am inspired by all of the people involved with Café Vida and I am more firmly committed to believe that not only change is possible, but forgiveness of self and others.  As my friend, the writer Luis J. Rodriguez always espouses, “The arts have consistently proven to be the most effective means to lift the most desolate areas, bring together fractured communities, and transform lives, especially those in the grips of violence. Through dance, theater, media, writing, and music, whole communities, in particular youth, connect to the inexhaustible possibilities that exist in their immense capacity to be creative.”

It is the healing and transformative power of the arts that viewers witnessed each night on that stage. Café Vida embraces the fact that each day when we choose LIFE, the power of the human experience is realized, as we connect to our own wounds and as well those of others …. and find HOPE.

Denise Sandoval is professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge.