Canto de Anaheim Presents a More Truthful Look at a City’s History

Photo courtesy Pacific Symphony

The ghosts are back in Sara Guerrero’s home. It’s not like she didn’t appreciate them. She may never have finished Canto de Anaheim without them. But when the play opened Aug. 31 in the title city’s Pearson Park, they went silent, apparently no longer interested in haranguing her about honestly telling their stories.

But as the second one-night performance approaches, and though she felt the play worked the first time, the director, playwright and co-founder of the Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble recognizes every venue and audience is different. And since those ghosts are actually the relentlessly self-critical parts of anyone entrusted with the task, responsibility and honor of sharing the tales of those denied the opportunity, there’s a lot of noise in her head right now.

“There are a lot of people [involved with the production] to help me address the issue of whether what [was written] is authentic, if I’m doing it right,” Guerrero says. “But metaphorically, it felt like I had ghosts in my house every day, making sure that my telling their stories to other people was authentic and genuine. The day after the [first] show, it was finally quiet. But every time I revisit a scene, they’re back—just for a little bit.”

The voices of those who helped build the city that to this day largely neglects their contributions aren’t the only thing on Guerrero’s mind. There are the descendents of the people portrayed in the play’s 10 vignettes, such as the 30 family members of remarkable community activist Gloria Lopez who attended the August production. She has a cast to shepherd, a running crew to get in synch, city and school district officials to deal with, and then there are the 12 to 16 members of the Pacific Symphony, one of her partners, who perform classical pieces by Mexican composers. And their conductor, Greg Flores. And a mariachi band. And a guitarist. And, perhaps the loudest voice of all, there’s the prolific journalist, historian, foodie, former OC Weekly editor and current LA Times features writer Gustavo Arellano, whose idea all of this was in the first place.

Arellano was hit up by the symphony about a grant it received to create a project that would bring classical music into a local community. An Anaheim native who wrote numerous stories about Orange County history for the Weekly, Arellano was happy to recommend people the group could talk to but also threw out an idea: an outdoor, classical-music concert in Anaheim, each composition paired with one of 10 figures from the city’s history.

Photo courtesy Pacific Symphony

“They said they liked the idea, and I thought, ‘Great! I’ll just write some monologues,’” Arellano recalls. “But then they said they were bringing Sara to do a play scored by classical music. And then they [said], ‘Why do Bach or Beethoven? Why not do compositions by Mexican composers?’ So now [Greg Flores] is involved, transcribing that music, and it just kind of took on a life of its own. I did the legwork, but everybody did their part.”

Arellano, now the narrator of the show, supplied a timeline of Anaheim history, highlighting notable events involving Mexican Americans, much of it infused by stories he had written for the Weekly, including those on the citrus strike of 1936 and Orange County’s first documentarian, corrido composer Emiliano Martinez. Guerrero used that timeline to select the 10 vignettes.

The result blends oral and journalistic history, original dialogue, a fourth wall-breaking narrator, mariachi, and original (even a dash of punk) and classical music that doesn’t underscore so much as stop the narrative flow as each piece is introduced in its historical context. But all of it reinforces a narrative throughline of people standing together to get shit done; although marginalized and maligned for much of Anaheim’s history, the contributions of Mexican Americans make Mouse Town far more Brown Town. It’s a decidedly more truthful, historically based Our Town. 

“This is a play about people who care about Anaheim, the past, present and future,” Arellano says. “It’s Latino history, but it’s also Anaheim’s history. It belongs to everybody.”

Photo courtesy Pacific Symphony

That it might. But of the four names on the program’s cover, only one has two titles: Guerrero’s. And she said that serving the stories of others as writer, as well as serving the play as director, remains a formidable challenge. “There were a lot of spinning plates and dealing with all that and trying to get my cast to places of vulnerability and having to make so many decisions so quickly . . . Well, let’s say I was a faucet of emotion,” she says. “It was nerve-racking, but also exciting and culminated in something wonderful. I’m excited about the next performance.”

Canto de Anaheim at Anaheim High School, 811 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim; Sat., 7 p.m. Free, but seats are first-come, first-served.

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