Ploughing the sea

Children have fun with theater exercises directed by Maribel Acosta (background) in rehearsal at Sterett Hall.

On the stage of Sterett Hall Auditorium on the old Navy base, more than a dozen children are having fun. They share something in common: the Spanish language. And something else, too: they are mostly the children of first-generation immigrants.

Playwright and director Maribel Acosta has them rehearse a scene from "Menique" ("Pinkie" in English), which is about the 19th-century Cuban scholar and political activist Jose Marti, then leads them in some movement exercises.

"Hands up, out, back, leg up, step in, two steps out, circle round, stop ..."

Next up, the adults. They are rehearsing Acosta's "Aramos en el Mar?" (in English, "Shall We Plough Through the Sea?"), a play about the way communities are forged and the importance of celebrating differences while striving toward unity.

Ploughing the sea is futile, Acosta says in Spanish, translated by her friend and collaborator Lydia Cotton. It bears no fruit. One must be able to till the soil, to plant roots, to gather together and nourish the seeds and shoots and young green leaves.

And so it continues.

For local Hispanic immigrants, it started with a trickle: They came to a new place - from Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Cuba - usually because there were jobs to fill. Communities grew. Churches received new members from immigrant populations and small businesses popped up. Soon, children were born and schooled - the first generation of natural-born U.S. citizens.

The Latino population in the tri-county area has more than doubled, from about 15,650 in 2000 to 35,850 in 2010. The numbers appear to have remained relatively steady since then, according to 2013 census estimates. Statewide, the Latino population increased from about 95,000 in 2000 to 236,000 in 2010 - a 148 percent jump, the largest in the nation.

Marcela Rabens, of Peru, is a local businesswoman who co-operates a restaurant and runs a newspaper called Universal Latin News Charleston. She said most members of the Latino community are working class without a college education but that's starting to change.

Their children are seeking college degrees now, and some newer immigrants and Hispanic-Americans are drawn to the area because of professional opportunities. Their bilingual abilities make them especially marketable for teaching jobs and certain public safety or government positions, Rabens said.

They are part of the emerging Latino middle class.

Now, Acosta's project - the formation of a new cultural institution - indicates that the Latino community is settling in for the long haul.

She is starting Hispanic Theater Group, a Spanish-language company. Acosta left Cuba for Ecuador in 1991 after training in the visual arts and theater. During the first phase of her exile, she worked in theater, television and film. In 2009, the next phase began when she came to the U.S., first New Jersey, then Charleston. She is married to local percussionist Gino Castillo.

Myriam Torres, director of the Consortium for Latino Immigration Studies at the University of South Carolina, said activity in the arts - Columbia, too, has a Spanish-language theater group, La Tropa - likely is an indication that the Hispanic community has reached a critical mass.

"Many of us Latinos are involved in community affairs, we are involved in creative programs, and the same happens for those who are in the arts," Torres said. "They want to get the children involved. And the arts is a wonderful way to portray our culture, but also to educate American society about what we are about."

The arts are a way to share a cultural inheritance, she said.

In the Charleston area, Acosta has shown her paintings, raised her kids, danced to her husband's rhumba and salsa and begun to turn her attention to the stage.

In the spring, she directed her own adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince," called "Espacio Hispanico" ("Hispanic Place") for the North Charleston Arts Festival, its first-ever Spanish-language event. It went well, Acosta says. So well, in fact, it inspired her to forge ahead, convinced the Latino community was ready for more.

Now she is giving them more.

"The children's show "Pinkie" will be presented at 7 p.m. Dec. 15 at Sterett Hall; "Shall We Plough Through the Sea?" will be staged at 7 p.m. Dec. 19 in the same location.

Marty Besancon, director of the Cultural Arts Department, says Acosta's "Little Prince" adaptation was a turning point.

"It was very well received, well attended," Besancon says. "Out of that came the desire to do more theater, so we've taken it up a notch to support them in the efforts they're doing. It's a young initiative, but something that has really taken root."

For Besancon and her Cultural Arts Department team, the prospect of a Spanish-language theater company is exciting.

"Art is everywhere, and cultures are preserved through the arts," she says. "This is the first time we have seen a new group emerging or developing. Other groups that are here have been here for a long time - many, many years."

Mendoza says Acosta is sensitive to public perceptions of the Latino community and knows they are not always complimentary.

"I think this is a huge motivation for her," he says. "Nobody talks about the good things or complicated things. Everyone points to the negative things. For her it's all about showing that there is a lot of positive in the community, and there is a need to communicate the value of Hispanic culture to the new community."

Acosta says the experience is a little like therapy, a way to relieve stress, express anxieties and learn about oneself. "And they know they are doing something that can have an impact," she says.

It's also fun, and the participants are happy. Two had former theater experience but couldn't pursue their interests when circumstances got in the way. Others are discovering new talents.

If all goes as planned, Acosta's theater experiment will encourage cohesion and commonality while at the same time celebrating the inherent cultural differences within the Latino community.

"If we don't find something in common first, we can't express our differences," she says. "We have to unite to have a voice that can be heard."

At Sterett Hall two weeks ago, Carolina Holsapple and her daughter Abigail seemed to be in their element. She was active in the theater in her native city of Mendoza.

Holsapple says the adult play is asking an important question.

"We're here, we're a community and we're growing," she says. "Do we have to hurt one another?"

Iris Lopez, of Chiapas, Mexico, has brought her young daughter Mia Guadamuz to the auditorium so Mia can join the children on stage. Lopez, who has been in the U.S. for a decade, says her daughter speaks only English in school. The Spanish-language theater offers a way to keep Mia connected to her heritage.

Tanya Altagracia, of Puerto Rico, is the volunteer assistant director. She says a theater initiative like this is overdue - there is a lot in Latino culture worth exploring and celebrating.

"What people hear is what we need, but we have a lot to give as well," she says.

Mendoza says Acosta is helping to add a new cultural layer to a city with a rich and dynamic heritage.

"The beauty is that she's mixing values of Spanish culture and the everyday things Charleston has to offer," he says. "She happens to be in a place with a lot of magic and cultural tradition. She fell in love with the city and she's a part of it, and that's a good thing."

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