It has been 15 years since the Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble took its first breath. Despite a few inactive years and vast changes within its membership, the Santa Ana-based theater ensemble, which was founded to support the work and enrich the lives of Latinas, recently celebrated its quinceañera in good health and with ambitious plans for the future.
Voice of OC talked recently with Breath of Fire founder Sara Guerrero about the group’s origins, its challenges and what’s to come.
Voice of OC: Tell us a little bit about your upbringing and early influences.
Sara Guerrero: I started in Anaheim but ended up in Santa Ana. It was my home growing up, and it still is. Now I’m raising my family there. When I was a kid, my mom used to take me to HPP (South Coast Repertory’s Hispanic Playwrights Project, which highlighted the work of Hispanic playwrights). I recognized the stories and the people that I saw in those plays.
VOC: You pursued acting from a young age. What was it like when you started out more than two decades ago?
Guerrero: When I started out as an actor I came across a lot of obstacles as far as how people saw an actor like myself and what kinds of roles I could play. I came across a lot of stereotyping and didn’t see many roles that were reflective of the people and culture that I knew. I didn’t like it as an actor: going to auditions in L.A. and having conversations with directors and heads of theater companies, knowing that there was something missing, something not quite right in their approach to casting me and people like me. Eventually, I found myself wanting to found a theater company of my own.
VOC: Did you have any background in running a theater?
Guerrero: (Playwright) Jose Cruz Gonzalez had a theater group at Santa Ana College that concentrated on Latino work, and I was also involved with another group called Teatro Ingenie. Gradually, as I worked (as an actor and director), people reached out to me to help them cast or direct plays that related to the Latino community.
VOC: What was the experience of running your own company like?
Guerrero: I didn’t necessarily want to do it, not all of it. I had worked with several small not-for-profit companies by that point, and I learned from them that (running a non-profit group) is a hands-on experience: building a set, selling tickets, all of those things. But still, to put something together that represented my community seemed natural to me at that point.
VOC: Where did the inspiration for your company come from?
Guerrero: A group of us were at a Latina businesswomen’s luncheon in Santa Ana in 2003. Rosie Espinosa, the mayor of La Habra, told a great story. She said, “I wanted a safe place for the kids in my neighborhood to play so I opened up my garage. It was a nice gesture, but it opened up a whole can of worms for me.” She understood that many women needed her impromptu service – moms, grandmothers, people wondering how to support their family or take care of someone while they held down a job. I thought, “Why not start a theater company for women of color, especially Chicanas?
VOC: Where did the name “Breath of Fire” come from?
Guerrero: We wanted elements that were alive and dynamic. The air gives us life. Fire is what excites us. In Spanish, though, you have to be careful with the translation. It can mean “bad breath.”
VOC: Was there a turning point where everything started to work for you?
Guerrero: Yes. In 2005 or so we were allied with El Centro Cultural de Mexico. Through one of their board members, we made contact with the Orange County Mexican-American Historical Society. It no longer exists, sadly, but at that time it had put together many stories about the early Mexican-American population in Orange County. When I read them I thought, “These are really good. Why aren’t they on stage or screen or TV?” It turned into this idea. So with the help of El Centro, we gathered 35 stories about Mexican-Americans in Orange County, covering a big period from the early 1800s to the present.
VOC: What was that play called?
Guerrero: “Mexican OC: Triumphs and Contributions of Orange County’s Mexican American Community.” It was recognized by a California Council for the Humanities Story Fund. It really helped put Breath of Fire on the map. It was the turning point for us. The following year it was picked up by Chapman University. KPFK-FM transformed it into a radio play. It became part of a Lincoln Center program hosted by South Coast Repertory.
VOC: Your company has weathered some challenges and seems newly energized. How have things changed recently?
Guerrero: I’ve always believed we had a purpose. What’s happening now (in the country) validates it. Our work has always been purposeful. People reach out to me more now to volunteer their time. I don’t do this to make a lot of money. But I honestly don’t know what else to do. It means so much to me. I really believe in the work. I believe in stories that are important and should be shared, and this is the place that I can do that.
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].