Roberta Martinez may be best known in Pasadena as an activist who helped create the city’s Latino Heritage Parade and Festival. But along with that distinction, Martinez has also come to be regarded as one of the top scholars exploring the history of the city’s Latino community. She’s also served as a teacher at St. Mark’s Episcopal Day School in Altadena, and has extensive experience as a musician in everything from Gregorian chant and gospel to pop rock.
But her latest endeavor might be her most surprising, with Martinez making her professional acting debut onstage this weekend at the Casa 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights as part of the audience-immersive historical play “Remembering Boyle Heights.” Playing several roles in the incredibly diverse cast, Martinez is showing that her zest for new experiences knows no bounds.
“I was a music major as an undergrad, so performing is something I’ve been doing a long time,” Martinez explains in a recent interview. “And a gazillion years ago when I was first going to college, I was in a production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and played the old grandma.
“I’ve been taking a playwriting class at CASA 0101 and the fellow who takes the lead in casting calls has been sending things out and I’ve been forwarding them,” she continues. “He’s appreciative of those who help cast the net as wide as possible. They said they were doing ‘Remembering Boyle Heights’ and were looking for a variety of racial and ethnic actors and skill sets with music, and the age range was 25 through 50. I said ‘Too bad I’m out of the range,’ and he said to ignore the range and said if I’m interested audition and let’s go.’”
In the show, written by acclaimed playwright and CASA 0101 founder Josefina Lopez, Martinez plays several named and unnamed characters, including Emilia Castaneda, a woman whose family had lived in Boyle Heights yet was deported to Mexico. The play also deals with gentrification and the history of the unique mix of people who have lived in the enclave, including Russians, African-Americans and Sikhs.
“This show was inspired by many things — the gentrification debate in Boyle Heights, a documentary called ‘Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto’ about Jewish history in Boyle Heights produced by the Jewish Historical Society, and an altar making workshop with Ofelia Esparza, a community artisan and activist, who made me aware of how the stories of our community are what make the land sacred,” Lopez said in an email. “In her workshop, [Esparza] made us create the sounds of our childhood memories. All the participants made the sounds and noises at the same time and we recreated our experience of Boyle Heights and I was so moved I cried and it was then that I realized the real threat of gentrification is the erasure of our stories in our community and also the immigrant histories that needed to be documented and celebrated before they disappeared.
“I was then inspired to write a play about it giving voice to Boyle Heights residents fighting gentrification,” adds Lopez. “We presented a workshop production which was the predecessor of this play and had community forums. The community forums inspired me to start the Boyle Heights Museum and to write this play so that people in our community and others who care about our community will have historical context to understand why our community is fighting gentrification and why we must all preserve Boyle Heights’s amazing history.”
As a historian who has given countless talks on Pasadena’s Latino community, and author of “Latinos in Pasadena,” Martinez immediately related to the mission Lopez had created for herself.
“Boyle Heights was the Southern California version of Ellis Island, to the point we have one vignette in which Tagalog, Japanese, Yiddish, Spanish and English are all spoken, but they’re set up in a way that people will still understand very easily what’s going on,” Martinez explains. “All of these languages have to do with the use of parents who’ve immigrated and what kind of conflicts and barriers exist regarding language identity. It’s something that almost every group has dealt with, and one of the presentations I do is on the immigration of Swedish immigrants to the United States and Pasadena.”
Martinez was born and raised in East Los Angeles. Her father was an LA native, her mom a Colorado transplant and her grandparents hailing from four different states in Mexico. Her eclectic life experiences come together as the host and producer of more than 200 episodes of the cable access show, “Casa Martinez — Musica y Mas,” on Pasadena Media Channel 32.
“Remembering Boyle Heights” starts each performance with a 15-minute pre-show segment that results in the audience surrounded by the cast when the performance actually begins. The actors share an eclectic array of concerns, perceptions and ideas regarding gentrification in Boyle Heights, yet the issues involved are also going on across the Los Angeles area, including Pasadena.
“The questions we ask include who are the developers, what do they want, who’s being tossed out and what’s happening to the character of a community if people here a long time are forced to leave?” says Martinez. “There’s no clear resolution because there is none, but all of these are highlighted as the first part of the show.”
Concurrently with the run of “Remembering Boyle Heights,” the Boyle Heights Museum will display an exhibit titled “Roybal: A Multi-Racial Catalyst for Democracy,” a tribute to Ed Roybal, who served as a member of the Los Angeles City Council for 13 years and of the US House of Representatives for 30 years, The exhibit will be on display from Sunday through Feb. 3 in the Jean Deleage Gallery, located in the lobby of CASA 0101 Theater.
The Boyle Heights Museum was co-founded by López and Dr. George J. Sanchez, a USC professor of history and American studies, with the exhibit co-curated by Sanchez and Jimmy Centeno.
Lopez notes that the focus on Roybal stems from the fact that his story impacts the gentrification debate “because he challenged the housing covenants that prevented him personally from buying a house in his own district because he was Mexican-American. He also represents the story of how multiculturalism in Boyle Heights became a catalyst for Democracy through unity, and his story is an American Dream that came true.”
It’s clear that Lopez has also become a major fan of Martinez, finding her a valuable asset to the cast.
“It’s been so wonderful working with Roberta, because she adds an earthiness and credibility to our show as a historian,” says Lopez, who is also overseeing a long-running fundraising effort to save CASA 0101 from closure amid the rising cost of rent in Boyle Heights. “She’s a matriarch figure that anchors our production and ends the show with a beautiful tribute to Ofelia Esparza when she plays Tonantzin,” a character in the play. “We needed someone like her in our production to represent the Mexican-American/Chicana experience and I’m so glad she was able to play the many roles in our show.”
Ultimately, the show represents another facet in Martinez’s driving quest to keep history alive and vibrant in the hopes that all types of people will seek to learn the truth about the past and present in areas like Boyle Heights.
“History is fascinating if presented the right way, but can be deadly if it’s just dates,” says Martinez. “If it’s not about the people, but just dates, it’s not alive. ‘Hamilton’ is a musical that includes policy and procedure as part of the lyrics, and people love it presented in such a personal way. So with this show, I’ve been really, really lucky. I really truly, truly have.”
“Remembering Boyle Heights” runs through Dec. 16 at CASA 0101, 2102 E. 1st St., Los Angeles. Show times are 7:45 pm Fridays and Saturdays, and 4:45 pm Sundays. Tickets are $15 to $20. Call (323) 263-7684 or visit casa0101.org.