Alumni Profile / 1995: Tlaloc Rivas: Opening doors through theater

Tlaloc Rivas
Tlaloc Rivas

The 2007 story of Johanna Orozco haunted director/playwright Tlaloc Rivas for more than six years.

The 18-year-old Orozco, an orphan raised by her grandparents in a tough part of Cleveland, Ohio, had been shot in the face by an abusive ex-boyfriend. She survived months of surgery and grueling rehabilitation, then went on to inspire a change in Ohio law that gave more protections to teens in abusive relationships.

"Her story coincided with my desire to upgrade the narrative of Latinos in the U.S.," said Rivas, a professional director and playwright and an assistant professor of theater at the University of Iowa. "The current narrative in pop culture, the media, and Hollywood is that we are only represented by what we do in society. We are only recognized as people who pick the crops or clean houses or cook in the kitchens or do your landscaping. We are much more than that in this country."

In May, Rivas (Stevenson '95, theater arts) directed his original play based on Orozco's life, Johanna: Facing Forward for Cleveland Public Theater—a proud moment that has taken him from Watsonville High School to UC Santa Cruz and finally to his role as a prominent voice in the world of Latino/Latina theater.

"In my career, I have had one foot in the classical world, but also a foot in social activism and in theater that changes minds and hearts—one that creates a dialogue between art and the audience," Rivas said in a telephone interview from his part-time home in Iowa City, Iowa. He also lives in Pittsburgh where his wife, Megan Rivas, teaches at Carnegie Mellon University.

Rivas's interest in social activism runs deep. His father, a school counselor, not only served as mayor of the farming town of Watsonville but he also founded a night school for migrant workers in Vista, California. His mother went back to school to become a nurse.

Rivas planned to study history and political science in college, but an acting class at Cabrillo College resulted in the discovery of his true passion. After an internship with El Teatro Campesino, Rivas and three other students went on to found Chicano Theatreworks, which continues to stage plays today.

Still, it wasn't until his senior year at UC Santa Cruz that Rivas was able to overcome doubts about his life's calling.

"I chose to direct a play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa by Luis Valdez," Rivas recalled. Inspired by UC Santa Cruz Professor of Theater Arts Kathy Foley's work with Southeast Asia theater, he added an element of Bunraku, traditional Japanese puppet theater, to his production. He won numerous awards for his work.

"If I hadn't gotten that validation," he said, "I'm not sure I would have considered pursuing the craft."

Besides teaching, Rivas's theater work takes him around the country. His work has been seen in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and other venues. In September he was set to direct the original play In Love and Warcraft for the Halcyon Theatre Company in Chicago, and in 2016 he will direct Prospect by his friend Octavio Solis for the Boundless Theatre Company in New York.

But even as society becomes more diverse, Rivas said, the theater world, especially major companies, is only beginning to make room for Latinos and Latinas.

He is determined to change that.

"I want to be able to make an impact for others," he said. "I want to be able to update the narratives of where I came from, my culture, my background, and to advocate for others.

"I want to open doors."