Alameda Theatre: Culture, Colours and Militancy in San Agustín

VA's Ricardo Vaz visited the Alameda Theatre and talked to Reinaldo Mijares about its history and the role it plays in San Agustín.

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Freshly painted murals by Pablo Kalaka on the theatre's façade.
Freshly painted murals by Pablo Kalaka on the theatre's façade.
By Ricardo Vaz - Venezuelanalysis.com
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The Alameda Theatre (Teatro Alameda) is located at the entrance of San Agustín del Sur, a barrio with Afro-descendant roots that exudes culture, a stone’s throw away from the center of Caracas. The theatre had its heyday decades ago, was later abandoned and then recovered by the community in 2004 to become a space for the different cultural and artistic expressions of San Agustín.

After a voluntary work day to paint the theatre on the inside, in preparation for the International Theatre Festival (held in Caracas from April 12-19), VA talked to Reinaldo Mijares, director of Alameda since 2013. Born and raised in San Agustín, but with roots in Barlovento [Afro-descendant area in Miranda State, on the Caribbean coast], Reinaldo has dedicated his life to contemporary dance, taking part in different groupings before founding his own, called Mudanza, 22 years ago.

“Dance has been my way of life for the past 35 years, I have lived it and lived with it,” he told us in his small office, full of event posters, cleaning materials, paint, papers and even the CLAP food bag that had just arrived.

Another “way of life” has been community work, especially in San Agustín and with particular focus in the cultural realm. Reinaldo, who leads the Alameda Theatre along with a small team, takes us on a journey through the theatre’s history, its abandonment and recovery, its role in the neighbourhood and ongoing projects. We also talk about the importance of artists in the current scenario and, inevitably, about Chávez.

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Reinaldo Mijares talking to state TV channel VTV ahead of the Caracas Theatre Festival. (Ricardo Vaz)
Reinaldo Mijares talking to state TV channel VTV ahead of the Caracas Theatre Festival. (Ricardo Vaz)

Recovering the theatre

Founded in 1943, the Alameda Theatre played a prominent role in the 1940s and ‘50s since the El Conde neighbourhood, next to San Agustín del Sur, was Caracas’ middle class area at the time. Many important artists from the Latin American scene, like Benny Moré or Toña La Negra, famously played in the Alameda Theatre.

The theatre worked until the mid-1960s, in the end purely as a cinema, until it was closed and abandoned. It disappeared as a theatre and ended up as a large warehouse where they made and repaired armchairs for the Radonski Circuit of Cines Unidos [a private film distribution chain belonging to one of Venezuela’s most powerful families].

“But we in San Agustín had our imagination nourished by the stories of the Alameda Theatre,” Reinaldo explained. “We always dreamt of taking it back, to have a home for the different artistic expressions we find in this neighbourhood.”

The occupation did not happen until 2004, after a citizens’ assembly. Reinaldo pointed out that it was important to do it with Chávez in power, since before that a repressive response from authorities was all but guaranteed. Nevertheless, the Caracas mayor at the time, Alfredo Peña, did send the Metropolitan Police to suppress the occupation. Only a large mobilization in support, and finally a phone call from the government, managed to get the police to withdraw.

The space was taken, and then with voluntary work from the community the Alameda Cultural House (Casa Cultural Alameda) was created. Two years of effort resulted in a dancing ballroom with a wooden floor, and then later a music hall and a large ballroom were set up where all sorts of activities took place: from a joropo tuyero traditional party to meetings of the Barrio Adentro [healthcare mission], which was starting at the time, from theatre plays to neighbours’ meetings about communal councils.

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The Alameda Theatre was recovered in 2004 and put back on its feet by militant work. (Ricardo Vaz)
The Alameda Theatre was recovered in 2004 and put back on its feet by militant work. (Ricardo Vaz)

The modus operandi of the cultural house then had a major leap in 2013, Reinaldo told us. President Maduro, during one of the so-called “neighbourhood government” events (gobiernos de calle), in La Ceiba cultural centre (high part of San Agustín), asked the Libertador municipality mayor, Jorge Rodríguez, and the capital district chief, Jacqueline Farías, that they restore the Alameda Theatre.

“We got wind of the idea to restore the Alameda Theatre on television,” said Reinaldo laughing. “It made us very happy but it also put us on the defensive, in the sense that we demanded that this space continue to be handled by the community, by the organized popular power in San Agustín.”

In the end this was not an issue as the municipality valued the fact that the theatre was run by the community. The co-management relationship with Fundarte, the cultural branch of city council, lasts to this day.

Nowadays the theatre has a diverse cultural program, as well as education for over 150 children in many different areas: dance, theatre, cuatro [traditional Venezuelan 4-string guitar], drums, etc. Nevertheless, Reinaldo stressed that the decisions concerning education and cultural programmes are still made by the community, through the San Agustín Cultural Office, of which the Alameda Theatre is part, and then communicated to Fundarte.

“There is a high level of autonomy, which allows us to continue running the theatre like we think it should be done. Furthermore we have shown that we can run a theatre and keep it in the best possible conditions, while the San Agustín community has also come to learn how to use its theatre,” he explained, adding that the theatre is looking to generate some resources in order to buy cleaning supplies or make small repairs, while large scale works would still require support from the mayor’s office.

Overflowing with colours

“The Alameda Theatre is not a pretty little island, we embrace our role in this barrio.” That is how Reinaldo puts it when talking about projects beyond the theatre’s four walls.

The Alameda Theatre is part of the San Agustín Cultural Office, where multiple cultural, artistic and educational organisations from the neighbourhood take part. That is where cultural projects are planned, and they are then implemented in coordination with other popular organisations such as communal councils. One such example is the “San Agustín Cumbe Tour,” a touristic route through the barrio filled with music, dancing, joy and typical food.

Another interesting project was called “Marín, Guaguancó of Colours,” a project to recover the Afinque de Marín Plaza, just behind the Alameda Theatre . This was a very important space in the 1980s, as important Latin and Caribbean artists (salsa in particular) would play a free concert in the Afinque de Marín the day after they played Caracas’ Poliedro concert hall.

“People from everywhere would hear about it and come to enjoy the concerts,” Reinaldo explained. “In a way that has left a mark on the barrio, its “personality.” I think San Agustín loves to host, it is a barrio that is used to having people over, greeting them with open arms. And if you’re not careful, they will hug you!”

When the Alameda Theatre was restored a mural that was painted in honour of 11 members of Grupo Madera who died in an accident in the Orinoco River needed to be taken down. Like the theatre, it was in very poor condition and needed to be removed, but within months the community and the relatives of those musicians demanded that the mural be painted again.

In the meetings to discuss re-painting this mural, Reinaldo proposed going further and recovering the plaza as a space for culture. That is how the project “Marín, Guaguancó of Colours” was born in 2016.

“A project of pure militancy and voluntary work,” Reinaldo affirmed, proudly. Different muralist collectives joined forces to paint 16 murals, full of colours and rhythms. “I think the barrio really benefitted, people were really happy with all the colours on display, it is a beauty that improves everyday life,” he added.

The plan now is to go one step further, with a project of participatory architecture where the community discusses how it imagines its own spaces, in order to have the plaza become a “plaza” once more. This involves making a boulevard and shutting off access to cars, setting up an open air bar/café, creating spaces for sports and recreation, and painting new murals.

But Reinaldo stresses that there is no need to wait for everything to be ready before starting to “plant the idea” of what is destined for these spaces around the Alameda Theatre. In that sense, concerts/rehearsals have started to be held, in a relaxed environment, with minimal production. So far there have been performances by artists such as SurConciente, José Alejandro Delgado or the Grupo Madera itself, with a lineup featuring some survivors from the Orinoco accident and new members.

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Mural dedicated to Grupo Madera behind the Alameda Theatre. (Ricardo Vaz)
Mural dedicated to Grupo Madera behind the Alameda Theatre. (Ricardo Vaz)

Art as a tool for the transformation of society

When asked about the role of art in a process such as the Bolivarian one, Reinaldo has no doubts.

“Art should walk side by side with the kind of society we have and the one we want to build. It cannot be like the angels, out of reach and asexual. All art is a political act, even when it does not want to say anything that is a political position. And we need an original, militant art, even if not necessarily pamphletary,” he explained.

And amid an ongoing coup attempt and the simmering threat of a foreign military invasion, art cannot avoid being a “political” act. As Reinaldo underscores, there is a multitude of artists from different areas that have gone out to the streets and dedicated their creations to peace. One example has been the song “La Paz Es Ya,” (The Time for Peace is Now) by José Alejandro Delgado and several other musicians.

This perspective of an art that is part and parcel of the struggle for a better society is not new in San Agustín, Reinaldo insists, adding that, going back to the ‘70s, people in the barrio understood that art and culture were tools to transform society. That is when musical outfits with clear leftist tendencies appeared, as well as people teaching music, dance, theatre with a seed of political vision that was clearly on the left, one of participation and transformation.

“Somehow the barrio saw itself, and started to believe in itself as a cultural barrio, a musical barrio, and around music an identity and a banner of struggle was raised,” he sums up.

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The Alameda Theatre has been hosting open air concerts with minimal production. Here José Alejandro Delgado sings alongside members from Grupo Madera. (Ricardo Vaz)
The Alameda Theatre has been hosting open air concerts with minimal production. Here José Alejandro Delgado sings alongside members from Grupo Madera. (Ricardo Vaz)

To connect this seed of a political vision and the current vision of culture being run by organized communities there is an obvious question: where does Chávez come in? Reinaldo is adamant:

Chávez raised the banners of the left and of socialism which were disappearing all over the world. Cultural movements were not immune to that. Chávez was the spark that lit up our vision and made us believe once more in transforming the country from the left.

When discussing the current moment of the Bolivarian Revolution, Reinaldo begins by recalling the political evolution of Chávez himself, who arrived in power with a timid Third Way position before declaring himself anti-imperialist and socialist.

“Today we are in this dialectic of construction. We believe in the need for self-government, we believe that the people, the popular organisations, will make the revolution. Amidst all that there is an allied government, but it is a dialectic process,” he explained.

Reinaldo stressed that the current crisis should be a turning point for the government, an opportunity to correct shortcomings such as corruption and inefficiency, and get rid of the factors that do not believe, or have raised obstacles to the construction of popular power. But he insisted that it is also an opportunity for popular movements, something which has been the subject of discussion in San Agustín.

“We have concluded that in a way we have also relaxed, grown comfortable with the support we have had from the Bolivarian government. We have deconstructed forms of struggle we used to have, ended up with a “bourgeois” way of working.” That is how Reinaldo describes it, before laying down the challenges ahead. “Therefore, if you do not have the government give you the optimal conditions, do you not do popular work? How do we make this critique? How do we focus on what is really needed and set sights on where we want to go?”

This is perhaps one of the main dilemmas that the construction of popular power in Venezuela has faced. A very rapid growth, supported and leveraged by state resources led to a retreat in times of crisis triggered by the collapse of oil prices, or made for structures which are coopted or dependent on the state. Nevertheless, the crisis has also seen the strengthening of experiences of organized popular power which reaffirm socialism as the historical horizon.

“Of course we should critically analyse what the government does. But beyond the government, and eventual support, we need to rely on our own strengths,” Reinaldo said in conclusion. “The government has its job and we, as popular organisations, have ours, to generate this dialectic towards a popular and revolutionary government.”

The Alameda Theatre is not a “pretty little island,” rather an example of a space run by and for the community, with a relationship with the state (the Caracas municipality in this case) that does not sap its autonomy and its unwavering belief in the role of art in the construction of a better society. Despite being a small space in a Caracas barrio, it will continue contributing to the resistance against foreign aggression and to the construction of popular power, overflowing with colours and militancy.