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Theatre and Dance awarded $15,000 grant ahead of new production


The UTEP Department of Theatre and Dance is a recipient of a $15,000 grant, which will be used to host a month-long celebration for the National Endowment for the Arts in El Paso. The NEA Big Read grant is awarded to organizations that broaden the understanding of local communities through the joy of storytelling.

The NEA Big Read in El Paso will focus on a theatrical adaptation of Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, which will open on Oct. 3 and run through Oct. 14 at the Wise Family Theatre. Activities will take place throughout UTEP and El Paso leading up to the opening night — including book and ticket giveaways, live readings and scene performances.

“The Big Read allows us to further educate and connect with our community, and what the grant allows us to do is, hopefully, introduce ourselves to people who haven’t thought about or been to our theatre,” said Rebecca Rivas, performance professor and director of Bless Me, Ultima.

The coming of age novel, Bless Me, Ultima, is set in the 1940s in San Rosa, NM. The story follows Antonio Márez as his curandera and protector, Ultima, who graces him with the courage to face growing up in a mixed community, the moral collapse of his brother, childhood bigotry and many violent deaths. Under her wise guidance, Tony examines the family ties that bind him, while at each turn in Tony’s life there is Ultima who will nurture his Chicano heritage.

Rivas, who has directed other novel adaptations such as The House on Mango Street and Esperanza Rising, says that being able to organize events around the production of Bless Me, Ultima helps the audience and the community better connect to the story—which many El Pasoans may find relatable.  

“We’re celebrating the story by giving people a chance to read it and talk about it at various events. It’s important to us that our community feels welcomed with us and telling their stories is the best way,” Rivas said.

UTEP’s Theatre and Dance department chose Bless Me, Ultima as this semester’s production specifically because of the fundamental themes of growing up in a Mexican culture found in the story.

“Representation in our culture is important. To see yourself represented both on the page and on stage is really something special. I think we all felt that with Coco and, more recently, with Crazy Rich Asians,” Rivas said. “Bless Me, Ultima really shows us how to reconcile both our tradition and culture in a world that seems to sometimes outgrow them, when in truth they are what keeps us grounded the most.”

There’s no shortage of art in the borderland, and anyone who lives near the border knows how easy it is to come across traditions and art that represents the community’s origins. But being awarded the NEA Big Read grant allows Rivas and her department to contribute to the celebration of El Paso and its people.

“Getting to watch stories and see people that you recognize and relate to can really embolden and encourage people to value themselves and their heritage in ways that few other things can do the way art does,” Rivas said.


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Theatre and Dance awarded $15,000 grant ahead of new production