Chicano troupe's own brand of drama

Manuel wears a straw hat and a denim jacket. His English is broken, but his Spanish fluent. And, much like Willy Loman in ''Death of a Salesman,'' his most cherished dreams are gradually ground up by the realities of modern life in America.

As the pivotal character in ''Hijos, Once a Family,'' by El Teatro de la Esperanza, Manuel and his family powerfully convey the hopes, fears, joys, and frustrations of an entire segment of American society, the nation's largest yet least visible minority, Chicanos.

Like the Chicano political movement, their ''teatro'' is a fragile and evolving form of cultural expression. The most successful such group today is the Teatro Campesino, headed by Luis Alvarez, which successfully staged the play ''Zoot Suit'' in Los Angeles's Mark Tabor Forum several years ago and more recently made it into a movie.

The Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Teatro Esperanza is one of the few other full-time Chicano theater groups which have survived for more than a year or two. Recently the group finished up its latest national tour here in Denver, playing to small but enthusiastic audiences.

In ''Hijos,'' members of a community gather to discuss the life of their late friend and neighbor Manuel, who was trying to organize a strike at the factory where he worked. In ''Spanglish,'' the rich mixture of Spanish and English which the Chicano community uses, they argue over whether Manuel's organizing efforts were good or bad for his family and the community. They decide the best way to settle the argument is to reenact the key moments in Manuel's life.

The picture that emerges from a fast-paced kaleidoscope of scenes with rapid-fire alternation of the serious and the broadly humorous is that of an intelligent, humble young man with traditional Latin American values who moves from Texas to Los Angeles to get ahead in life.

He is bewildered by the big city and has trouble finding work. But finally he makes friends and lands a job in a factory. His dream is to buy a rancho in Texas, so he instructs his wife to save as much as possible for this purpose. But the low wages and high cost of living, particularly after the couple has three children, force his wife, Lola, to dip repeatedly into savings, until they are finally gone.

Even more poignant than the loss of Manuel's dream, however, is the alienation between him and his children. Continually exposed to the Anglo affluence of southern California, the children do not understand why they cannot have the same things their school friends have.

Meanwhile, his work begins to go poorly. The company has begun a pension plan which the workers feel is unfair, and a number of workers are becoming ill by breathing noxious fumes. Manuel is finally convinced that, despite the risk of losing his job, the workers' only recourse is to strike.

It is a measure of teatro's emerging maturity that the group does not present pat, political answers to Manuel's dilemma. ''We have the questions, not the answers,'' explains Rodrigo Clark, a member of the ensemble.

To integrate their politics with their art better, and to ground their work solidly in Chicano reality, an unusual way of working evolved for the Teatro Esperanza. All the plays are a group effort. The troupers agree on a general theme and do academic research into it. By recounting personal experiences that touch on this theme, they explore what they call the personal mito, or myth. The group also collaborates on the writing, set design, casting, and direction.

The result is rich, rather than slick; powerful, rather than pretentious; earthy and human, rather than artificial or intellectual. Although those who speak only English miss some of the humor, the plot and performance come through clearly.

El Teatro de la Esperanza will be performing in New York this August in a Latino theater festival, and it tours extensively in the Southwest.

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