We had the good fortune of connecting with Marianna Lucero and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Marianna, can you tell us more about your background and the role it’s played in shaping who you are today?
Hello! My name is Marianna Lucero and I am a Xicana from Southwest Denver. I am also an elementary dance and drama teacher for Denver Public Schools, and the Founder and Executive Director of In Lak’ech Denver Arts, an after-school program that serves 5th-8th grade students in Southwest Denver with community responsive arts education. My mother, Rosa, is a huge influence on my positive cultural identity. She is a fierce Mexicana and a master story-teller, who continues to use her gift of cuento to bridge my present to my past. Her lively stories nestle me in the arms of a mother Tierra that I never knew. Her words delicately paint the montañas of Canatlán, the crystal olas off the coast of Veracruz, and vivid memories of dance parties that were fueled by my abuelos special ponche. I collect her cuentos like lunares on my skin. Each freckle is a story, a song of familia, comida, and música. I know who I am because of my mother. I had the honor of growing up right off of Evans and South Federal Blvd, in a community so special, that I would never dream of leaving it. Here, we come from cumbias, taquerias, back-yard parties, and familia first. We come from first-generation graduations, cruising slow on Sunday nights, and girls who wear big hoops and have even bigger dreams. Our community is so much more than what you see on the news.
During my formal education in Denver Public Schools, I rarely saw my cultural identity reflected in my core curriculum or my arts education. This resulted in me having low self-esteem and I tried to anxiously search for my “place” in the arts and the world. I loved theatre, but I didn’t see people who looked like me acting in lead roles or teaching in arts positions. I also seldomly saw our stories being authentically represented on stage, but in 2007, my entire life changed. I became a company actor for the Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center. The Teatro empowered me as a young Xicana to seek the truth about my ancestors, and I was honored to play roles where I could step into the experiences of those that paved the way for all of us. When I became a drama and dance teacher for Denver Public Schools, I knew that I wanted to create an arts curriculum through our community’s lens. For the past eight years, I have had the privilege of teaching at Goldrick Elementary, a neighborhood school located in the same area where I grew up. Through our journey together, my students and I have devised powerful productions inspired by the rich traditions of ancestors and our families. Our productions provide a safe space for our community to expand their awareness around the social issues we face as BIPOC, and we also celebrate the beauty and joy of our barrio. As my students began to transition into middle school, they urged me to expand my programming beyond elementary because of the lack of cultural arts education in Southwest Denver. With their love and encouragement, I designed In Lak’ech Denver Arts in their image, an arts program where our community is empowered to reclaim the narratives and spaces that have been historically denied to our ancestors.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
When my students and I were unexpectedly sent home for an “early break” last March due to COVID-19, we had no idea that it would be the last time we would see each face to face for the rest of the school year. In fact, we were ready to launch our show, “Soy Quien Soy”, a dance production that celebrated identity, self-love and our barrio. We hugged one another tightly, and I told them, “I will see you soon, my dears”, but we never came back. As I write this, I still reflect on the pain of that unkept promise. The separation from my students has been incredibly difficult. As we continue to navigate these uncertain times together, I see their sweet faces through my computer screen, and I yearn to be with them again, creating, and dancing in my classroom. I decided to convert my sadness into the positive energy I needed to design In Lak’ech Denver Arts. That spring, I co-created two pilots with my husband, local Xicano artist Isaac Lucero. I called them the #QuarantineArtsChallenge and Black Books and Chill. In the first pilot, students collaborated with Isaac and myself to create masks and movement pieces inspired by #hashtag messages of hope. During the second pilot, students took virtual graffiti art lessons with Isaac, and they built their skills in letter and character design. By summer of 2020, In Lak’ech Denver Arts facilitated its most ambitious pilot to date, a two-week summer arts camp. We partnered with the Confluence Center and Xicano Puppet Theater, two local organizations that are also led by BIPOC. Together, we co-planned and ran a COVID-19 safe in- person/virtual puppet theatre camp at Huston Lake Park. We engaged twenty 5th- 8th grade students from Southwest Denver AND Montbello in the art of puppetry to retell indigenous stories! At the culmination of our camp, we presented a show at the park that families could attend while safely socially distancing from one another. This production included elements of video, music, live pre-recorded theatre pieces, and a puppet show presented by the participants. Students retold stories from the Maya and Mexica tribes. Some also wrote their own powerful narratives about the complexities of family, and the impact of ICE raids on communities of color. After the success of our summer camp, I was able to establish a wonderful partnership with the Colorado I Have A Dream Foundation (CIHAD) in order to begin Fall virtual arts programming for 4th-8th graders at two schools: STRIVE PREP Ruby Hill and STRIVE PREP Federal. I provided residencies to local Denver artists, Jordan Hull, who taught improvisation workshops, Yurintzi Serrato Cano who taught cultural art journaling classes, and Lilian Lara who taught students how to create their own custom piñatas! In Lak’ech was also able to finally gain fiscal sponsorship through the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center, and we renewed our contract with (CIHAD) for spring 20201 to continue providing 4th-8th grade students with virtual arts programming. Through all of this, I have also been feverishly applying for funding, teaching full-time for Goldrick Elementary, and taking courses at Red Rocks Community College to get my certificate in Nonprofit Management. You might be thinking, “Omgosh, this mujer never rests!” I can’t deny that, and sometimes it feels like I’m completely drained, but I promise you that this next part will prove why I go so hard. On Thursday, October 8, 2020, two days before my 32nd birthday, I was informed that the Board of Directors of the AJL Foundation approved a $20,000 grant to In Lak’ech Denver Arts. I screamed loudly and cried tears of joy! Most recently, I had to make the difficult decision to leave Denver Public Schools and Goldrick Elementary at the end of this school year, so that I may fully pursue In Lak’ech Denver Arts. This decision does not come without heartbreak, but I know that I am giving myself the time and space to better serve my community through In Lak’ech Denver Arts. By dedicating myself to this program, I will have the opportunity to provide programming to more students and families who deserve to see themselves represented in their arts education. I cannot wait until it is safer for us to come together in-person, so that we are able to facilitate community meetings and continue co-creating programming for our students. We hope to build a welcoming organization that evolves according to our collective needs and that is run and sustained by its community.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I would definitely keep my friend’s visit close to home because I love to support and shout out local businesses in my community. Collective business hubs like the Asian Center, the Far East Center, and community staples like Torres and Grandpa’s Burger Haven have been around since before I was born. Some local businesses are newly established, but they are still owned and operated by our gente.
First, I would love to take my friend to go see the incredible black and white photo mural on the corner of West Kentucky Avenue and South Irving Street that was created by D3 Arts, and local photographers and artists, Juan Fuentes, Mateo Rodriguez, and Santiago Jaramillo. This mural beautifully represents the authentic side of our Southwest Denver community. I would probably cry and proudly point out all my students and their families who are featured in it. Then, I would take my friend into the heart of Westwood, where we could visit some of the amazing cultural murals that were also created by local Denver artists. Next, we’d stop by The Empress to pick up some amazing prints, t-shirts and accessories that are all made in house! In fact, we could go to Westwood every day and enjoy the food and awesome goodies from all of the small and micro-owned food-based businesses there like: Cultura Chocolate, Four Directions Cuisine, Cabrona Coffee, X’tabai Yucateco, Kahlo’s, Just Indulgence, and Mujeres Emprendedora. Finally, we would end our fabulous week together with a night out at the teatro and go catch a show at the Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I would love to dedicate my shoutout to my students, our Southwest Denver community, and Moonshot Edventures!
1. Juan Fuentes 2. Goldrick Elementary