Still a junior in high school, 16-year-old Dagmar Torres-Lucero plans to apply the skills she’s learned at the South Central youth development center, A Place Called Home (APCH), to pursue a career in teaching. Like many of her peers at the nonprofit, the performer is a multi-hyphenate artist, bouncing between music, cheer and theater, skills she’s honed through practice and mentorship.

Torres-Lucero was able to showcase her talent at the organization’s four-day theater festival, “El Centro Del Sur: Tu Hogar,” which ran from Sept. 14-17 in honor of Latinx Heritage Month. Not only did Torres-Lucero star in “Bodalands,” a comedy about four cousins and their weddings, but the teen also served as the event’s box office manager, a testament to the many hats she’s collected in her time at APCH. 

“Latinos often go unrecognized and I feel like it’s not very common to see them performing a play on a big stage,” Torres-Lucero told CALÓ NEWS. “Here there’s people and stories that you relate to. “[Theater] is a great way of expressing your emotions and overcoming stage fright helped boost my confidence.”

For the first time since it was introduced by Theater Program Manager Efrain Schunior in 2021, the organization hosted its first full-capacity theater festival, which featured seven shows, two that were produced by current and former APCH students.

Friends, family and other community members pour into the auditorium at APCH to support their loved ones at last year’s performance. (Photo by Ashley Romero/Las Fotos Project)

The celebration was held at the nonprofit’s six-year-old Bridge Theater ,which seats 150 audience members. Coming off of multiple setbacks and a year of shutdowns, pandemic regulations put a damper on the festival’s first two attempts, moving the first show to Zoom while last year’s performance was limited to half capacity.

This year the organization’s leaders were excited to present “Tu Hogar” in its full glory with a free-to-attend Saturday block party featuring food trucks, vendors and Mariachi. 

“This is the first time we’ve been able to do it as we imagined it,” Schunior said. “To pull it off as we envisioned fulfills years of work. We’ve been sort of in limbo and now we can finally celebrate and invite people into our space and kind of have the space be reborn in a way.”

After securing funding from the the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2019, Schunior 

Families check in at the theater’s entrance before last year’s show. (Photo by Ashley Romero / Las Fotos Project)

brainstormed a festival block party that would pay tribute to the predominantly Latino population of South Central. The LA Galaxy also contributed to production costs, allocating $10,000 on top of the $35,000 invested by the NEA which will feed the $40,000 “Tu Hogar” price tag. Profits and remaining funds will be reinvested in the nonprofit’s arts programming.

Through social media advertising and distributing flyers around the neighborhood, the organization hopes to sell out all seven shows, bringing in over 1,000 audience members not including block party attendees. As APCH teens were a considerable part of the show’s production, working both on stage and behind the scenes in IT, the nonprofit offered its members a discount code that allows them complimentary tickets for each show. 

“We want to bring in the families and the kids that go to APCH so we’re removing any barriers for entry,” said Communications Manager Maggie Stillman. “We’ve talked to our community and by alleviating that expense we’re really saying, ‘Hey, you can come for free because this is really for you.’”

Nonprofit leaders were happy to provide ambitious students an opportunity to showcase their work within the community. Stillman said that she believes in the arts as a tool for socio-emotional growth, emphasizing the positive impact theater has on kids by giving them a space to find their voice and use that to create change. 

Performers stand together on the set of last year’s “Lolo,” a story of a young Latina who faces a career crossroads after her father’s death. (Photo by Ashley Romero/Las Fotos Project)

This year, APCH celebrates 30 years of serving the underprivileged neighborhood. Located at 2830 S. Central Ave. the community center lands in the 90011 zip-code, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Los Angeles with a median household income of $30,171, according to U.S. Zip Codes, less than half of the city’s average household earnings of $69,778 reflected on the Census. The vision was brought to life by founder Debrah Constance in 1993 following the Rodney King riots, one of the most destructive civil disruptions in history that left Los Angeles with $1 billion in property damage and brought fear to the already vulnerable area. 

Constance aimed to remedy the violence and gang activity that plagued the area with a safe and empowering environment that encouraged arts and creative expression. APCH has since revamped and expanded its facilities to include three gardens, a recording studio, two buildings covering 52,000 square feet and the Bridge Theater. Now with an on-site venue on their list of amenities, APCH plans to bring the community together annually to celebrate “Tu Hogar.”

When the notion of a Latino/x Heritage month was first presented to the House of Representatives in June 1968 by California congressman George E. Brown, it was initially introduced as a week-long commemoration. As Brown’s district covered a large portion of East L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley, two areas heavily populated by Latinos, the congressman sought recognition for their influence and role in American history. Three months later, the proposal was signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson.

By 1988 Illinois Senator Paul Simon pushed a bill to lengthen the proclamation and a year later Geroge H.W. Bush became the first president to declare Sept. 15 the start of National Latino Heritage Month. 

Youth performers and actors. (Photo by Maggie Stillman/APCH)

At this time, Latinos were still largely underrepresented and it wasn’t until 1970 that the U.S. Census offered “Hispanic or Latino” under the ethnicities category which gave additional options for citizens aside from “White” or “Negro,” the only two choices for race. Today, what CALÓ NEWS refers to as Latino or Latinx Heritage moth is recognized mid-month because Sept. 15 is the day Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras declared independence from Spain in 1821. Mexico and Chile also celebrate their freedom on Sept. 16 and 18 which came 11 years prior. 

Today there are more than 62 million Latinos in the United States, accounting for 19% of the total population. At the start of the decade, 29 million Latinos contributed to the labor force and by the end that number is expected to rise to 35.9 million, according to the U.S Department of Labor. Their career paths and goals are empowered by education, art programs and job training like those of APCH.