He had recently landed in Washington from Spain, where he sojourned to escape the oppression in his native Argentina. She was a dancer from New York — with a degree in Latin American studies from Smith College — who spoke fluent Spanish.
They co-founded GALA (a “Grupo de Artistas Latino Americanos,” many of them expatriate refugees) in a “theater” inside the couple’s Adams Morgan rowhouse, in 1976. After moving four times over the years, GALA is now ensconced in the historic 264-seat Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights, following a $4.3 million renovation in 2005 — one of the premier homes of any Latino theater in the nation.
As GALA was forging its reputation in the late 1970s, an actor and director named Mario Marcel was being tortured by Argentine authorities. During eight months of detention, he was beaten and shocked with electricity.
He had been presenting free-thinking pieces in a theater in the northwestern part of Argentina. “They took me for a subversive,” Marcel says.
After he got out, he went to Paraguay and met an architect named Nucky Walder in a troupe he was mentoring. She was shut out of good architectural jobs because she refused to join the ruling party. Theater was her other passion. “I was his best student,” Walder says.
They married in 1981, moved to Washington and joined the orbit of artists the Medranos had assembled. Twenty years ago, they formed Teatro de la Luna, presenting works in Arlington County’s 100-seat Gunston Arts Center.
Despite fears that la Luna would cut into GALA’s audience, both have grown. This season, they are producing in-house, or presenting from elsewhere, a total of 20 plays, nearly all in Spanish with English translation.
“I think it creates more audience,” Hugo Medrano says.
The longevity and relative success mask fundamental questions about the role of Latino theater: Who is the audience? Must that audience still be addressed primarily in Spanish?
The context for Latino theater has changed since the 1970s, and the theaters are struggling to adjust to new economic and demographic forces.
The old mission of presenting brave plays from Latin America and Spain, as well as Spanish classics, bumps against a new one of staying relevant to increasingly bilingual descendants of immigrants.
The theaters say the makeup of their audiences is roughly unchanged: up to 60 percent Spanish speakers, 20 or 25 percent bilingual, 20 or 25 percent English speakers.