Laughing Through the Issues: Getting Gentrif*cked with the Latino Comedy Project

by Dany Recio

Gentrifucked Latino Comedy Project

Every day we hear about cities around the country that were once thought of as small or developing becoming the hippest and trendiest places to live. That change sometimes comes at a cost, a high cost which the disenfranchised and poor residents in particular end up paying for. Austin unfortunately is quickly becoming one the prime examples of what happens to residents of historic neighborhoods as gentrification begins to force them out of their homes and towards the outer reaches of the city.

This problem is not being ignored by many people of Austin and certainly not by the Austinites it’s displacing. There are citizens attempting to fight this problem through petitions and neighborhood organizations, others are speaking to the city council and voicing their concerns. The local media is not quiet on the issue either, they write and share some of the more tragic stories of gentrification and share the facts and statistics with those who may not be aware of the problem. Each of these is in fact a great way to enact some sort of change. The Latino Comedy Project on the other hand wants to voice its concerns differently. They would rather engage with their fellow Austinites through laughter.

The Latino Comedy Project or LCP, is an Austin born-and-raised sketch troupe whose newest show, Gentrif*cked, tackles this very issue. Incidentally the very reason for their founding is what has inspired them to write this very show, or as director Adrian Villegas states “It’s about us trying to provide a voice where there was a void.” Villegas is sure that this a topic that has been largely avoided by the local performers of the city. For the LCP though, they feel especially invested culturally in the outcome of gentrification and because of this Villegas is sure that “This show is a statement about this topic that you’re not going to get from anyone else…”

Gentrif*cked will not only feature sketches by the LCP but also Migas, a bilingual improv troupe that is opening up the show. Made up of three members, Linzy Beltran, Hugo Vargas-Zesati, and Michael Joplin, Migas is known for performing scenes in Spanish and English and then translating onstage. The evening will be hosted by Vanessa Gonzalez, a three-time finalist in Cap City Comedy Club’s Funniest Person In Austin competition. As a Stand Up and improviser, Gonzalez was also once a member of the LCP. Since then Gonzalez has written and performed three one-woman sketch shows across the country at Hell Yes Fest, Vancouver Sketchfest, and San Francisco Sketchfest.

Gentrif*cked’s inception began like a cliche movie montage where one member goes around recruiting its other members hoping to “get the band back together;” think Blues Brothers or the opening sequence of Mighty Ducks 2. In the spring of 2016, the Austin comedy festival, Out Of Bounds (OOB), would reach out to the LCP to see if they would be interested in putting together another show. They had all been on a long hiatus but as director Adrian Villegas began reaching out to each member there was an almost unanimous yes’ from everyone. The group weighed their options on what to do for the festival in the coming months. They thought about bringing back some of their most popular sketches and videos but the prospect of creating something brand new sounded more fun for everyone. So almost as soon as they started throwing ideas around the topic gentrification came and quickly members were sharing stories about it with one another. Those stories began to inspire jokes and then they knew they had found their show.

Even after two decades of experience, putting together a show did not become any easier but that proves just how much of a labor-of-love comedy is for the LCP. Nick Walker, one of the original members, and as the other members affectionately point out “the only non-Latino member of LCP,” said, “We prepared for two and a half months for one 45 minute performance on the calendar.”

That performance went over spectacularly well and the LCP was proud of the show they had put together. They would get one more chance to perform it, this time in San Francisco for a comedy festival. The universal theme of the show was not lost on any San Franciscans, who have arguably had it even worse than many Austinites on the gentrification front. Mical Trejo shared a story about a couple who had approached him after their performance in San Francisco and told him that the theater currently resides in what used to be the neighborhood they called home. In the last decade or so, due to gentrification they had been forced out to as far Oakland. This affirmed for the LCP that if the opportunity were to arise again they should perform the show in Austin.

In 1997, Maria Rocha, a member of the Teatro Humanidad theater company here in Austin, wanted to put together a Latino sketch troupe to showcase and develop local Latin talent. She knew that she wanted the Troupe to act as a voice for those who might otherwise not be heard. Adrian Villegas was an aspiring filmmaker at the time and performed frequently around Austin with other sketch groups or in his one man show. He soon caught the eye of Rocha and she would go on to ask Adrian to join and help create the LCP. As one of its founding members, Villegas has been a part of the group for almost its entire twenty year history.

Many members have come and gone but Gentrif*cked’s cast is a mix of some veterans and some relative newcomers. Nick Walker was an early LCP recruit. Walker admits that initially being the only non-Latin member of LCP made him nervous to bring certain ideas to the writers’ table. Soon though he discovered that the other members valued his ideas and they believed many of them to be genuine and funny. Walker was one the main reasons they began filming sketches and posting them online; LCP’s YouTube channel now has over 12 million views.

Walker did not come from a filmmaking background, however. In the early 2000’s video cameras and editing software became more affordable for the general public and Walker began teaching himself and experimenting with editing. Walker now runs a digital marketing company full-time and he credits its founding to skills he gained in the LCP.

When Mical Trejo first heard about the LCP he had just finished an undergraduate degree in theater at St. Edward’s on a performance scholarship and was already a member of the cast of 6th Street’s famous Esther’s Follies. Already a seasoned performer at this point, the chief appeal the LCP had for Trejo was the demand that you not only perform but write and produce as well. Trejo still attributes the skills he gained while working in the LCP to many of the opportunities that have given him a lasting career as a writer and performer.

There were large discrepancies in the various skills and experience of each member of the LCP had, however. This gap fostered, through a shared vision, the need for each member to learn from one another. Where Trejo came from a largely performance background, for instance, fellow founding member Omar Gallaga came from a writing background. Gallaga was working as a journalist in Austin and never regarded himself as performer until he joined the LCP. When Gallaga heard about auditions for the LCP through a roommate he could not pass up the opportunity to finally explore writing comedy.

Originally from South Texas, Gallaga spent a lot of his formative years growing away from his Latino roots, so much so that he hardly Spoke Spanish when he first joined LCP. Then after years in the LCP, Gallaga’s fluency had increased to the point that he became the founding editor of ¡Ahora Si!, a Spanish-language newspaper that is still in print today. Gallaga left the LCP in 2007 to a raise family, making this performance his first with the LCP in more than a decade.

Some of the newest members of the cast are Danu Uribe and Yamina Khouane. Uribe joined the LCP in 2005 after Villegas saw her at her capstone performance at The Hideout Theater. Uribe had one night to prepare for the audition and in that night turned around a few original pieces including a song parody called “Your Baby’s Got My Back”  about George W. Bush recruiting minority children for the war. This showcased one of Uribe’s defining skills in LCP, her ability to write and sing. That audition piece appeared regularly in LCP shows for years.

Proof that LCP will more than likely stay intact no matter which members come and go can be seen in the addition of Yamina Khouane. An improviser and actress from South Texas, Khouane studied at the New Movement Theater here in Austin and at UCB in New York City. Khouane first heard of the LCP from former member and current Gentrif*cked host Vanessa Gonzalez. For Khoune, the LCP meant being able to explore and find the many voices within the context of being Latina.

Khouane grew up looking up to classic American actors and comedians who were largely white. So for a short time Khouane felt disconnected from her roots. But as Khouane continued to try to define herself as a person and performer she realized she would need to explore more of her heritage. LCP became the place that not only celebrated that heritage but dissected and explored all the facets of being Latino. As for adding to the already cemented dynamic of the cast, Khouane found that she was welcomed with opened arms. The older members found Khouane’s new ideas and perspective to be refreshing, and a great addition to an already wonderful group.

That willingness to embrace new ideas and perspectives is key to the goal of Gentrif*cked, to tackle hot button issues in a way that is accessible to people of all backgrounds and puts the laughter before the message. For those who might be nervous talking about a subject like gentrification because perhaps you worry about offending anyone, there is nothing to fear because as Khouane says, “…we are here saying it, we’re loud about it, and we’re laughing at it at the same time.”

Gentrif*cked will be showing at Spiderhouse Ballroom June 9th and 10th at 8pm and 10:15pm. The show is 18+ and tickets can be found at: 

Dany Recio looks like he’d vote for Bernie Sanders but wouldn’t gentrify an entire neighborhood. He’s about as opinionated as your grandfather but never fought a war. Words that have been used to describe him are: young, wears glasses, lost (while not wearing glasses), and hopeful. A couple nights a week he tries to make everyone in Austin like him, one person at a time. (It’s going okay) If you feel like engaging in appropriated rap battles or a couple of twitter feuds you can google him, if you’re into it:  @saidthedanny