Eva Zorrilla Tessler, with daughter Gabriella Nugent
On Nov. 15, Eva Zorrilla Tessler (pictured with her daughter Gabriella Nugent) received a LULAC-Albert Soto Latino Arts Award from the League of United Latin American Citizens, during a ceremony at the Tucson Museum of Art. The Mexico City native said she found herself thinking of the award's namesake, a dear friend she worked with at Borderlands Theater. Soto passed away in 2005, and Tessler said she felt like they were sharing a good joke. For more information on Tessler's work, visit the Borderlands Web site and Latina Dance Project Web site.

What was it like receiving the LULAC award?

It was a surprise, a very pleasant surprise. I have never gotten an award.

Really? Never?

It was an honor, especially (since it was) an Albert Soto Award, because he used to work with us (at Borderlands), and he was a personal friend. That was very moving. ... It brought up very nice memories of him.

Being that the honor is from LULAC, and its purpose is to recognize Latin artists, did that have additional meaning for you?

Yes, but it's been a different experience for me. I am not an American. I was born in Mexico, so when I came here, I didn't know how things worked very well, and I didn't speak the language. I found the Latinos here very different from the Mexicans. I couldn't find my voice as an artist for a long time, because I come from a tradition in modern dance, which is really not a Latino thing. I finally found that my culture is what drives me, and then I started making connections with the Latino community in the United States. And, you know, now getting the recognition from a group like LULAC does mean a lot.

You said you thought about Albert Soto during the ceremony. Tell me about him.

Albert Soto worked with us at Borderlands Theater and in (A Tucson) Pastorela. He was our Lucifer for many years. He had a great sense of humor. He was great fun to be around. When I was receiving the award, I was thinking he would make a joke out of that about me. I remember him that way. It is a mixture of sadness that we've lost this friend and this great advocate for the arts, but I also have this other point of view on death that is very Mexican: I put a little altar for him every year in my house ... so I remember him playfully and not just with grief.

How did you find your cultural voice?

I left Mexico when I was 25 years old, and lived in the U.S. and in Brazil for six years, and then I came back here to the UA to get a master's. I saw myself as a citizen of the world. Obviously, I am a Latina and a Mexican, but I didn't need to be doing only that. Eventually, I found that I had things that I wanted to express that had to do with Mexican culture ... and then I felt I really had to tap into this cultural thing even more; that's when I discovered Borderlands Theater. I felt I had finally found my home in the community and as an artist.

Why has Borderlands become an important home for you and other local Latin artists?

It definitely has a niche in the community, and it has to do with presenting different voices in the community, from a Latino point of view. We can do a play about Ireland, or about Jews, but we do it from a Latino point of view. That's another thing I had to question. ... Why do we have to start from the white person's point of view? In other words, we can do theater about anything.

You started off in dance and then went into theater. How did that happen?

When I came to the UA, instead of just coming for a choreography degree, I took a lot theater classes. ... My MFA was in theater arts. I'm not only a dancer, or only an actor, but I like a mixture of things. Being in that theater-arts program opened a whole world of art I didn't know before.

But then you went back to your roots.

Yes. In 2006, I started a national company called the Latina Dance Project. We do dance-theater work. We've toured regionally and nationally. It's theater, and it's music, video and dance. And sometimes, it has everything to do with our cultures, and sometimes, what I do with the three other dancers I work with is modern dance--and we just happen to be Latina.

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