Theater teacher dances to the beat of his own drum

By Karina Ioffee – Staff Writer
Gilroy
– Not many are honored by having a day named after them, but for
Pepe Espinosa, a 42-year-old Gilroy teacher and San Juan Bautista
resident, it’s just one of a string of unusual events that have
marked his life.
By Karina Ioffee – Staff Writer

Gilroy – Not many are honored by having a day named after them, but for Pepe Espinosa, a 42-year-old Gilroy teacher and San Juan Bautista resident, it’s just one of a string of unusual events that have marked his life.

Espinosa is many things. He is a father and the keeper of secrets of the historic De Anza House in San Juan Bautista in which he has lived since 1996. He has worked with the famous Teatro Campesino and performed with the disco group Deee-Lite and currently runs the theater arts program at Rucker Elementary in Gilroy.

But despite his local fame – the city of Gilroy proclaimed Nov. 1 “Mr. Pepe Day” in 1999 – Espinosa likes nothing more than relaxing at his home, amidst his collection of assorted bric-a-brac covering every available inch of space. Indian statues, early Californian art, antelope horns, candles, rocks and others items are crammed along the walls, shelves and tables of the historic home Espinosa bought almost a decade ago.

“I started collecting as a young child because historic things have always fascinated me,” he said. Many of the items at his home were left over from the previous owners of the De Anza House, built during the founding days of the mission, while Espinosa acquired the others over the years.

Growing up in San Juan Bautista, church played a big part of the Espinosa family’s life and young Pepe, who was born Jose Luis, became involved in the pageants at the San Juan Bautista Mission. He went on the Mission Rodeo Circuit, a church performance troupe that traveled to different missions and later performed with Teatro Campesino, which was just making a name for itself in the early 1970s.

“I was influenced by the fiestas and pageants of San Juan and always had a joy and appreciation for performing,” he said.

But in high school, Espinosa felt like the time had come for him to venture beyond San Benito County and when he was only 15 years old, he moved to Maine to attend the Crosby School, a private alternative school that gave students like Espinosa individualized attention to nurture their passions.

Still, he missed his family and moved back only a year later, earning his GED from the University of Stockton. He began taking art history classes there, but left when offered a job dancing with Dave Brubeck, the jazz pianist renowned for such influential works as “Take Five.”

The job led to many others, in both dance and theater, and over the next couple of years Espinosa worked in a number of Bay Area theater groups.

“He gave me the permission, as an artist, to just go out there and do it,” said Espinosa of his time with Brubeck.

The job led to similar gigs in San Juan Bautista and around the country, including Camp Thoreau, a Vermont camp for inner-city kids interested in drama.

While on the East Coast, Espinosa began going to New York frequently and soaking up the Manhattan night life that was in full swing in the mid-’80s. And it was at one of those clubs that a promoter for the musical group Deee-Lite spotted him and asked him to dance with the trio – which became famous in 1990 with the hit “Groove Is In The Heart.” Espinosa spent one season traveling up and down New England with the ensemble before moving on to other gigs.

Coming back to San Benito County, Espinosa began teaching at Rucker School in Gilroy and in 1999 helped found the San Benito Stage Company, the first theater arts company in Hollister.

Currently, he is involved in planning another musical for the spring and is just as passionate about teaching theater to kids as when he started over a decade ago.

“Those kids are needy and they need to stay engaged in positive things,” said Espinosa. “What I love is seeing young people taking ownership of their work and flying with it.”

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