Toronto actor/director/playwright Beatriz Pizano has had no problem finding stereotypical commercial roles as a Latina maid, wife of a drug cartel leader or mother of a son killed in gang wars.

But the Colombian native has preferred to spend the past decade telling heart-wrenching stories about civil conflict, massacres and child soldiers on a live stage — a tradition she has transplanted from Latin America, where political theatre against authoritarian regimes is very much alive.

Through productions at the Aluna Theatre, which she founded in 2002, Pizano hopes to bring all these global issues to her Canadian audiences’ awareness — and consciousness.

From Thursday to Saturday this week, Pizano is hosting an international conference in Toronto to explore theatre and human rights as part of the two-week Panamerican Routes festival that features innovative Canadian and Latin American voices through mainstage performances, professional development workshops and a photo exhibit.

“I don’t think I’m political. I just explore stories that grab my guts,” said Pizano, whose company has been honoured with multiple Dora Awards, the Oscars of Canadian performing arts.

“It’s important that we talk about the world outside and around us, to make that connection,” she added. “Arts always come first, but we have to challenge ourselves and produce something that matters.”

There is a lot in the program that features New York-based puppet theatre company Loco7, which originally came from Bogota; San Francisco-based actor Violeta Luna, who hails from Mexico; and renowned Colombian artist/activist Patricia Ariza.

Their stage performances, along with their Canadian counterparts’, will shed light on issues from the violence in Colombia to the life of an underground revolutionary in Chile, the pursuit of a migrant’s American dream, the Mayan genocide in Guatemala, environmentalism and feminism.

The Panamerican festival is refreshing for Roberto Gutierrez-Varea, a founding professor of the University of San Francisco’s performing arts and social justice program.

Political theatres are unique in Latin America, where artists often take on the task of challenging and criticizing the established regimes, the Argentine said.

“They keep the humanities alive among the repressed people, the lives lost, disappeared and into exile,” noted Gutierrez-Varea, who studied architecture and psychology in university because all theatre schools were closed by the military dictatorship then.

“There are productions on different topics, often taboo topics,” he said. “For the artists and the audience, theatre is a way to engage, not to escape.”

Gutierrez-Varea said he was shocked when he arrived in California on a scholarship in 1987 and realized how “depoliticized” education was in North America.

Not only did he initiate the theatre and social justice program in San Francisco, long a sanctuary city for migrants, he also founded community-based performance groups such as Soapstone Theatre Company and El Teatro Jornalero to give a voice and space for American Latinos.

These productions validate the community’s own existence and values based on issues they can relate to and care about, he said. “You are creating safe spaces for the unsafe,” he added.

Themes they explored are borderless, Gutierrez said, because they ultimately touch on the universal values of love, fairness, security and loss that a North American audience can identify with.

Ariza founded la Corporacion Colombiana de Teatro, the first independent theatre in Colombia, in 1966, with a mission to “express the moment in the time we’re living.”

The theatre’s productions tackled political and social issues such as peasants’ revolts, the fight for housing, the history of guerrillas and most recently, the issue of feminism.

“We started the national theatre movement. And we are the (unofficial) spokespersons for the people to relate their issues to the government,” said Ariza, who inspired the Panamerican Routes festival.

The movement was so strong that “the elites were left without theatres because theatres were now the theatres of the mass and the poor.” The government, instead, pumped in money into commercial theatres to counteract the popularity of the independent theatres.

However, the controversial and sensitive issues her theatre highlighted — often involving the political regimes and paramilitaries — have also landed Ariza into trouble.

Thugs would come in to destroy the theatre and threats were uttered. Her name even came up on a 1987 hit list; eight of those on the list were killed.

“I’m not afraid,” said Ariza, “because of my legacy of so many years of work and I have so many people who support and protect me.”

When asked what Canadian activists can learn to engage and mobilize the public in social activism, Ariza paused.

The theatre movement in Colombia — and in other Latin American countries — is organic, Ariza said.

“It’s born out of the reality of each place,” she added. “The exchanges of knowledge and experience through events such as the Panamerican Routes will be a good start.”