Bill Virchis: Actor and Educator

William Bill Virchis was born Guillermo Alejandro Virchis in 1944, Mexico City.

His father was Roman J. Virchis, born in Mexico City. Roman’s father was Austrian and his mother was Spanish. When Roman was very young, the family moved to New York City. Roman’s father worked in the Jewish garment district and he grew up as one of the first Mexicans within a predominantly Puerto Rican community. Ramon was also an accomplished athlete, including a Golden Glove champion. He graduated from New York University during a time when very few Latinos went to college.

His mother was Margarita Olivera and she was Guayarca. Both her parents were indigenous and came from Puebla, Mexico. Margarita’s mother (Bill’s grandmother) spoke Nahuatl. She was also a revolutionist and told Bill that the Villistas almost hung her because she was a Zapatista.

Margarita was raised in a nunnery and learned three languages. As a young women she also was a poet.

When Ramon returned to Mexico City as an adult, he met Margarita when she was doing a reading in a Vaudeville Theater. Ramon fell instantly in love with her. He remained in Mexico City for the next two years in order to woo her. However, Margartiat didn’t like him. After all, he was German and Spanish, reminding her too much of the conquistadors. Furthermore, she was going to become a nun. Eventually, however, Ramon won over her heart and they married.

The family remained in Mexico City and Ramon became a pilot — a crop duster — among other things. Bill had a brother Ricardo and sister Martha.

Bill, however, spent the first five years of his life in the hospital because he had a condition that went beyond club foot where both his feet were turned inward so that he was unable to walk. Most of the time, his maternal grandmother stayed with him. He had over 100 operations on each foot up to the time he was five. His mother actually named him after the doctor who was determined to have Bill walk: Guillermo Alejandro Simbron.

They Came To America in 1951

Ramon knew four languages and when he became an airline manager of Mexicana de Aviation (the government owned airline) he was told to go to the United States, since he spoke English well. The family moved when Bill was six years old — in 1951. At that time, because nobody could pronounce ‘Guillermo,’ so his parents changed his name to William. (Because a popular television star was named Riccardo, his brother did not have to change his name.)

As Bill explains, “We landed in Tijuana because we had to get the papers out. My father already had all the papers. So what happened was that he — we were going to go to LA because there were more Mexicans there than anywhere else. LA is where his office was, alongside SF and SD. Back at the rancho, we stayed at Tijuana for 6 months. There’s a ritual that you bless your cars… We stopped at St. Rose Lima. My mother saw a house rented across the street 336 H Street. Mother said, “I’m staying here and you’re going to LA. So we lived in Chula Vista and my dad commuted to LA for 30 years”

Bill grew up speaking Spanish in the home and English in school. He went to F Street Elementary School (which shut down and the Chula Vista Public Library now stands in its place). He then attended Chula Vista Junior High and Chula Vista High School. Bill remembers that the family always went to Tijuana in order to shop, in particular for fresh food. They didn’t grow up eating any canned or boxed food. He remembers that perhaps three customs officers stood at the border waving people across.

Ramon did quite well for the family. Eventually he even owned a hotel in La Paz.

Growing Up & Professional Life in Chula Vista

Bill Virchis as MimeBill describes himself as having been a very over-active child. He also didn’t see himself as a particularly good student. After high school, he became a ‘traveling man’. He had a band called “The Men,” which opened for “Mothers of Invention.” He did start at Southwestern College in 1962. As a wanderer, however, he went to several colleges, including Valley College in Los Angeles. He also held many different jobs, including at the Jack-in-a-Box at 3rd & K.

He began to study at San Diego State University and by 1972 graduated with a Master’s in Theater Arts. He also focused on Spanish and Psychology. “I always thought theater was a behavioral science,” Bill said.

He began working as a drama teacher at Chula Vista High School and then became a drama teacher at Southwestern Community College, a position he held for 31 years until his retirement. Along the way, he became a Mime and studied under the famous teacher Marcel Marceau. Bill met Marceau at a University of Michigan seminar where Bill was doing a summer.

Among the many plays he directed at Southwestern, Angel Baby was the first production of what later became known as Grease. He directed “Anna Get Your Gun” at Bonita Vista High School when the school was almost brand new.

After retirement, he also helped establish the brand new VAPA by becoming the visual and performing arts director for the Sweetwater Union High School District.

Some call William “Bill” Virchis “one of the founding fathers of Chicano Theatre in San Diego.” He has impacted many students, teachers, journalists and visual arts professionals on and off the stage.

Pioneering Work As A Latino Artists & Educator

Fantasma 1991

Fantasma 1991 (Photo Courtesy of Bill Virchis)

Bill’s pioneering work happened in 1989 when he directed Fantasma at Southwestern College with Edard Gallardo: a play that dealt with AIDS in the Latino community.

Also in 1989 Bill and Jorge Huerta co-founded Teatro Máscara Mágica “to increase the production of multicultural theatre and to provide professional theatrical opportunities to underrepresented segments of the population. Another mission of the Teatro is to subsidize ticket prices to make live theatre affordable to families and the less affluent”

In 1993 Bill directed Blood Wedding at SDSU — the first play done in both languages. They thought the Spanish language was not going to sell, but it sold in one day.

He also brought back Las Pastorelas, a Christmas “Grinch” story told in Mexico at least 2,000 times throughout the country. He also established Mariachi festivals in San Diego as well as mariachi programs in South Bay high schools. To boot, he was a wrestling coach at Otay Ranch and actor Mario Lopez was one of his wrestling athletes.

After his retirement from Southwestern College, he became the director of the Visual Arts and Performing Arts Department at Sweetwater Union High School District. There, he directed a musical on the life of campesino leader Cesar Chavez.

Bill explains that education was a payoff for him. “How lucky I had been to go to college. Education was the payoff, for me. Without education, I would have been in jail or something because I was a pretty wild kid.”