Caridad Svich – Playwright (2007)

U.S. Polyglot Latino Theatre and its Link to the Americas1

‘Political upheaval and emigration are cornerstones of our experience. Our identities are constantly examined because we exist as ‘the other’ in the U.S.2

In the U.S. the Latino population (which is comprised of Latinos, Latin Americans, immigrants, exiles, refugees, border peoples, and rafters) is the “largest minority”, and yet many are working below the poverty level without health benefits, and often at great personal risk, especially in jobs that require hard labor. Latino/a voices are heard most consistently by and large under the cultural “radar”, rather than above it, except for in the fields of music, fiction, visual arts, and film, where the high-octane pop quotient of Latino work has become a veritable brand. The contemporary forcefield of the ruling culture moreover continues to determine the Latino as a racialized Other whose ethnicity is superficially marked by language, fashion, and cuisine, and whose best use is toward the advancement of a market-driven economy. The unstable ontological space characterized by double-ness that is endemic of U.S. Latino/a movement and text-based work is glossed over in favor of surface readings of texts by audiences and producers habituated to presenting the work, if at all, within the confines of Other-ness. Unequal control over the media and its disseminating systems of symbols, thus, perpetuates the problematic status of Latino writing for the theatre in particular, save for rare cases. Practitioners have little say as to how their work will be marketed for an audience, and ultimately how the work will be represented historically, regardless of whether it is deemed as belonging inside or outside the canon. If during the first height of Latino theatrical consciousness in the U.S., the era of Luis Valdez’ Zoot Suit (1978) and Miguel Piñero’s Short Eyes (1974), the possibility of fair representation seemed within reach, today that possibility is elusive at best, despite accepted cultural signs that point to the contrary. For, in truth, U.S. Latino drama, which is every day not only more and more polyethnic but polyglot in nature, is at a significant crossroads in its development, presentation, and dissemination.

Although the second Latino cultural “boom” of the 1980s and early 1990s has ostensibly resurfaced in the new third “boom” predicted to occur after Nilo Cruz was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for Anna in the Tropics, producers at arts venues across the U.S. have continued to exercise caution in their programming selections. U.S. stages do not represent the depth and scope of the work made by U.S. Latino theatre practitioners in spite of the fact that the work is remarkably diverse in form and content, geographic, and regional specificity, and in its bodily embrace of sexuality and difference. Culturally dominant venues (and thus those covered most visibly by the mainstream press, and later codified by the academic press) slot a Latino play irregularly at best, and then often in the most patronizing circumstances. Thus, despite good intentions, Latino work is still viewed and received primarily as “alien.” This has enabled many alternative theatre and performance practitioners to use the term “alien” (with its accrued cultural, political, psychological, spatial, and sexual definitions) to create work that is alternately playful and passionate in opposition to the delegation of their beings to either the Anglophone curio cabinet or a status of statelessness.  Recuperating tropicalist stereotypes of the erotic Latin body, and marking their territory in rebellion to the power dynamics that designate what belongs in the center and what fits in the margin of global culture, alternative Latino theatre practitioners, particularly those who refuse to participate in the marketing of their work to fit a neatly pre-prescribed sociological agenda, are engaged in the active restructuring of not only the form and content of their work, but also its place in culture as a whole. Nevertheless the troubling fact remains that to either be alien or alienated are still the politically operative choices for U.S. Latinos in theatre.

Much of this has to do with the changing map of Anglo to Latino consciousness in the U.S. and its growing disaffection generation to generation from its neighbors across the border and the Americas. The fact that we are living in one hemisphere is politically obscured by the harsh reality of immigration controls, the tightening of asylum requirements, and motions to now complete the border fence between California and Mexico. It is also enforced by a pervasive sense of divisiveness complicated by both the left and right’s political machines, whose tormented co-dependent relationship ever since the Cold War has exacerbated the willful use of power north and south of the border. If the American voice (and by American I mean in this instance, the U.S. voice) is a “mask,” as sociologist Constance Rourke so eloquently remarked in her early landmark study of the U.S. national character American Humour, then it is a mask adept at hiding not only the local colours of its voice but also its face.[i] This mask has served the U.S. for good and ill ever since pioneer days, and it has been instrumental in its march toward progress. In fact, part of the act of assimilation and its performance is attributed to how well the émigré adopts the U.S. “deadpan” mask. This poker face, which hides vengeance, violence, and greed, also hides warmth, tenderness, and compassion. The survivalist face, thus, is one that erases its emotive properties and can even in extreme circumstances erase its ethnicity.

Latino theatre practitioners and especially those in performance have used this mask, to use Rourke’s phrase, as a “portable heirloom.” Whether they are children or grandchildren of émigrés who evince strong cultural ties to Latin America, or are multiple-hybrid citizens moving freely among various cultures, the inheritance that is shared and commented upon in their work continually spins on the axis of how they have made use of this affective legacy. Unframing the discussion of their work from anthropological terms, these practitioners who are born into two if not three languages, and swear themselves as artists into another, find connections in the intermingling, in the creolization, of immediate, oral, idiomatic forms and centrist, impersonal, technocratic ones as well as the intermingling of bodies on stage and in their texts. Putting on the heirloom and taking it off is only one part of the act; the other is showing what’s present behind the heirloom, and even how the heirloom has traveled and been adopted or discarded from country to country. But nationalist, and more particularly, nativist sentiments have interrupted this artistic passage. As international visa controls have become more strict, and a U.S. Latino culture has begun to shape itself along exceptional, unique lines in order to be heard midst the impossibility of a true democratic oasis, Americanness has been co-opted as a singularly U.S. term that excludes Canada, Mexico, and the rest of the Americas that stretch to the South Pole.

Cultural exchange has diminished, thus, especially over the last twenty years or so for myriad political, cultural, and economic reasons, making the U.S.’ link to its neighbors and compadres in Central and South America more fragile than it should be. Ironically, however, the illegal, profit-making exchange of cocaine, for instance, the precious “white stuff” that trails across Latin America from the valleys of Peru to the poorest sections of Rio de Janeiro, has increased threefold causing significant environmental damage to our sister countries, who are ravaged by political instability and a mutually beneficial government-to-drug trader illegal economy fueled by a violent, rogue mentality. The U.S.’ demand for cocaine, and it is in the US where the demand is the greatest according to studies released early in 2005, grows exponentially while the demand for listening and witnessing the voices of native, displaced, or hyphenated American artists from Latino and transnational neighborhoods across the U.S., Central, South America, and the Caribbean grows less.

“Make sure your play has lots of magic, cause that’s what a Latino play is,” a theatre producer said to me not long ago. As writers born into our Latinidad or of Latino heritage, we all have inherited somehow the peculiar dilemma of having to answer to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ magic realism. Instead of serving as imaginative models of liberation, Marquez’ work and that of other master storytellers have been used to limit Latino writers in their range of expression. The devil of censorship is less markedly visible here than in our sister countries, but it does exist and indeed plays a role in not only the way U.S. Latino stories are perceived, but how they are written and revived.

In the last four years alone, notable U.S. programs devoted to the development and showcasing of the Latino/a theatrical voice have been cut: South Coast Repertory Theatre’s Hispanic Playwrights Project, and Mark Taper Forum’s Latino Theatre Initiative (as well as all its other programs of diversity). The Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Los Angeles, which was created with the sole purpose of presenting Latino work, has shut down. Longstanding theatre company INTAR in New York City is undergoing not only a change in leadership but also a significant financial crisis. On television, news stories from Latin America and about U.S. Latinos is 14% of all coverage in both cable and network programming, even though population demographic figures assert that one in seven residents of the U.S. is Latino.

Budget cuts and increasing right-centred conservatism may be to blame for the lack of crucial support of Latino programming in the media at a level commensurate with the population growth and the rise in Spanish and Spanglish as second languages in the U.S., but an unspoken restriction placed upon the content and form of Latino writing is more at issue here. The complex, neo-baroque nature of Latino work and playwriting specifically goes against the lesspluralistic view of pictorial, emotional, and verbal languages preferred in U.S. Anglophone narratives. The fusion of Iberian, African, and indigenous origins shared by tens of millions reflected in Latino theatre’s transformative template is misunderstood and islabeled by U.S. critics and audiences. Latino writing, for example, is at its best African, Taino, Mayan, Mapache, Aztec, Guarani, Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish, as well as Cuban, Mexican, Colombian, Puerto Rican, Nuyorican, and Aboriginal; yet in a country where Native American stories are treated as “foreign,” how can Latino linguistic and political experiences north and south of the border as represented in the theatre and other genres be fully or partially recognized by those who witness them? If the U.S. national character seeks the deadpan as its most idealized mask, its most American face, how can it accommodate the stories told through a necessarily syncretic lens, one that refuses the erasure at the heart of the making of such a character? Retrieval and recovery becomes the predominant methodology for Latino artists in the telling and shaping of their stories. Bricolage is the modus operandi on the page as well as in the structuring of the urban neighborhood, as artists and citizens use largely recycled materials from different sides of the borders to reclaim and proclaim their identities. Thus, local histories and performance traditions are recuperated midst polycultural and polylingual theatrical mash-ups, which speak directly to the ongoing project of what America means.

Unmapping corners of the national psyche, Latino drama in the U.S. insists upon portraying its citizens outside the comfort of their own commonwealth, or at very least stranded in its limitations. Sometimes the stories move on a straight line and sometimes they zigzag and turn cartwheels in time and space. Comfortably plural in their disposition toward language, culture and identity, formally diverse writers such as Oliver Mayer, Naomi Iizuka, Jose Rivera and Alejandro Morales, for example, are engaged in a deep understanding and explication of the fact that Latinos love and perform in more than one language or nation. Latino dramatists have learned from Calderon de la Barca and Lope de Vega, as well as from Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Sam Shepard, Miguel Piñero, Luis Valdez, and Maria Irene Fornes. There is no reducible essence to Latinidad.

U.S. Latino theatre is due for a major revival, one that will inform the younger generation of what came before so they will continue the evolution of the theatre. Where is the allstar revival of Short Eyes, for instance, now that there have been revivals of A Raisin in the Sun, Twelve Angry Men, and several recent re-stagings of A Glass Menagerie, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and A Streetcar Named Desire? Where are the starry revivals of Zoot Suit, Abingdon Square, Promenade, and Roosters, for that matter, so we can better understand where Eduardo Machado, Jose Rivera, Oliver Mayer, Nilo Cruz, Migdalia Cruz, Octavio Solis, Anne Garcia-Romero, Bernardo Solano, Naomi Iizuka, Ricardo Bracho, Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, Luis Alfaro, and Cherrie Moraga (to name only a few of many talented writers)?

Latino playwrights are eternally on the border, straddling boundaries, and wondering if they fit in, if they want to fit in, and if so, why, and what can be gained by doing so beyond a little more significant cash in their pockets at the end of the day. Moreover, who is it that they are writing for? In effect, who is their audience?

This last question seems to be the most crucial if Latino theatre is to be truly re-mapped in the United States. For a long time, fellow practitioners have been the audience, not the secular folk out there who buy tickets. The other audience for Latino work has been primarily comprised of producers and funders, who graciously and patiently have viewed the works as eternally “in-progress” and/or as beautiful freaks that need to be watched over carefully lest they cause too much havoc. In between, there has existed a floating audience of arts patrons, Anglo Latinophiles, academics, and curious spectators willing to gamble on Latino playwriting talent to see what will come of it. But now, even with multiple stagings of Anna in the Tropics at regional theatres across the U.S., Latino dramatists are still writers in search of an audience. And unless they move into the more precarious and potentially rewarding worlds of film, pop music, hip-hop and/or rock en español, the subterranean culture of theatrical invisibility will continue.

Bridging the divide, if not eliminating the divide altogether, is the common goal. Yet no clear-cut strategies are in place to help the writers do so beyond the haven offered by the academy in terms of research and production, and the humble reward of the printed page where these voices have the possibility of living longer than on the U.S. or even the world stage. Two generations of dramatists have already spent years creating and producing work. In so doing, they have carved out an idiosyncratic place for it to live in the fractured and continually fractious U.S. landscape that is marked by a stubbornly binary public cultural discourse. These American dramatists have been poised time and again for mainstream glory with all the ostensible goodies such glory would afford. They have taken their work uptown and downtown and even back to the streets, while the climate of privatization has encroached upon the arts ever so steadily. As we look now at the magnificent map they have already made, it is time to realign and redraw the coordinates of their visions, so that their work is not taken out of their hands through censorship, the demands of living as part of the peasant class, or spirit-sucking enterprises that disable their ability to dream.

If as Latino theatre practitioners, as hemispheric artists, we take the step toward reconfiguring who we are now and who we want to be (and not who we want to be like), we will be able to fight the racism against dreaming that permeates U.S. culture, and offer the full measure of who we are as artists, thinkers, and citizens in this, our baby America.

1A substantially shorter version of this text was originally presented at the “Re-mapping Latino Theatre: American Playwrights on the Edge of the Edge” panel held at University of California-San Diego, USA in February-March 2005 moderated by Jorge Huerta and Caridad Svich.

2Alejandro Morales, from a private interview with the author, 2003.