Monthly Archives: July 2016

Tintero Projects: Writing/Righting Houston

Even though people from outside of Houston continue to think the city has no culture, H-Town is full of life and it’s “the literary world’s best-kept secret.” Besides being home to Arte Público Press, the University of Houston’s high-ranking MFA in Creative Writing, WITS, Inprint, Nuestra Palabra, WriteSpace, and Literal, Houston is now home to Tintero Projects. Founded by the visionary duo of Lupe and Jasminne Mendez, Tintero’s mission is to create a space to nurture the future Latin@ storytellers of the United States, with Houston as its main hub.

In March 2016, I interviewed Lupe about his activism, writing, and founding Tintero Projects:

For brown writers in the Houston-Galveston area, there aren’t any Latino-centric places to write from. There is no place to call home for Latino writing—no venues that host workshops or open mic nights for emerging Latinx writers. I want to change that. (…) I want to be able to help polish up new writers, set them up for success, get them ready for the time when they will get a bigger spotlight on the NP [Nuestra Palabra] stage, get them ready for the next platform.

If you haven’t read Lupe’s “Open Letter to the Houston Poetry Scene,” then open the link in a new tab and read it when you finish this blog.

Earlier this month, Tintero formally began with readings at Casa Ramirez and the Inprint House featuring powerhouse poets Yesenia Montilla, Denice Frohman, Malcolm Friend, and Raina León, with Lupe and Jasminne warming up the standing room only crowds. To bring these West and East Coast writers to the Gulf Coast was a powerful way to launch Tintero. As in many cases, the coastal bias tends to disregard the center of the country and the Gulf Coast especially. With Lupe and Jasminne at the helm, Tintero is bridging east and west and centering Houston as the epicenter in a literary movement that will see emerging Latin@ writers becoming the future of this nation’s literary arts scene (See: “Houston and Texas, the inkwells of poetry for Latino writers” by Olivia P. Tallet). The next phases of Tintero’s strategic plan will involve workshops and open mic nights for emerging writers.

Tintero launched with Latin@ fierceness that would ignite any community. Here, you had four knockout poets, three of which are Afro-Latin@ (not to mention Lupe and Jasminne who are knockouts in their own right). While this shouldn’t feel like a statement, it was. As Jasminne Mendez and Houston-based writer Icess Fernandez-Rojas have written about extensively, Afro-Latin@s still face issues of invisibility and identity policing even within their own communities (while I have you here, check out #TeatroLatinegro and Houston playwright Jelisa Jay Robinson’s work). I asked Icess to share some thoughts about Tintero:

For the first time in recent memory, there was more than one Afro-Latino writer reading in Houston at one time. See, Houston is one of the most literary cities in America but one thing it doesn’t have is a lot of Afro Latino writers.

The latest Tintero Reading was amazing. As an Afro Latino writer, it was air. The experiences of being in between two worlds – black and Latino – and existing in spaces where we have to choose, was apparent in their writing. From music to love, existing in this skin was painted their words and it was everything. I was seen that night and all my experiences were validated. This is what art does.

To use Tintero as a space to begin a dialogue about the intersections between Blackness and Latinidad in our community demonstrates the type of work that the project will undertake. Perhaps more now than ever, we need to be having nuanced conversations about Afro-Latinidad and multicultural identities.  And why shouldn’t the arts be the vehicle to ignite this conversation, to ignite social change?

5 Highlights from Tintero’s Launch:

  • Yesenia Montilla’s ode to rapper Notorious B.I.G., “Notorious.” You can read two of her poems here.
  • Denice Frohman’s poem that troubled the idea of “home.” Houston-based performer and playwright Josh Inocéncio was particularly inspired by Frohman’s poem about genocide: “Denice’s eloquent takedown of schools that ignore teaching genocide–creating a society with cultural amnesia–has inspired me to get into the classroom, the streets, the local newspaper (anywhere I can!) to educate students from all walks of life.”
  • Malcolm Friend’s poem about white people mistaking him for other black men who look absolutely nothing like him (even Philly’s Mayor Nutter!). I am waiting impatiently for Malcolm to finish his MFA and publish his book.
  • And Raina León’s, well, pretty much everything about her was perfection to me, but, if I had to choose, then the moment that touched me the most was the poem that began with her singing “Maybe” from Cabaret. Yes to an Afro-Latina Sally Bowles. Yes to Raina León. Yes to all of it!
  • Jasminne Mendez and Lupe Méndez both performed, warming up the crowd. Even though I could likely recite many of their poems from memory, I will never grow tired of hearing them both. They are familia to me and I will unwaveringly support them for as long as I can and you should, too.

While the poets (including Lupe and Jasminne) came from distinct cultural backgrounds and brought different life experiences to Tintero, all touched on the intricacies of identity in 2016 América. More so, all spoke to the power of art, poetry, and creative writing to heal both individual and community. Art is powerful. Art heals. Art saves. Art builds community. And as art does all of these things, so will Tintero Projects in Houston, Tejas, and across the Gulf Coast. I’ve known Lupe and Jasminne for years. They are change-makers. When they have a vision, they make it a reality. Houston is in for something special. Stay tuned.

Raina León reading at Tintero Projects

Raina León reading at Tintero Projects

Casting an “Authentic” IN THE HEIGHTS

In July 2015, I spent four days experiencing Chicago’s robust Latin@ theatre scene as a participant in the Latina/o Theatre Commons’ Carnaval of New Latina/o Work hosted by the Theatre School at DePaul University. Aside from Latin@ theatre companies such as Aguijón Theater, Teatro Luna, Teatro Vista, and Visión Latino; Chicago is home to a rich talent pool of directors, producers, designers, dramaturgs, and playwrights that were on display at Carnaval. But above all, my biggest takeaway from the weekend was the amount of talented Latin@ actors that performed in the 12 play readings at Carnaval. I simply couldn’t believe that Chicago had so many high-quality Latin@ actors. It blew me away. Many people commented on this. On Café Onda, Tiffany Ana López noted, “Nearly all of the presented work was distinguished by strong dramatic writing that, without exception, was well directed and superbly acted. The consistent strength, sophistication, and nuance of the performances made Chicago appear a veritable mecca for Latina/o actors.” By any measure, we all can agree that Chicago has a talented and deep acting pool. Yet, the recent casting announcements of Evita and In the Heights in Chicago have been met with resistance due to the lack of Latin@ talent on and off stage. So what’s going on in the Windy City? Let’s look at the two instances.

First, in March 2016 the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois (just north of Chicago) announced a cast for the musical Evita that included only one Latin@ actor. This outraged the Latin@ and allied theatre community, not only locally but nationally, as well. Chicago actor Bear Bellinger spoke out against the casting announcement, “Using only one actor of Latin descent is irresponsible to that truth and a lost opportunity to feature a group of people who are regularly ignored on our stages.” Marriott Theatre soon responded. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, executive producer Terry James claimed, “If we had our choice, the entire cast would be Latino. It’s not a conscious choice. We can only cast the actors that audition for us.” Director and choreographer Alex Sanchez reiterated this point,

We obviously were looking for Latin American actors. There weren’t very many, like a handful, that we had seen. (…) It think if there was a gripe about it, what I have to say is then to come out and audition. Put yourself out there. Take the risk and audition for these shows. We can only hire the people that come.

Yes, it is true that you can only hire the people who come. But, what kind of outreach was done to the Latin@ acting community to ensure that information was widely distributed and accessible? Did Marriot Theatre reach out to the Alliance of Latino Theatre Artists in Chicago?

On the Chicago Inclusion Project, director-playwright Tlaloc Rivas even saw this moment as a tipping point.

This Hemisphere of the Americas—that includes North, South, and Central territories—is not the same one that allowed Evita to emerge in the 80’s. The world is much more fluid, dynamic, multiethnic – and to ignore that in 21st century is akin to claiming men should only perform the works of Shakespeare.

Has Evita, along with West Side Story, reached its Mikado moment? Has those musical’s origins—with its inauthentic portrayal of ethnic or foreign life, written by white men and originally played by a predominantly white casts—to be done today? Or should it not be done if it can’t be cast authentically?

Musicals that take place within a Hispanic/Latino culture but that have historically excluded any creative or artistic input from Hispanic/Latino artists and performers haven’t necessarily had to face such a measurement in any significant way. Until today. Because today, there are no excuses, and to claim that all efforts were made for diversity in casting falls rings false. I’m surprised that the producers didn’t cite the recent casting call of Hamilton in Chicago as the reason they couldn’t find any performers of color.

After all, Evita was originally done with few Latin@s and featured Anglo actors Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin as Eva Perón and Che Guevera, respectively. But as Rivas notes, in 2016 there are no excuses. This is not the 1970s in which Evita premiered. Casting an inclusive Evita shouldn’t be an option, but should be a requirement of producing the show.

Carnaval 3

The Latina/o Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Work at The Theatre School at DePaul University

Fast forward to July 18, 2016. Porchlight Music Theatre proudly announced the cast for Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ 2008 Tony Award winning musical In the Heights which featured a white actor playing Miranda’s theatrical doppelganger Usnavi, the musical’s main character. Additionally, as many social media users have pointed out, the creative team is predominately non-Latin@. While we cannot determine if someone is or isn’t Latin@ based on name and appearance alone, casting a white actor as Usnavi is egregious enough. Nevertheless, there are still obvious missteps on Porchlight’s part. Artistic director Michael Weber noted:

After an exhaustive audition process, during which we saw hundreds of the Chicago-area’s diverse music theater talent—both established and new—and even reached out to our city’s vast hip-hop dance community, we are excited to introduce the cast…We have made every effort to present a company that reflects the true spirit of this story of community…

Every effort? While Evita is a British musical written by white men telling an Argentine story, In the Heights is a Latin@ musical in every regard and, as such, has been well-received by the Latin@ community. This is to say that to miscast Evita is one thing, but to whitewash In the Heights takes the issues of race, ethnicity, and casting to a new level. By all means and purposes, casting white actors in roles written for Latin@s in professional theatre is unacceptable (See: Should Latina/o Roles Be Cast with Non-Latina/o Actors?). Moreover, as arts advocate Howard Sherman notes, “Without ever using the word Latino (let alone Latino/a, Latinao or Latinx), this statement comes off as Weber patting his own theatre on the back for working so very hard to meet the basic requirements of the musical he chose.”

As some have pointed out (on Facebook), this casting decision gentrifies a show that is about a community fighting against gentrification. Evidently, Porchlight fails to comprehend the lived realities of Latin@s all across the nation who face many of the issues seen in Miranda and Hudes’ musical. This especially rings true when a white man is cast as Usnavi. These roles were written by Latin@s for Latin@ actors. The Latin@ community wants their stories told, but in an ethical way that speaks with the community in question. To gentrify In the Heights is to completely miss the point of the musical.

Furthermore, the casting announcement by Hedy Weiss of Sun-Times refers to the cast as “unusually ‘authentic.’” Aside from the use of the word “unusually” here, I am left questioning authenticity. How do we measure authenticity? While I am certainly not the judge of this, I would argue that, given the In the Heights casting, Porchlight Music Theatre is surely not the best judge of authenticity and Latinidad. What is more, much of the creative team is not Latin@, including the director and designers. Weighing in on the discussion of authenticity, Howard Sherman also wonders about the use of the word “authentic”: “Aren’t all casts authentic, in that the actors are who they say they are and will be playing the roles they’re announced to play?”

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Georgia, Aurora Theatre and Theatrical Outfit are mounting a co-production of In the Heights with that features Latin@s in the principal roles (and much of the ensemble), with Diego Klock-Perez as Usnavi, Courtney Flores as costume designer, María Cristina Fusté as lighting designer, etc. That in the Atlanta metropolitan area these two companies can produce the show as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes intended and a theatre company in Chicago cannot is mystifying.

While there are certainly many factors at play, perhaps this is a testament to Anthony Rodriguez’s leadership at Aurora. Nevertheless, a theatre company need not have a Latin@ artistic director to produce a Latin@ play. But the company does need to do the community outreach to ethically produce shows such as In the Heights, Anna in the Tropics, and Zoot Suit. If you can’t field a majority Latin@ cast and hire a predominately Latin@ creative team, then perhaps do a different show. While non-Latin@ theatre companies should be encouraged to produce Latin@ work, this goes beyond simply mounting a show. If theatres truly want to engage in conversations of equity, diversity, and inclusion, then they first need to look at how their company is run from top-to-bottom. For starters, what is the racial and gendered make-up of your staff? What are your audience demographics? What stories are being told on your stage? In the end, being an ally isn’t about patting yourself on the back. It’s about recognizing your privilege and how you can use it to enact change. It’s about listening and putting your own self-interests aside. Be committed, hire a more diverse staff, do the outreach to actors of color, and engage with the local community. Then mount In the Heights when you can ethically do so, in a way that truly connects with the community by speaking with the community and not for it.


***For more on this conversion, please see:

***Update, 8:06 pm, July 20, 2016*** The original version of this blog said that few Latin@ actors were cast in principal roles for In the Heights. As more information has become available, this has been redacted.

Carnaval 2

The Latina/o Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Latina/o Work at The Theatre School at DePaul University

4 Takeaways from Creative Writing Camp

Right out of undergrad I had a gig teaching middle school, however after teaching at the college level for the last seven years it feels like a lifetime ago. Before my experience with Writers in the Schools’ (WITS) Creative Writing Camp (CWC) the thought of teaching middle schoolers made me a bit nervous. And to tell the truth, I’m not even sure why. I really loved the year I taught middle school. I only left because I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. full-time.

Looking back, it was easily one of the most positive teaching experiences I’ve ever had and here are my four takeaways:

  1. 10 year olds can do as much as 13 year olds, if not more

When I first looked at the class roster and saw the age range I thought it would be difficult to teach 10 and 13 year olds at the same time. It wasn’t. In fact, while teaching I barely thought of age differences in the classroom. I looked at them all equally as writers and taught in the normal way I always teach. I spoke to them as if they were adults. Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t get (really) goofy at times, dancing, singing, etc., but as my college students will attest, that’s how I teach. It’s just who I am.

  1. They were obsessed with the rules and with labels

On the third day, I went to begin my lesson based on Lupe Méndez’s “A Poem About My Name” when one particularly inquisitive young writer asked me:

Her: Are you an author?
Me: We are all authors! All of us in this room!
Her: No, but are you a published author?
Me: Yes, I’ve published a lot of things and so have some of you in this room. And we are going to publish an anthology at the end of camp!
Her: I know, but are you an author?
Me: Yes.

All of this is to say that I spent two weeks trying to inspire these kids to recognize that they can be writers and whatever else they want to be. The possibilities are endless.

As far as the rules, blame it on testing or the age, but one of the biggest struggles of camp was to empower our young writers to not worry so much about the rules. Many of them were overly concerned with structure and style, but we continually told them that this was an opportunity to hone their individual writing style and not worry about forcing rhyme schemes or a certain number of lines or syllables. My co-teacher and I worked to privilege the individual and help each of them reach a positive space with their creativity and writing.

  1. Having a co-teacher was transformative

One of the best parts about CWC is having a co-teacher in the room. And did I have a good one! I was lucky enough to be paired with Sarah Jerasa and, within a few days, our students were asking us if we had been friends for years. Nope. We met not even two weeks prior at Rice University during CWC orientation. That Sarah and I clicked on so many levels from the first minute is really a testament to WITS’ match.com-esque “formula” for pairing co-teachers.

I’m sure the fact that Sarah and I gelled so well aided in this, but not having to stretch myself thin across 21 students was a game-changer in every way. We were able to team teach nearly all of our lessons, jumping back-and-forth between the both of us every step of the process. We could give each writer personalized attention during “office hours” and writing workshops. For the anthology and end-of-camp celebration poems, many writers benefited from having both Sarah and I offer feedback. Not to mention, I learned tons from Sarah—new lessons, new methods, new jokes (there were a lot of laughs!). Simply put, Sarah inspired me to become a better educator.

  1. I wrote every day, but not what I expected to write

In May, I hit a writing plateau while finishing my book manuscript. I hoped that being around so much creative energy would help me to push through. For the most part it did. I wrote everyday (both at camp and when I got home), but not what I expected to write. Instead of a finished book manuscript, I now have a series of poems about my name, growing up in New Orleans, gumbo, my family, and other tidbits from my life so far. During our 15-20 minute free-writes to start the day throughout the second week, I journaled—something I hadn’t done in about 8 years. All of this is to say that prioritizing writing and making time to write everyday (however you define that) is an important step in my process as a writer. While each writer should find their own process, writing everyday works for me. It makes it a habit. On days when I don’t write, everything feels off-balanced. Moreover, I find that writing everyday helps me to push through writer’s block. When I prioritize my writing, I never have trouble putting words on the page. Admittedly, this involves learning what works best for you, creating an optimal writing environment, and being in control of things you can actually control.

Demanding Action and Attention to Latina/o Theatre in Dallas: Deferred Action by David Lozano and Lee Trull

“Why hasn’t Congress passed an immigration reform bill that would protect the DREAMers and their families?” This is the central premise of Deferred Action, a new play co-written by David Lozano (Artistic Director of Cara Mía Theatre Company) and Lee Trull (Director of New Play Development at the Dallas Theater Center). Deferred Action played at the Dallas Theater Center’s Wyly Theater from April 20-May 14 under the direction of David Lozano. Deferred Action is the second piece in a trilogy on immigration that Cara Mía began with The Dreamers: A Bloodline (2013), which tells the story of a mother fleeing El Salvador for the United States with her baby—a key part of Deferred Action’s plot.

Democrats. Republicans. Politicians. Activists. No one is left unscathed.

The collaboration between Dallas Theater Center (DTC) and Cara Mía began in 2009 when newly-minted DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty attended Cara Mía’s production of Crystal City 1969, a company-devised play that dramatizes the Chicana/o civil rights movement in South Texas. Moriarty approached Lozano about both companies working on a new play that would continue Cara Mía’s work of staging Latina/o political history. This is the first collaboration between Dallas’s leading regional theatre and one of its leading Latina/o theatres, a unique collaboration that has involved Lozano and Trull co-writing the piece and a production that features actors from both theatre companies. Indeed, one of the most powerful parts of Deferred Action is seeing several Cara Mía company members make their DTC and major regional theatre debuts.

Continue Reading at Café Onda/HowlRound

Houston, We Have a Problem! Excluding Latina/o Stories in Tejas

In 2013, Smithsonian Magazine heralded Houston as the “Next Great American City,” citing its ethnic and cultural transformation over the last few decades as well as its reputation as a city where people can achieve the so-called “American Dream.” The Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University released a study that showed how Houston holds the nation’s most equitable distribution of the country’s major racial and ethnic groups: Asian, Latina/o, black, and white people. In Harris County, the demographics reveal that white people comprise only 33 percent of the population whereas Latina/os are 41 percent and African Americans 18.4 percent. In fact, of the population under 30-years-old, only 22 percent are white. The same year, an NPR feature celebrated this rich diversity. Still, in 2012 Pew Research Center ranks Houston as the most economically segregated city in the nation.

Houston is growing at an astronomical pace and there is no evidence that this is slowing down. Luckily, the arts are along for this ride. In 2015 and 2016 alone, the city has seen an unprecedented boom in the arts. The Alley Theatre just completed a $46.5 million makeover. The $25 million MATCH (Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston) opened with four theatres, an art gallery, rehearsal space, and office space. Main Street Theatre unveiled a $2 million overhaul of their space. AD Players Theater broke ground on a $49 million facility in the Galleria area that will house three theatres, a scenic shop, classrooms, and offices. Queensbury Theatre (formerly the Country Playhouse) opened its new $6.5 million theatre. And the Museum of Fine Arts Houston broke ground on its $450 million expansion (including a theatre).

Despite what the demographics and influx of cultural arts activity reveals, Latina/o representation on stage in Houston is few and far between. In the 2015–2016 theatre season, out of all the full productions at the city’s leading professional theatres such as the Alley, Stages Repertory Theatre, and Main Street Theatre, only two were by a Latina/o author: The Danube by Maríe Irene Fornés at Catastrophic Theatre and The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz at Stages. To repeat, in a city with over 2.1 million people (over 5 million in the metro area) at least 40 percent of which are Latina/o, there were only two Latina/o plays produced during the entire professional theatre season. To me, these numbers are startling and reveal that Houston is wildly behind other places with similar demographic diversity across the country such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago where Latina/o stories are frequently seen on a variety of stages: big, small, Latina/o, LORT, university, high school—you name it.

Continue reading at Café Onda/HowlRound