Skip to content

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

Luis Valdez’ Actos and El Teatro Campesino

In 1965, Luis Valdez ushered in a new movement of civil rights protest with his formation of El Teatro Campesino, or the Farmworkers’ Theatre. Valdez’ theatre movement served as the cultural ambassador to Cesar Chávez’ civil rights activism by creating actos and performing them for other farmworkers in an attempt to bolster the strength of the union.

El Teatro Campesino was a troupe of striking farmworkers who performed brief actos, or commedia dell’arte-style sketches as a form of agit-prop theatre. This was a political theatre firmly based on improvisations of socio-political issues of the time. Nothing was traditional about this movement; these were Mexican-American/Chicano farmworkers who were eager to develop theatrical statements about their condition in an effort to ignite change.

On the surface, actos are essentially skits, but they transcend the simplicity of skits due to their social justice background. Valdez states, “We could have called them ‘skits,’ but we lived and talked in San Joaquín Spanish so we needed a name that name sense to the Raza.” Valdez’ actos were for the people by the people created to both educate and entertain. Its roots are in Bertolt Brecht’s lehrstucke (learning pieces) and agit-prop theatre of revolutionary Russia. Chicanos had issues that need to be expressed and the acto was the most efficient way to make a political statement and demonstrate the growing dissatisfaction with the status quo in the United States.

According to Valdez, the 5 goals of the acto are:

  1. Inspire the audience to social action
  2. Illuminate specific points about social problems
  3. Satirize the opposition
  4. Show or hint at a solution
  5. Express what people are thinking

Perhaps most notable is that the actos were created primarily through improvisation based on the experiences of the participants. Therefore, there was hardly a distinction between the worker and the actor; they were one in the same. By utilizing the personal experiences and stories of the workers, El Teatro Campesino was capable of creating theatre that accurately reflected its participants and audience. Valdez affirms, “In a Mexican way, we have discovered what Brecht is all about. If you want unbourgeois theater, find unbourgeois people to do it.” This aspect helped the Teatro to be more effective.

The acto in its most basic form only needs 2 characters and a conflict – information about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing. The conflict is the essential element that is necessary; through the acto, the participants seek a solution to the conflict. The actos worked to expose the problems of Chicano/Mexican-American workers. For decades, if not centuries, they had been an important workforce in the United States, especially in California. Far too often, their struggles had gone unnoticed or ignored. The Chicano Teatro Movement sought to eradicate their absence from history by giving the group voice. El Teatro Campesino marked the birth of the contemporary Chicano Theatre Movement and inspired other similar groups to follow their lead and illustrate the problems surrounding the farm workers.

El Teatro Campesino would travel around California and perform their actos at farms, fields, college campuses, churches, theaters, and community halls in an effort to create a cathartic experience for theatergoers.

Book Review: Thirty an’ Seen a Lot – Evangelina Vigil

Evangelina Vigil was one of the first writers to offer an intimate perspective of daily life in a Chicano barrio/neighborhood. This unique viewpoint is seen in her poetic series of barrio snapshots, Thirty an’ Seen a Lot. First of all, I love the title and picture of Vigil on the cover. It says it all. She is a confident Chicana decolonizing Hispanic women formerly seen as passive wives and girlfriends. The neon sign reads “Ladies Welcome,” inviting Vigil’s audience to join her and break free of patriarchal social constraints.

Thirty an’ Seen a Lot, published in 1982 by Arte Público Press, is a collection of bilingual poetry written during the years she lived in Houston, San Antonio, and Galveston. Subsequently, it demonstrates her growth and evolution as a poet. The principle themes of the work include daily life in the barrio, criticism of machismo, and the culture of the working class.

Notably, Vigil, as a poet, occupies a place formerly dominated by her male counterparts during the height of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Through her poetry, she is able to impose herself on Chicano Culture and take over a space typically reserved for men. She inverts stereotypical gender roles by embodying an aggressive persona. She acts, demands, orders, speaks, and decides; she is active.

One of my favorite poems from the collection is por la calle Zarzamora. This poem is well representative of Vigil’s active and aggressive style of poetry; she fully occupies the domain typically closed-off to Chicana women.

                entro a una cantina

                y como ciega busco mi lugar

                eso es muy importante

                luego ordeno una cerveza

                y me acomodo

After ordering her beer, she goes on to describe her fellow bar-goers: “los batos y señores.” Her presence here is completely normal and accepted by the male majority.

                y de rato a mi presencia se acostumbran

                y siguen con su onda natural

While Vigil breaks traditional feminine stereotypes, thus forcing her audience to question traditional Chicana femininity itself, the poem includes two other women who seem to typify a more stereotypical version of Hispanic women. Nevertheless, it appears that Vigil is celebrating who these women embody. She writes:

                entran por la puerta dos mujeres

                muy arregladas –

                o como decían más antes, bien ‘jitis’

                con olores de perfume

                y de aqua net hairspray:

                pues, se ven bien

Rather than relegate these women to second-tier status behind her own confidence existence, Vigil presents these women as strong ones. In fact, when a man hits on these women and offers them a drink, they kindly decline his offer. Similarly to ¡es todo!, Vigil is able to create a snapshot through her poetic language. In 30 or so lines of poetry, she paints a complete portrait of this particular aspect of life in the barrio while breaking down gendered stereotypes about who a Chicana woman is and can become.

Evangelina Vigil represents one of the many Chicana voices that emerged during the 1980s in a movement to include women in the greater Chicano Movement. Women such as Vigil, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Norma Alarcón, Sandra Cisneros, Carla Trujillo, etc. revolutionized the way we looked at the Chicano Nation. No longer was this a male dominated, exclusive patriarchy. While there still remains issues of sexism and inequality to this day, these women paved the way for other Chicanas to have agency and voice. This is a history that is still being written today. Writers Gwendolyn Zepeda, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, and Josefina López, among others, are still working on decolonizing Chicana women and including “her” story in “his” story (history).

Cherríe Moraga’s “La Guera”, Anzaldúa, and Chicana Feminism

Chicana Feminism emerged first and foremost in response to the sexism women experienced in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Despite their commitment to the movement, Chicana feminists saw that their interest in ending sexism and gender inequality within the Chicano Nation opposed the beliefs of Chicano Nationalism that emphasized family loyalty and traditional gender roles. Essentially, women were to fit within one of the three major female icons – La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Malinche, and La Llorona. This triad formed the parameters of traditional Chicana femininity and womanhood. Effectively, Chicana feminists who were strong in their convictions and beliefs were labeled malinchistas and vendidas (essentially sell-outs), among other things. These names come from the La Malinche myth (she was the mistress of and translator for Hernán Cortes during the Conquest).

In the 1980s, Chicana feminists, alongside other women of color, began to compare and contrast their experiences of oppression within their individual ethnic civil rights/nationalist movements as a means of theorizing their multiple forms of oppression. This movement produced many groundbreaking pieces of literature/theory such as the seminal anthology This Bridge Called My Back (1981, edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga). Works such as Bridge allowed women of color feminists to develop cross-color/identity/politics coalitions which used an intersectional approach of race, class, gender, and sexuality as a means of explaining their individual oppressive conditions in the United States.

In “La conciencia de la mestiza” (Mestiza Consciousness) (1987, in Borderlands), Anzaldúa develops the idea of a Chicana consciousness which allows her to have a more accurate perspective on the world and permits her to see the “Chicana anew in light of her history” and to see through “the fictions of white supremacy” (87). Anzaldúa discusses her motivation to discover objective knowledge about herself and her place in society/the world: “I seek our woman’s face, our true features, the positive and the negative seen clearly, free of the tainted biases of male dominance. I seek new images of identity, new beliefs about ourselves, our humanity and worth no longer in question” (87). Anzaldúa, in another chapter of Borderlands, introduces the concept of la facultad, which is a survival tactic, a skill that marginalized people develop. It allows people to adjust to changing and threatening situations and is one that involves a loss of innocence and an awareness of discrimination, depression, fear, illness, and death. It is a process that involves pain.

Moraga’s “La Guera” appears in Bridge as well as in Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (1983). Moraga reinforces the notion that Chicanas’ political activism and struggle are more often than not based on knowledge that is gained from their experiences of political struggle. “La Güera” highlights Moraga’s coming-to-consciousness and her development of la facultad and awareness and understanding of her marginalized position in the world. She always felt that something was missing, that something was wrong.

In the preface of Bridge, Moraga notes her growing awareness of her differences from white women:

“A few days ago, an old friend said to me how when she first met me, I seemed to white to her. I said in honesty, I used to feel more white. You know, I really did. But at the meeting last night with white women here on this trip, I have felt so very dark: dark with anger, with silence, with the feeling of being walked over. I wrote in my journal: ‘My growing consciousness as a woman of color is surely seeming to transform my experience. How could it be that the more I feel with other women of color, the more I feel myself Chicana, the more susceptible I am to racist attack!” (xv).

This conscious raising experience is precisely what Moraga describes in her oft-anthologized essay “La Güera.” Her Chicana consciousness allows her to better reinterpret the things that have happened and happen to her due to her new perspective of the world. Moraga explains how she had previously refused to recognize the US racial hierarchy and had used her light skin as privilege while rejecting the Chicana within. Moraga’s friend tells her: “No wonder you felt like such a nut in school. Most of the people there were white and rich” (30-31). It appears that before this statement, Moraga has not truly understood and realized that she was neither rich nor white. She didn’t understand how much influence social categories have on a person’s existence:

“All along I had felt the difference, but not until I had put the words ‘class’ and ‘color’ to the experience, did my feelings make any sense. For years, I had berated myself for not being as ‘free’ as my classmates. I completely bought that they simply had more guts than I did – to rebel against their parents and run around the country hitch-hiking, reading books and studying ‘art.’ They had enough privilege to be atheists, for chrissake… But I knew nothing about ‘privilege’ then. White was right. Period. I could pass. If I got educated enough, there would never be any telling” (31).

When Moraga’s identity more accurately refers to her social position, she is able to conceptualize a more accurate perspective on the world. Effectively, this new perspective and consciousness is more objective as well. By viewing her coming-to-consciousness as a Chicana and woman of color, we can see that her changing political commitments are linked to her transforming idea of what her place in society is versus what it should be. Moraga’s transformation is a result of a need for truth and the hope of creating an objectively better world. Her Chicana identity allows her to have a better perspective from which to recognize oppression and, therefore, combat the oppressive nature of race and class privilege (among other privileges). By joining forces with other women of color (forming coalitions), permits a valuable dialogue that hopefully creates a liberating feminist collective. Essentially, Moraga’s decision to embrace her Chicana identity is a based on her best belief about what she should do to help end oppressive forces.

Some things to consider:

– The intersectionality of race and sex.
– Moraga’s coming-to-consciousness
– Anzaldúa’s “Conciencia de la mestiza” (Mestiza Consciousness) and la facultad in “La Güera”
– The Border (“Homeland, Aztlán”) as theorized by Anzaldúa  and its influence on forming Chicana identity