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The Use of Theatre in Mexican-American Culture Essay

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Latinos are currently the largest minority group in the United States, and Mexican-Americans are the largest group within the Latino population. It may be unfathomable for the younger generations to think of the Mexican population in the United States as a silent minority group; however, it was not until after World War II that we see a rise in Chicano nationality and identity movements. What was the role of the theatre in this discovery of identity, and how did the theatre give social voice to this formerly unheard group?

The clearest answer to this question can be found through the Teatro Chicano movement, Luis Valdez’s character El Pachuco in Zoot Suit and the performance art pieces and writings of Luis Alfaro. The name El Teatro Chicano is actually a blanket term used to describe an entire theatrical movement by the Mexican-American population in the United States. Established in 1965, Luis Valdez’s El Teatro Campesino (literally, Farmworkers’ Theatre) was the most famous of the Chicano Theatres; however it was hardly the only participant within the movement.

In 1971 there were over 25 groups that defined themselves as Chicano Theatres (Huerta 15). The basic guidelines of El Teatro Chicano were simply to be a community-based movement committed to exposing social issues and injustices within the barrios, or hyper-segregated Mexican neighborhoods. The mission of Teatro Chicano was based on the understanding of the ancestral Mayan concept of “In Lak’ech”, which states “you are my other me, so I must respect you as I do myself.

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” The foundation of Teatro Chicano not only traced back to the Native American ancestors of the Mexican-American community, but it also sought to use this ancestry to restore a sense of identity and to encourage Mexicans in the United States to hold onto their roots (Huerta 16). Unlike other theatre and social change movements, El Teatro Chicano was not really interested in injustice as a whole, but rather injustice from the vantage point of the Mexican-American.

The specificity of the movement also helped to distinguish the Mexican identity from a general marginalized group identified by the blanked term of ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ to a unique faction with a personalized perspective (Huerta 15). There has been little research done on teatros other than Teatro Campesino, most likely due to the fact that El Teatro Chicano was not a very organized or professional movement. Pieces were often performed outdoors, on street corners or in other high traffic areas.

Little concern was given to production quality because the content of the message was the primary focus (Kanellos 65). Valdez felt there was a want for more unity and communication between participants as well as a need for more training of Chicano performers in El Teatro Chicano, so in the summer 1971 he held the first meeting of El Teatro Nacional de Aztlan, or TENAZ. The workshop was considered a “success”, and 15 participants were taught different Teatro ‘techniques’ and swapped ideas for topics and themes for new performance art pieces (Huerto 14).

Ironically Valdez, the founder of TENAZ, was eventually excluded from the workshop because he was criticized for creating works that were too ‘spiritual’ and that avoided the real issues of poverty, employment and discrimination (Elam 116 – 117). The fundamental performance utilized by El Teatro Chicano was the acto, a term coined by Luis Valdez. Actos are performance are pieces that are used to “inspire the audience to social action” and put emphasis on the social vision (Broyles-Gonzalez 25).

While they were usually scripted, they were never actually written down and performers often took a lot of artistic license with the pieces (Broyles-Gonzalez 22). The actos performed by various Teatros Chicanos often faced serious opposition, even by members of the Mexican community. In an effort to remain ‘true to reality’ the actos often contained extreme profanity, coarse subject matters and graphic violence.

It was not uncommon for Teatro Chicano performers to be thrown out of venues because of the vulgarity of the actos, so performers constantly struggled between the choice of softening the pieces for the sake of the audience or remaining true their perception of the social reality (Huerta 17). Though it may have lacked in unity and professionalism, the El Teatro Chicano helped to instill pride in the Mexican identity and spur discussion of injustice and social action. In his essay Concerning Teatro Chicano, J. A.

Huearta states: “Teatros are converting Chicanos who used to be ashamed of their heritage; teatros are bringing socio-political realities to the people in a way they cannot ignore; teatros are educating people” (Huerta 18). During his work with El Teatro Campesino, Luis Valdez was commissioned to write Zoot Suit by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. The play would tell the story of the racially biased trials of the Sleepy Lagoon Murders, where seventeen pachucos, Mexican gang members, were convicted of first-degree murder, and the Zoot Suit Riots that ensued due to the verdict (Jacobs 27).

Through much opposition from the Anglo-dominated theatre world, the play debuted at the Taper, made its way to Broadway in 1979 and was later made into a film in 1981. Much of the opposition to the play was due to the unwillingness to change the character of El Pachuco, the prototype of the 1940s Mexican gangster and Valdez’s personification of the Chicano identity (Kanellos 97). In an interview soon after the release of the film Zoot Suit Valdez commented on the character of El Pachuco: “He is the rebel. The recalcitrant rebel who refuses to give in, who refuses to bend, refuses to admit that he is wrong. He is incorrigible.

And the way that the Pachuco appears in the film and in the play makes a very strong statement. The stance is almost ideological, even cultural; it’s mythical. They know then, the Anglo critics…that what this figure represents is a self-determined identity; it comes from its own base. That’s been my argument all along through my work; that we have our own fundamental base from which to work” (Kanellos 98). To Valdez, the idea of the Pachuco was not to glorify the lifestyle of the 1940’s gangster (which many accused him of doing), but rather find an archetype within whom the Mexican-American community could find their identity.

The pachuco refused to assimilate to the dominant white culture, and while he may inhabit some extreme character flaws, Valdez finds his struggle for identity worthy of acclaim (Kanellos 101). Valdez also argues that he presents both good and bad sides to El Pachuco, as to not present him as a villain or hero, but rather and “abstract person” who acts as a sort of “internal authority” for the Mexican-American (Kanellos 98). The pachuco is clearly seen as the symbol of Chicano identity in the second act of Zoot Suit.

El Pachuco stands before the court and is stripped of his zoot suit, the representation of his new identity, and is reduced to nothing but a loin cloth, the representation of his ancestral Native-American identity (Valdez Act II, Scene 6). Despite the persecution, El Pachuco still refuses to give into the dominant culture. It is clear that Valdez sought to instill ideas of pride and heritage within the Chicano community through his character of El Pachuco, but his plight did not go unopposed, even by members of his own racial community.

Along with the disdain held for the lifestyle of the pachuco, Valdez was also criticized for marginalizing women through the “machisimo” or male domination of his plays (Jacobs 28). In Zoot Suit and other Valdez plays women’s roles were restricted to four characters: mother, grandmother, sister and love interest. Women also strictly fell into the category of “good woman” or “bad woman” and never had the character complexity or struggle like that of El Pachuco (Broyles-Gonzalez).

In her article Elizabeth Jacobs writes: “…Valdez promotes an exclusively male version of events and a perspective reflecting the essentializing tendencies of movement ideology which dichotomized a ‘monolithic’ male Chicano identity in response to Anglo-American domination” (Jacobs 29). It seems that though Valdez was attempting to fight the dominant group by creating a sense of identity for the Chicanos, he arguably did so by marginalizing another minority group.

To this criticism Valdez has been cited as saying, “Anytime that a new identity is created, it emerges as a power that is raw, terrible and disgusting to some, and glorious to others” (Kanellos 99). A more recent example of the use of theatre to spur social change for the Mexican-American community can be found in the performance art pieces of Luis Alfaro. As seems to be a common thread linking Chicano theatre, Alfaro’s pieces have the tendency to disturb audiences with their subject matter and/or physical performance, but do not seem to be quite as offensive as the actos performed by El Teatro Chicano members.

Through his writings Alfaro advocates “throwing one’s identity in the face of others, making oneself fabulous, daring to tell the truth, to tell one’s own story” (Bonney 296). In his piece entitled Abuelita Alfaro speaks from the perspective of a ten year old boy with an extreme disdain for his Abuelita (grandmother). As the piece continues it becomes rather obvious that Abuelita stands as a symbol for old Mexican heritage and tradition. He shows a bloody finger and tells of a time when his Abuelita stuck it in her noting that I was “the only way that Abuelita knows how to stop the bleeding” (Bonney 298).

He later shows a bloody finger on his other hand and tells how other Latinos are afraid to touch his wound, alluding to the idea that they are afraid he is infected with HIV because he’s gay. He ends the piece by how he wishes for Abuelita in these times of “plague…loss…sorrow…mourning…and shame” (Bonney 298 – 299). This comparison between the Abuelita, or the Mexican culture and heritage of old, who embraces him even if the manner seems simplistic and crude and the modern

Latino community who rejects his wounds serves as a more subtle call to the Mexican community to embrace one another as their ancestors did (much like the afore mentioned Mayan concept of In Lak’ech). In another performance peace entitled Mu Mu Approaches, Alfaro consumes an entire box of Twinkies while a voice over tells a story of the rejection of “Mu Mu”, another woman who seems to stand for Mexican heritage and culture. (Bonney 299 – 300). Both the words of Alfaro’s piece and the gluttonous consumption of an entire box of Twinkies, a very “American” food, convey the dangers of over assimilation and neglect of one’s heritage.

While Alfaro’s theatrical pieces definitely contribute to the establishment of a Chicano identity, he does not fall directly in line with the movement of El Teatro Chicano or that of Luis Valdez. Alfaro’s pieces often rejected oppression and marginalization in general; he did not only concern himself with the struggle of the Mexican-American. The lack of continuity could be attributed to many different things, but I think it is important to note that Alfaro’s homosexuality could be a reason for his apparent deviation from the mission of El Teatro Chicano.

Both the Teatro movement and Luis Valdez have received extreme criticism from both feminist and gay rights groups, and were even called “homophobic” by some (Elam 32). There is no present research linking Alfaro’s sexual orientation and his divergence from El Teatro and Luis Valdez; however the connection does seem possible. There is no denying that theatre has played a significant role in giving a social voice to the Chicano community as well as creating a distinguished identity for them in the United States.

However, there also is no denying that the highlighted theatre movements are not without weaknesses, some more striking than others. El Teatro Chicano devoted itself entirely to the Mexican population, but in some ways it may have promoted the same type of ethnocentrisms that it was created to fight. Luis Valdez tried to create a sense of pride an identity for the Mexican-American through his character of El Pachuco, but it was arguably at the expense of the women of the Chicano community.

Luis Alfaro’s performance pieces, while not without flaws, seem to have progressed some from those before him. Perhaps, as stated before, this has something to do with his sexual-orientation, or perhaps it is simply due to the natural evolution of learning from those who have gone before you. Alfaro’s work gives hope that future Mexican performers, writers and directors will develop even farther down the path of social enlightenment, and that perhaps one day oppressed communities will be able to find liberation without the marginalization of someone else.

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