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Latin American Experience

henry romero

Spanish and, later, French influence on Latin American theater restricted its autonomous development well into the twentieth century, but by the 1940s we see emerging a largely experimental theater that can be labeled “Latin American.” Prior to the universal recognition of writers like Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, and Julio Cortázar in the 1960s, which seems to have popularized Latin American literature, any Latin American writings were hard to find. Even still, the amount of published Latin American drama in the United States hardly reflects the wealth that exists. Many Latin American playwrights, who live and work in Central and South American nations, write only in Spanish, and are largely unpublished. Even the work of Latin American playwrights in the United States was mostly in Spanish until the 1970s, when they began to switch to English, partly because so many Latin Americans had assimilated to the point where they spoke only English.

One of the few early mainstream representations of Latin Americans with which people would be familiar was the Puerto Rican gang in West Side Story (1957). Although the hot-headed, musically inclined underclass depicted there may seem like stereotypes in an age of heightened racial awareness, they are at least sympathetic stereotypes, and their presence in America, away from the poverty of their homeland in search of a better life, is a familiar Latin American story. But the musical’s exploration of the Latin American experience is minimal at best. The plays discussed in this chapter have been published (and performed) in English, and are fully focused on Latin American experiences.

The onset of Latin American playwriting within the United States, as with most ethnic theater, began with playwrights mostly addressing audiences of their own ethnicity, concentrating on domestic situations, and often writing in a realistic style. However, since the 1980s, ethnic playwrights in general have become bolder in their attacks on white mainstream interpretations of American history and culture, grappling with aspects of American pop culture that threaten their identity and illuminating particular ethnic concerns and eclectic influences. Many of these later plays are more experimental in nature and are aimed at a wider audience. Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit bridges these two styles, with its domestic scenes balanced against the more expressionistic representation of Henry Reyna’s horrendous experience with the American legal system.

Luis Valdez is the leading light of Chicano (Mexican American) theater, and is best known for the documentary play Zoot Suit . The first Chicano play to appear on Broadway, Zoot Suit places Mexican Americans into an American historical context as U.S. citizens. His characters are cross-cultural in everything they do and say, from dancing swing and mambo, to speaking a mix of English, Spanish, and “hip.” Despite debts to Brecht and the Living Newspaper theater of the 1930s, the play incorporates traditional elements of Mexican theater, including aspects of the political acto , with its exposure of social ills; the mythic mito , with references to Aztec mythology; and the ballad style corrido , with dance and a musical narrative. In the 1940s, Chicano renegades purposefully stood out in their zoot suits, insisting that they not be ignored, and the play relates the aesthetic behind this as well as the resulting problems. The play’s narrator, El Pachuco, a spiritual alter ego of its central protagonist, Henry Reyna, offers a powerful commentary on the difficulties of being Chicano in a racist American society.

Carlos Morton’s The Savior deals with more recent events in El Salvador, a nation heavily influenced by American investment and interests. More serious than Morton’s usual lighter-hearted comedies, the play shows the life, death, and metaphoric resurrection of Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated as a result of his uncompromising demands for justice for the nation’s poor. Morton researched his topic for five years prior to writing, and interviewed many who had known Romero. What he discovered was a figure whose passionate struggle, belief in nonviolence, and ultimate self-sacrifice for his people made him Christ-like. Morton relates events with many intentional parallels to the Christ story: characters represent Simon Zealot and Judas Iscariot, events are reminiscent of the scene of temptation by the Devil and the Last Supper, and, at times, Romero speaks the words of Jesus. Although the play depicts a contemporary Latin American society, with its political, social, and religious dilemmas, the generic names of many characters indicate that the problems of El Salvador exist in other places around the world, universalizing its message regarding the power of nonviolence and faith.

As with so many of America’s rising minority playwrights, Milcha Sanchez-Scott refuses to assimilate and compromise her ethnic identity, to which end, in her short play, The Cuban-Swimmer , she creates a dialogue peppered with Spanish words and phrases that an audience must try to follow as best they can. She centers our attention on yet another troubled Latin group, in this case   the Cubans. Eduardo and Aída Suarez, Margarita’s parents, are refugees from Fidel Castro’s government, leaving everything behind in Cuba when they take the dangerous boat ride to America, where they can better prosper. The central religious metaphor of resurrection is a common one among Latin American playwrights, many of whom grew up in the Catholic faith, but Sanchez-Scott complicates her image with her feminist agenda.

Zoot Suit is narrated by Pachuco, who sets the scene and offers commentary throughout. Beginning at a typical barrio dance, two gangs face off before being violently attacked by the police, who arrest almost the entire 38th Street gang. The gang, and its leader, Henry Reyna, are indicted for the murder of the son of a Chicano rancher. While police and a character called Press—who represents all of the Los Angeles news reporters—talk about a “Mexican crime wave” and gang wars, it becomes apparent that these are largely fantasies born of wartime hysteria and media hype to increase circulation. As Henry and Pachuco talk in jail, we witness flashbacks, mostly involving Henry’s home life, which humanizes the “criminals.” A story of racism, mistaken identity, and defeated hope evolves. The police beat the suspects, the court case is a mockery, with Press leading the prosecution, and, although patently innocent, everyone gets sentenced to life. After a lengthy appeal, a series of riots, and the tireless efforts of a committee formed by various activists, they are finally released.

Valdez is known as a champion of Chicano rights, both politically and artistically, and most of his plays display a concern for social justice. In his writing he depicts the spiritual fused with the political, seeing them as inextricably combined. For him, myth is the spiritual basis of everyday reality; thus ritual plays an important part in the lives of his characters. It helps them affirm their identity and offers a refuge from the discrimination they routinely encounter. Thus Pachuco at times appears as an Aztec god or a nahval helping spirit to suggest the possibility of both dignity and nobility in times of stress. The central pressure on the Chicanos, as with other immigrant groups, is between assimilation and preservation of their culture. Viewed as foreigners in their own country, many become frustrated by the arrogant rejection they constantly receive from Anglo society, while the slums in which many are forced to live breed crime and anger from which it is hard to escape.

Based on historical fact, Zoot Suit relates the story of the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial and the resulting riots. But it is told with sympathy and understanding for the Mexican Americans involved, rather than from the establishment viewpoint. By closely focusing on Henry and his family, the Chicano stereotype is exposed as false; they are shown to be complex human beings. The sensation-seeking inaccuracies reported by the white press to increase their circulation, represented by the allegorical figure called Press, become evident, just as we also understand the pervasive reach of that press in the way Valdez uses newspapers throughout the set and properties. Valdez is revealing previ-   ously ignored truths about police brutality toward Chicanos, and a racist wartime paranoia, which, Pachuco insists, are not just problems of the past.

Pachuco, dressed in a zoot suit, embodies the macho pachuco stereotype— pachuco being Chicano slang for a young man—and he creates himself before our eyes. He represents a lifestyle and embodies a life force. He also illustrates Henry’s inner attitude of defiance against an unfair system, as well as bolstering Henry’s spirit and inspiring him to “hang tough” in jail. The suit is a means of commanding respect in its ostentation; rather than submissively staying in their place, the zoot suiters insist on recognition, even if it only provokes antagonism. If Chicanos cannot become part of mainstream culture, then they will create a sustaining subculture of their own. But Henry is not always in agreement with his alter ego. Henry refuses to give up hope that he may one day beat the system, a hope that Pachuco denies, but one that Valdez appears to validate.

Valdez seeks to transform the ways Chicanos see themselves as well as how they are seen by others, and the play depicts Henry’s search for an identity and a sense of reality with which he can live. Press tries to impose a false identity on all Chicanos, with his talk of “MEXICAN BABY GANGSTERS” and “ZOOT SUITED GOONS” (38), but these headlines are as false as his summation as prosecutor in the trial of Henry and his friends: “Set these pachucos free, and you shall unleash the forces of anarchy and destruction in our society” (62). It is against such lies and depictions that Henry must fight to simply be viewed as human. At the close Henry hears that the police are falsely arresting his friend and is caught between violence and love: he chooses love, embracing his father, immersing himself in the family bond, wherein he can find a positive identity for himself as a caring and respectful son and brother, rather than allowing himself to become the figure of violence society seems to demand.

Throughout, the police behavior is racist and overtly violent: they see Chicanos as inherently crooked, and think nothing of beating them to exact a confession. They indiscriminately pick up everyone from the dance, just as they arrest Chicanos for stealing cars in which they have every right to be. Henry’s initial reaction to the police is panic, not out of guilt but out of a justified fear that they will frame him for something. When Lieutenant Edwards tries to trick Henry into confessing to a crime, he suggests, “You know why you’re here,” and Henry’s reply, “Yeah. I’m a Mexican” (31) is essentially true. Sergeant Smith openly refers to them as greasers and animals, describing their dress as monkey suits.

The way the court treats Henry and his friends is disgraceful and a mockery of the law. They are not allowed to bathe, cut their hair, or wear new clothes, so they will look disrespectable. The judge’s behavior is stunningly unconstitutional. He has defendants stand whenever their names are spoken by any member of the court (an act conveying a sense of self-incrimination), declaring they cannot be told apart. He will not allow defendants to sit with their counsel, overrides all of their lawyer’s objections (and threatens him with contempt for the mere act of objecting), while allowing the prosecution to make statements that contradict the witness’ testimony. After Henry’s girlfriend testifies to the truth of what happened, he places her in custody for a year. In his summation, George, Henry’s lawyer, suggests that if the court finds them guilty of murder, they will murder the spirit of racial justice in America and this is just what they do. The boys are treated no better in the prison system.

The ranchers had attacked the 38th Street Gang, mistakenly believing them to be another hostile gang with whom they had had trouble earlier that evening. José Williams is killed by an unknown assailant, whose identity is never revealed. But we that know Henry is innocent; he had even tried to stop the fighting and his gang had just defended themselves. Time and again we see Henry led toward violence from which he repeatedly tries to withdraw, but each time the pressure becomes stronger. However, as George points out, the desire for a just society will not be satisfied through violence, but through law: “What matters is our system of justice. I believe it works, however slowly the wheels may grind” (42), and he stays with the case until they win. Henry seems to understands George’s message on his eventual release: “We won this one, because we learned to fight a new way” (88).

Rather than the violent thug created by the Press, Henry is a hard worker, was considering joining the Navy to serve his country, loves his family and girlfriend, and stops more fights than he starts. Whether Henry will choose Della, his barrio girlfriend, or Alice, the Jewish advocate who helped him through his legal battle, is left up in the air, but they represent two different life choices. Circumstances and race remain in danger of propelling him, however reluctantly, into a life of crime, so there is the possibility he might die as a criminal. However, the play ends with a choice of endings for Henry’s story, illustrating that there are options available for most Chicanos: a life of crime and early death from drugs, enlistment in the military and heroic death in battle, or a peaceful family life with wife and children.

The Savior begins six days after the assassination of Archbishop Romero, when a series of flashbacks relate the preceding three years since he took office. Initially thought to be an innocuous candidate for the head of the Catholic Church in El Salvador, Romero proves to have more strength and concern for the exploited poor of the country than either the government or the papacy had expected or planned. Equating Romero’s religious teachings, social conscience, and refusal to bow to a ruling government that is clearly corrupt to communism, the ruling class turns against him, even as the people increasingly offer him their support. Killed by the Death Squad in a grotesque parody of the death of Christ, he enters through the audience at the play’s end, “very much alive” (103), symbolizing his resurrection in the hearts and minds of the people—and the audience. As commentator, Celestina explains that Romero’s death is “not the end, but the beginning” (57).

American interest and involvement in El Salvador is indicated by the presence of an American Reporter and Ambassador. Within the biblical parallel, they take the place of the Roman onlookers and facilitators of Christ’s crucifixion. The Reporter’s patronizing commentary on the twisted evasions of the President indicate that she knows both the truth of what is happening in El Salvador and the extent of U.S. influence, which has turned the nation’s leaders into American puppets. The official currency is the colon , “But dollars will do quite nicely” (65). She interviews Major D’Abussion, who describes Romero and his Church as a bunch of hypocrites and complains that communists are overtaking the country. He threatens that if funds are not sent to finance a military government, America will lose out on South American oil and have swarms of illegal immigrants trying to enter the country. Instead of correcting his lies, the Reporter shows herself to be the hypocrite, by promising to print everything that she has been told.

The Ambassador, like Pontius Pilate, offers Romero a chance to retract his claims and take an easier way out, but Romero refuses. On being turned down, the Ambassador washes his hands of the whole affair and leaves the Archbishop to the corrupt ruling body of his own people, who destroy him just as the Pharisees destroyed Jesus. But the Ambassador is more than an observer in El Salvador; he has the power to offer Romero a safe escape, and the President is driven out and replaced by a military junta under his direction and with American funds. Although he calls for the appearance of democratic rule and a reduction of military influence in the government, he is not really concerned whether or not either is actually achieved, threatening to withdraw financial aid and to bring in American troops should the poor be seen to be getting the upper hand. Romero suggests that he send seeds and tractors rather than arms, but the archbishop’s pleas are ignored: America is as fearful of communism as is Oligarchy, an allegorical character who represents the ruling authority in El Salvador, and as unable to differentiate between communism and true socialism.

Throughout the 1970s, El Salvador suffered from a civil war in which many died from the conflict but also from their long-standing poverty and starvation. Morton depicts the deaths not only as physical, but also as spiritual and intellectual, because so many participants willfully blinded themselves to the exploitation and sad state of the peasantry and to the honest attempts by the Church to alleviate these conditions. To represent the deadness both inside and surrounding the cast, many are played by Calaveras , a pre-Columbian, Meso-American skeleton figure of death.

The play educates its audience about life in rural Latin America, where half the people live on less than $10 a month, and more than that are illiterate. In El Salvador, the peasantry own little land: the majority of property is owned and exploited by the richest few (often backed by foreign investment). Much of what little land the peasantry had was flooded when a dam was built to assist the rich landowners; this provoked the initial unrest. Romero calls for social reform, as his priests create and run cooperatives, medical clinics, and farm- workers’ unions, but he is accused of undermining the country. While he preaches biblical teachings that offer hope to a people under constant threat of violence and starvation, his words are deemed subversive and dangerous by those in power.

When the Fathers initially discussed Romero’s appointment, they were unimpressed, seeing him as a religious idealist, too displaced from social reality. They fear that he will reduce what little they do to help the nation’s poor. Seemingly strengthened by each conflict, Romero wins over all but the most staid of the clergy to his point of view as he shows himself to be both honest and hardworking. His belief in the possibility of a nonviolent, peaceful solution never waivers, not in the face of atrocities exacted by the government Death Squads and rebels alike, nor when his own priests call for a more active response, nor after the slaying of his fellow clergy. His call remains for forgiveness and faith rather than vengeance. When one of the Fathers, Barrera, declares that he is sick of turning the other cheek, Romero insists that to do so “is the showing of great moral force that leaves the assailant overcome and humiliated” (77). The intermittent episodes, in which a peasant girl, Campesina, counters the assaults of a soldier on her loyalty and her person with nothing but her faith, seem to prove Romero right.

While the government continuously tries to blame the Church for the unrest, Romero points his finger at the real culprits: the greed of an uncaring ruling class and the lack of any impartial judicial system. He insists that the conflict is not between the government and the Church but between the government and the people, and he takes the side of the people. He refuses to be intimidated by the government or the papacy, when asked to back down, and his conversations with the President as he demands justice are polite but firm. He is neither swayed nor distracted by the President’s evasions and bribes. His words of hope, nonviolence, and justice in the face of their opposites continue to resonate, even as his spirit lives on at the play’s close, indicating the profound role religion plays in the Latin American ethos.

The Cuban-Swimmer was partly inspired by the concept of the Stations of the Cross, and, like The Savior , exhibits a strong religious influence and knowledge. When asked to do something practical, the Suárez family responds by falling to their knees to pray. Margarita Suárez is placed in the role of Christ. Where Christ trips and falls carrying the wooden cross on which he is to be crucified, ultimately rising in the Ascension, Margarita tires and sinks down in the water as she swims, ultimately rising at the close to win the race. At this point she is described as walking on the water, just as Christ once walked on the Sea of Galilee, further reinforcing their connection. In this we see Sanchez-Scott’s desire to present Latin Americans in a highly positive light as well as her commitment to feminism in her creation of a female Christ.

There is a clear irony in making Margarita, with her Cuban blood, a long distance swimmer. Having been conceived on the boat coming over, Margarita   is the pride of her family’s achievement and testament to the fact that they made the right choice. Her younger brother, Simon, seems on the surface very Americanized, with his swearing, posing, baseball cap, and sunglasses, but no members of this family are reluctant to see themselves as Cubans; in fact, they display a fierce patriotism toward their island home despite living in Miami. Their boat is called “The Havana,” Aída is an ex-Miss Cuba, and they partly want Margarita to win the race for Cuban pride (apart from it being good advertising for her father’s business).

Mel Munson and May Beth White, two of the race’s commentators and representatives of the mainstream, white, American culture, behave condescendingly toward the Suárez family, and symbolically and literally keep themselves above them in a circling helicopter. We never see them, but only hear their voices. The lack of personal connection makes it easier to feel antagonism toward them. They issue the usual banalities we hear from most commentators, trying to dramatize the event with hyperbole, and being more concerned with their own image than with any of the contestants. They do not expect Margarita to even finish the race, let alone win. Their shallowness is underlined by their clear preference for the mother’s good looks over the daughter’s strength and courage, as they try to get a closer glimpse at Aída. They have little regard for Margarita, scare her by flying in so close, and upset the whole family by their insensitive commentary. Such is the attitude of many majorities toward minority groups.

As Margarita swims into the oil slick, her family are faced with the dilemma of whether to help her, and ensure a disqualification that would kill their dream, or leave her to struggle. This is a similar dilemma faced by Christ’s followers as they watched him carry his cross. To help would put them at risk, but to allow him to struggle on was as good as killing him themselves. Just as Christ received water to help keep him going, so too is Margarita offered a drink. The family choose to leave her struggling, though they shout their encouragement. However, by scene 4, the family become so busy in building Margarita up that they begin to neglect her. She has already become more of a symbol than a person to them, which makes her feel very much alone.

When the weather worsens, Margarita finally grinds to a halt in despair. She feels the guilt of failure, and imagines that the fish are biting her in punishment. Her father still urges her to continue, though the resolve of the rest of her family has weakened. At this point she poses as if on a cross, sacrificing herself to her father’s dreams, and struggles on. She sinks into the sea as if dying, echoing the words of Christ on the cross, “Father forgive me,” feeling that same momentary panic of abandonment. She disappears in the midst of prayer, showing that her belief remains firm. Her parents begin to blame themselves and are distraught, but then hear that their daughter has been seen nearing the finish line. She is described as walking on the water, in an echo of the resurrection, with the commentator declaring it to be a “miracle,” which   it is. In winning the race, Margarita wins for Cuba and her family the media attention they need to become recognized in the modern

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