No doubt you’ve heard other variations of this question. What makes a play an XXX play? You fill in the “XXX.”
But I was asked specifically, “What makes a play a Latino play?”
It was a playwriting student. Her class on Latino theatre had just finished reading my play Braided Sorrow (a play about the missing women of Juarez, Mexico) and as preparation to lead the class discussion she emailed me a slew of questions. Her final question was one the class has been discussing all semester.
And for the sake of conversation, I thought I’d post my response here. Though I should say I have refined my original email reply for the purposes of posting.
Question: What makes a play a Latino play?
That’s sort of like asking, “What makes a person Latino?”
Is it language? Being able to speak Spanish (or Portuguese if you’re Brazilian). But I know plenty of third and fourth generation Mexican Americans who don’t speak Spanish fluently. Or at all.
The way I see it there’s no litmus test for being Latino. And the Latino cultural community encompasses a broad spectrum of experiences–from those living in Latin America, to those newly immigrated to the U.S., to those whose families have been here in the U.S. for generations (with the Diaspora and loss of the Spanish language that goes along with it).
I think that Latino literature reflects that spectrum. So if the author is Latino, is the play a Latino play? Or, is it the subject matter? And what would that mean anyways?
I don’t think it’s a zero sum game, where you can only pick one answer and others are wrong.
But let’s take Mexican literature. What makes it Mexican? Is it a style of writing, is it the subject matter, the characters or the fact that the author is Mexican? The answer appears to be that it’s the author’s nationality.
But Latino culture knows no borders.
So is it the author? The subject matter? Does it have to be both?
I think it’s tricky to say that there’s one determining factor. I mean, what happens if I choose one and then apply it to my own plays?
Let’s run this mental exercise with subject matter as the determining factor and see what happens.
My first play, Braided Sorrow, is set in Mexico, has Latino characters, Spanish and explores a social justice issue that concerns the Latino community (femicidio in Ciudad Juarez). Whereas my current work in progress, Heart Shaped Nebula, takes place in both Las Vegas and Seguin, Texas, doesn’t have a lick of Spanish or discussion of any specific Latino experience or social justice issue. Does that mean that the first play is a Latino play and second one isn’t?
But Heart Shaped Nebula is so me, the characters are just like me (third generation Mexcian American) and aren’t I Latina? (And the answer to that question is yes, I am.)
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Latinos themselves, like all people, are complicated and nuanced. We aren’t defined solely by our names, our bloodlines, our language, our experiences, our culture—not one of those things alone is the litmus for what makes a person Latino. It’s that spectrum of experience and expression. The way I see it, plays fall along that spectrum as well.
Additionally, I wonder if Latinos in other countries ask this sort of question. I wonder if it’s part of Latino Diaspora in the U.S. I’m inclined to think that it is part of our community’s collective Diaspora to wrestle with cultural identity, to try and define who we are and understand what that means. And by “our community” I mean Latinos in the US. So, do we try to define what it means to be Latino in order to be able to compare ourselves to it? To aspire to it? To come to terms with who we are, and accept ourselves?
Whatever the answer is (to the plethora of unanswered questions in this blog post), I think it’s messier than any singular definition. Messy. Like life. Like people. Like reality.
Marisela is an alumna of the Playwrights Foundation’s Resident Playwright Initiative, a former member of Playground’s writers pool and a member of the Bay Area Latino Theatre Artists Network. Currently Marisela is working on two new plays: Wolf at the Door and Alcira.
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