What Makes A Play A Latino Play?

03.24.11 | 6 Comments

CATEGORIES conversation starter

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?”

Who asked?

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.

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Marisela Treviño Orta

Marisela Treviño Orta

Playwright and poet Marisela Treviño Orta has an M.F.A. in Writing from the University of San Francisco.Marisela’s plays include: American Triage (commissioned by Marin Theatre Company, 2007 MTC Nu Werkz new play reading series, 2008 MTC workshop production, 2011 East LA Rep reading series, 2012 Repertorio Español Nuestras Voces Finalist); Heart Shaped Nebula (2011 Playwrights Foundation Resident Playwrights Showcase, 2011 Impact Theatre reading series, 2012 O’Neill National Playwrights Conference Semi-Finalist), The River Bride (2013 National Latino Playwriting Award co-winner);and Woman on Fire (2006 Primer Pasos: Un Festival de Latino Plays, 2007 full-length commission by the Latino Playwrights Initiative, 2007 Bay Area Playwrights Festival BASH, 2008 Playwrights Foundation’s Rough reading series, 2012 Teatro Luna Lunadas reading series).

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.
Marisela Treviño Orta
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  • Nice article, thanks for the information.

  • Dominic D’Andrea

    Directly related to this post, please check out Marisela’s blog post re: the review controversy with the In The Heights touring production currently in Nashville.


  • Tanya Saracho

    I no longer think the markers of Latinidad to be language, religion, culture or national origin. I think we have become a hybrid and complex group which will be hard to categorize in the coming decades. And yes, it becomes such an American question to ask. In the other 26 countries that make up our diaspora, they are not asking themselves identity questions. I believe we do it in this country to find a place to stand under the American sun. Find some shade…

  • This is really interesting and timely, especially given the NYT article about Tanya’s new play at the Goodman. That article also seems to want ask this question — however, it’s not nearly as eloquently as Marisela. (http://nyti.ms/fESCwe)

    I’ve been following the discussion on the No Passport listserv prompted by that NYT piece, and it seems to have opened up a thoughtful and sometimes volatile conversation about who or what “counts” when it comes to ethnic definitions. Tanya, I apologize for paraphrasing you slightly out of context, but I think you put it so eloquently when you asked who gets to define “latina” or “chicana” for any one individual, when those signifiers are deeply personal, and have everything to do with one’s own history, not what the outside observer assumes to be your history.

    For me, this ties back to a conversation I have with my students all the time — and which tends to frustrate them as often as it frees them — about what is art and who gets to be called an artist. To my mind, you’re an artist if you say you are, regardless of the measurable quality or success of your work. It seems linked to the arguments over what is or isn’t a “latina” play (as Marisela articulates) — it is, if the author says it is.

  • my

    It is hard to make anything representative of any culture.

    Even the term “Latino” is not universally accepted. Here in South Florida, it is considered by many to be vaguely insulting and the more accepted term is “Hispanic.” In other parts of the country, Hispanic is frowned on. Is there any cultural label that everyone within the culture can agree on?

    Since there is such diversity even within a culture, is it useful for an artist to think about the identity of their work? Does work reflect and identity–or are the cultural labels just a marketing strategy?

    I would like to think that there are cultural identities, but more and more I wonder if that is just last-millennia thinking.

  • Brian Polak

    This article has me thinking about how disconnected I am from my own ethnic heritage. I don’t even know how to talk about it. I guess it is mostly because I’m Polish/Irish/French and I grew up in NH (ie I’m whiter than caucasian). And when I write plays, they aren’t considered Polish/Irish/French plays, They are just “me” plays. They are American plays I suppose. But “American” seems awfully broad. Aren’t Latino playwrights writing American plays as well? I suppose my ethnicity is diluted and my particular family didn’t connect me to my heritage as much as they could. I’m so disconnected now as an adult I wouldn’t know where to begin if I decided to connect some day.

    This may or may not be true, but I feel like an outsider no matter what ethnicity I write about. I feel just as disconnected from Polish culture as I do Latino. But I have a feeling I could write a play about Polish culture and have it perceived as a “Polish” play because of my name. Yet, I wonder, if I could write a play about Latino culture and have it perceived as a Latino play? Is it the author or subject that matter?