DALLAS (WOMENSENEWS)--Wilma Bonet remembers the painful day in 1980 when Lolita, her 7-year-old daughter, died of cystic fibrosis. She mourned her only child, but not in the usual manner. Bonet, a first-generation New York-born Puerto Rican, turned to her island roots and tapped the courage to throw her daughter a traditional Puerto Rican "celebration-of-life" party, replete with rum, food and music.
These days, Bonet still relives that traumatic, personal period in her life, but in the most public forum imaginable--on stage in her play, "Good Grief Lolita."
Bonet, a San Francisco Bay Area actress, playwright and co-founder of the Latina Theater Lab, is one of a growing sorority of Latina playwrights across the country making their mark on the nation's theatrical scene.
Bonet and the others are not just showcasing their knack for conveying intense emotions or willingness to reveal personal stories. They are coupling those elements with their unique perspective of being caught in the middle when Latino and Anglo cultures collide. In the process, they are birthing a new art form, christened Latina theater.
"Latina theater has its own poetics where women empower themselves," said Alberto Sandoval-Sanchez, professor of Spanish at Mount Holyoke College and co-author of "Puro Teatro: A Latina Anthology."
"They become the protagonists of the play; they make the private, public. They openly talk about their sexuality."
Hand-in-hand with their newfound empowerment emerges a distinctive quality Sandoval-Sanchez dubs "Latinidad."
"It's a process of consciousness where you're aware of your own history and you try to recover that history that has been marginalized and silenced," explained Sandoval-Sanchez. "It's a recovery process which is going to contribute to the formation of new identities which are transcultural."
"I think the fact that I'm Latina is political," said Bonet. "Anytime you decide to be on stage or explore something that hasn't been done, it becomes somewhat of a political act. Since you don't see Latina women on stage very often, our stories aren't being told. So, naturally, we're going to explore things that relate to us."
They All Are Latinas, 17 Million, With Many Ethnicities, Stories to Share
The only trouble is the definition of "us." According to the U.S. Census 2000 figures, there are 17 million Latinas in the United States. Though each woman is categorized as Latina, they don't share the same ethnic background.
Each ethnicity, whether Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Colombian, or another, brings its own twist to the language, the culture, the food, the traditions and, ultimately, the stories Latinas have to share. Thus, the real dilemma in Latina theater is making sure that the ethnic cornucopia of women's voices can be represented honestly.
To accomplish that goal, more and more Latinas are positioning themselves within the theater community to ensure that those voices get heard. Some Latinas, like Wilma Bonet, have even started their own theater companies.
"I had a vision," said Cora Cardona, founder of the 16-year-old Teatro Dallas, the oldest Latino theater company in Dallas, Texas. "I wanted to do works to provoke our audience to think. I wanted to do avant-garde theater."
In fact, many in the theater community see the whole of Latina theater as falling within the experimental theater realm. For this reason, the majority of Latina playwrights find themselves excluded from mainstream audiences and the kind of financial stability that comes along with such exposure.
"Our culture is very scary to some people in its reality and in its truths," said Elaine Romero, author of 30 plays and playwright-in-residence at the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson and Phoenix. "If someone's really honest about exploring that in a play, then there are going to be people really terrified about producing that play."
Playwright Migdalia Cruz agrees. An award-winning playwright, Cruz is accustomed to receiving commissions from theater companies, Latino and non-Latino alike. But she says her biggest support, and it's not surprising, still comes from Latino theater companies, which don't hesitate to follow through with their support by staging her works. Something she doesn't find true with non-Latino theater.
"I have received a number of commissions from non-Latino theaters, but none of them have come with any real commitment to production," said Cruz in an Internet-posted interview with the Non-Traditional Casting Project. "I've written the plays, but they haven't been produced."
Lesbian Latina Playwrights Explore Sexuality in Cultural Divide
Another type of play within Latina theater that has attracted a lot of attention but little mainstream support are the performance pieces authored by lesbian Latinas.
Over the last decade, there has been a proliferation of Latina lesbian playwrights penning some of the most thought-provoking pieces exploring their sexuality from both sides of the cultural divide.
One of the more visible Latina lesbian playwrights is Cherrie Moraga. An award-winning playwright and an artist-in-residence at Stanford University, Moraga doesn't necessarily feel that Latino culture can be credited with the number of lesbian playwrights who have come out of the closet and onto the stage.
"It is not that the Latino community is more accepting of lesbianism; they are not," said Moraga. "There are not, for example, numerous full length plays about the Latina lesbian experience. However, there are a number of Latina lesbian performance artists. The reason is that performance art has always attracted the margins. It stands outside so-called 'legitimate' or 'mainstream' theater. Lesbianism remains as marginalized as ever in the white and Latino main stages."
In Cherrie Moraga's "The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea," the races have pulled back behind separate borders in a Balkanized North America. But no one wants homosexuals within their frontiers. So even though Medea is a war hero, she's exiled from the Chicano nation when she falls in love with Luna, a bricklayer.
Latina Theater Still Without a Foothold in Mainstream Theater
The lovers, along with Medea's 12-year-old son, Chac-Mool, the only male, flee to the ruins of Phoenix, now "a wasteland of counterrevolutionary degenerates," along with Medea's lesbian grandmother, Mama Sal. But Medea's ex-husband, Jason, doesn't have enough Indian blood to hold on to his land, and must retrieve his son to keep his estate in the family. It's tearing Medea apart to know Chac-Mool will soon be enveloped in the tyrannical culture that rejects her.
Plays range from sexuality to spirituality and encompass both, as well as many other themes. Elaine Romero's "Curanderas! Serpents of the Clouds" tells the story of a young Latina doctor who travels to Mexico. She meets a curandera, a traditional shaman, and encounters an ancient Aztec scroll that transforms and spiritually illuminates her life. Slowly, she discovers her own gifts of healing.
However, the difficulty for Latina theater in gaining a foothold in mainstream theater doesn't bother all Latina playwrights.
Maria Irene Fornes, considered the first, and so far, the only Latina playwright who has successfully and consistently developed an audience outside Latino theater, seems content to practice her art on the sidelines.
A winner of nine Obie awards for her off-Broadway plays and a Pulitzer-Prize nominee, Fornes is considered by the off-Broadway theater world as its "best-kept secret."
A Prominent Latina Playwright Has Rejected Mainstream Opportunities
"Maria Irene Fornes is preeminently one of the three or four most important American playwrights of our time," said Michael Feingold, a 2001 Obie judge and drama critic for New York's Village Voice. "She has had mainstream opportunities and tends to resist them. Undoubtedly, she doesn't make as much money as she would if she inflicted occasional sitcoms disguised as plays on our theaters, but I am glad she doesn't."
It is said that Fornes is the only playwright of her generation who is able to make a living in nonmainstream theater. The majority of Latina playwrights must supplement their love of sharing their stories with theater audiences with "day" jobs that range from teaching workshops and garnering artist-in-residence positions at universities and theater companies to laboring within office cubicles.
Whatever the job, there is no doubt that the experience is already shaping the next phase of Latina theater.
One of the more avant-garde theater companies is Brava! for Women in the Arts, in San Francisco's Mission District. Founded in 1986, it is one of the few theaters specializing in the creation of new work. It is, according to its mission statement, the only theater with the primary purpose of producing major world premiers by women of color and lesbian playwrights, with an esthetic that is both multicultural and feminist.
Brava's world premier productions have included plays by Moraga, Anne Galjour, Ellen Gavin, Cherylene Lee, Elizabeth Summers and Suzan-Lori Parks, among others.
"We have an exciting future because our stories aren't really out there yet," said playwright Elaine Romero. "I'm excited about the diversity of voices that are emerging; the stories will evolve as we explore the collision between our culture and the mainstream culture. Maybe it won't be a collision. Maybe it will be cooperation."
Marisa Trevino is a Dallas-based free-lance writer who regularly writes on Latina issues and contributes to local public radio.
Logo courtesy of Brava! for Women in the Arts.
For more information:
Brava! for Women in the Arts:
INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center:
Latino Experimental Theatre Company: