Dallas — A who’s who of North Texas Chicano community leaders attended opening night of Crystal City 1969 at the Latino Cultural Center. Among the distinguished attendees were: mayor pro-tem and Dallas city council member Monica Alonzo and her brother, state representative Robert Alonzo, Dallas city manager A.C. Gonzalez, Board of Trustees for Dallas ISD and Latino Center for Leadership Development President Miguel Solis, Crystal City co-author Raul Treviño, Mario Treviño (Raul’s uncle and one of the characters in the play), and Diana Serna Aguilera (the cheerleader in the play).
Gathering the community around this historically significant play is part of what Cara Mía Theatre Company does best, other than present us with finely tuned performances that are a visual pleasure. That happened again, and earned an immediate standing ovation from a packed house.
The real student walkout in the Southwest Texas town of Crystal City more than 40 years ago provides the historical basis of research for co-authors Treviño and David Lozano, the latter functioning as director in the world premiere in 2009, a remount in 2010 and the current revival. Tired of being treated unfairly, the students protested.
While the cast has significantly changed—17 new cast members with only three current members of the company—two original members anchored the play in its previous productions: the inimitable Rodney Garza as Viejo Antonio and the talented Frida Espinosa Müller in multiple roles (plus masks and properties designer).
Kenneth Verdugo also returns to create his emblematic stage design, one which closely echoes the original. The oversized backdrop pieces effectively echo the magnitude of the event, while on the human scale, set pieces lower to the stage floor provide a perfect platform for the action to unfold. And, while costume design usually receives a simple nod in plays that are not specifically ornate period piece, Kristin Moore designs noteworthy costumes that create a pleasing visual palette that closely align with the neutrals and earthy feel of the piece. There is a notable sense of refinement in the visual field of the overall design.
S-Ankh Rasa’s original percussion compositions not only keep the pace moving but also engage with and add depth to the actors’ performances.
The new faces that populate the stage are a welcome change for the company. It’s not a small cast, with 20 actors in the ensemble. After all, it takes an entire community to stage the historically accurate 38 walkouts. Among the newcomers are two lovely young singing voices: Natalia Cornejo (a fourth grader) and Sophia Teyolia (as Mina). Another young actor is fifth-grader Xavier Rogriguez (Roberto). Exposing and incorporating youth into the tradition of the theater fulfills an important goal of Latina/o summer youth programs like the ones that both Cara Mía and Teatro Dallas annually host.
While the overall performance functions as well-oiled and highly coordinated system thanks to Lozano’s expert direction, notable is the energy level required to carry the leading roles of student leaders Serverita (Alejandra Flores, in her second Cara Mía production), Diana (Alycya Magaña in her CMTC debut), Mario (returning actor Chris Ramirez) and Jose Angel (Eddie Zertuche, also in a return performance). All are fine young actors who, hopefully, we will be seeing more from on area stages. Veteran stage actor Brad Hennigan deserves accolades for his multiple roles, one that includes an unforgettable rendition of the spinach-eating character Popeye the Sailor Man. The figure of Popeye relates to Crystal City’s fame as the spinach-growing capital of the United States. In those fields and canneries, Mexican-American workers have long toiled for minimum wages.
This play follows the tradition of agitprop theater as both an example of Brechtian technique and in the politically engaged aesthetics of California’s iconic Chicano company, El Teatro Campesino. While plays with strong political messages can sometimes morph into heavy-handed rants, this play’s well-balanced structure avoids this pitfall by humanizing the events. In short vignettes, we see private scenes in the life of the community members, along with their foibles, defects, hopes and aspirations. A particularly poignant scene surrounds Blanca Treviño (beautifully played by Lisette Sandoval, another debutant with Cara Mía) and her struggles with her ambition to become a doctor, and to have an interracial marriage.
An important socio-political aspect is the way in which the play tracks a radical change of traditional machista values. In this case girls and women are portrayed as self-empowering, able to organize politically to reach a goal. For instance, Olivia Serna became the first woman mayor of Crystal City, while her husband, Jose Serna became its first Mexican-American sheriff.
As a primarily Spanish-language and culture university educator, I am sensitive to the important issues highlighted in this play, such as the prohibition accompanied by corporal punishment that this generation of Mexican-American students had to suffer for speaking Spanish in the classroom. Another important idea to remember, which unfortunately has not entirely disappeared, is the way in which thinly veiled prejudice takes place in high school counselling offices. As a college educator, I hear the stories (which are also my own) of how bright Latina/o students are sometimes funneled either into the army or into non-college track programs.
Most importantly, many of us were/are erroneously perceived as not being intelligent enough for university degrees. Adding another personal note, while I am not Mexican (does it really matter?) while in a private, Catholic high school in Southern California as a cheerleader in the 1970s, I overheard girls in the bathroom say that they would never vote for me as homecoming queen because I was “a dirty Mexican.” The stories highlighted in Crystal City resonate with many of us.
Adding to the fruitful mix of theater and academics, Müller ended the opening night’s event by presenting her newly defended graduate thesis from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, based on her research and the earlier production of the play. She points out the importance of having Mexicans in Mexico learning about the experiences of Mexican-Americans in the United States.
In an election year, many of the guest speakers at this event highlighted the importance of participating in the democratic process by registering to vote and voting as a means to exercising our rights as citizens. Great advice in a timely play that will certainly continue to resonate for years to come.
» Teresa Marrero is Professor of Latin American and Latina/o Theater in the Spanish and Dance and Theater Departments at the University of North Texas. She is an Advisory Board Member of the Latina/o Theater Commons