Dallas — In 1968, gas sold for 34 cents a gallon, and the federal minimum wage was $1.60. Newspaper job ads split along gender lines: “Help Wanted—Men” and “Help Wanted—Women.” Pope Paul said “no” to the birth control pill, and Canada’s prime minister was a guy named Trudeau. The Beatles brought out the White Album, and Planet of the Apes predicted our future. McDonald’s new Big Mac sold by the millions—and in a burst of historical irony, the heart transplant became a reality that same year.
But issues of war, peace and social justice loomed largest of all. In 1968, 16,899 Americans died in Vietnam. Anti-war demonstrations were an almost daily occurrence. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, both considered crucial voices against the war and for social justice, were assassinated. The draft continued, but many young men left the country—not only for Canada, but for Mexico as well.
The work for civil rights marched on. In San Antonio and other South Texas towns, high school students walked out to protest unequal public schools and a demeaning curriculum that led Mexican-American kids toward farm labor and other low-wage jobs. And in Mexico, students were at the forefront of demonstrations and demands for a wide range of reforms.
In her new play 1968 for Teatro Dallas, company founder Cora Cardona spins a story of that year, linking events in Texas, in Vietnam, and in her native Mexico—where on one October day the Mexican government responded to protesters with bullets, violence and arrests. Hundreds were killed and thousands arrested in a massacre too little known on this side of the border. But Tlatelolco changed lives—including that of Cardona, a teenage student and daughter of an outspoken journalist/poet.
We talked to her about the play, and that year.
TheaterJones: Let’s start with what’s happening right now. Last year you announced that you were leaving your position as artistic director of Teatro Dallas after almost 33 years—and that you planned to focus on the company’s special projects, among other endeavors. How is that going, both for you and the company?
Cora Cardona: I am still in the aftershock. I’ve been doing this for so long that going cold turkey, it’s different. Mentally I was ready for it, I asked for this transition to happen, and I had waited for the right person. I believe I’ve found that person in Sorany Gutiérrez, who is someone in whom I see myself when I first came to the states and started Teatro Dallas. I knew my craft, and so does she. She can direct in both languages and already has done several productions for us, and we loved them. But also in many ways we are not alike; she has her own sensibility.
And it’s fine with you if she pursues her own theatrical vision?
Of course, yes!
And your daughter Sara Cardona is TD’s interim executive director?
We think now that she will stay on in that position. We had announced a new executive director, and he helped us a lot but in the end returned to the business world. And we were faced with finding someone who would understand what we do and be able to come on immediately. Sara has grown up in this theater, as you can imagine. She’s written [the proposals for] many of the most important grants that we have received. She worked for the Office of Cultural affairs and is well-versed in the business. When all this came down, she was on sabbatical from Richland College. We asked, and she said “yes.”
What’s been the hardest thing about this transition for you?
Perhaps it is that I need to promote myself once again as an independent artist, and tell the community that I am available to direct and teach. I’m also a member of Actors’ Equity and will be available for acting as well. I have good connections in the theater community in Mexico City as well as Dallas, and am planning to go back and forth in a kind of cultural exchange.
Have you always kept some professional roots in Mexico City?
Yes! This is a plan I’ve had for decades, especially once I started our international festival. I have always had a desire to be back there more, and most of my friends from my [drama] school days still are actively involved in the theater community. I have kept many relationships—and I know many of the up-and-coming directors and writers as well. So the plan is to work there when possible, in Dallas when possible, and to create a bridge between the two cities so that people can come and go, doing theater in both places.
Teatro Dallas’ next play is called, simply, 1968. You wrote it and are co-directing the production with Ms. Gutierrez. Like you and so many people, I remember that year all too well—a horrible, wonderful, disturbing, galvanizing time. Why this play, why right now?
What triggered it was my experience 50 years ago in the student massacre in Mexico City, in the Tlatelolco area of Mexico City.
Most Americans know at least a bit about the 1968 Mexico City Olympics—but nothing of the civil unrest that was going on in the city just days before, or that hundreds of student protesters and others were killed by the army. It happened in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco on one day, October 2.
I was there, and it just was not my time to go. It could very easily have happened that I was killed. I survived that horror, and I still meet with friends who were with me that day. We gather as a kind of communal therapy, though some people have already passed away. And so, because this was the 50th anniversary, I wanted to pay tribute to that event and to all the students and friends who died. And it also happens that [both the event and the play] come very close to our Days of the Dead, so this is part of that tradition too.
But you widened the scope of the play to take in events that were happening in the United States—in Texas and Vietnam too?
At that time, I had many friends in Mexico City who had come from San Francisco and the Bay area escaping the Vietnam draft. They were artists and musicians, and we all hung out in the same places. That’s how I came to go to San Francisco, through these friendships I made in Mexico City. I became aware of the Black Panthers, and I was struck by the racism that existed in the U.S.—it exists everywhere, of course—that was their reason for organizing and protesting.
So when I began writing this play, I thought about those friends and that time. It was a time in Mexico like the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when many Americans came to escape what was happening in the States. And those middle-class Americans who came to Mexico in the ‘hippie” era gave birth to lots of children, a whole new generation. That is part of the play too. History repeats itself, and all of those elements helped me link the experiences of these three countries: Mexico, the United States, and Vietnam.
I wanted to try not to be didactic or like a documentary—to do theater without preaching about what happened in 1968. So I developed a love affair, because that is a good way to engage the audience. We have, most of us, had love stories in our lives. So the events in these three countries revolve around these personal lives.
The play is about “how our choices interconnect us,” says the Teatro Dallas promotional materials—which also call it a “multi-media” production. Is that one way to broaden the lens yet again, to bring in historical figures and events that might not fit into the actual text?
Yes, this particular piece does have a lot of that, particularly in the inclusion of video.
As you said, the días de los muertos tradition plays a significant role in 1968 too. Every year Teatro Dallas offers an autumn ‘Days of the Dead’ production. It must be important to you and the company.
This is one of the oldest traditions of the American continent, yet we have tended to ignore our own mythology. The ancestors from Spain tried to get rid of the Indian traditions, or at least to marry the Indian with Christian traditions, which is what happened with the Days of the Dead. It was so important to remember the ancestors: death and life are one unit in Indian culture, and out of death Mother Earth brings new life from the soil every year. Christians joined it to the European tradition of [All Hallow’s Eve’] ‘All Saints’ and ‘All Souls’ days, and that is how it survived.
Over the years, Teatro Dallas has dealt with the Mexican-American experience—and at times very specifically with Dallas history. But you’ve created a rich mixture, also drawing on myths, symbols, stories and cultural material from the widest possible sources—from Mexico, Central American and South American traditions, from Europe’s absurdist and impressionist movements, from African and Asian sources, as well. It hasn’t always been what North Texas audiences expected, and it won you both admirers and critics.
I think that has always been because I believe we are all more the same than different. You may think you are very different from someone who has come from Africa or Asia, but that’s not true. We have borrowed one another’s traditions for longer than we can imagine. It’s buried in our language and expressions, in so many things. Music is an art that is an open book on how we are all trading and taking and the same. It’s the same way in arts and crafts—you can look at something and think how ‘Mexican’ it seems, but it’s actually Czechoslovakian.
You grew an audience over the years that became more open and accepting of your brand of theater—and you grew a community of actors, too.
When I came to Dallas there were no Latino actors to work with, so I worked with Anglo and African-American actors. I’ve always felt very comfortable with the African-American community. I think it must be one of my genes, or maybe because of the blues and rock music I loved so much. And as time went by, between our own classes and students coming from the colleges, we began to draw a lot of Latino actors who wanted to work with us.
For many years, you and the Teatro Dallas board pushed hard and successfully for the Latino Cultural Center—and now it’s going to be home base for Teatro Dallas.
In the 1980s, in our first small theater on the border of downtown and Deep Ellum, we had to hire police officers to be outside because people didn’t want to go there. I don’t think we ever had any incidents, but this made them feel comfortable. In that space, people began saying, “Can I send my paintings here, my photos?” and musicians and dancers came to perform. It became an outlet for so many Latino artists.
And our first board of directors, people who had never been involved with theater or the arts, became aware of that happening. They saw partly the economic impact, but more than that, it was so very important to define identity. If you create through art a way for people to know who they are and what ground they’re standing on, then those are the people who will make the social and cultural changes.
That board held the first fundraisers for the Latino Cultural Center. It was a political battle like everything, not easy. And now there are so many changes at once. 1968 is the second play I’ve written for Teatro, we have a new artistic director, and we’re leaving our space at Record Crossing for the Latino Cultural Center, to be one of the core theater groups there along with Cara Mía [Theatre Co.].
You and a few others—the founders of Undermain Theatre, Pegasus Theatre, Kitchen Dog Theater, for example—changed Dallas theater tremendously in the mid-‘80s into the 1990s. You could have settled in any city when you came to the U.S. Are you happy you chose Dallas?
Oh, yes, very much so. Dallas is a great city with a lot of issues and problems—so it’s like the rest of the world. My husband [Jeff Hurst, whose lighting and stage designs have been a vital part of Teatro Dallas’ development] is from Dallas, of course. We met in Austin, and moved here because at the time there was more film work for him here.
He says it was no accident that I came from somewhere else [as an outsider] to create the first Latino theater in Dallas, because the experience here had been that of the working class. As people assimilated, they wanted their children to be lawyers and doctors—practical professions that made sense. Being an artist is a risk, and they had gone through so much that was the last thing on their mind. But as people came to the theater and brought their children for 30-plus years, the idea of their children or grandchildren going into theater became possible. I see the change, and it’s wonderful.