Dallas — When the state of Arizona decided to eject the Mexican-American studies from the K-12 curriculum, the books in that curriculum were essentially banned. That move garnered major attention across the world because it was such a glaring descent into cultural erasure and othering of Mexican American and Chicano families.
Among the banned authors was San Antonio, Texas’ own Sandra Cisneros for The House on Mango Street. This novel, considered as one of the most important literary works in the canon, is a bildungsroman novel, a coming of age tale, of a young Mexican-American girl growing up in the barrio. Cisneros has won the PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature, the National Medal of Arts and the Texas Medal of Arts. She writes the stories of a people whose stories were not often told. This is Amy Ludwig’s first attempt at adapting a novel for the stage. She has said that through Cisneros’ work, she began to believe she too could be a writer.
We talked with producer and director David Lozano of Cara Mía Theatre Company about their revival of the play (the group first staged it in 2011), performed in the Latino Cultural Center.
TheaterJones: This is such a beautifully written novel. How would you describe its importance to the Mexican-American and Chicano communities?
David Lozano: The House on Mango Street is considered the most beloved U.S. Latino novel, especially in Texas. Sandra Cisneros lived in San Antonio. The Mexican-American population, especially in the era when Mexican-American and Chicano identity politics were coming into play, really identified with these stories. Her writing was the first of its kind. It gave voice to the Mexican-American and Chicano experience unlike anything written before it. Rudolfo Anaya wrote great short stories and novels often about youth and about Mexican-American neighborhoods and culture, but there was something about Cisneros quasi-nursery rhyme style mixed with layers of complexities about the essential elements of living that was more compelling. Her work has themes of life, death, sex, childhood, adolescence, and growing up. Her writing rocked the Mexican-American community’s world when the book came out. Then other people read it and fell in love with it as well, just because of the writing.
Why did you select this play at this time?
I always knew that the play version was something that Cara Mía Theatre should produce. I read the script a couple of times over a few years and I have to admit at first, I wasn’t sure know how best to present it. In time, it finally dawned on me that the young protagonist, Esperanza, is whispering to the reader for help. Then the story made sense.
When we produce a play we want to know why. What is the impact that this play is going to have on our community?
When we first produced it in 2011, I felt that Esperanza was whispering for help because she is coming of age from childhood into adolescence. There are men in the neighborhood who keep coming on to her and threatening her in ways she never expected. No one had really prepared her for that. This seems to be what the story is about, to me, the challenges of a young girl growing up in a barrio without knowing the challenges and what it means to become a woman. That became the reason to produce it.
Stylistically, the vision for it was to really explore the physicality of performance. Those two reasons together were the inspiration for us in 2011 and it continues to be.
What motivated the first production?
The inspiration in 2011 was at a time when we had a core ensemble. It was a piece that really allowed this ensemble to coalesce. I view this production as another way to integrate a younger generation of actors into an approach of making theatre starting with the body while also engaging with these important themes.
How much adapting did Amy Ludwig do to the novel?
She took the book and put it in the mouths of the characters, utilizing Esperanza as a child and Esperanza as an adult. The older Esperanza is the narrator. It’s a memory piece which is a powerful way to do this because it immediately makes us ask “why is older Esperanza telling us this story?” It immediately goes into the heart of the experience of young girls who are coming of age and becoming women.
A small part of Esperanza’s experience happens when the family has to move. Have you thought about what this might mean today as minority cultures combat cultural erasure, some of which comes from disappearing neighborhoods?
All of our work deals with identity and culture. It can be a reclamation of identity and remembrance, learning who we are often for the first time. Even if you were a hyper-educated Latino that understands where you came from, where your family came from, and political history, there is still a lot to learn from a writer like Sandra Cisneros. Culturally specific works of art are political acts. It’s saying “I’m here — here is my experience.” When it is written like Sandra Cisneros words, it is unapologetic. Those kinds of works of art, especially when they reach millions of people, who are buying books, is an unstoppable social, cultural and political force. That’s just how we view our work period. That’s how this kind of writing interacts in the world.
In Tucson, this book was banned. If you go online and look at book reviews recommendations for children and youth, you’ll see kinds of negative remarks about the writing as if this writing is xenophobic, male-hating, prejudiced toward white people. It’s the story of a Mexican-American girl who is trying to fit in. It is the story of millions of people. To silence her story would be the silence of people.
Toni Morrison framed it like this: Art is dangerous and that it is up to our artists to push that envelope and to demand to be seen and heard. Otherwise, cultural erasure.
Yes. It is why Swimming While Drowning [which Cara Mía produced in 2019] was so important, to have the Afro Mexican trans voice onstage saying who they are and why because we don’t get to hear that.
What else would you like audiences to know?
For those who know the novel, it will be really exciting to see those characters come to life. Actors will be performing live music onstage. The actors are embodying who they consider to be the essence of these characters. You get to see their imagination embodied onstage with such incredible writing that is poetic, rhythmic and meaningful. Because of that It has the opportunity to touch some audience member in a way they may rarely experience.
This is not a dramatic piece. It is an exploration of the language and characters and the lives of the people of Mango street. It is also a powerful exploration of the difficulties of a young Latina growing up in the barrio. I think people are going to be in for a journey with this.