Of the many synonyms for the verb “to represent” (stand for, to speak for, to correspond, to be equal, to typify, to symbolize, to mean or intend), “to speak for” and “to symbolize” best suits the intent of The Dreamers: A Bloodline by Cara Mía Theater Company, which opened on May 31 at the Latino Cultural Center. It tells the story of Salvadorian emigration due to civil war and economic hardship roughly corresponding to the civil unrest in El Salvador from 1979 to 1992, coinciding with other political unrest in Guatemala, Chile and Argentina. All of these countries have sizeable immigrant populations in the United States today. A Bloodline is the first of a trilogy on immigration.
Cara Mía has taken on the task of representing History. While the theme is Historical (with capital H) in scope, it is also the stories of ordinary people, people who might appear to the rest of the world as a flash in the evening news or as a statistic in the geopolitics of border crossing or of narco-traffic casualties.
While Latin American politics can be complicated, let it suffice to say that the essence of the struggle in El Salvador lay between the interests of the military and the oligarchy (in their anti-leftist thrust to suppress agrarian land reforms which allied them with U.S. economic and political interests), the campesinos (farmers and people of the country side) and later para-military, armed groups which eventually turned to narco-traffic and human trafficking for currency.
One of the initial images of the play is the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero who was murdered in cold blood while elevating the Eucharist during the celebration of mass on March 24, 1980. This occurred one day after a sermon in which he had called on Salvadoran state military, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government's repression and violations of basic human rights. He denounced the persecution of members of the Catholic Church who had worked on behalf of the poor, following the tenants of Theology of Liberation, a controversial political movement (considered leftist by right extremists) within the Catholic Church in the 1970s and 80s. Romero (1989) is the title of a film starring Puerto Rican actor Raúl Juliá based on the life of the archbishop.
Historical representation is not a small task, especially when the work is devised (collectively created) by its company ensemble of 11 actors, three musicians, design team plus the director/producer, David Lozano. It has taken them 14 months to bring this production to fruition, a long timeline in this day and age of six-week professional production schedules.
In this sense, Cara Mía has developed this piece along a very clear line of Latin American and Chicano theater history of collective creation, a practice little known in the United States theatrical cannon. The history of Latin American theater is marked by this type of production, specifically after the advent of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. During the 1960s and 70s Cuba’s post-revolutionary cultural hub, Casa de las Américas, through its festivals and publications, became the center for new models of artistic and theatrical Latin American creation.
Examples of world-known collective groups still working today are: Colombia’s La Candelaria (founded in 1966 by Patricia Ariza and Santiago García) and Teatro Experimental de Cali (founded in 1958 by Enrique Buenaventura); in Perú the Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani, founded in 1971 (an indigenous Quechua word which means ‘I am thinking,’ ‘I am remembering) and in Ecuador, the group Malayerba, directed by exiled Argentinean Arístides Vargas.
If you were lucky enough to see Teatro Dallas’ 2011 production of Vargas’ Maiden of the Used Books, this would provide a small example of the complexity possible through this type of creation. These groups have been generating world-class theater collectively, creating a unique poetic, visual and socially relevant aesthetic, unfortunately little known in the United States, but well known in Europe and Asia. An exception is NYU’s Hemispheric Institute of Politics and Performance, which is heavily invested in researching and exposing world audiences to this type of Latin American experimental process. It draws from innovators such as Augusto Boal, Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowsky and Asian theater. As a whole these groups are characterized by a strong sense of social commitment and to the collective creativity of its members.
In the United States, the closest analogy can be found among numerous teatros of the early Chicano theater movement in the 1960s and 70s. The early works of Teatro Campesino (Luis Valdez) in Northern California were heavily involved in procuring political representation for undocumented grape pickers; they worked closely with what developed into the United Farm Workers Union, headed by the now legendary César Chávez. Cara Mía stands within this genealogy of socially engaged, collectively created works. Understanding this is essential to their work.
The structure of The Dreamers is indeed, dream-like (and sometimes nightmarish). I am not speaking of plot, but of structure. The plotline is simple: it is centered on the story of four women who, for various reasons, are compelled to leave their native El Salvador by any means possible. On the other hand, the structure relies upon a complex number of elements: a narrative structure which obliterates the fourth wall, the telescoping of time and space (the compressed, both diachronic and synchronic manner in which the story moves), the use of key symbolic figures (murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero, priests in general, the drug lord, the devoted mothers, the coyote, the child representative of future possibilities), projection of images, the manipulation of several movable structures, and not least of which, the music. All of this is circular, since the play begins with a ten-year-old Javi, who we later find out was the three month old son lost to the young mother (Ana Gutierrez) during the traverse. Thus not only does the circularity of the structure works perfectly within this piece, it also sets up possibilities to the sequel.
The whole production functions as a well-oiled machine. This level of complexity would be impossible without a brilliant, directorial intelligence behind it. In this respect, David Lozano deserves the highest accolades. All of the elements are in sync, and the timing moves along for approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission. The scene that slowed down the momentum a bit was the one between the young mother (Ana Gonzalez) with the shoe repairman (Ruben Carranza). This one seemed to last a bit longer than what might have been necessary to get the point across. Otherwise, the play establishes each woman’s personal story in order to set up each character (who remains nameless throughout, thus functioning in a generalizing, representational manner). This established the individual circumstances that led them to leave behind family and country. Two of the mothers, the former prostitute (Stephanie Cleghorn) and the worker (Frida Espinosa-Müller) leave their children behind. The worker leaves an abusive husband (Sergio Soriano). The younger mother (Ana Gutierrez) carries her baby with her after gangs murdered her husband (Ruben Carrazana). The older mother (Priscilla Rice) is looking for her missing daughter.
The white scarf that covers her head represents a protest movement which originated in Buenos Aires, Argentina, called Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (the Mothers of the May Plaza) who defied the repressive state terrorism by a military junta of generals Jorge Rafael Videla, Roberto Eduardo Viola, Leopoldo Galtieri and Reynaldo Bignone and their policy of “disappearing” dissenters. All of the protesting mothers wore the symbolic white scarf, and to this day, protest every Thursday in the Plaza de Mayo, still demanding the whereabouts of their disappeared loved ones. Thus the white scarf on this mother is symbolic of all mothers who have suffered loss at the hands of military dictatorships (which, sad to say, have enjoyed the official support of U.S. foreign policy).
The elements just discussed—the image of the murdered archbishop with outstretched arms as in the crucifixion, the white-scarfed woman holding up a photo of her missing daughter and poignantly asking audience members, “have you seen my daughter?”—are but two symbolic elements that point to the depth of historical investigation that went into this production. The individual stories also echo the lives of Salvadorians actually living in the North Texas area today, since part of the work was based on local interviews.
The ensemble’s acting evenly supported one other. None of the actors outshone the other. There are moments, however, worth individually mentioning: Rodney Garza’s range, going from the saintly priest/archbishop to the menacing Drug Lord; Frida Espinosa-Müller’s memorable hand-body movements, disarticulating prayer into total physical desperation; Stephanie Cleghorn’s dignity as the prostitute; Priscilla Rice’s pathos as the wondering mother; and Natalia Dubrov’s exquisite dance movements as shadow.
Unlike the women, who all had stable characters, the male actors (Garza, Rafael Tamayo, Ruben Carrazana, Sergio Soriano, Ivan Jasso and Ollin Barraza) assumed various roles, often changing quickly from scene to scene, thus rather difficult to single out. Therein lays the strength of the ensemble as a collective. All did stellar jobs.
Spanish was intermingled with English throughout, making this production truly bilingual. There were enough segments entirely in Spanish to possibly unsettle a monolingual audience unused to the experience. However, there was enough English trailing the Spanish to make the piece entirely comprehensible to a monolingual English audience. The Spanish spoken by the characters was totally within the Salvadorian vernacular and accent, something that was modified from an earlier, work in progress version at the Latino Cultural Center One Act Play festival earlier this year. In the earlier version the characters had a distinct Mexicanness to them that did not correspond to their Salvadorian counterparts. Happily, this was corrected in the final version.
The scenic design (Jesse Marshall Zarazaga) was brilliantly minimalistic yet effective. All on casters, a plank, a platform with barrels, a 12-foot chain link fence joined at a 90 degree angle on only one side, and a huge oxidized corrugated steel wall offered possibilities for realistic representations of space (a cage, a train, a container), and spaces upon which to project haunting images (Fabián Aguirre, projections, photography). Linda Blasé’s subtle lighting joined forces with both the projections and the music (S-Ankh Rasa, musical director and Armando Monsivais, musician) to frame both dream-like beauty and horrific pain. At one point it occurred to me that the music itself was another character in the play. It not only functioned as a score, it accompanied the characters along their journey with a sense of urgency and empathy.
This play is for adults due to the content of some of the violence represented, particularly that directed at the bodies of the women. It was done in good taste—I for one was glad to have been spared more graphic enactments.
David Lozano has stated that this trilogy means the beginning of a new creative cycle for the company. With their Crystal City 1969 production in 2010, which also focused in a historically significant event, Cara Míia’s direction towards socially relevant themes has been established. Lozano is proving himself a visionary leader/director for this, North Texas’ only self-proclaimed Chicano theater company.
◊ Teresa Marrero is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino Theater at the University of North Texas.