We hear an accordion somewhere in the back of the house. We turn and see musicians and singers chanting and beating their drums down both aisles of the big auditorium at the Latino Cultural Center, as the audience joins in the rhythm of their clapping. Still chanting and shaking their tambourines, the performers climb the steps to the stage and continue dancing in a circle to the driving beat. So begins Cara Mía Theatre Co.'s production of Milagritos / little miracles, a play based on Woman Hollering Creek, a collection of short stories by Sandra Cisneros, first published in 1992. The popular Hispanic novelist and poet was in attendance on opening night.
David Lozano directs the play, adapted for the stage by Marisela Barrera, who keeps the voice of the first-person narrator of the original stories to guide us through the childhood memories of Chayo (beautiful and spirited Vanessa DeSilvio), a woman from South Texas who resists the cultural imperative to marry young and quickly get pregnant, and is now an artist living in the big city. Fiercely independent, Chayo says early on that her mother told her to "never marry a Mexican," a man like her drunken father. She tells us she will never marry anybody, but simply continue to "borrow" willing married men, taking only "the cream skimmed off the top," and avoiding the "bitter skin" of daily living with a demanding, unfaithful spouse. "Better to not marry than live a lie," she declares.
Frida Espinosa-Müller plays Chayito, the artist as a self-aware 11-year-old girl who tells her worried mama that she feels something "like an animal inside me," as she sketches on her tablets alone in her room. All her female relatives insist she'll quickly forget all her scribbling when she meets "Mr. Right." Chayito just shrugs. She crawls up into an uncle's lap and takes in the rich, busy life around her—the music and sorrow and hopes of her relatives and other characters in the old neighborhood. The music mounts rhythmically behind the young girl, as the conversations, the scolding and the prayers unfold in front of her.
Four other company members (Rodney Garza, Ana Gonzalez, Cesar Hernandez, and Priscilla Rice) step in and out of the various personalities as each character kneels before the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe (DeSilvio with a shawl, wrapped saint-like, over her head and shoulders) to pray for a little miracle—and promise to be better souls themselves. The most compelling aspect of the play, which runs a little over an hour, is this parade of simple folk whose humble prayers are sometimes answered—even literally, with the saint stuffing cash for unpaid wages into an outstretched hand.
Some prayers are touching, some are funny, but the thoughtful saint hears all the stories—and so do we. One woman prays for food and clothing. A grateful mother thanks the saint for allowing her family to survive a terrible car wreck. A man wants to keep his business open and make a little money to send home to his wife and family in Mexico. A self-righteous old woman prays for a long list of people who do not go to church. A teenage girl even burns a candle to Saint Lazarus, "who came back from the dead" to make her zits go away. An especially moving story comes from a distraught husband kneeling before the saint to pray for his wife of 48 years, sick in the hospital after surgery. He has seen his wife suffer, and he wants what is best for her, saying he will "leave it in the hands of God."
Between the supplicants' prayers we also her their fears and hopes and longings reflected in the pulsing music, an original score by S-Ankh Rasa, also a joyful and energetic singer and dancer on the stage. He is joined by Armando Monsivias and Mauricio Barrozo, all playing a variety of instruments that evoke everything from jungle sounds to the jangle of a busy market.
There is dramatic movement in the adaptation. Skeptical Chayo initially pities her mother and grandmother because they prayed to a stone statue for their delinquent or abusive husbands to become better and their lives to improve. But as she listens through the saint's ears, she begins to see the prayers of these women in a different light. "There is power in my mother's patience, strength in my grandmother's endurance," she says. She understands, in a kind of ecstatic moment, that she has inherited this ancestral strength, and that the familiar saints of her childhood are facets of all holy figures, from the Buddha to Yahweh.
The musicians' jangling, happy score rises to accompany the narrator's vision.
◊ Read our preview story on Milagritos here.