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The Fire Within

The recent National Convening of Latina/o theater artists hosted in the city of Boston by HowlRound at Emerson College was a significant event in the evolution of American theater. It has been decades since something similar in scope took place for artists in our Latina/o community. What began in 2012 as a conversation between Karen Zacarías and a number of Latina/o colleagues to define and advance the state of Latina/o theater in the twenty-first century has developed into a forward movement with a vision. As a participant of the convening, I have been overwhelmed by the responses across the country from colleagues, friends and others working in the field. Special thanks must be given to the Latina/o Theatre Commons steering committee for not only putting together the National Convening, but more importantly, for continuing the conversation and making many of us an integral part of it. A standing ovation must be given to HowlRound and its dedicated staff at Emerson College for hosting us, and all of the sponsors for their foresight in supporting what will become a landmark moment in the history of Latina/o theater in our country. Last, but not least, a bright spotlight must be shined on our convening facilitators, Olga Sanchez, Kinan Valdez, and Clyde Valentín for shepherding us through very steep and ambitious territory with intelligence, care, focus, love, passion, and humor.

The highlights of the weekend beyond the assembling of an impressive roster of Latina/o artists from various disciplines working across the country today are too numerous to list here, but the convening’s technical ability to link participants in Boston with contingents in Chicago, NYC, LA, Texas and Miami and to reach many other individuals through social media merits a special mention. This technology melted the cultural, financial, and geographical walls that keep us isolated. There was nothing like feeling the presence, support, respect, and love of my colleagues on a national level as we forge ahead. This re-connection with my Latina/o peers and friends has re-kindled my belief in the significance of the work that Latina/o theater artists contribute to the cultural landscape of our nation.

Based on latest census data and population trends across our nation, in the not too distant future— 2046 is our banner year—Latinos will be the majority population in the United States. Will this future reality automatically makes us the majority producers of arts and culture? The answer to this important question should be an easy extrapolation of the data, but I see severe road blocks.

First, we all have to play a part in educating, and ultimately eradicating the cultural ignorance blinding our cities, communities, government agencies and even the organizations that we work for.  Whether we are first generation Americans, or second generation Americans, we love our country and as artists we contribute and serve our respective communities. Some of us have lived firsthand the immigrant experience while others have rich oral histories from parents and grandparents about immigrating to the United States. In most instances, we are bi-national, bi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-disciplinary. Some of us identify as proud members of the lesbian/gay/bi/transgender community. And some of us are steeped in our African, Taino, Mayan and Incan ancestries. In this unique tapestry (I’d like to call it cultural versatility), reside our many strengths.

Second, we need to challenge ourselves to create not only work of the highest artistic caliber, but work that matters. Work with the ability to have a visceral impact on those who see it. For this, we must depend on each other for constructive criticism. We need to push each other far and explore new theatrical territory. Third, we must be vigilant and make certain that our work and culture are not expropriated by others. Don’t let others speak for you or explain your work, your aesthetic, or your culture. It is time we give who we are and what we know a clear voice.

The recent National Convening of Latina/o theatre artists hosted in the city of Boston by HowlRound at Emerson College was a significant event in the evolution of American theatre. It has been decades since something similar in scope took place for artists in our Latina/o community.

Fourth, we need to take full responsibility for this moment in time by acknowledging that immediate action is needed at this crossroads. An avalanche of letters and/or conversations must take place with every Artistic Director of a theater in the country. I returned home from the convening to read American Theatre’s preview for the 2013-14 Season. Once again, we are grossly underrepresented. Fifth, we need to support each other and learn about each others’ work. We have no excuse for not knowing the extensive range, history, and significance of our very own canon. The timeline at the convening spoke volumes!  We need to learn those volumes. Sixth, and a point that is often overlooked, we need to learn from the experiences of our elders. These artists, some of them attended the convening, have a lifetime of experiences and an encyclopedic knowledge of their respective cultures, the body of work they have presented and a vast and long lasting relationship with their audiences. To go into the future with their valuable experiences and unique histories will prove an asset.

One of the most memorable moments of the weekend for me was having dinner next to Elisa Marina Alvarado and hearing the history of Teatro Visión. We need to support and encourage the research and writing of this and similar stories so that the important players that started and helped maintain our national Latina/o theater movement are known, studied and spoken about. To that end, the idea of a María Irene Fornés Center for the Advancement of Latina/o Theatre, that was advanced at the Convening, is a formidable step in reclaiming the historical importance of our work.

Are these roadblocks insurmountable? I refuse to believe that. But I also know that as Latina/o artists we need to work together to clear our path. If as a voting bloc Latinos have the power to determine the outcome of elections, we as artists can certainly change the direction and tone of what is happening in the American theater. I exhort all my colleagues to speak about what took place at the convening with their respective theaters, cultural centers, universities, communities, and beyond. Impart to your listeners the excitement of what you heard at the convening. Let them know the reasons why coming together was meaningful and important to all of us. And then, be pro-active and help draw a road map that makes your community or theater or university or community center finally open the doors to the work of Latina/o theater artists. 

There is encouraging news: The Latina/o Theatre Commons, under the leadership of Tlaloc Rivas has launched Café Onda, an online gathering space that in the next several months will help us express, debate, fine tune and ultimately articulate what this movement and vision for a Latina/o theater of the twenty-first century will be all about. Many of our colleagues have pushed for Latina/o playwright’s initiatives in their communities creating showcases, readings and festivals. Of importance to our Latina/o Theatre Commons at a national level will be the roles played by the LATC 2014 festival showcasing Latina/o plays in Los Angeles, and in what Lisa Portes hopes will become our new Hub, the Latina/o Theatre Commons will host a festival of Latina/o plays at The Theatre School at DePaul University in Illinois with the expressed purpose to develop, support and give a strong platform to the works of Latina/o playwrights. 

The clear call to action heard from the Boston convening, if fully embraced, will insure our survival and strengthen our future. But now it is our turn to be prophets, to spread the word, to challenge what is the norm and to be agents of change! Josefina Lopez (backed by her formidable group) gave the convening its finest moment when she articulated a vision for what our Latina/o theater needs to be and feel like: “I want to see a world filled with the vision of theater as a multi-orgasmic, spiraling and flowing female energy. I dream of a future where art-making practice is no longer conceptualized after the model of male orgasm." I’m ready to be a part of this bold and visionary future. And as my mother taught me: let us continue to make strides while the fire within is still burning.


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Thank you, it was truly an important step on a road we must keep walking together.

By coincidence, Jose, I read your article immediately after an article in Sampsonia Magazine about Arizona's attempt to ban a number of books from the public schools: almost all of the books were related to Latin history and culture. I'm sure that the agenda your article outlines for Latina/o theater would scare the bejeezus of the Arizona legislators who voted to ban those books--and the citizens who voted those legislators into office.
It's not necessarily a bad thing to put some fear into the hearts of oppressors, but this Anglo backlash does raise a significant question. How can Latina/o theater balance two apparently contradictory impulses: 1) to assert the pride in your culture that Latina/o people very rightly feel, and 2) to make Latina/o majority status in the country "safe" for Anglos and other Americans?
I don't know--maybe the second goal isn't something you should worry about just now; after all, your community is currently underrepresented in all kinds of ways, as you point out. And as you fight for a place in the national consciousness, it's almost certain that confrontational tactics will be part of the struggle.
But with all respect, as an Anglo myself, I wonder whether another part of the struggle should involve reaching out as well as reaching in. Maybe you feel that's implicit in what you said in the article--from my own reading, I wasn't sure. I think the links are there to be made without in any way validating either the Arizona legislators' conscious and deliberate chauvinism or the more general, unconscious fear of "the other" that the majority population seems to feel.

John, thank your for being part of this ongoing dialogue. It is important to remember that Latina/o theatre (written by Latina/o playwrights in the United States) is as American as Miller or Williams. Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz and Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes (both Pulitzer prize winning plays) are American plays. Fear of "the other" and plain cultural ignorance has been with us for a while and sadly will continue to hold us back as a society. And yet, challenges as Arizona's attempt to ban books on Latin American history and culture actually present a clear opportunity for artists to further educate a specific community thru the work we create. The work of my Latina/o theatre colleagues is driven by inclusiveness. Look no further than the collaborations we do with those around us. Theatre is the one place where we can come and celebrate our cultural diversity, a diversity that is in fact part of our fiber.

What a great inspiring report from what sounds like a truly galvanizing gathering. Hats off to you, Jose, for getting this report out to all of us, and to the wonderful conveners at Arts Emerson and HowlRound for doing this important continuity work. I'm inspired by all this recommitment and salute you from a distance, but look forward to welcoming you back, Jose, to one of your many home bases!

Ari Roth!!
My dearest brother! Thank you for reading everything and for your beautiful comment. You were celebrated (loudly) at the convening! Imagine the surprise of all: An artistic director of a Jewish theatre that hired a Puerto Rican to direct Arthur Miller's After the Fall and allowed him to cast Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey as Maggie? What theater is that? THEATER J. The consensus: That kind of bold move kicks some serious butt. Everyone wanted to know how I could have possibly gotten away with such an amazing feat? The simple answer: YOU! Can we clone you?

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