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The Tíaland

Spain and Portugal have histories of feudal land systems, dictatorships, and immigration to the New World. These feed into our theatrical traditions in the Americas, from Arctic Canada to the southernmost tip of Chile, yet we are seldom able to go back to these Mother, or Auntie lands (Tíalands), to better understand our inheritance.

I flew to the Tíaland (my affectionate nickname for Portugal) last summer because I won the first DISQUIET International Short Play Competition. I call Portugal the Tíaland as a nod to my Latina/o theatrical family, and because it seems that Aunties (or Tías, as we say in Spanish and Portuguese) are doing much of the work to keep the society going— from cooking chouriço and sweet rice in the streets, to running the university residence I lived in, to singing fado music in the clubs. My award included airfare, accommodation, seeing my play performed by professional Portuguese actors, and a full scholarship to the DISQUIET International Literary Program whose aim is to “deepen understanding among writers from North America and writers from Portugal.”

Based on my experiences, I believe for the first time, it is possible to overcome barriers to Luso (Portuguese) theatre practice in Canada and the United States. I see Luso theatre as a trickle into contemporary American Latina/o theatre practice.


Alfama District in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Elaine Avila. 

Jeff Parker, who is Director of DISQUIET (with co-Director Scott Laughlin), believes it essential for North American writers to go to another country, to become “disquieted,” to question what we believe is important, which can be driven by market forces rather than by what might further our art. I have to agree. The DISQUIET International Literary Program is named after and inspired by The Book of Disquiet by Lisbon poet Fernando Pessoa. Yale University Professor Harold Bloom sites Pessoa as the most representative poet of the twentieth century, along with Pablo Neruda. Pessoa has come to represent Portugal itself. If you travel to Lisbon, you will see him (and the heteronyms he wrote and published under various personas) on t-shirts, notebooks, mugs, and postcards. My play, which won the award, is called Café A Brasileira, and is set in the café Pessoa frequented.

DISQUIET is also inspired by the late Portuguese poet Alberto de Lacerda, “who believed above all in the importance of literary community,” and the city of Lisbon itself, one of the oldest and most storied cities in the world.

Based on my experiences, I believe for the first time, it is possible to overcome barriers to Luso (Portuguese) theatre practice in Canada and the United States. I see Luso theatre as a trickle into contemporary American Latina/o theatre practice. I see us, together, becoming a vibrant river.

Where We Came From
Why don’t Luso theatremakers have more of a presence? A larger community? At one DISQUIET event, our obstacles became suddenly clear. DISQUIET was honoring Maria Teresa Horta, a brave and talented writer who stood up to the more than forty years of Salazar-Caetano dictatorship. In 1971, Horta, along with Maria Isabel Barreno and Maria Velho da Costa, wrote Novas Cartas Portuguesas (New Portuguese Letters). The book is a postmodern collage of fiction, nonfiction, letters, poetry, and erotica springboarding off a series of five letters allegedly written by a seventeenth century Portuguese nun who was abandoned by her French lover (the letters probably were written by a French, male publisher instead). Horta’s work had been censored by the Salazar-Caetano dictatorship. The writers of Novas Cartas Portuguesas banded together, calling themselves the “Three Marias,” refusing to claim authorship over their particular texts. All mothers, middle class, and convent educated, the Three Marias told the truth about their lives, writing “Whores or lesbians, we do not care what they call us, as long as the battle is fought and not lost…Enough. It is time to cry ‘Enough!’ and to form a block with our bodies.” When the Three Marias were charged with “outrage to public decency” and “abuse of the freedom of the press,” feminists worldwide championed their work, including Adrienne Rich, Marguerite Duras, and Simone de Beauvoir.  

Oona Patrick, the Luso American liaison for DISQUIET, opened Horta’s tribute evening by quoting a statistic: In 1900, less than seven percent of Portuguese women could read or write. Tears sprang to my eyes when I heard this. I noticed that my North American Luso writer friends (male and female) around me were equally overcome.

Why? Because this sad statistic represents enormous obstacles, and the hard work it took, over generations, for many of us Northern American Luso writers to be at DISQUIET, to be writers at all. This statistic represents all the stories of immigrants whose voices are in danger of being lost.

Why such low literacy? Portugal was a feudal society and then survived the longest dictatorship in the twentieth century. Theatre, education, politics, and literature were for elites. As my cousin Lina says, “We were too poor for politics.” This is my family’s story. Being at DISQUIET was a dream come true, across oceans and generations.

Our families have overcome the education and class barriers, allowing this generation to find its voice.

Our tears about the struggle for literacy are matched by the exhilaration of being part of a group that is telling its stories for the first time. Our families have overcome the education and class barriers, allowing this generation to find its voice. A core part of DISQUIET every year has been a “Writing the Luso Experience” workshop with a prominent Luso American writer (Frank X. Gaspar or Katherine Vaz) and awards to writers of Portuguese descent to help them attend the program. In the inaugural 2011 workshop, Gaspar inspired the founding of a literary movement he called Presence/Presença, after the famed Portuguese literary journal and for the group’s mission of addressing the absence of Luso voices.

a group of performers on stage
Staged reading at DISQUIET 2014 in Lisbon. Photo courtesy of DISQUIET.

The Experience of DISQUIET
At DISQUIET, I took two craft, or “core writing” workshops. One was led by Philadelphia based playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger, who is genius at leading everyone from beginner to advanced, in a cohesive, inspiring, fun, and challenging playwriting workshop.

I also participated in another core workshop called “Camino Lisbon,” led by a Canadian Poet, Moez Surani. We began at the Church of St. James, which dates back to 1100, to walk this ancient path (trod by pagans, then pilgrims), through Lisbon, along the Rio Tejo, to the Expo lands, then deeper into the countryside. Moez suggested we walk alone or together, as we wished. Whatever conference “persona” we might have adopted fell away, step by step, and we all became quite close…conversing deeply, ecstatically, and thoughtfully.

It was entirely magical to see my short play come to life, in Lisbon, in one of their most beautiful, storied theatres (Pina Bausch, Eleanora Duse, and Sarah Bernhardt, all performed there), the Teatro Sao Luiz. Café a Brasileira was directed by John Frey, from New York, who runs a Meisner-based studio in Lisbon, on a program with playwrights Jacqueline Goldfinger, Denis Johnson, John Frey, and Portuguese novelist/playwright Jacinto Lucas Pires. The actors turned out to be some of the best known in Portugal—Matilde Breyner, Francisco Salles, and Luis Filipe D’Almeida were impeccable.

This was the first time DISQUIET included theatre, and they nailed it. It also meant so much to me. Before the presentation, my aunt and my mother suggested I invite some relatives I have not met before, Jose and Lina Avila. Jose tells me he and Lina won’t be hard to spot; they both have canes. He is mostly blind and Lina needs knee surgery. Jose is one of the first men from my grandfather’s village to get a university education. Jose’s voice is like my grandfather’s. Lina confides that she and Jose had to come find the theatre the night before. The family used to be too poor to go to theatres, so they had no idea where it was. After the performance of Café a Brasileira, Jose says, “at last, one of our family is an artist.” 

One of the actors tells me he particularly appreciates a joke in my play about artists, writers, and intellectuals not being able to afford to go to historic cafes in Lisbon. Portugal is hard hit by EU austerity measures. One of the actresses tells me that Meisner technique provides an important link in terms of making theatre accessible in its style. All of the theatre I attended in Lisbon exhibited this style—passionate where it needed to be, but relaxed in its performance, like jazz. I was able to see several plays, free to the public, or with discount tickets for “profissionais de espetáculos” (theatre professionals). I saw Teatro das Compras’s site specific play written by Joana Bértholo, performed with one actor in historic Café Nicola, set during WWII, casting the audience as famous refugees fleeing through Lisbon like Ian Fleming and Peggy Guggenheim. I attended a string orchestra Kurt Weill cabaret sung by Adriana Queiroz, slyly playing with male and female personas, in English, German, French, and Portuguese. Jacinto Lucas Pires, a fellow playwright at the DISQUIET evening, had a play on for the Almada Theatre Festival. This show was a collaboration with French choreographer/dancer, Alma Palacios, called Libretto, which Pires wrote (and acts in), and was performed in a passionate, yet sincere and relaxed style. Pires used beautifully simple means to flow between worlds—a word written on a blackboard, a prop on the floor, and a fight with a technician demanding that he sing. Pires’ hilarious, disturbing, theatre inspired novel, The True Actor, translated by Jaime Braz and Dean Thomas Ellis, is not to be missed.

An Emergence of Luso/a (Portuguese) Theatre in the Americas
Why do I believe that it is possible (at last) to overcome obstacles to Portuguese theatre practice?

  • DISQUIET has added playwriting to their core workshops and overall programming, thanks to the advocacy of Jacqueline Goldfinger, and the belief of Director Jeff Parker and co-Director Scott Laughlin.
  • Portuguese writers, actors, and directors have a willingness to collaborate across borders.
  • Terry Costa, who went to nine remote islands in the Azores (a Portuguese archipelago) over six months, interviewed artists, musicians, theatre makers, writers, and others and then founded this festival.
  • The embracing of Portuguese theatre artists from within the American Latino/a theatre community, and leaders and funders in Canada and the US.
  • The enthusiasm of our community to hear our stories told, based on my own process—reversing assimilation—learning Portuguese and about our traditions, working with our community, and collaborating with other Luso theatremakers.

But it is far too easy to count the Portuguese theatremakers in Canada and the US (playwrights Aida Jordão, Melissa Ferreira, Ryan Oliveira, Joseph Sousa, and Mat Arruda; actors Paul Ribeiro, Paul Moniz de Sá, Maria João Cruz, and Beatrice Sallis). If you know of more, or could identify yourself as a Luso, please add your name in the comments section—it’s time for our community to grow and consider connecting to Presence/Presença on Facebook. Stephanie Timm will be leading the playwriting course this year, and you can find out more about the new play contest here.

I highly recommend DISQUIET to all writers, but especially to those of Latina/o and Luso descent. I can’t wait to see what stories come from connecting Café Onda readers and writers to their mission. There were many ways attendees got there—through DISQUIET’s general competitions and Luso American scholarships, accessing university funding for faculty and students, and grants.

Desassossego, (often translated as “Disquiet”) is one of those nearly untranslatable Portuguese words, like saudade (longing). It is often defined as “anxiety, worry, anxiousness.” But it is also the opposite of quiet. It is the kind of beautiful restlessness I feel while germinating a writing idea, or when connecting to our Tíaland, our cultural legacy, and to the tías singing in the fado clubs. Disquiet came to mean many things, including having one’s worldview expanded, a walking/writing invocative state, a need to be alone, and for community—like the one we made at DISQUIET in Lisbon.

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Love this, Elaine! Just wanted to add that DISQUIET's application deadlines are coming up soon for our 5th program in Lisbon! Seeking submissions from poets, playwrights, novelists, memoirists, and essayists for our general contests and special Luso-American scholarships for those of Portuguese or other Lusophone-country descent. Details at disquietinternational.org.

"At last, one of our family is an artist" - loved that, and the whole article. Thanks Elaine. Happy Holidays!

I just saw this in the Latina/o Theatre Commons FB Group. Thank you for this writing, its beautiful. I identify as Latina and as Portuguese (Luso) American. I've struggled through the years in how to relate as both, because I am both. But I like the term "Tialands" because my ancestors come from both Spain and Portugal and they are so similar. This relieves me to see that I am not alone and that there are other people like me in the Theatre community. Thank you for also naming other theatre practitioners who share the same background, that I had never heard of!