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How Magical Realism Can Make Climate Change Matter

Legendary bolero José Alfredo Jiménez would be hard-pressed to sing a scenario as heart-wrenching as your daily life if you’re one of millions of Latinx people caught in the crosshairs of climate change. Our lives are defined by questions about what to do when your environment turns toxic, who to call when your sense of place vanishes, where to turn when your most treasured cultural icons wither away, and, ultimately, why you stay here. These questions provoked me to write Arbolito, a play about the excruciating choices Latinx communities face as we tiptoe around environmental hazards we didn’t ask for but somehow inherited. It is play about living with the consequences of someone else’s environmental choices.

"Latino communities from Texas to California to Puerto Rico are the hardest hit when these climate-induced disasters occur," says Michael Méndez, who studies climate policy and environmental justice at the University of California Irvine. "They absolutely have a real-world connection to our changing climate." In other words, for many Latinx communities, the story of climate change is the story of our lives, both present and past.

For hundreds of years, Latinx Texans bound our livelihoods and our lore to the natural environment. Especially in our rural communities, we found wisdom in the mundane and the holy alike, from agricultural work to family barbacoas. We planted roots in the comforting context of land, air, and water. But as the United States leaned into the economic buffet offered by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), these same familias found themselves in the toxic wake of unchecked economic expansion. As superhighways sprung up and eighteen-wheelers careened through the river valley spewing unmonitored exhaust, people found themselves forced to choose between a harmonious way of life and a profitable one. Between consumer culture and cultural conscience. For many Latinx people, this is a choice between making a living and making a life. That choice haunts the characters and motivates the action in Arbolito.

By taking a stand for Arbolito, she is taking a stand for herself and all Latinx people.

Arbolito inhabits a place I know well, my home state of Texas, in a very unnatural state of flux. Layering history, humor, regional cues, and magical realism, Arbolito mines human aftershocks of a destructive and all-too-common energy production practice: hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” On the surface, fracking transforms sleepy Texas towns from Kermit to Comstock into shining, if fleeting, boomtowns. Beneath the ground, however, the act of blasting pressurized liquid through aquifer-protecting rock formations (to allow access to natural gas, of course) poisons water sources and obliterates landscapes. The human cost of fracking is even more extreme. In addition to chronic stress and depression, communities where fracking occurs experience lung disease, cancer, heart attacks, and negative birth outcomes with greater frequency than non-fracking communities. This human story must be told.

In the play, a magical tree, “Arbolio,” thrives in precisely the place a towering tree should not: the harsh Chihuahuan desert. How does it do this? It’s simple. Magic. Locals’ tears keep Arbolito alive: tears of hardship, heartbreak, frustration, even loss. In the harshest of environments, Arbolito flourishes as both testament and antidote to Latinx people’s hard lives. But something is changing. After generations of vigor, Arbolito’s once-stately branches droop, and as Arbolito clings to life, its local caretakes—the world-weary Esther and her idealistic niece, Octavia—clash over whether to or how to save the local legend.

A tree's branches stretch skyward among the brush.

An image from the region where Arbolito takes place. Photo by Raul Garza.

Inspired and even provoked by the tree, the pair digs for the root of Arbolito’s distress. Has fracking destroyed Arbolito’s root system? Or have locals’ tears turned toxic after years of secrets and lies? Physically and emotionally poisoned by Corporate Oil, the characters in Arbolito—a diverse chosen family of hangers-on, survivors, and seekers—must decide whether the fight for their homeland is worth the sacrifice it will require. In a pivotal scene, Octavia faces a truth buried beneath layers of generational trauma inflicted by climate change. “Maybe when we stop and think how short, how fleeting, life is,” Octavia tells an oil field worker, “we want to savor the parts that give us comfort. We want to… save them.” Here, Octavia chooses preservation over profit, explaining that when we protect our natural environment, we nourish our own lives. In a world of culture wars and vitriolic opposition to environmental activism, Ocatavia takes a powerful, but peaceful, stand rooted in human truth. By taking a stand for Arbolito, she is taking a stand for herself and all Latinx people.

Using our creative voices, Latinx theatremakers have the opportunity to bear witness to how things got to be this way and to shape new conversations about how to change them. “Belief and action are connected,” says anthropologist Ben Orlove, co-director of the Earth Institute’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, “belief is often a basis for action.” That’s where our role as Latinx theatremakers comes in, as that aspect of storytelling is nothing new to Latinx playwrights. Our forebears forged stories centered on characters summoned by the natural elements or in spite of them—characters as grand as the Aztec’s god of rain and fertility, Tlaloc; as tragic as borderland’s mythical La Llorona; and as menacing as the Southwest’s giant owl-woman, La Lechuza. These figures populate regional folktales, legends, even songs, pinpointing that special place where natural meets supernatural. Throughout history, Latinx theatremakers have reveled in this brand of storytelling. In Arbolito, I follow their lead.

Both blessed and burdened by a legacy of coexistence with the natural elements, Latinx playwrights have the potential to shape a meaningful climate change narrative.

I let Arbolito breathe its story like it’s the last thing it will ever say, which matters because Arbolito’s story is our story. This is not the story of fracking, labor exploitation, toxic backflow, or polluted water tables or chronic disease. Not just that. Rather, it is the story of a people who bless the moments, no matter how fleeting, when natural wonders beyond the human realm lean over and kiss the forehead of our brilliant selves. A beautiful, fearless statement of resistance to change we did not ask for and will not accept.

Resistance to climate change is our story to own. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that while a majority of Americans (61 percent) say that global climate change is affecting their local community, an astounding 39 percent see little or no impact in their own community. Yet Princeton University’s Student Climate Change Initiative summarizes the situation Latinx people find ourselves in aptly: “Communities of color are disproportionately victimized by environmental hazards and are far more likely to live in areas with heavy pollution,” a policy paper concludes. It goes on to say, “People of color are more likely to die of environmental causes, and more than half of the people who live close to hazardous waste are people of color.” Both blessed and burdened by a legacy of coexistence with the natural elements, Latinx playwrights have the potential to shape a meaningful climate change narrative. In an era of free speech oppression, book-burnings, and systemic climate injustice, we have the right to retain agency of our most sacred and transformational experiences informed by nature.

This is where Latinx people’s superpower matters most. As a people, we master inclusion and representation in our storytelling, especially theatrical storytelling. Here, our voices soar and swoop and dip with musicality as we effortlessly code-switch and dramatically amplify. Here, our imaginations invoke elements such as Arbolito’s magical realism that transform theatre audience experiences into powerful feelings. And feelings? Those are the Trojan horses Latinx playwrights masterfully ride directly into audiences’ hearts and minds.

Two actors sit side by side and laugh on-stage.

Gricelda Silva and Jesús Valles in El by Raul Garza at Teatro Vivo. Directed by Christina J. Moore.

If anyone can make stories of climate change ring real and true, it’s Latinx people. Our influence on mainstream American culture is both effortless and ubiquitous. From Doritos to “Despacito,” we shape the way a nation talks, dresses, dances, plays, and eats. It’s not an overreach to envision Latinx artists as agents of engagement for theatre companies, artistic directors, audiences, influencers, and yes, even critics. Latinx playwrights belong at the center of the cultural conversation about climate change because we have the ability to reframe it through plays as rich, hilarious, complex, relevant, and results-oriented as we are. In fact, we’re already doing it.

Iconic playwright Caridad Svich fueled her poignant Red Bike with a kid’s narration of a rich life beyond a once-fertile place turned toxic. In the play, climate changed much more than the landscape, leaving a Latinx community to reckon with the one factor they truly control: their dreams. Another playwriting luminary, Charise Castro Smith, turned the climate change conversation inside-out, centering her spellbinding El Huracán around a multigenerational standoff during a looming natural disaster. In Castro Smith’s world, storms are equally fearsome whether internal or external. And as a hurricane looms, Latinx women make uneasy peace with a deluge of natural forces beyond their control.

Inspired by these and other victories of representation and artistry, I sign up to show up for the messy conversation that is theatre in the age of climate change. I stand proudly with the community of Latinx theatre artists whose voices speak our imperfect and inescapable truth—an evolving realization that resisting climate change is our responsibility and our privilege.

Perhaps the most inspirational opportunity Latinx theatre holds is its power to move beyond depicting our resistance to climate change to embodying it.

When I set out to write a play centered around the uncomfortable conversation between heritage and environment, I hoped Arbolito’s characters could guide audiences into a new appreciation of this standoff. Ultimately, though, the play’s characters taught me a much more valuable lesson: that our cultural response to climate change is something to be felt, not learned.

Perhaps the most inspirational opportunity Latinx theatre holds is its power to move beyond depicting our resistance to climate change to embodying it. The power to transform the didactic question-and-consolation cycle that rationalizes or even places blame into meaningful show of presence. In this way, as Arbolito and scores of other theatrical works illuminating the human cost of climate change spring to life, they bring more than truths. They bring hope.

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Thoughts from the curator

The climate crisis has been called a “crisis of imagination.” The phrase refers to our inability to grasp the magnitude and violence of the changes we are facing, our reluctance to let the reality of it permeate our collective consciousness, and our resistance to envision positive futures. But imagination is the currency of artists. In this ongoing series, Chantal Bilodeau, playwright and artistic director of the Arts & Climate Initiative, invites theatre artists, practitioners, and scholars to reflect on the ways in which they use their imagination to create the stories that will support us through, and lift us out of, this transformative moment.

Theatre in the Age of Climate Change


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