La Complejidad De Mi Ciudad

A Report on the LTC Miami in Motion Convening

The 2019 Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) Miami Regional Convening, which took place between 12-14 July of this year, made me feel so bloated, como una bandeja paisa. It was so full! I left the convening with nourishment in the form of interactions—ones that gave me hope for my social life as an artist.

The convening was intended to give the theatre community of Miami a chance to hold a mirror to itself, taking stock of the region’s resources, opportunities, and challenges through the lens of Latinx theatre. The sixty-five participants were split into three circles: Miami natives, who were given priority to speak first in conversations; diaspora folks, who had lived in Miami for a significant amount of time but later left; and out-of-towners.

five people sitting in a semi-circle

I was part of the diaspora group. I grew up in Miami but, feeling a scarcity of opportunity in the city for theatre artists, I left for Philadelphia seven years ago to pursue a career as a creator, writer, and performer. In Philly, I met all sorts of avant-garde alien cuttlefish—people I connected with artistically and who influenced my sensibilities. (I have a parenthesis in my name, for Christ’s sake! That would never fly in Miami.)

Wanting to reconnect to my Miami roots, though, as well as meet other Latinx artists and think about ways I could enhance my own practice, I decided to attend this year’s LTC convening. One of the biggest discoveries I made at the gathering was that a region can determine the type of artist you become—if I hadn’t left Miami, I’m sure I would’ve become a vastly different artist, maybe a comedian or an improv performer, and I probably wouldn’t have encountered devised theatre. Despite what I experienced as a younger artist, I realized there is a lot to be found in the Miami theatre scene.

Day One: Thickening the Piece of the Pie

Day one began with an info session for first-time conveners, and I was taken aback by how emotional the experience was. Many people commiserated about the isolation or frustration they’ve felt as theatre artists in their respective towns, and there were honest testimonials shared about globetrotting and migration and how these experiences helped shape people into who they are today.

At the opening ceremony, an explanation of the convening’s purpose was offered by Adriana Gavira and Edgar Garcia, who were the champions for this particular convening, along with Abigail Vega, the former LTC producer, and Armando Huipe, the new producer. Afterwards, Sindy Castro and Ashley Alvarez, both diaspora theatre artists living in New York City, led a thrilling Theatre of the Oppressed exercise. We were asked to place ourselves on an invisible map on the floor based on our place of origin, where our families are from, and where we work. Some participants, rather than staying in one place, found themselves moving across the floor as if to say, “All these places are my home, why do I have to choose?”

There were two breakout groups after the ceremony, and I joined the one titled “Making Theatre in 2020 & Beyond: Politics, Art + Activism.” I was excited to hear what other people thought about representation, access to the arts, and how our practices can extend beyond a production of our work. I was admittedly disappointed that so much time was spent on representation, as I would have benefitted from a broader conversation. I wanted to hear what people had to say about the boundaries between social justice work and the arts, and how our artistic practice can function in communities outside our own. Alicia Cruz, a Florida International University student, said it best:

Sometimes what we’re really talking about is seeking a bigger piece of the pie, when the pie is already predicated on a lot of historical systemic oppression. Is this conversation exclusively about how we represent ourselves, or is there an additional extension of political work that we’re talking about as artists that goes beyond just getting ourselves in there?

The thickening of our stories is not just about representation, but how we do our work and why.

There were disagreements during the session about what tactics are appropriate for pushing change in our artistic communities. Some people felt like collaborating with or presenting work exclusively from our own people—Latinx people, people of color, or otherwise—is a strategy that ultimately divides us and prevents us from seeing the humanity in different communities. Others stated that although some people gripe about having to exist in a capitalist society, we still nevertheless must accept that money creates platforms for artists to speak on, and sometimes that money comes from white institutions. If certain Latinx artists want to engage with these institutions in order for their stories to be told, that is their prerogative.

As far as representation was concerned, a concept that resonated with many of us is one that Rose Cano, an out-of-town participant, referred to as “thickening.” She used the metaphor of a paper doll, with each cutout representing a new perspective or voice in the Latinx community: the more the doll grows and widens out, the deeper and more profound it becomes. It was then that some of us (myself included) realized that the thickening of our stories is not just about representation, but how we do our work and why. The very conversation, in itself, was a thickening.

Later in the day, we all traveled to Miami Dade College’s Koubek Memorial Center, home of Teatro Prometeo, for an opening night paella dinner. The meal culminated with a Lights for Liberty rally—a nationwide vigil intended to call for an end to the detention centers across our border. The LTC conveners placed lights at the base of a red sculpture that represented freedom of expression, part of a larger exhibition known as “The Route to Human Rights,” which featured other visual arts pieces. Olga Sanchez Saltveit led us in a ritual of solidarity; it felt nice to acknowledge what’s happening beyond our convening.

Our first day ended with the opening night performance of Cartas de Jenny by Compañía Teatro Imagen, a Chilean theatre company based in Santiago. It was part of the thirty-fourth International Hispanic Theater Festival of Miami—potentially the longest-running Spanish-language theatre festival in the United States—which was produced by Teatro Avante. I sat throughout the performance only half understanding, due to my Spanish being intermediate. Because of this, the complex story was lost; there were just broad brushstrokes of movement, staging, and actor portrayals. I then realized that language, and language barriers, would become a major thread over the next couple of days.

Day Two: Guts and Desire

Day two began with an extra cute trivia y cafecito to get the day started. We were split into teams, and, as the only Miami native in mine, I felt a sudden pressure to represent my city as best as I could. We dubbed our team “the Winners,” and it felt like some karmic force was at play when we turned out to be the lowest-scoring team. I still felt like a winner, though, because I ate at least three plates of pandebono, croquettas, and pastelitos.

The convening organizers had set a specific intention for the second day, which was for participants to find, at some point, “A Moment of Self-Definition / Momento de Autodefinición,” the name of the first session. We followed an inner circle–outer circle framework. Most of us sat in the outer circle while Miami folks sat in the inner circle to discuss local issues, challenges, and opportunities. The community frequently asked itself why it was so “siloed,” having a general lack of awareness about what else was out there, and talked about smaller (but still significant) issues of transportation and access to the arts. Eventually, the conversation opened up to thoughts from all parties.

Hearing that hybridity in our art is actually part of our DNA and our heritage was a profound moment for me.

Much was revealed about the Miami community that I didn’t know. In particular, there was an instance of blackface at a 2018 production by Teatro Trail that resulted in outrage from the national Afro-Latinx and Latinx theatre community. Orlando Addison, founder of an Afro-Latinx advocacy group in Miami called the Ernesto Gamboa Project, stated that this actually resulted in a positive outcome: a conversation was facilitated where the company apologized and there was a reconciliation. I was surprised by this outcome because it felt like something that would never happen in Philly. Philly, by its own leftist nature, has difficulty bridging gaps like these—especially through conversations. I have a lot of theories as to why the situation in Miami unfolded this way, one of which is due to a huge unifying force: our mutual Latinx heritage.

While this commonality might make some things easier, a shared culture isn’t enough to stave off issues of anti-Blackness. “I thought, We’ve figured out racism in Miami. There’s no racism, there’s no problem,” said Victoria Collado, member of the Abre Camino Collective. Her comments used an understanding of Miami’s own shortsightedness to explain the Teatro Trail situation. “And then all of a sudden you feel it in your town and you’re like, Whoa whoa whoa, I thought we were woke because we speak Spanish and we ask for colada instead of a tall macchiato. It’s a deeper issue in Miami.”

Following this discussion, we had another group of breakout sessions. I went to the one titled “Expanding Yourself and Your Art Through Interdisciplinary/Multidisciplinary Collaborations.” As a deviser, I was most excited for this conversation. I hoped we would explore ideas surrounding fear and discoveries that artists have made. Looking for inspiration, I asked a question about how people overcome their fear of studying a new medium.

“Talent is just guts and desire,” said Vanessa Garcia, another member of Abre Camino. “It’s the guts to kill the fear to go study the thing, and there are different ways to study. Sometimes that studying is putting different kinds of people in a room.”

I hate the idea of talent, but this was probably the most satisfying explanation I had ever heard. The limitation I felt was definitely something within me, but I wondered what other pressures have come into play. Hearing that hybridity in our art is actually part of our DNA and our heritage was a profound moment for me. Cano mentioned that in the theatrical pageantry of our cultures, there’s dancing, dialogue, and poetry. Our rich cultures are, “by nature, interdisciplinary,” she said, before contrasting her experiences in South America with those here in the United States: “It’s actually when we get here that we’re not allowed to do what the other person does.”

This connection blew my mind. Having been born and raised in the States, I’ve always felt a strange pressure to stay in my lane and not explore other mediums. But here I was sitting in a room full of artists who told me to do the opposite.

Following this discussion, we reconvened for a larger group session entitled “Outside in/Inside Out,” which was facilitated by the LTC steering committee. This was the opposite setup from the first session: instead of Miami folks in the inner circle, this time it was just the out-of-towners. The intention was for them to reflect back to the larger group what they had heard in the morning session. At some point they invited people from the diaspora to speak, and then for the people from Miami to offer other thoughts. But the presence of people from Miami was noticeably absent—several companies that had been invited didn’t make it. There was a tension in the air while some people tried to figure out why this was the case, especially since the earlier sessions were much larger. We would later discover the answers to these questions.

It’s clear to me that, when it comes to broader conversations surrounding Latin/Hispanic identity, the term “Latinx” is about far more than gender inclusion.

Day Three: A Crossroads for Survival

After some much-needed time for self-care built into our itinerary in the morning, the Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL) hosted a lunch conversation. I was surprised to learn their advocacy was not just for people with children but for anyone who had to take care of family members. Issues like better scheduling for parent-artists, spaces for breastfeeding parents, and inclusivity for new parents came up during the session. Rachel Spencer-Hewitt, PAAL’s founder, had much to say about how we can all be better allies for artists with children, and for anyone who adopts a caregiver role in their household.

The closing ceremony was a work session where all participants gathered into small groups based on discussion topics: language, artistic exchange, community, education, and identity—all of which had popped up throughout the convening. I immediately gravitated to the language group because I wanted to express something I had been thinking about for a long time: my feelings surrounding my own language and my inability to speak it. I was beaten to the punch by Spencer Hewitt, who shared her vulnerability and anxieties over the shame she feels about not being able to speak hers. There is a genuine trauma that many Latinx people face when they don’t know their own language—there were many performances I couldn’t even understand during the International Hispanic Theatre Festival. Personally, this makes me feel as though I don’t understand my own culture.

Interestingly, it turned out that the reason so few Spanish-language theatre companies were at the convening had to do with language. This was revealed to us in Spanish, during the closing ceremony. (I had to ask someone else to translate this for me—probably the worst way to elucidate an understanding of the situation.) Apparently, it was because, even though the outreach and promotion for the event had been bilingual, English was the first language presented and Spanish the second. Many theatre companies based in Little Havana had little interest in engaging with programming that put English-speakers at the priority.

Additionally, among the more traditional sects of the Latin community, there’s a lot of frustration with the very concept of the “Latinx Theatre Commons” (in particular, the word “Latinx”)—they see it as an American creation that doesn’t speak to their own identity. But it’s clear to me that, when it comes to broader conversations surrounding Latin/Hispanic identity, the term “Latinx” is about far more than gender inclusion—it represents an alternative consciousness that some Latin people in the United States experience, which includes not just gender but language as well.

The convening ended with a communal “rainmaking” moment led by Vega. We all stood in a circle without talking and created foley noises, which sounded like rain, with our hands. It was an emotional experience for some of the LTC members, as it was Vega’s last year as the producer and this was the last session we would be spending with her.

three groups sitting in circles

Leaving Miami

Over the course of the convening, I looked out at the Miami landscape and thought to myself, “I miss this city so much.” Ultimately, I was incredibly inspired by the gathering in my hometown; I met a lot of really cool people who challenged me, and I hope to stay in touch with them. But I can’t help but feel a lot of discomfort over the role language played at this gathering.

It’s complex. I understand the frustration many non-Spanish-speaking Latinx folks feel when they want to embrace their own language but are denied access by elitist members of their own diaspora, and I sense a similar frustration from native Spanish speakers who don’t want their language to be pushed to a lower priority than English. Latinx folks from the States want to feel accepted from their country of heritage, and native Spanish speakers want to exist as they are, without the pressure of assimilation. What I see from both sides is a deeper desire for self-actualization.

I spent my last few hours hanging out with a self-made affinity group of radicals and leftists—shout-out to Sam, Melissa, and Osvaldo who invited me to hang with them at Wynwood, a neighborhood known for being a hub of commercial visual art. We talked about our dreams of creating a conference for devised theatremakers, touring Latin America on a cross-country road trip, and how to exist as artists in late-stage capitalism. On top of learning so much about my hometown that I wasn’t expecting, these visions my new friends and I created together were precisely what I was hoping for in my first-ever conference.

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