Notes from the Latino American Underground
The scorn of our formidable neighbor who does not know us is our America's greatest danger. And since the day of the visit is near, it is imperative that our neighbor know us, and soon, so that it will not scorn us. —Jose Martí, Nuestra America
When Jose Martí wrote Nuestra America, he was looking to create an American identity distinct from that of Europe. Europe, whose empires had been crumbling, was not the threat—the threat was the United States of America, which turned European imperialism into economic domination. Today, in the country that fiercely guards the term of “American” for itself, the domination seems complete. To the US, Latin America is a conglomeration of Banana Republics, dictatorships and ex-dictatorships, and drug wars— the topic of much lazy criticism and site of many eye-opening study-abroads. It is also where most of the immigration into the US currently stems from. And yet, when asked to think about Latin America, most ignore, or remain unaware of, the decades upon decades of economic imperialism from US-backed interests and corporations; the same which begat decades of dictatorships and human-rights abuse, and much of it under the watch and encouragement of the CIA.
It seems a bit strange to start an essay on Latina/o theater by looking at US/Latin American foreign policy, but this blind spot in American perception is precisely why the term Latino has become so nefarious. Latina/o, as in, the Latin American diaspora in this country, is a term that has been created, in part, to understand and codify the Latin American experience in the United States. Most importantly, it is a term that in theater is used to determine the cultural output of a select group of people. It’s meant to be easily digestible, marketed, and sold.
So what exactly is Latina/o theater? The term has always confounded me. The problem is not with talented Latina/o theater artists who find their way to the edges of mainstream culture; the problem is that these artists then come to define the overall Latina/o product. The well-meaning thought process of the conscientious gatekeeper becomes: “What is the version of Latina/o that will bring us those hard to find audiences, and satiate the current trend for diversity?” What we sacrifice in that thinking is the ability to define ourselves. The making of the Latina/o product therefore imposes onto our own artistic identities the same destabilizing, nation-corrupting, economic imperialism that the US has imposed on Latin America. Rather than resist this codification, though, our desire to play a part in mainstream culture compels us to seek it out.
The thing about the term Latino is that the idea of a singular Latina/o identity is an illusion. What is considered “Latino” in our theaters is in reality an accessible version of what decades of Latin American immigration to the United States has created—a dash of Spanglish here, a spicy cultural tradition there. The Latin American diaspora in the US is, in reality, a culturally, racially, economically, and religiously diverse group of people whose only real point of unity is a continent and perhaps (but not fully) the Spanish language—which itself is oftentimes lost from one or two generations to the next.
Currently, I am working on my theater company Sans Comedia’s, second show, Lisa and Her Things. It is a play that is about five white people sitting around a dinner table, drinking wine, eating cheese, and talking about their problems. It is the second show produced by my bilingual theater company, which itself is devoted to making work in both English and Spanish (and sometimes both). Our company’s first show was a play that dealt directly with tensions between Latin American immigrants and white gentrifiers—Lisa and Her Things does none of that. Does that mean that one of my shows is considered Latina/o theater and the other one is not?
The only thing Latin American about Latina/o theater is that it is the product of people who have descended from those places. Now, that is not a small detail—Latin Americans are themselves products of globalization, socio-political and cultural influences, and local traditions, but that does not define them. If you look at the stages of the great Latin American theater, capitals like Buenos Aires, Bogotá, or Mexico City, you do not see work that bends over backwards to fit into a particular identity. You see tragicomedy, dance-theater, avant-garde theater, and many new plays that center around the idea of national identity.
Upon a recent visit to Buenos Aires, I encountered a show that impacted me: Rafael Spregelburd’s Apátrida (Nation-less). It was a one-man show with live music, about a true-story debate in the nineteenth century between an artist, Eduardo Schiaffino (one of Argentina’s most important painters and creator of the National Art Museum), and Eugenio Auzón, a Spanish-born critic living in Buenos Aires. Their debate was over an exhibit of Argentine paintings going to Europe to showcase the new national art. Auzón’s criticism was that the pieces were extremely formal and conservative, and that they merely used cliché signifiers of Argentine identity. Schiaffino disagrees, and they end up in a duel resulting in the artist injuring his hand, and the critic vanishing into obscurity.
It made me think about the way we represent ourselves to the new “culturally dominant power,” the US. How, in many ways, in an effort to get ourselves represented, we end up replicating only those more reproducible aspects of ourselves. The painful step, though, is realizing that to exorcise those demons is to perhaps challenge the very notion of an identity. Perhaps the solution is to do away with trying to consistently define ourselves as Latina/o theater, and merely say we are Latinas/os or Latin Americans who make work. Perhaps we should embrace the all-encompassing America, where so much of ourselves comes from, a world in which we don’t have to reduce ourselves in order to belong—and instead show that we are indeed the new American theater.