Student Performances in the Introductory Latinx Literature Classroom
Pedagogy Notebook is a monthly blog series that serves as a pedagogical resource for educators and scholars looking to incorporate Latinx theatre into the classroom. In Pedagogy Notebook, artists, educators, and scholars share their process and work in the classroom, plus overall reflections on their pedagogy. This series offers a glimpse into different methods of engaging with and teaching Latinx theatre at the university level.
In my five semesters offering Chicanx/Latinx content to undergraduates and graduates in the English Program at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, works of Chicanx teatro stand out as transformative readings that have the potential to awaken students to the power of performance. I will focus my discussion here on an upper division undergraduate Latina/o Literature survey class I taught in Spring 2016. In their final assignments, the students responded to one of several dramas that we read by staging their own readings. They chose from different Chicanx performance pieces that were assigned. While we read other iconic plays like Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit and Cherríe Moraga’s The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea, the students chose either El Teatro Campesino’s Los Vendidos, Josefina López’s Real Women Have Curves, or Virginia Grise and Irma Mayorga’s The Panza Monologues to perform.
The population of A&M-SA is overwhelmingly first generation, Mexican-origin students…This was the first time many of them had read Chicanx/Latinx literature and overall they found it compelling, sometimes disturbing, and most importantly, relevant to their lives.
Many of them reported that they were able to relate to the content in these plays because of their own cultural backgrounds. The population of A&M-SA is overwhelmingly first generation, Mexican-origin students. While they were not all necessarily politicized with a strong sense of Chicanx identity, they did recognize themes and characters that were familiar to their experiences and those of their family and friends. This was the first time many of them had read Chicanx/Latinx literature and overall they found it compelling, sometimes disturbing, and most importantly, relevant to their lives.
Once they chose a piece, the students worked in groups of about ten to prepare a fifteen-minute production for their classmates. Each group divided up responsibilities like directing, acting, PR, music, costumes, props, etc. Engaging with the useful checklists in the second edition of The Panza Monologues, I helped the students create their production plans. They were given ample class time to prepare, and were also expected to meet outside of class to rehearse. I required that they research the background for the play, including the historical context, any controversies it may have sparked, the reception by critics, and the general audience response. I assigned each group a collectively-written four-page report on what they found, as well as individual two-page self-reflections. This allowed them to see the impact of the pieces and place them within the larger context of Latinx literature, as well as providing a space to share their unique experiences with the project as a whole.
The course content throughout the semester gave the students the tools to approach the material with critical race, gender, and sexuality lenses, and the historical context to understand the significance of the pieces and the major themes that needed to be highlighted in performance. By the time we read the scripts, they had learned about the varying literary histories of different Latinx communities, recognizing the unique socio-political, generational, and linguistic distinctions between regions. Over half of the course content focused on Chicanx literature. This was an intentional pedagogical choice meant to reflect the demographic makeup of the US Latinx population, which is comprised of sixty-four percent peoples of Mexican descent (Pew Research Center). This was particularly important to a classroom in which about seventy percent of students were of Mexican origin. They had some general knowledge about the history of people of Mexican descent in the US, from colonization, to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, to the Mexican Revolution, to Repatriation, to the Movimiento, to contemporary labor and immigration politics, and how that history was reflected in Chicana/o literature. They had explored themes of dual identity, gender and sexuality, code-switching, spirituality, home and family, educational opportunity, mestizaje, immigration and nation, labor, social protest, and more. I showed clips from each performance piece in class: Real Women Have Curves is readily available on Netflix, Los Vendidos can be found on YouTube, and the Performance DVD of The Panza Monologues is held in our university library collection. They had also read the introduction to Performing the US Latina and Latino Borderlands so they were aware of the conversation around borderlands performance studies as a growing field that looks to theatre as a form of social protest as well as the concept of culture itself as performance.
After three weeks of rehearsal and preparation, performance day arrived. We opened up the space to students’ friends and families, and one student even brought her mother, who proudly filmed her daughter’s directorial debut. I was impressed by the commitment and detail of the performances. Students brought PowerPoints with images of Chicanx cultural forms, playlists to enhance the mood, costumes that reflected their characters, props that aided in the staging, and PR materials like programs and tickets to their shows with original artwork included. One brought a thirty-year old sewing machine that she borrowed from her tía. I was extremely proud of the students’ performances. They committed to the material fearlessly. Having practiced their lines and movement with care and dedication, we forgot we were in a classroom as the audience was transported through the wor(l)ds of Chicanx theatre. Each presentation seemed to fly by and when the “curtain closed” on the final performance, the students and I were sad to see it end.
Reading their reflections later, it was clear that for many of them, the performance was their favorite part of the class. The opportunity to create and interpret the material themselves engaged them fully. They felt ownership over their education and accountability to their peers. Working together in collaboration fostered a sense of community that the students appreciated and that is reflective of the nature of teatro. In embodying the characters of Chicanx theatre, they witnessed first hand the powerful potential of performance as a tool of social justice. Many of them were inspired to join the Mexican American Student Association and take other Chicanx/Latinx studies courses in the future. They expressed that they were encouraged to find and attend more theatre that reflected their own experiences and bring their family members to see it. As an educator, this is one of my main objectives: to motivate the students to continue to learn about Chicanx/Latinx cultural production, and maybe even to create it.