Pedagogy Notebook

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.

five women of color posing for a photo
A&M-SA students about to perform a scene from Real Women Have Curves.

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.

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In Pedagogy Notebook, artists, educators, and scholars share their process and work in the classroom, as a resource for educators and scholars looking to incorporate Latinx theatre.

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I too, am glad that you have found a wonderful way to connect performance with your English students.

I am left with a few questions about quality and availability of resources. I have been researching the quality and quantity of Latinx theatre production in juxtaposition to the Eurocentric counterparts.

While I know your heart is absolutely in the right place, the quality of the performances here in San Antonio were lacking. I believe they were lacking simply because there was no guidance from someone who is actually trained to do theatre. While we need to tell these stories, why did you not reach out to the theatre professionals in San Antonio to help guide your young director or young actors? Especially, since your school does not have a theatre department?

Why do we not seek out the Latinx theatre professional? I was the only Latinx MFA in my program. I worked extremely hard to achieve my degree. I am in San Antonio, and there are several others who would have liked to help you for free.

I can not teach an English course because I do not have the graduate hours to do so. If I was going to teach my students the component of an English course, I would invite a guest lecturer from the English department. Why didn't you do that? Why do we not seek out collaborators in the profession? Does this mean that we do not respect the MFA degree in theatre?

Thank you for this critique, Alison.

You raise important questions and I think my response is best placed within the context of larger issues of institutional support for the Arts in general. I am in agreement that there needs to be more collaboration with Latinx professionals when educators teach Latinx theatre. My challenges with this are due to lack of funding. Even though previously I taught as an adjunct for two years at A&M-SA, I have just completed my first semester on the tenure track and so I had no input into the program budget for this fiscal year. Because there is no Theatre Program, as you noted, all attempts to bring drama to campus are through the efforts of individual faculty members and students.

Having earned my Ph.D. at UCSB in Chicana/o Studies with a specialization in Aesthetic and Cultural Studies and doctoral emphasis in Feminist Studies, I am the only faculty member currently teaching Chicanx/Latinx literature - I also bring drama, music, visual arts and other cultural forms into the classroom. Throughout my time at A&M-SA, I began to teach The Panza Monologues and every time I did, students would ask me when they could stage a production of it. The Vagina Monologues has had a successful five year run and students also wanted to bring this material in conversation with that piece. In my opinion, staging this content should not be foreclosed to students because the institution does not yet allocate the resources to support a full scale, professional production. I saw a need and I tried to meet it to the best of my ability.

So, to reiterate my intentions in staging The Panza Monologues with student performers were threefold:

1.To make visible Latinx narratives to the wider campus community, particularly because of their value to our student population.

2.To provide students with the opportunity to engage Latinx theater outside the classroom – something most of them have never experienced. Despite our lack of professional guidance, we did our best to honor the material and I am proud of the dedication the performers showed. I wanted to show them that they are capable of bringing their talents and passion to the stage with content they can relate to. We made extensive use of Grise and Mayorga’s “DIY Production Manual” and “Guidelines, Advice, and Good Wishes for Staging a Production” from the second edition of The Panza Monologues book. We engaged with Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed and my own training in Chela Sandoval’s SWAPA – Spoken Word Art Performance as Activism.

3.To demonstrate to the administration the need for Arts funding, and potential for students to thrive and put on successful productions. Imagine what they could accomplish with funding and guidance. The options were to wait and see if the administration would create a theatre program, or to move forward with an amateur student production in the hopes that it would garner support for such a program. I chose to move forward. One of the first questions I fielded from a top administrator afterwards sounded something like, “Was this an expensive production?”

To address more directly your question of why local theatre professionals were not involved, I will offer an explanation placed within a larger discussion of artistic labor and the value of women’s work, a conversation that must continue to grow as more women’s theater is recognized and performed in public spaces. My rationale was that theatre professionals deserve to be paid what they’re worth and when I did reach out to local people, you included as you know, it became clear that we did not have the budget to meet reasonable financial requests. I understand that artists' and professionals' time is valuable and I do not feel comfortable asking them to work for free.

Here are some of the ways I am committed to helping grow institutional support for theatre on campus and engaging with community:

1.I am collaborating with well-regarded professor from another institution in town to bring Vicki Grise for a workshop next Fall.

2.I have proposed a larger budget to the department for the next performance to include a professional director and workshops with actors from community theatres.

3.I am working with several other professors in our English program to organize a theatre conference in which we will invite scholars, professional theatre companies, and students to share their work with our campus community.

Thank you again for challenging me to know better and do better. I am truly committed to that goal. I hope that you and your company will consider collaborating with A&M-SA in the future. I have the utmost respect for the work that you do. Please feel free to contact me at Adrianna.Santos@tamusa.edu if you would like to continue this conversation.

This is great, Adrianna! I am including student performances in my courses this semester and this gives me some good ideas for how to make it a success!