Puerto Rico, Politics, and the Diaspora in Magdalena Gomez's Dancing in My Cockroach Killers
Ignited is an occasional series that delivers on-the-ground communiques from the Latinx Theatre Commons’ (LTC) El Fuego initiative. El Fuego emerged from Carnaval 2015, a festival of new Latinx plays held at DePaul University in Chicago. Eighteen theatre companies have committed to producing the work of Carnaval playwrights, in a series of productions from September 2016 through 2020. In step with the LTC’s mission to champion equity through scholarship, the Fuego initiative has also matched new work with scholars of Latinx theatre and performance. Through Ignited, these critical witnesses offer reflections that both chronicle and critically position new Latinx theatremaking in the public discourse of US American theatre.
Dancing in My Cockroach Killers came to the 2014 LATC Encuentro from New York City’s Pregones Theatre, where the work was originally devised as a tribute to playwright and poet Magdalena Gomez. An updated version of the show opened as a co-production between Pregones/PRTT and Washington DC’s GALA Theatre and ran from 7 June to 1 July 2018.
The show is a musical drawing from poems, monologues, and narratives inspired by Latinx figures including Joe Cuba, Iris Chacón, and Lolita Lebrón. Magdalena Gomez’s words are set to music in order to theatrically address gender violence, racism, and the aftereffects of colonialism in Puerto Rico. Pregones/PRTT currently tours with the show, connecting with audiences through Cockroach Killers’ timely and urgent political messaging. Over a week of rehearsals, I sat in on the process and watched the company adjust to working in GALA’s space during load-in and tech. Throughout our time together, I joyfully watched the improvisation and interplay between the cast, musical director Desmar Guevara, and members of the band. I also noticed the specificity with which director Rosalba Rolón was able to shape the company’s interpretation of key passages through vocal and physical work. At various times, I was allowed to pull actors away from the rehearsal to discuss the process of staging the show, its relevance to Latinx audiences in Washington DC, and the show’s significance to audiences across the Latinx diaspora.
This may be a Nuyorican play, but it gets us all because each Latino country is grappling with injustice. So I’m hoping that it brings us together and ignites the flame to demand equality and justice, and see our strength as a whole.
Noe Montez: On paper, the play reads like spoken word poetry, but in rehearsal it feels entirely different as you all incorporate singing, dancing, movement, and live instrumentation. How have you collaborated to bring the show to life?
Jesús Martínez: Rosalba Rólon and Magdalena Gomez have this very intimate relationship where they have similar perspectives. Magdalena has the poetic side, and Rosalba has the theatrical side; when they work together they take that wavelength and turn it into a shared expression. Then Rosalba selects actors based on their strengths and assigns particular pieces. From there the actor takes the text and makes it their own.
Omar Pérez: We began breaking the piece down as an ensemble, looking at the poetry, asking what each piece means as a standalone, and then, we went back to discuss how they interacted with each other. We were also fortunate to have Magdalena available to us. She’s been so kind with specific lines and moments. As the rehearsal process continued we discussed her interpretations, our interpretations, and the space between them...we end up discovering things every day.
Yaremis Félix: I’ve been fortunate to have worked with Shakespeare, plays from the Siglo de Oro, and other classic texts in verse, and I see Magdalena’s work as an extension of that tradition. Also watching Caridad De la Luz and other spoken word artists in NYC helped me understand how I could turn spoken word into a form of theatre. Diving into the play, I sometimes feel that I get lost in translation because of words that I’m not familiar with. Then working with people from New York, it’s like, explain it to me. What’s the meaning of this? What’s the meaning of this word in this context? It’s a beautiful way of working as an ensemble.
Caridad de la Luz: I came in to first rehearsal a week late and didn’t know what to expect. Then as we read through the play, it hit me just how profound and timely it was. It was destiny for me to be a part of this piece because I’m a poet, and I’ve been doing spoken word for twenty years. I have used my art as activism for Puerto Rico and the LGBT community.
Noe Montez: The script makes some very specific references to the Nuyorican or Puerto Rican experience. What do you think holds true and resonates for audiences across the Latinx diaspora?
Caridad De La Luz: I am curious as to how people will react because even Puerto Rican people are divided in what we feel and what the future of Puerto Rico should be. I hope the play opens people’s eyes and ignites a fire in them to act and speak out. That’s what the message of the piece is: Don’t let the world minimize our place in society. We’re not just here to dance around and kill cockroaches. The title lets people feel safe to come in to the theatre, but by the end of it I hope it’s transformational. What I hope that the Latino community gets out of this production is that it talks about all of us within the microcosm of nuyoricanness. This may be a Nuyorican play, but it gets us all because each Latino country is grappling with injustice. So I’m hoping that it brings us together and ignites the flame to demand equality and justice, and see our strength as a whole.
Yaremis Félix: It’s difficult not to be familiar with Puerto Rico one way or another. I would rather go to the more specific—rather than try to make it universal—because we all relate to the specificity of our human nature. I went back to all of those issues that the play addresses and thought about what that would’ve meant when I was living in Puerto Rico as a young woman and what it means to me now.
Christin Eve Cato: Many of these pieces are written about specific Nuyorican experiences like migration and moments from history, but these are things that Latinx people experience in slightly different ways. We all come to the United States, find our people, learn to speak English, and get to a supermarket where you can’t find the ingredients you’re used to. The diaspora knows colonization and the cultural transition from their country to the United States.
When people see this show, they’ll relate and find ways to see our similarities, shared experiences trying to keep our identity, and our searching for a common place.
In the last piece of the play, I play several Nuyorican stereotypes. Every culture has those stereotypes. Every culture has their jibarra or campesina or mujer de la montaña. There are common characters, and you’ll realize that your culture has that and see how it translates in the show.
Omar Pérez: When you really get specific, the play speaks for a broader audience. I think that the celebration of culture is always something that allows people to say, “Right on. I understand that.” When you speak truth and when there is brilliant irreverence in the work, I think that’s always understood. And in times like this where minority populations or people of color are under attack, any time you see people of color onstage saying, “I am here. This is who I am. See me. Hear me, feel me,” we’re all able to go, “Yes, I’m here, I’m an ally. I support you.”
Noe Montez: The piece was originally performed in 2013. The political landscape has changed significantly since then. How has the play changed, and what do you think it means in the current climate?
Jesús Martínez: Every time we do this piece it becomes relevant in a different way. The first time we staged the show was around the time of Arab Spring, so “On This Day of Awakening” became a powerful message giving voice to the voiceless. Today with Hurricane Maria, Magdalena felt inspired to write a new piece. Dancing in My Cockroach Killers is a reflection of what’s happening whenever it’s staged.
Krystal Pou: We are living in a hard time here in this country with a government that wants to treat Mexicans like nothing and throw Latinx people out of the country. We have to open people’s eyes so that they can see that we’re struggling in a way that we don’t deserve. I hope this show impacts people’s hearts.
Right now, with all the things that are happening in Puerto Rico, it’s a call to action, a call to remember that Puerto Ricans are here too, and we’re also Americans.
Omar Pérez: It means a lot coming to Washington, DC in the times that we live. I perform in a specific piece called “Christian,” playing this Caucasian man with hatred towards Mexicans. We see people like this resonate in our current culture, and it means a lot to perform it. There are also moments that keep occurring, titled “Invent This!”, that were based in reality shows. In previous versions of the play, they seemed like light-hearted pop culture, but now reality TV culture feels dominant in our government and our news cycle, so the work is interpreted in a completely new way.
Yaremis Félix: The production addresses gender violence and violence in general against people who are in a lesser position. What do we allow to happen to us and when do we take action? I thank Magdalena, because we tend to justify or place responsibility in the wrong places and don’t think about how we can make things better. The piece makes certain topics visible without telling audiences how to think.
Caridad De La Luz: Magdalena holds nothing back. She calls Donald Trump “an unzipped lout gurgling profanities and primary school adjectives who abhors the sounds of Spanish.” He can call us animals while identifying with, representing, and giving strength to these neo-Nazi groups. He has ignited their power and their will to bring slavery and injustice. But we’re here doing this piece and that’s our way to fight.
Christin Eve Cato: Right now, with all the things that are happening in Puerto Rico, it’s a call to action, a call to remember that Puerto Ricans are here too, and we’re also Americans. Especially the piece “Maria,” which is a call to action around the fact that Hurricane Maria is just one part of the damage that has been done to Puerto Rico. Just yesterday a study was published that showed 4,600 people were killed, and that doesn’t count everybody. And that there was neglect from both governments, the United States but also the Puerto Rican governor. We could’ve done more, and we should have done more. This is years of abuse of the Puerto Rican people. To bring all these pieces to the capital is significant. It’s a huge reminder that we’re here, we’re Puerto Rican and we’re not going anywhere.
Noe Montez: As an actor, what excites you most about working on this production?
Jesús Martínez: It’s bringing the awareness of the Puerto Rican experience to people who aren’t familiar. Entertaining people but teaching them at the same time.
Yaremis Félix: The complexity of Magdalena’s poetry. There’s a lot to keep digging into and exploring. I also look forward to connecting physicality with language and language with physicality.
Krystal Pou: What motivates me is that I find myself more every time I do a run through.
Omar Pérez: For me it’s always been the boldness of Magdalena’s work—her pieces, the book. She really is one of our master artists. She speaks her mind in a way that many hide from, and as an actor what you’re trying to do is expose your soul, constantly reconfiguring what it means to be on this planet…That’s the challenge to me of her work.
Christin Eve Cato: In rehearsal, we keep moving, in every sense of the word. It’s an ensemble piece, so we’re always on stage together even if a scene is just one person’s story. We’re all still very active and very present. We have to be. We’re always dancing, and we’re also participating in a poetry slam. We’re working on so many muscles—storytelling, spoken word, dancing, singing, moving, playing instruments.
Caridad de La Luz: I was originally a dancer. My mother put me into dance. I studied ballet, tap, modern, jazz, African. At thirteen I was diagnosed with scoliosis, had surgery on my spine, and I was in a body cast for three months. So, the challenge for me has been to dance again. To get up and be as limber as possible so that the metal rods don’t stop me from doing what I have to do. I like being pushed to be mobile and active and limber and rhythmic. As we learn the piece better, and I become more secure in my words, I can rely on my body and find movement. It makes me feel like a little girl again and is bringing me back to my roots before the poetry and music. Here I am dancing in my cockroach killers.