“Pushing Buttons, Pushing Boundaries”

A Roundtable of Latinx Theatre Scholars

The first Latina/o Studies Association Conference was held in Chicago in July 2014, and Brian Herrera chaired a long-table discussion with scholars and practitioners. In preparation for the second conference held in Pasadena in July 2016, I contacted scholars and practitioners about organizing panels so that theatre and performance would continue to be a presence in Latina/o Studies. Although the conference lent itself more to the social sciences and literature, theatre and performance had several panels and outstanding exchanges of ideas and scholarship.

Chantal Rodriguez chaired this year’s discussion, “Pushing Buttons, Pushing Boundaries: Contemporary Latina/o Theatre and Performance Scholarship Methods/Practices.” Prior to the conference, we communicated via email about the challenges we face as scholars in the field. The intention was to discuss how our scholarship and the Latina/o Theatre Commons push buttons and boundaries. What developed was a conversation about how we, as educators and Latinx bodies, push buttons within the academy through our scholarship, activism, and positionality. The particularity of each of our institutions, structurally, politically, and demographically became immediately apparent, and we recognized that solutions emerge from leveraging ideas and creativity.  

With the increase in Latinx theatre scholars, plays, convenings, and more, what has ultimately changed in our visibility and position? —Jorge Huerta

Trevor Boffone has made it his role to make visible the wealth and breadth of Latinx playwrights with the “50 Playwrights Project.” Although works by María Irene Fornés, Luis Valdez, Octavio Solis, Josefina López, and others are now anthologized and taught, our other playwrights and plays are often overlooked. Marci McMahon addressed the nature of working across multiple departments and programs. We all noted how interdisciplinarity serves as the foundation for strong scholarship, but demands extra care to determine the journals and institutions that recognize the value of our work. Patricia Herrera spoke of how her community-engaged courses involve a pedagogy and activism that is not traditionally quantifiable, or recognizable within particular institutions. I brought up “rep sweats,” the term for feeling obligated to support art/scholarship from a particular group because there is little representation, and if critiqued, it will affect the possibility of subsequent productions. Brian Herrera questioned how shifting emphases in research and publications is negotiated with continued service to the field. And Jorge Huerta asked the fundamental question: “with the increase in Latinx theatre scholars, plays, convenings, and more, what has ultimately changed in our visibility and position?”

graphic on a white board
“Pushing Buttons, Pushing Boundaries” AcaDoodle. Drawing and photo by Brian Herrera.

Despite the work so many of us conduct as historians to document Latinx theatre, its history within the academy is one that remains largely an oral tradition, passed down at lunches, dinners, cafes, and roundtable meetings.

It was a candid exchange, focusing on serious issues with magnanimity and wit. Each person conveyed a strong devotion to Latinx theatre, students, and scholarship. And we have much to celebrate. Recently, Latinx theatre scholars and practitioners have been appointed to prominent positions at ivy league schools, leading programs, national councils, and scholarly theatre associations; they are also winning awards for books and dissertations on Latinx theatre and performance. Despite all of this success, Latinx theatre scholars can still experience isolation and marginalization within the academy. Latinx theatre academics teach in English, Theatre, Latina/o Studies, Gender Studies, Spanish, and American Studies departments and programs. Depending on the institution, departmental culture, and discipline, the mere presence of talking about Latinidad can push buttons.

We gathered in person in a conference room at the Westin Pasadena on a hot southern California day. Several people joined the conversation, including Anne García-Romero, Theresa Chavez, Teresa McKenna, Cathryn Merla-Watson, Monica Palacios, Christofer Rodelo, Gina Díaz, Elías Muñoz, and Micaela Díaz-Sánchez. At the outset, Jorge Huerta, Professor Emeritus and the abuelo of Chicano and Latino theatre studies, historicized the dynamics of Latinx theatre and theatre scholars within university departments and programs. Despite the work so many of us conduct as historians to document Latinx theatre, its history within the academy is one that remains largely an oral tradition, passed down at lunches, dinners, cafes, and roundtable meetings. After telling us stories of his early years as a graduate student and assistant professor, Huerta jokingly referred to himself as “Senior Chismoso,” though some of us prefer to recollect it as “Señor Chismoso.” This conversation, and others like it, benefitted from having graduate students, emeriti professors, and those at various career stages in between contributing to the dialogue. Professor Emerita Teresa McKenna noted that theatre was not part of the origin of Chicano Studies programs, but theatre was an instrumental part of the political movement. Elías Muñoz asked if Huerta had pushed boundaries aesthetically, or with just his presence and scholarship; Huerta responded, “It was always politics before art.”

The conversation shifted between scholarship, teaching, and service, often returning to questions of labor. With little infrastructure and consistent funding to support Latinx theatre and scholarship, several participants brought up the need for entrepreneurship and creativity when designing events and courses, especially for untenured faculty. Regarding Latinx theatre, Huerta asked, “have we gone from theatre for social change [Miguel Piñero’s Short Eyes] to theatre of social acceptance [Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton]?” Brian Herrera articulated that Latinx intervention does not always take the form of direct political plays, and our seminar papers at the conference attested to the range of Latinx theatre and performance today. Theresa Chavez noted the shift in the value of the arts in the United States in general, and how it affects the position of theatre studies within the university. Both Monica Palacios and Micaela Díaz-Sánchez called for transparency about the sometimes tentative yet co-dependent relationship between scholars and practitioners; and Chantal Rodriguez described the role of the scholar/artist in making visible the value of working with local and national organizations.

Although we gathered to discuss how our work and our field pushes buttons, I would be remiss if I did not mention and emphasize the passion for the field and the activism it requires shared by everyone in the room. We were reminded that the LTC is radical in its decision to include scholars from the beginning. What became obvious was that the incredible development and success of Latinx theatre in the past few years has much to do with scholars who are deeply invested not just in theory, history, and analysis, but in the practice of making art. The desire for visibility on stages and in universities will continue to foster a conversation and a community that will lead us forward.

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