Rejecting Local and National Borders in La Carpa De La Frontera
“Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge.”
― Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
As Chicana poet and scholar, Gloria Anzaldua so clearly asserts, borders are both fictive and impactful. We create arbitrary lines that then sit upon real people, a dividing line that creates the categories of “us” and “them.” The borderlands are a central icon of Latinx theatre. This was made evident at the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) 2022 Comedy Carnaval where Samuel Valdez’s La Carpa De La Frontera was presented and produced by the Culture Association Representing Performing Artists (CARPA San Diego). This show exemplified the dual tension and overlap between local and national impulses in Latinx theatre. The tension between local and national artistic creation could reflect the Anzalduan division of us and them, but in the frame of the LTC, the tension melts into overlap and collaboration.
The LTC Comedy Carnaval is a national convening of Latinx artists; a joyful and intentional space that centers on and celebrates Latinx artists, and shares in this push and pull between local and national artistry. This year’s Comedy Carnaval was hosted by Su Teatro, a Chicano and Latino performing arts company based in Denver, Colorado that is highly focused on creating work for and with their local community. Excitingly, Su Teatro’s artistic director Tony Garcia announced in the opening ceremonies that Su Teatro is about to pay off their mortgage and own their building. Su Teatro operates in a building that houses their theatre, rehearsal rooms, offices, and meeting spaces. Most recently, teams of volunteers have installed the theatre’s comfortable seating. With the support of local community members and artists, they literally built their theatre.
Simultaneously, the ethos of a national landscape was also deeply present. In the field of Latinx theatre, there is a strikingly small number of companies with permanent homes and among them, Su Teatro will be even rarer by owning their building. Many Latinx theatre companies are small and itinerant. They rent or borrow spaces on an as-needed basis, and even those who have a stable space are not building equity within that space. Despite historical patterns of low foundational investment, and despite the chaos that the pandemic created for arts institutions, Su Teatro will be around for the long run to serve its local community. Su Teatro’s achievement is thereby a major feat and celebrated by leaders and artists from across the United States.
In this energy of using a national platform to celebrate local work, La Carpa De La Frontera brought an ethos of the borderlands to the Mountain West. La Carpa De La Frontera uses national immigration politics and humor to speak to the impact of the United States’ policies on the people of the border community. In this way, the experience of the performance was a contestation, sliding between macro and micro lenses and rejecting the us/them dichotomy of the borderlands.
Carpa theatre was a collection of diverse cultural performances, popular with the poorest segments of the population and it was a launchpad for the populist Mexican comedian Cantinflas.
La Carpa De La Frontera is a forty-five-minute touring vaudeville show created and directed by Samuel Valdez with his company to be taken into communities most in need of healing from the impacts and traumas of the pandemic. In a series of four sketches modeled on the carpa performance traditions, five performers decry current immigration policies, hawk fictional weight loss solutions, offer a trip to the moon, and stir up some good trouble. Unlike the traditional traveling show performed under large carpas (English: tents) with rough stages and cheaply sourced seating, La Carpa De La Frontera is flexible and can be performed both outdoors and in theatre spaces.
The legacy of carpa is well displayed in La Carpa De La Frontera. The piece’s integration of carpa and Chicano theatre traditions demonstrate the development of Chicano theatre directly from carpa traditions. The origin of carpa has received modest academic study and record but determined contemporary artists like Emilio Carballido date the practice to at least the eighteenth century. Popular scholarship often looks to the 1960s as the start of Latinx theatre in the United States. Yet, this moment is more accurately defined as the beginning of English language performance by Latinx artists. Before this period and continuing after, there was a rich history of Spanish language performance in the lands that would become the United States, dating back to 1598.
Between the eighteenth century and the 1960s, the popularity of carpa grew in tandem with periods of social upheaval and tension. Yaqui-Chicana scholar Yolanda Broyles-Gonzalez says of the genre: “The Mexican carpa and, more broadly speaking, the Mexican popular performance tradition have throughout history served as a counterhegemonic tool of the disenfranchised and oppressed.” Carpa theatre was a collection of diverse cultural performances, popular with the poorest segments of the population and it was a launchpad for the populist Mexican comedian Cantinflas.
Scholars like Jon Rossini and Yolanda Broyles-Gonzales argue the direct link between carpa and El Teatro Campesino, the progenitor of Chicano theatre. Humor is the reason why Cesar Chavez decided to create a teatro for the United Farm Workers union. Chavez’s memories of the carpa performances of his childhood inspired the creation of El Teatro Campesino: “I had seen carpas a lot in Mexicali, Tijuana, and Nogales. I wanted a carpa in the union for communication. With a carpa, we could say the difficult things to people without offending them. We could talk about people being cowards, for example. Instead of being offensive, it would be funny.” El Teatro Campesino, and later Chicano theatre at large, took up the style of carpa as a tool for the disenfranchised and oppressed. The development of the actor—short-form theatre that presents a social problem and gives a clear solution—used the humor of the carpa to communicate with audiences.
La Carpa De La Frontera is an intentionally political take on the carpa genre. It uses both the carpa emcee and skits, and the Chicano theatre actor. The four skits of the piece, “Opener,” “Comercial,” “Fast Food Worker,” and “The Coyote and the Rocket,” all use the simple sketch format of the traveling tent show as a means of approaching national politics through humor. The sketches speak to the impact of United States policies on the people of the borderlands. In this way, the piece stands both in the national and the local.
Gloria Anzaldua commands that “to survive the Borderlands/you must live sin fronteras/be a crossroads.” La Carpa de la Frontera uses bilingual dialogue to be a crossroads in performance. Bilingualism is central to the mission of CARPA San Diego. The company is fluidly bilingual, and they market, produce, and perform in both English and Spanish. Established in 2014 with free public staged readings of Chicano plays at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park, the company began with a deep, singular focus on the Chicano community and used language and location to signal the bicultural-ness of their work.
La Carpa de La Frontera audiences got a taste of this with the “Fast Food Worker” sketch. This sketch glides between Spanish and English in a seemingly effortless fluidity. The main character is a woman who lives at a crossroads of languages, switching between them within sentences without simultaneous translation. The woman speaks to her departed grandmother in a monologue about her daily struggles as a single mother working a menial job for little pay. She realizes that she and her fellow workers need a union and gets the audience to cheer her on and support her cause to unite. The woman understands that only through unity will they be able to leverage their numbers against the corporations that pull their talent away. The sketch uses the intimacy of the actors directly addressing the audience to establish a bond and unite them in the recognition of the need for unions. This deliberate use of language decenters the assumption of a monolingual audience and creates the space for bilingualism.
The “Comercial” sketch gives insight into the stories of the invisible within that local and national tension in a humor that is, according to the script, “as American as apple pie, exploitation, and police brutality.” In the sketch, two spokespeople pitch a new weight loss regime: a one-week stay at the Otay Mesa Detention Center for the Undocumented, a health spa and rejuvenation facility. The Otay Mesa Detention Center is a real, privately operated facility in south San Diego County that manages immigration detentions. Because of this, the facility’s name is instantly recognizable to San Diego audiences. The large contingent of San Diego–based artists at the Carnaval made vocal boos to the mention in the sketch, and in that moment the national audience recognized the geographic specificity of the reference. While we sat in a theatre hundreds of miles from the border, we all brought our locality to the national audience of the Carnaval. The satire of the commercial, obtusely selling torture as a weight loss regimen, mirrored the absurdity of United States immigration policies.
La Carpa De La Frontera brought the macro of border politics to the micro of the way the border economy is felt. The show moved from one fast food worker’s struggling to make ends meet to a “pitch” for relaxation among child detention at the United States’ border, just as the macro of the LTC’s Comedy Carnaval merged with the local of Denver’s Su Teatro. The mixing, melding, and simultaneity was both a contestation and a gift. This was a rare treat to experience that I hope will come again.
Shortly after performing La Carpa De La Frontera in Denver, it was announced that the show is a recipient for the National Theater Project’s Creation and Touring Grant.