Valley Alliance of Latina/o Theatre Artists and Educators
Connecting and Developing Latina/o Stories in the Rio Grande Valley in Tejas
This is the third of seven posts in a series about the state of Latina/o theatre in Texas. In this series, each of the contributing writers presents insight into the happenings, developments, and future of Latina/o theatre and performance in their respective regions.
The Rio Grande Valley (RGV), situated along the US-Mexico border in South Texas between the Brownsville-Matamoros and McAllen-Reynosa borderlands, is home to approximately two million people, approximately 90 percent of whom identify as Mexican, Mexican American, Chicana/o, Latina/o, and/or Hispanic. Many of the Valley’s Latina/o residents cross economic, social, linguistic, and cultural borders in their everyday lives. Similar to other avenues of representation, the theatre taught or produced in the secondary and post-secondary educational systems has not historically reflected this community, particularly the cultural, social, economic, and linguistic diversity of the region’s Latina/o population. My goal with this post is to generate a conversation about recent efforts by theatre practitioners, educators, and scholars to expand Latina/o stories in community and institutionalized spaces in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas—an area often rendered invisible in the larger history of teatro in Latina/o theatre studies. Since the area in which I live, teach, and work as a Chicana/o and Latina/o studies theatre scholar and educator is in the “upper Valley” (Pharr, San Juan, Alamo, Donna, Edinburg, and McAllen area), I primarily focus on this area.
Writing about the context of Latina/o theatre in the El Paso/Las Cruces/Juarez metroplex in “Access and Representation on the Border Stage,” Adriana Dominguez and Rebecca Rivas explain that “theatre is rarely valued within the region’s aesthetic due to lack of access and moreover a lack of perceived relevance to the community member’s own lives.” This same context applies to the RGV—those who seek to produce Latina/o theatre here find that it is a hard-won process. The work is not always visible, which is made more difficult with the absence of professional theatre companies or Latina/o theatre companies in this region. As a result, many Latina/o theatre professionals from the RGV often leave the Valley, such as Chicago-based playwright and television writer Tanya Saracho and New York-based television, film, and theatre actor Raul Castillo.
Latina/o theatre in the RGV is made in a variety of visible and not-so-visible spaces and contexts. This concept is not new to Latina/o theatre nationwide or in this region. At the turn of the twentieth century, US Mexicana/o theatre was represented by touring Spanish-language companies, Spanish language theatre shows in carpas (tent shows), and bilingual plays produced by smaller make-shift companies (Kanellos 1989, 24). Those producing contemporary Latina/o theatre in this region do so with the goal of creating more representation of Latina/o stories in education, in the community, and as a form of social protest. This use of theatre is not new to El Valle: during the Chicano/a Movement in the 1970s, for example, the theatre troupe El Teátro Jacinto Treviño performed social protest pieces connected to the nationalist ideologies of the Chicano/a movement.
In today’s RGV, the visible spaces producing Latina/o theatre include university theatre, community college theatre, and community theatre productions. The Pharr Community Theatre Company, directed by Pedro Garcia, produces at least two Latina/o plays a year, including Latin American productions; their season is comprised of Spanish-language, bilingual, and English-language productions. South Texas College Theatre, directed by Joel Jason Rodríguez, produces at least one Latina/o play a year, and sponsors theatre workshops/performances related to Latina/o theatre for its students and the community. STC Theater is known for bringing the Texas premiere of Tanya Saracho’s El Nogalar to the region in 2013.
In today’s Rio Grande Valley, the visible spaces producing Latina/o theatre include university theatre, community college theatre, and community theatre productions.
At the flagship university in the Upper Valley, the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), the call for Latina/o theatre has been led by the Latino Theatre Initiative, which began in December 2009 (See Eric Wiley’s 2013 essay in Rio Bravo: A Journal of The Borderlands on the exclusion of Latina/o plays from its production season). These theatre students, along with Professor Eric Wiley, devise original work about pertinent issues facing residents in the region. They also frequently perform Spanish-language theatre for young audiences in Mexico. Most recently, in collaboration with the immigrant rights organization LUPE (La Unión del Pueblo Entero), they produced Conciencia a la Licencia, a devised piece intended to raise awareness about the treatment of undocumented immigrants, particularly their need for access to driver’s licenses.
The UTPA theatre program produces Latina/o theatre less frequently, although there have been several important productions, including Milcha Sánchez-Scott’s Latina, as well as other Latina/o plays in their non-main stage productions in the summer. Recently, UTPA included Roxanne Schroeder-Arce’s Latina/o play for young audiences, Mariachi Girl, on the main stage. As the director of the Mexican American Studies program at UTPA and out of a desire to see more Latina/o plays and performances focusing on Latina gender and sexuality specifically, I have coordinated productions in co-sponsorship with the UTPA theatre program, including Chicago’s first and only all-Latina theatre ensemble, Teatro Luna, who launched their touring productions of Luna Unlaced and Generation Sex at UTPA; a reading of Virginia Grise’s and Irma Mayorga’s The Panza Monologues; and Monica Palacios’s solo performance Queer Latina, Love, and Revolution. I have also worked to foster collaborations between the UTPA and UT Austin Theatre programs, where a devised piece about border issues and identity was led by professors Roxanne Schroeder Arce and Edna Ochoa for our National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS) Tejas Foco Conference in 2013. Recently, I also helped to bring to UTPA Milagro Theatre’s production of Cuéntame Coyote, a bilingual play about border crossing and immigration.
What is not always visible is the incredible Latina/o theatre being produced in high school drama programs and state University Interscholastic League (UIL) performances in El Valle. Donna High School's Vanguard Theatre Company, led by Victor Santos, for instance, produced a beautiful and powerful production of Virginia Grise’s award-winning play Blu in December 2014 and performed scenes from the play at the State National One-Act-Play UIL competition in Austin this May. The production of Blu at Donna High School is significant given the play’s focus on a lesbian couple; Santos explains that his students chose this play out of a list of options because they were hungry to see stories about real families and their communities on the stage. Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District, through PSJA Southwest Theatre, also produces Latina/o plays, and in the past has performed and competed with Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit. They join high school drama programs in other areas of the region that incorporate Latina/o theatre into their curriculum.
There are also “pop-up theatre companies” in the summer, such as the Thirteen O’Clock Theatre and Artists Without Borders, which are directed by theatre professionals from El Valle who are now studying, living, and working as theatre artists across the nation. These artists come home in the summer and produce Latina/o theatre out of the necessity of sharing those stories in their hometowns.
The above various units have not yet worked together formally to share resources, networks, and professionalization opportunities toward increasing Latina/o theatre in the Valley, although important collaborations have taken place. In an attempt to bring all of these various players together, I, with Amalia Ortiz, had the idea to form VALTA (the Valley Alliance of Latina/o Theatre Artists (and Educators), an entity where Latina/o theatre artists, practitioners, and educators in the RGV can come together to make visible the Latina/o theatre being created and produced here. Right now, the group is mostly a Facebook page where anyone who does work in the broad category of Latina/o theatre in El Valle can post announcements of shows, auditions, workshops, achievements, and accolades, with the hope that the group will formally come together to discuss strategic collaborations in an effort to ensure that Latina/o stories in all their complexity are reflected on the stages here and in the nation.