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Wait, How is That Latino? My Response to Café Onda’s Call for Dialogue

Last month, I was living and working in Minneapolis, Minnesota on a show called DJ Latinidad’s Latino Dance Party. What just popped up in your head? Probably some sort of idea of what the show looks like, what it’s about, what music is being played, etc. It’s natural, it’s the way our brains work; we are prompted by a concept and we form what we think that concept is.

However, when it comes to seeing, experiencing, and reviewing theatre, those preconceived notions of what things “ought” to be, look like, sound like, they should be managed and tucked away into the pockets of your mind, which is part of what makes being a good reviewer difficult.

I read a post on HowlRound titled “Cultural Microaggressions in Theatre Reviews: A Call for Dialogue.” Sighs of relief accompanied my reading of this article, relief because I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the only one who cringed when reading reviews riddled by problematic phrasing and critiques. I can’t tell you how it feels to read reviews for DJ Latinidad, or any show that I’ve done dealing with cultural identity. Most of the time it consists of holding my breath, waiting for that “spicy” reference or how much “flavor” we have. Yeah, it’s 2016 and Latinos are still being described as a food group.

I think it’s a scary thought for an audience to entertain, “Hey, I’ve been taught that this particular group of people are different from me, radically different. But, when I open my eyes, wait, they aren’t so different from me.” If we let theatre do its magical job, we’ll be able to see that we all laugh, we all feel loss, and we all love.

Then, I read a separate response to the HowlRound post by Matt Bardot titled “What Flavor Am I?” I was so happy to have read this, and excited that someone was speaking out. If you read his article and mine back to back, it is incredible to see how much we share. There are many days I am writing about issues like cultural microaggressions that rile me up, and I wonder if I’m alone in the frustration of fighting to be seen as a human being. I am not. We are not. Now more than ever, we need to use our voices to empower one another and our communities.

My experience with having audiences and critics review DJ Latinidad’s Latino Dance Party has been…interesting and inherently racist. The show consists of several one-act plays, and lots and lots of dancing. Some of the most “interesting” feedback from our show has been the question, “But what makes that piece Latino?” That question irks me in oh so many ways. It implies that the show isn’t “Latino enough.” We’re not wearing enough sombreros and speaking only in Spanish, or constantly discussing immigration and socio-economic status—because that’s all we think about, right? It implies that sticking to our “Latino” issues is what makes us…Latino. How dare we go outside your sharply drawn box and explore cultural identity in a way that looks different than what’s been done before. This idea of being “Latino enough” has chased me for as long as I can remember.

What would make the work more “authentic” for the audience? And the audience in this question is the crucial piece of the puzzle. Because audiences and critics alike, no matter their cultural background, have a preconceived idea of what they think Latinidad means and what it probably looks like. Where do these preconceived ideas come from, you ask? They are the diet of images that mainstream media is feeding all of us, which in most cases, are stereotypes on steroids that are usually seen as truth. And if stereotypes are received as truths, where is the room for the reality of our experience?

two actors on stage
Still from The Store: A Lemon Jackson Adventure. From L to R: Ricardo Vazquez as "Lemon Jackson" and Christopher Rivas as "Two Buses.” Photo by Cristina Schulman.

One of my favorite pieces in the show is titled The Store: A Lemon Jackson Adventure, written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Kristoffer Diaz, and his two-year-old son Leo. It’s about Lemon Jackson, who finds himself stuck running a lemon store and he doesn’t even like lemons! Throughout the piece, he’s encouraged to think about what he really wants to do with his life and make it happen. It’s playful, inspiring, and beautiful. One response was: “But wait…why are these Latinos doing this silly piece about a lemon store? It’s so goofy. How is this Latino? I don’t get it.” Insert sigh here. It’s Latino because we’re performing it, because it’s coming through our gaze, our voice, and our humor. Listen closely, and this may come as a surprise, but we don’t have to mention our Latino-ness in everything we do.

I am Latino. Therefore, everything I do is Latino because it is coming from my brain, and my voice. It’s all being filtered through my experience, my Latino experience, which makes it authentic and answers my question of what Latinidad is. Now stay with me on this one, but I think this is where it gets difficult for people to stomach. After decades of media instilling in our brains that we are different because of heritage, what if we challenged that nonsense and said, I’m not different from you?

Don’t get me wrong; there are parts of my life that belong exclusively to my Mexican culture, and to my Puerto Rican culture. Yes, I have another set of experiences that sometimes intersects and involves my heritage. I think it’s a scary thought for an audience to entertain, “Hey, I’ve been taught that this particular group of people are different from me, radically different. But, when I open my eyes, wait, they aren’t so different from me.” If we let theatre do its magical job, we’ll be able to see that we all laugh, we all feel loss, and we all love.

It’s dangerous to assume what something is, especially a cultural identity. I hope that when audiences come see the show, they can check their preconceived notions of Latinidad at the door, and open their hearts to our discoveries and our truth, straight from the mouths of seven bad ass Latino storytellers.

This show has been a beast to construct. From day one, we’ve wrestled and questioned, what is Latinidad? What does it mean to have a brown body in today’s social and political climate? Truthfully, the seven of us can’t answer what Latinidad is for anyone, other than ourselves. We don’t speak for all Latinos. There is no finite answer. My experience as a second-gen college graduate is different from the grandmother who was born elsewhere but watched her family grow up speaking English and learning American customs.

But you know what, there’s room for all of it, for all of us. Our stories are valid. Our experience is valid. So far, that’s what Latinidad means for me. 

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AMEN! We don't ask why is an American (meaning made in the United States), American, why should Latinx or any other persons of cultural diversity be questioned or have to respond to this silly, irrelevant question? I've been a scholar in the field of Latina/o studies since the mid 1980s, when this same question was being posed in relationship to what is a Chicano/a vs a Latina/o identity. But hey, it's been, what, 30 years now... So either the question has already been answered, or it's time to quit responding to it. Let's collectively turn our backs on this question because it just sucks energy out of more important issues, like access.

When it veers into racist caricature, it's racist. More to the point: when nothing but caricature is accepted, that's racist.

Thank you for so eloquently stating the scramble of thoughts that live in my head.

Hear hear. If I had a penny for everytime I've had to say "it's Latina because I am. Period" I paint too. No one in visual arts expects my cultural identity to come out--it would feel forced, perhaps.