The history of Hispanic drama in what is now the United States begins in 1598 in present-day New Mexico with a theatrical recreation of Cortés’s conquest of Mexico staged by Juan Oñate and his followers entitled Los Moros y los cristianos. This early use of theater was also accompanied by a tradition of staging pastorelas, pastoral dramas that explore the lives of humorous shepherds in relationship to the birth of Christ, primarily staged in New Mexico and Texas. This tradition of folk drama, which continues to the present day, emerged from various forms of religious drama including the Spanish auto sacramentales of the 15th and 16th centuries.
The first documented professional drama performed in Spanish in California may have taken place as early as 1789. However, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that Spanish-language, professional theater was significantly documented in California. These works by Spanish authors were primarily melodramas with broad audience appeal. Performances centered in Los Angeles, although there are records of performances in San Francisco and in Tucson. The development of Spanish-language theater in Texas occurred somewhat later, and there was significant growth in the last two decades of the 19th century, primarily in San Antonio and Laredo. In addition to the performances of melodramas and other plays in established theater buildings or marketplaces, there are also records of carpas (tent shows) and other forms of popular Spanish-language performance that would influence some of the acting styles of the later Chicano theater.
The late 19th and 20th centuries saw a tremendous growth in Hispanic theater in Los Angeles, New York, San Antonio, and Tampa. Much of the work was in the tradition of the Spanish zarzuela (comic operetta) and was in many ways an expression of both community ideals and community formation within the immigrant and ethnic Spanish-speaking populations in these cities. Like other forms of ethnic theater during this period, the appeal tended to be relatively insular since they were monolingual performances.
The history of contemporary Hispanic drama reflects a shift from Mexican, Cuban, and Spanish traditions (such as performance of the zarzuela) to a greater investment in the experiences of Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, and Nuyoricans (Puerto Ricans in New York). The plays reflecting this shift articulate the realities of an ethnic existence lived in an emerging space between cultures. The first examples of this work addressed the socioeconomic and cultural difficulties of adjusting to life in the mainland United States for those who had recently arrived and also documented and combated the racial and economic discrimination that continued to plague groups that had been present here for generations. As these conflicts became more focused on the interpersonal, the attention often shifted to the realities of linguistic codeswitching (moving back and forth between English and Spanish) and other negotiations of Hispanic identity in the United States.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the most visible Hispanic drama was Chicano drama. The word Chicano is used in this context to refer to individuals of Mexican descent in the United States who acknowledge their indigenous roots that emerged out of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. In 1965, in conjunction with the Delano, California, grape strikes and the organizing work of Cesar Chavez, El Teatro Campesino (the Farmworkers’ Theater) was born. Under the organizational leadership of Luis Valdéz, this collaborative ensemble composed of migrant farm workers began staging short political agitprop skits they labeled actos. Drawing upon Mexican popular performance traditions and the acting experience of some of the workers, as well as Valdéz’s experience with the Bread and Puppet Theater of New York, they developed a style of acting and performance related to Italian commedia dell’arte as well as the carpa tradition. Popular actos include works like Los Vendidos (The sellouts, or Those who are sold ), which explore contemporary Chicano stereotypes, as well as pieces that explore more explicitly the lived realities of the striking farm workers. The understanding of Chicano theater aesthetics during the 1960s and early 1970s was that it should be by, for, and about Chicanos. There was no sense that the work was a part of mainstream culture, and Chicano artists positioned themselves in opposition to mainstream values.
El Teatro Campesino, along with the Chicano movement itself, led to the formation of a number of collaborative troupes based on this model, such as Teatro de la Esperanza (founded in Santa Barbara, California, in 1971). These teatros performed highly politicized works following the aesthetics of Chicano nationalism, which argued symbolically for a new Chicano nation, Aztlán, to separate from the United States. The growth of teatros during the early 1970s led to the formation of TENAZ, El Teatro Nacional de Aztlán (The National Theater of Aztlán), an umbrella organization for Chicano theater. Along with Luis Valdéz, important early playwrights include Estela Portillo-Trambley, whose Day of the Swallows (1971) is the first published play by a Chicana (the female counterpart of Chicano), and Carlos Morton, who has transformed myths and biblical accounts into comedies with a Chicano sensibility. Morton’s best play, The Many Deaths of Danny Rosales (1977), is a docudrama that recounts the attempted cover-up of the murder of a Chicano by a Texas sheriff.
The most famous Chicano play, Luis Valdéz’s Zoot Suit (1978), centers on the Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial in 1940s Los Angeles and serves an important historical function within the history of Chicano theater. Zoot Suit is notable not only for its success in Los Angeles but also for the fact that it was the first Chicano play on Broadway. In this production, El Teatro Campesino used professional actors (rather than migrant workers and other amateurs) for the first time, marking a clear shift toward professionalization. Since this watershed moment, focus in Chicano drama has shifted from the teatro to the individual playwright and from the barrio audience to more mainstream regional venues.
Cherríe Moraga is the most prominent representative of a second generation of Chicana and Chicano playwrights and a leader in the emergence of drama by Hispanic women in the mid-1980s. Moraga’s numerous plays deal not only with economic and political issues but also with questions of sexual identity. Her first play, Giving Up the Ghost (1986), uses two manifestations of the protagonist to dramatize the negotiations of coming to understand a lesbian identity. Heroes and Saints (1992), her most celebrated work, returns to many issues raised by El Teatro Campesino in exploring the difficult lives of agricultural workers in California. Other important Chicana playwrights include Edit Villareal, Josefina López, Elaine Romero, and Evelina Fernandez.
In Cuban theater in the United States, a distinction is often made between Cuban-American drama and Cuban exilic drama. Cuban exilic drama is produced by those artists who left after the 1959 revolution, who focus on island experiences, and who understand themselves as participating in a specifically Cuban aesthetic. For some scholars, this group includes playwrights such as René Ariza, Matías Montes Huidobro, and Leopoldo Hernandez. Cuban-American drama, on the other hand, may deal with the realities of the situation in Cuba but also address issues of being Cuban in America. The most prominent Cuban-American playwrights include Maria Irene Fornés, Eduardo Machado, and Dolores Prida. Fornés’s early work demonstrated an investment in the avant-garde, but her mentoring and teaching of new Hispanic playwrights during the 1980s at INTAR (International Arts Relations) Hispanic American Arts Center in New York City has led to an increased focus on Hispanic subjects and themes. In Sarita (1984) and The Conduct of Life (1985), she addresses the problems of masculine power within Hispanic culture. Dolores Prida’s bilingual and Spanish works, such as Beautiful Señoritas (1977) and Botánica (1990), address questions of the representation of Hispanic women, the gentrification of neighborhood communities, and generational negotiation. Eduardo Machado, who was himself influenced by working with Fornés, is best known for The Floating Island Plays (1991), a quartet that spans the lives of two Cuban families from their 1920s existence on the island to a wedding in exile in the 1980s. As a teacher, he has also worked with emerging playwrights such as Rogelio Martinez, whose work, Illuminating Veronica (1999), about a bourgeois woman who stays behind when the rest of her family leaves Cuba after the revolution, critiques the residual gender bias of a supposedly transformed revolutionary society. Another important CubanAmerican playwright is Nilo Cruz, whose play Night Train to Bolina (1994), about the experiences of two young Latin American runaways, explores the power of the imagination and the difficulty of youthful intimacy. In 2003, Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics (2002), set in 1929 in a Spanish-Cuban section of Tampa, Florida, became the first play by a Hispanic dramatist to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Puerto Rican theater on the island and Puerto Rican theater in the mainland United States are two very different things. The most important transition in sensibility—the gap that eventually led to the development of the term Nuyorican—is exemplified by René Marqués’s play, La Carreta (The ox-cart ), which emerged out of his awareness of the realities of the Puerto Rican experience in New York, an awareness gained during his 1940 stay in New York to study playwriting. La Carreta recounts the journey of one family from rural Puerto Rico to the urban space of San Juan and eventually to New York City in the hopes of economic improvement. They eventually return to San Juan after the father is killed. This play so effectively captured the difficult transitions in Puerto Rican migration that, according to John Antush (an important scholar of Puerto Rican theater in New York), “Miriam Colón and others founded the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater (PRTT) primarily to bring this play, free of charge, to the people of New York” (Nuestro xiii). Miguel Piñero’s work follows up on this transition by articulating the realities of life on the streets. Emerging out of his experiences on the street and in prison, Piñero’s plays provide commentary on the position of Puerto Ricans in New York as well as explore the difficulties of expressing masculinity in various communities. His most famous work, Short Eyes (1974), provides a glimpse into the power dynamics and the difficulties of retaining any sense of selfintegrity in prison. Celebrated for its gritty realism and accurate portrayal of prison life, Short Eyes was produced on Broadway and was eventually filmed. Reynaldo Povod’s Cuba and His Teddy Bear (1986) was also successfully produced on Broadway, though many attribute its success more to the choice of celebrity actors (such as Robert De Niro and Ralph Macchio) than to the play itself. Edward Gallardo, in plays such as Simpson Street (1979), shifts the conflicts from the streets to the family and demonstrates to some critics a shift away from a nostalgic privileging of Puerto Rico and toward a focus on life in New York. Other important contemporary Puerto Rican playwrights in the United States include Cándido Tirado, Juan Shamsul Alám, and Edwin Sánchez.
Hispanic drama’s transition from the 1980s to the 1990s is marked by a shift from very localized concerns with issues of Hispanic identity to broader concerns about negotiating identity in a variety of spaces. This transition can be clearly seen in the work of two Puerto Rican–American playwrights: Migdalia Cruz and José Rivera. Migdalia Cruz, whose earlier pieces, such as The Have-Little (1991) and Miriam’s Flowers (1990), give accounts of growing up amid the commonplace violence of the Bronx, moves later to works such as Fur (1995), in which difference and the ability to love, two of her crucial themes, are explored in a love triangle experienced in the future on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Her most recent work is Grito: A Cry for the Bronx (2008). Beginning in the 1980s with works such as The House of Ramon Iglesia (1983) and The Promise (1988), set in domestic Puerto Rican spaces in New York, Rivera has moved into much more expansive plays of ideas, such as Marisol (1992), which explores the entire space of New York City, and Sonnets for an Old Century (2000), which takes place in limbo. Rivera was nominated for an Oscar for his 2004 screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries.
As the 1990s progressed into the 21st century, several playwrights began testing the limits of Hispanic drama, acknowledging the expanding heterogeneity of Hispanic and Latino identity in the United States (a number of playwrights prefer the term Latino to Hispanic because they see the latter as a term created by government as opposed to a self-selected identity; many individuals also distinguish between these terms based on political affiliation). This expanding heterogeneity is characterized by more explicit references to issues of sexuality and by recognition of “new” forms of identity (Colombian American, Chilean American, and so on). In his powerful play Deporting the Divas (1996), Guillermo Reyes explores the identity crisis of a bisexual Mexican-American INS agent and includes new Latino characters, such as a blonde Argentinian of German descent. Luis Alfaro goes even further in Straight as a Line (1997), which has neither the expected themes nor characters of Hispanic drama, focusing instead on a British mother and son dealing with the realities of the physical devastation of AIDS while living in Las Vegas, forcing critics and audiences to rethink the definition of Hispanic drama. Other important playwrights include Oliver Mayer, best known for Blade to the Heat (1994), about a young boxer accused of being homosexual; Octavio Solis, best known for Santos and Santos (1993), about the burdens of family responsibility and ethics; and Caridad Svich, a prolific writer also heavily engaged in thinking about Hispanic drama.
Another development in the 1990s was the emergence of comedic performance, blending stand-up comedy and theater, by a range of groups, such as Culture Clash and Latins Anonymous, and individuals, such as Marga Gomez, Monica Palacios, Luis Alfaro, and Carmelita Tropicana. The most widely recognized mainstream example of this is John Leguizamo, whose one-man shows such as Mambo Mouth (1990) and Freak (1997) have been both published and televised.
The 21st century has seen a substantial change in the mainstream attention given to Hispanic drama. Following Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize, his works, such as Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams, Lorca in a Green Dress, Beauty of the Father, and many others, have been widely produced, and other playwrights have seen increasingly wide dissemination of their work, including Luis Alfaro’s Electricidad (2004), a retelling of Electra, and Eduardo Machado’s The Cook (2003). Octavio Solis’s Lydia (2008), about a family in the 1970s negotiating personal loss and secrets, has attracted wide critical attention. While writers like José Rivera and Eduardo Machado continue to create important work for the theater, new playwrights have emerged onto the scene, including Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas and Karen Zacarías. Perhaps the most successful young writer is Quiara Alegria Hudes, whose Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue (2006), about the Iraq war, was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. She also wrote the book for the musical In the Heights about the primarily Dominican-American Washington Heights neighborhood, which received the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical. The transformations of Hispanic theater from a politically specific collaborative aesthetic in the 1960s to a broader place in mainstream culture during the 1980s to its increasing proliferation and diversity in the 1990s and into the 21st century, serve as evidence that this important area of American drama will continue to grow and develop while still exploring politically important ideas that reflect the diversity of American culture.
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Source: Publishing, I., 2010. The Facts On File Companion to American Drama. New York: Infobase Pub.