“REPRESENTATIONS OF ‘HOME’ IN THREE US LATINO PLAYS”
University of California - San Diego
“LATIN AMERICAN THEATRE TODAY” [IV CONGRESO DE TEATRO LATINOAMERICANO]
University of Kansas, 29 March – 1 April, 2000
Earl Shorris, in his impressionistic overview of the people he terms “Latinos,” describes them thus:"...there are no Latinos, only diverse peoples struggling to remain who they are while becoming someone else. Each of them has a history, which may be forgotten, muddled, misrepresented, but not erased. Every people has its own Eden, and there are no parallel tracks” (Shorris, Latinos, 12-13).It can be said that in this brief declaration Mr. Shorris succinctly defines US Latino playwrights and describes the people about whom they concern themselves. Meanwhile, most non-Latinos continue to consider all Latinos as one, homogeneous group, due in large part to the media’s mis-representation. Yet, each group has its own history and culture, its own distinct relationship with the US and its own relationship to the country of origin, “home.”In this paper I will address notions of “home” in plays by individual playwrights from the three major US Latino groups. I will be discussing Shadow of a Man by Cherrie Moraga, a Chicana; Miriam’s Flowers by Migdalia Cruz, a Nuyorican; and Broken Eggs by Eduardo Machado, a Cuban, as representatives of (but not necessarily representative of) their respective communities.[i]The notion of "home" differs from group to group and within each group.For the Chicana/Mexicano, the southwestern United States was home before the United States invaded their territory. Perhaps this is why they do not write plays about returning to Mexico even as their sense of "home" shifts with political agendas such as California's Proposition 187.[ii] In contrast, the Cuban political exile cannot readily go home while the Puerto Ricans can go back and forth at will between the island and their (mostly) urban, mainland centers of population. Members of all three groups face certain scrutiny and often even discrimination if and when they return to the homeland. The plays I will discuss here affirm those tensions as the characters negotiate concepts of home.Each of these groups have historic moments when their relationships to Spain or Mexico and to the United States were altered forever. For the ancestors of the Chicanos, 1848 marks the year they actually became citizens of the territories which would eventually become a part of the United States, creating what some political scientists have called a sense of “internal colonization.”[iii]Ironically, 1898 is the year both the Cubans and Puerto Ricans were freed from Spanish domination only to find themselves in a quasi-colonial condition with the United States.As inhabitants of a commonwealth, the island Puerto Ricans suffer a colonial destiny which, some say, extends to Puerto Ricans on the mainland, creating what Fredric Jameson has termed an “internal Third World Voice” that aligns the Puerto Ricans with the Chicanos.[iv] The Cubans’ official connections to the United States ended in 1959 while the Puerto Ricans continue to live under a commonwealth status. Separation by water pervades the consciousness of both the Cuban and Puerto Rican writers, while a more metaphoric water, a river, sometimes separates the Chicanos from Mexico. History has shown that both the water that separates the three groups from home and the fences which are constructed along the US-Mexico border are permeable, encouraging negotiations, tensions and crossings rife with drama.On the playwrightsThe three plays under consideration attest to this attitude towards home. The playwrights write from very personal, autobiographical perspectives as they attempt to negotiate their subject positions in the United States. Born and raised in the South Bronx, Migdalia Cruz is a survivor who calls herself a Nuyorican. In so declaring, Cruz asserts a certain political stance, an awareness of otherness comparable to a Mexican American calling herself Chicana. She states that all of the characters in her plays are “people I know,” or “people I feel I should know.” She concludes: “You can take the girl out of the South Bronx - but you would have to cut my heart out to make me forget” (Perkins and Uno, 106). Cruz falls into the category of US born Puerto Rican playwrights whom John Antush regards as displaying a “sense of belonging to the United States without betraying the nurturing culture of Puerto Rico” (Antush, 1991, 9).Born in Cuba and shipped off to the United States at an early age when Castro took the path of socialism, Eduardo Machado is the most visible of US Cuban playwrights aside from his mentor, Maria Irene Fornes.[v]Machado does not want his work to be considered as “Cuban,” although he has never denied his Cuban roots, and in fact writes mainly about Cubans, either in pre revolutionary Cuba or in exile in the United States. Many of the characters in The Floating Island Plays (of which Broken Eggs is a part) are loosely based on his family members, including himself.[vi] Cherrie Moraga was born in the United States to a Mexican mother and an Anglo father, bringing a uniquely bicultural perspective to her writing. Perhaps because she first became known as an essayist and poet speaking for gay and lesbian issues in the Chicano/Latino communities, Moraga’s work is always issue driven. Echoing Cruz’s statement of purpose, Moraga states that her characters are “drawn from people I have known, people I have imagined, and people I have interviewed for the express purpose of writing a play....They are my people. My subject. My heart” (Perkins and Uno, 232).Although no one playwright can “ represent” her or his community, these three plays and playwrights do, in fact, echo the philosophies and practices of other playwrights from their respective US Latino groups.The Eurocentrisim in Machado’s characters can be traced to the very roots of Cuban cultural and theatrical practices among the bourgeois classes.[vii]However, both Cruz and Moraga represent the more working-class, popular roots of other Chicano and Nuyorican playwrights and companies which began to re-appear in the 1960’s.[viii] All three of these playwrights write in various forms of realism, from the almost naturalistic play by Machado to the two plays by Cruz and Moraga which are written in a “Fornesian” style, a cinematic montage of visual images, multiple settings, moving time, brief scenes, and monologues juxtaposed with longer dialogues and situations. In contradistinction, Machado’s piece is a linear, well-made play that happens in real time. These three plays explore family relationships, a recurring theme in most immigrant dramas. Most importantly, the playwrights are authenticating their place in US society as Latinos, negotiating their individual relationships to “home.”THE PLAYS[ix] deals with a Nuyorican family in mourning for the seven-year-old son, Puli, the title character’s little brother, who was crushed by a train. The family members all blame themselves for Puli’s horrible and untimely death and the play is a virtual “limpia,” or cleansing of that guilt. The world of Miriam’s Flowers, the South Bronx, is like an isolated island, so close and yet so far from the dominant society. The characters’ roots are in Puerto Rico, but they are stuck on another type of island whose urban blight is “the international symbol of urban decay and devastation” (Rodriguez, 108).The aesthetic voice Cruz has chosen and the images she presents in Miriam’s Flowers are both grotesque and beautiful, contrasting scenes of calm with images of violence and distortions of love. The episodic nature of this play, which goes back and forth in time and mood, keeps the audience’s emotions taut. Some brief vignettes appear as if a camera flash had just gone off and disappear almost as quickly in this interplay of music, dialogue and imagery.There are few references to the island of Puerto Rico in this play. For Migdalia Cruz the South Bronx, not Puerto Rico, is home and her characters must thus negotiate living in this alien and alienating environment. In Delfina, the mother’s, mind, their apartment becomes the safe place, a microcosmic island of security. She tells Miriam: “The only thing you should be scared of is outside--on the street” (Chavez and Feyder, 59). Unfortunately, their home becomes a site of death and destruction, while the few references to the island recall happier times and the beauty of nature.The references to Puerto Rico are limited to music and talk of tropical fruits, pink flamingos and pigeons. Close to the end of the play Delfina is making pigeon soup for its healing powers and recalls:In Puerto Rico, we had to go to the mountains to catch them. Here, they come to you....Pigeons eat good in New York. They eat meat. In Puerto Rico, the pigeons eat vegetables, not enough fat on them to make a good sauce (Chavez and Feyder, 82).We have witnessed the dissolution of this family and as the tragic and inevitable conclusion approaches, the image of lean pigeons on the island of Puerto Rico contrasted with fatter, tastier pigeons on the island of Manhattan is almost a rejection of the paradise island-born Caribeños reflect. This line is the only time the words, “Puerto Rico,” are spoken; any other references are, as noted above, inferences to the tropics and thus, to the island.
Like Cruz’s domestic drama, Cherrie Moraga’s Shadow of a Man centers on a family in crisis as she explores the problems of a Chicano family torn apart by secrets: past “sins” and future possibilities of sinning. [x] While Miriam’s Flowers begins with a death and reveals the action through flashbacks and forward plot movement, Moraga’s play proceeds linearly and ends in a death. Written in a style that combines realism and surrealism with Fornesian monologues and tableaux, this domestic drama takes place inside and outside of the family’s home as Hortensia, the wife and mother, fights in vain to hold her family together. Her son, Rigo, whom we never see, is lost to them when he marries an Anglo woman. We watch as Manuel, the father, abuses his wife and ultimately drinks himself to death. While Manuel cannot accept or even understand his sexual attraction to his compadre, Conrado, the youngest daughter, Lupe, is beginning to realize her physical fascination with other girls. One of the biggest secrets, the Big Lie that has dissolved the marriage, is the fact that Lupe is actually Conrado’s daughter.
Although there is very little mention of Mexico in this play, the first scene between Lupe and her Aunt Rosario basically begins the action illustrating the contrast between her urban Los Angeles garden and what she had back home, ostensibly in Mexico: “I still say que los chiles no saben buenos aqui....la tierra no me da ni un chile verdadero” (Moraga, 42-43).For a moment, conditions for women are seen as better in Mexico when Rosario tells Lupe: “En Mexico, half the women got criadas. Alla you don’ have to be rico to have one” (Moraga, 43). Thus this brief discussion of Mexico refers to tastier, hotter chiles and the opportunity to hire a maid rather than be one. But no one ever suggests moving there.
Curiously and ironically, “Mexico” appears in the family’s kitchen, via the telenovela the women are watching. But it is a distorted vision of Mexico to which they are subjected. Responding to the actors on Spanish-language television from Latin America, Leticia, the Chicana student activist, asks the other women: “Those novelas are so phony. I mean, c’mon. What do you think the percentage of blondes is in Mexico?...The novelas make it look like half the population is Swedish or something” (Moraga, 47). Thus it is a commodified and “European-ized” Mexico with which the women come into contact, not a Mexico that reflects their reality at all. Other connections to home are through the food and the music, as in Migdalia Cruz’s play. These are good memories, fond moments of boiling beans and cooking hand-made flour tortillas together. The few references to Mexico happen only in the first act, in intimate female moments. Once the play turns darker, talk of Mexico disappears, as if to remind us that for these people Mexico remains mythical - a happier place.
Whereas Miriam’s Flowers and Shadow of a Man investigate death and redemption in a very serious way, Machado’s play, Broken Eggs, exploits the humor inherent in a wedding.[xi] The play takes place during a Cuban-Jewish wedding, with the action situated in the foyer of the banquet room of a suburban Southern California country club. This play is a sincere and critical look at the people Machado calls his family, literally and metaphorically. Both the wedding and the play center, as do most weddings, on the mother of the bride, here named Sonia. However, Sonia is preoccupied with more than the usual goal of making this wedding successful; she also hopes that this occasion will inspire her ex-husband to leave his former mistress who is now his second wife. In the first act, the Cuban family prepares for the wedding, which happens during the intermission outside of the time of the play. During the second act the reception is taking place offstage and within view of the foyer, which is the only setting the audience sees. All of the action takes place within earshot of the actual reception in a symbolic separation of the two families. We never see “the Jews” or any characters other than the bride’s family.
In sharp contrast to both of the other plays, the older characters in Broken Eggs talk constantly of the Cuba they left behind. As one character puts it, referring to other Latinos: “We had to come here, but they wanted to” (Machado, 178). Those Cubans who long to overthrow Castro and take back their island exhibit an exile mentality inspiring Eduardo Machado and others to call them “Frozen Cubans” -character types represented by the parents and grandparents in his play.[xii] As the US born bride begs her mother and grandmother: “No Cuba today please, no Cuba today” (Machado, 178). Yet, these people are defined by Cuba above all else. Theirs is a paradise lost, although they come to acknowledge that the island was not a paradise for everyone. Still, all older generation Latinos know who they are, nationally, at least, and attempt to instill that pride in their children and grandchildren. The very last image in this play is of Sonia and her sister-in-law imagining themselves on a beautiful beach back home. They have just taken valium in order to make the “trip,” while Oscar, the son, sings a Cuban song in Spanish off stage.[xiii]
Borders of Identity: Where is “Home?”
In all three plays, the characters are basically outsiders, living a kind of “border existence,” at home in neither country. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Machado places his characters outside of the reception hall, literally on the margins. We see them on the outside, looking into the reception. Regardless of their class or social status, they are always aware of their “otherness” and the borders this position creates. Although most early plays about the Chicano and Nuyorican experiences always dealt in some way with identity displacement, this theme does not dominate in either Shadow of a Man or Miriam’s Flowers. In contrast, the three-generational family in Broken Eggs reflects the spectrum of today’s upper middle-class Cuban family, from the “frozen” grandparents to the assimilationist bride. The older characters cannot let their grandchildren forget who they are. The following exchange between the grandmother, Manuela, and her granddaughter Mimi, illustrates this preoccupation:
MANUELA [in reference to Cuba]: My cousins are starving there.
MIMI: At least they know who they are.
MANUELA: You don’t? Well, I’ll tell you. You’re Manuela Sonia Marquez Hernandez. A Cuban girl. Don’t forget what I just told you.
MIMI: No, Grandma. I’m Manuela Sonia Marquez, better known as Mimi Mar-kwez. I was born in Canoga Park. I’m a first-generation white Hispanic American.
MANUELA: No you’re not. You’re a Cuban girl. Memorize what I just told you (Machado, 181).
A few minutes before this exchange, Manuela was urging her daughter to use potions to get her husband back, illustrating the syncretic Christianity they practice, a direct reference to the influence of the African slaves who were assimilated into the bloodlines of the colonizers. The African blood in so many Caribbean people suggests a “home” on that distant continent, but these playwrights do not explore their roots to that degree. In sharp contrast, Chicano playwrights have seldom, if ever, written about their African blood, mirroring the Mexican tradition of discounting such influences.
Finally, these three plays reflect the fact that the majority of US-born Latinos, from all three groups, do not have their hearts in a homeland that was never theirs. For all the cajoling the Cuban exiles have used on their grandchildren, these younger people are like the earlier sons and daughters of Chicanos and Puerto Ricans born in the US and who see the United States as “home,” for better or for worse. Although Machado was born in Cuba, he was only eight years old when he was brought to the States and he does not seem inclined to return, satirizing the older generation that does.
The two characters who become one with the US are Mimi, the new Mrs. Rifkin in Broken Eggs and Rigo in Shadow of a Man, who has married an Anglo. These two have basically rejected the culture of their parents, denying their cultures as they attempt to escape from their “Latinidad” into a new home, calling themselves “American.”
Jorge Huerta, Ph.D.
Chancellor’s Associates Endowed Chair III
Professor of Theatre
University of California, San Diego
[i] This is not to say that other USLatinos are not writing plays; however, these three groups are the most active and prolific to date.[ii] California’s Proposition 187, passed by the voters in 1995, called for an end to any educational or social services for undocumented people. Prop. 209, passed in the November, 1996 election, called for the abolishment of all state mandated affirmative action programs. For the first time in California’s history many diverse Latinos came together, united to fight against these propositions. Implementation of both laws is held up in the courts at this writing.[iii] See Mario Barrera, Carlos Muñiz and Charles Ornelas, “The Barrio as an Internal Colony,” in Harlan H. Hahn, ed., Urban Affairs Annual Review, (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1972), 6:465-98.[iv] Jameson states: “...in the United States itself we have come to think and to speak of the emergence of internal Third World voices, as in black women’s literature and Chicano literature....” Fredric Jameson, “Modernisms and Imperialism,” in Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson and Edward W. Said Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature (Minneapolis: Minnesota, 1990), 49.[v] Curiously, although most non-Latinos do not see her as a Cuban or even as a Latina, Fornes has never denied being a Cuban.[vi] Indeed, for the best understanding of Broken Eggs, the reader should first study the previous “Floating Island Plays” listed in the bibliography.[vii] Indeed, all of Latin American bourgeois theater has its roots in Western Europe.[viii] For a brief overview of the indigenous roots of Chicano theatre, see Jorge Huerta, Chicano Theater: Themes and Forms (Tempe: Bilingual Press, 1982), 87-195. For an overview of the evolution of Latino theater in the United States see Nicolas Kanellos, A History of Hispanic Theatre in the United States: Origins to 1940 (Austin: Texas, 1990). For Cuban theatre, see Chs. 4 and 5; for Mexican and Mexican American theater in the Southwest, see Chs. 2 and 3; for Puerto Rican theater, see Ch. 4.[ix] Miriam’s Flowers was first workshopped at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, in 1988 and fully produced at the Frank Theatre in Minneapolis, in 1991.[x] Shadow of a Man was first developed in Maria Irene Fornes’ Playwright’s In Residence Lab in 1985 and received its world premiere in 1990, co-produced by Brava! For Women in the Arts and the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, directed by Fornes.[xi] Broken Eggs was first produced by New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre in 1984.[xii] See Mike Clary, “A City That is Still Consumed by Castro, Los Angeles Times 1 January 1997, sec. A, pp. 1, 26.[xiii] It should be noted that Machado’s play is entirely in English but the assumption is that they are all actually speaking Spanish. Of the three plays, Moraga’s Shadow of a Man is the most bilingual; Miriam’s Flowers has some Spanish but not much.
WORKS CITEDAntush, John. Nuestro New York: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Plays. New York: Penguin, 1994._____________.Recent Puerto Rican Theater. Houston: Arte Publico, 1991.Chavez, Denise and Feyder, Linda. Shattering the Myth. Houston: Arte Publico,Jameson, Fredric. “Modernisms and Imperialism,” in Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson and Edward W. Said, Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1990.Machado, Eduardo. The Floating Island Plays. (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1991.Moraga, Cherrie. Heroes and Saints and Other Plays. Albuquerque: West End Press, 1994.Perkins, Kathy A. and Uno, Roberta (eds.). Contemporary Plays by Women of Color. London: Routledge, 1996.Rodriguez, Clara E. Puerto Ricans born in the U.S.A. (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 108.Shorris, Earl. Latinos. New York: Avon, 1992.