Reflections: Fifty Years of Chicano/Latino Theatre

by Jorge Huerta
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 1 (Winter 2016)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Much has happened in the field of Chicano theatre studies, both as praxis and theory since 1965 when the Teatro Campesino (Farmworkers’ Theater) was founded as the cultural arm of the farm workers’ union in California. The original aesthetic of the Teatro was commedia dell’arte-like sketches, termed “actos” by Luis Valdez. The Chicano theatre groups that followed in the footsteps of the Campesino collectively created their own actos exposing the many problems that plagued their communities. Paralleling the Chicanos’ theatrical rumblings from California to the Midwest were the Cuban, Puerto Rican and other Latinos on the East Coast, expressing their realities in the streets and on stages from the boroughs of Manhattan to Florida. There was some interaction between the politically-charged “Nuyoricans” and the equally politicized Chicanos but initially, the three major groups had distinct agendas.

I was a high school drama teacher when I first witnessed the Teatro Campesino in 1968, an event that changed my life. I realized that I knew nothing about the history of Chicano or Mexican theatre and determined to pursue a doctorate in theatre in order to research the field. I began my graduate studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1970 and discovered that the majority of articles and a handful of dissertations I located focused on the early Spanish religious folk theater of the Southwest; plays and performances that had been “discovered” in the 1930s by anthropologists rather than theatre scholars. There were articles and reviews about the then five-year old Teatro Campesino but little else. Not a single book, no plays in print and no anthologies of plays had been published. There was much archival work to be done.

With my Ph.D. in hand (apparently the first Chicano to earn a doctorate in Dramatic Art) I joined the faculty of the Theatre Department at the University of California, San Diego in the fall of 1975 as a young assistant professor, eager to change the face(s) of the American theatre. Literally. I was very fortunate to have a supportive faculty and administration over the years as I witnessed the many changes in the field of Theatre Studies and used my academic affiliation to gain the attention and respect of the field. I had no idea what Life had in store for me and the communities of Chicanas, Chicanos, Mexicans, and other so-called minorities eager to see their realities portrayed on stages across the land.

At the close of the 1970s Time Magazine declared that the 1980s would be “The Decade of the Hispanic,” a prediction that never came to pass. What did happen, however, was an influx of foundation, state, local and federal dollars, however limited, designed to enhance the growth and development of what was being called “Hispanic Theatre.” The 1980s and ‘90s saw a proliferation of projects aimed at enhancing the financial and aesthetic development of Hispanic theatre in mainstream regional theatres as well as in Chicano and Hispanic theatre companies. The era of professionalization had arrived and with it we saw Latinas and Latinos entering graduate programs in all aspects of theatre. Alongside the enhancement of the production of plays came the development of scholarship focused on the theatre and performance(es) by Chicana (read female), Chicano, and other Spanish-surnamed people living in the US. I called this incursion into theatre and performance studies departments “infiltration” which it was and which continues to resonate Also emerging were young scholars, the second generation of graduate students in theatre and performance whose focus was on all aspects of the Latina and Latino experience. The roster of young scholars began to grow and today we have scholars at all levels teaching in departments of theatre, performance studies and related disciplines in high schools, colleges and universities from coast-to-coast.

The field has grown to such an extent that one cannot teach all of the plays that have been published by or about Latina/os in a year-long course. The scholarly books about Latino theater are still too few; there is much to be discussed and written about in terms of the breadth and scope of the scholarship as well as the myriad number of anthologies of plays that have been published. Further, every scholarly journal has published articles about Latina/o theatre including the one in your hand but we need more.

The careful reader will note that I’ve gone from referring to “Chicano,” to “Hispanic” to the more common designation today, Latina/Latino because that is the demographic of most Latina/o theatre groups: a pan-American roster that includes Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and etc. These Latino theatre companies are bringing a diverse community of artists and audiences into their theatres, all interested in our common goals as citizens and “dreamers.” Enhancing this goal the Latino Theatre Commons was founded in 2014 as national coalition of Latino theatre companies, artists, scholars and allies under the auspices of Arts Emerson at Emerson College, Boston. The LTC has participated in the organization and fund-raising of a historic month-long national festival of Latino Theatre companies produced by the Los Angeles Theater Center in 2014; a “Carnaval, Festival of New Works” at DePaul University in Chicago in 2015 and several regional convenings. Further, I am thrilled that the scholars have been integral contributors to these events and gatherings documenting the events, people and teatros in Café Onda and the HowlRound website as well as other refereed publications.

As evidenced in the many initiatives emanating from regional alliances across the country and the Latino Theatre Commons, it is clear that Latino theatre artists and scholars are continuing to challenge their audiences and students in ways that were unheard of in the 1960s. The times have changed, the technology has changed but the people remain people and I believe the playwrights and theatre companies are still attempting to determine who they are not only in this society but as members of the international communities in struggle. As the players become more and more diverse in their own legacies: African, Asian, indigenous and yes, European, they will seek new ways to define themselves. Judging from everything that is happening at the local, regional and national levels; in the academies as well as in the communities, I believe the future of Latina/o theater is in very good hands.

Jorge Huerta is Chancellor’s Associate Professor of Theatre Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego. He is a professional director and a leading authority on contemporary Chicana/o and US Latina/o theatre.

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