by Jeanne Klein
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2023)
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Borderlands Children’s Theatre: Historical Developments and Emergence of Chicana/o/Mexican-American Youth Theatre. Cecilia Josephine Aragόn. New York: Routledge, 2022; Pp. 158.
Cecilia Josephine Aragόn has accomplished a significant feat. Borderlands Children’s Theatre: Historical Developments and Emergence of Chicana/o/Mexican-American Youth Theatre marks the first book-length study that examines the emergent history of Latina/o Theatre for Young Audiences (LTYA) from its earliest Indigenous origins, as well as its burgeoning dramatic literature and scholarship over the past three decades. Having grown up in New Mexico and west Texas, Aragόn writes passionately from her lived childhood experiences as a Chicana/India. Her family engaged in rasquache teatro in their backyard, performed in biennial pastorela and pasiόn plays at their church, traveled in a van to perform, work, protest, and march for Chicana/o rights, and assisted border-crossing Mexican families. Facing both Anglo and Mexican prejudices, she came to recognize the double consciousness of her borderlands identity.
Based on her personal, coming-of-age experiences, Aragόn argues her theory of “performing mestizaje” in which she defines bicultural and hybrid body-mind concepts that
(a) exhibit an Indigenous identity in Chicana/o Latina/o cultures through language and body practices, (b) enable a transformation that helps explain mestiza/o and Indigenous consciousness, spirituality, and healing, (c) participate in promoting Indigenous rituals and celebrations through the use of mythology and symbolism, and (d) enact cultural production that contests, resists, and interrogates the impacts of imperialism and colonial systems. (3)
In these ways, she gives voice to Chicana/o and Mexican-American young people whose dramatized stories remain disparaged among professional theatre companies and all too many university theatre programs today.
The first three out of five chapters (half the book) comprise a meticulous literature review with requisite due diligence. In the first chapter, Aragόn’s overview of US children’s theatre is based on somewhat inaccurate narratives propounded by the Theatre for Youth and Community program at Arizona State University in Tempe, the site of her heretofore unpublished dissertation. Contrary to canonical constructions that US professional theatre and dramatic literature for children began in the 1880s, prominent child actors actually began performing plays in professional theatre companies for young spectators in the 1790s, as well as Shakespeare’s works and pantomimes since the 1750s. More importantly, she addresses the nascent study of LTYA with critical texts and play anthologies that began to appear in the 1990s. In regard to shifting cultural constructions of childhood, her heavy reliance on classic Piagetian stages of child development reflects an unfortunate yet understandable lack of awareness of this field’s complex advancements in social-cognitive and neuroscientific realms.
Chapter two builds upon the crucial foundations of other scholars by reviewing the Indigenous roots of child performances in Mesoamerican rituals through Spanish colonial pastorales. After Mexico’s independence from Spain, theatrical Mexican families toured southwestern US territories and their children, the first generation of native-born Mexican-American actors, starred in Spanish-language theatre companies through the 1950s. Photographs of child performers, including stars María Luisa Villalongín and Leonardo “Lalo” G. Astol, enliven their costumed performances. From there, the pivotal Chicana/o movement begun in the 1960s gave rise to multiple youth teatros that sparked today’s generation of major LTYA playwrights.
To underscore the cultural, political, economic, social, and psychological specificity of young Chicana/o identities, Aragόn delineates border theory and Chicana feminism in connection with theatre scholarship in chapter three. She also explicates Jean Phinney’s three-stage psycho-social model of ethnic identity development (1989-90).
In chapter four, Aragόn applies all theoretical frameworks by analyzing representations of children and adolescents in six pivotal plays: Alicia in Wonder Tierra (or I Can’t Eat Goat Head) by Silvia Gonzalez S., Farolitos of Christmas by Rudolfo Anaya, The Highest Heaven by José Cruz González, No saco nada de la escuela by Luis Miguel Valdez, Simply María or The American Dream by Josefina Lόpez, and The Drop Out by Carlos Morton. Her succinct comparative summation of these coming-of-age plays reveals how extraordinary child and adolescent protagonists successfully negotiate familial, social, political, and psychological border crossings by age, gender, class, and ethnic identities through physical journeys, metaphorical dreams, or in school settings. Playwrights’ biographies, featured with their child and adult photographs, also serve to justify how and why these foundational works created borderlands children’s theatre.
The final most provocative chapter adds Aragόn’s illuminating interviews with each playwright in which they recount their most memorable theatrical and school experiences and their artistic connections with the empowering Chicana/o movement. Notably, many highlighted their frustrating challenges trying to get their plays produced by mainstream professional companies. Paradoxically, once El Teatro Campesino achieved its mainstream status, youth teatros declined until university-bred artist-scholars revived and advanced LTYA for young audiences, albeit with too few child and adolescent actors, while various community organizations expanded theatre with Latina/o young people. Yet even today, as Aragόn makes clear, childism remains firmly entrenched far behind all other contested cultural movements (e.g., December 2016 issue of American Theatre). Despite the formation of Latinx Theatre Commons in 2012, LTYA festivals still vie for national recognition among mediated adaptations of children’s literature and other popularized trends. Even so, Aragόn’s optimistic outlook for the future of LTYA inspires hope and bodes well for the next generation of theatre artist-scholars.
From my perspective, this slim but somewhat overwritten book tends to reproduce its major points unnecessarily throughout each chapter. Moreover, the requisite postmodern need to use and repeat Mexican-American, Chicana/o, Latina/o, or Latinx terminology may or may not bog down the flow of readers’ experiences. However, my foremost concern has to do with Routledge, a major theatre publisher that has failed this author by ignoring its copy-editing responsibilities. Regardless of these reservations, Aragón ultimately offers more than a cursory glimpse of historical legacies and trending representations of children and young people in LTYA. As the population of Latina/o and biracial children soars, Borderlands Children’s Theatre calls us all to take immediate actions by ensuring that young voices are not only heard but respected and celebrated for present and future generations.