PUENTE Theatre: Attempting to overcome marginalization.
Lecture presented at the 2001 Colloquium on Exile organized by the Spanish and Italian Studies Department, University of Victoria.
I will talk about a personal experience of marginalization. First I want you to do a little imagination exercise. Please try to visualize the map of the world. If you are like me, you will probably see a Mercator projection, where Latin America is to the left, the Atlantic Ocean in the center, North America and Europe on top, the Southern hemisphere down. Chile has a marginalized position, almost coming out of the map, down, in a corner. I think the only country that has a worst position is Australia, down and under. This is the image of our position in the world that I grew up with, marginalized, at the side, far away. Now I know that there are attempts to correct this vision, some maps have the Pacific Ocean in the center, others have the South Pole on top, there’s an intention to have other perspectives. But I think that still the Mercator projection is very prevalent; you can check that up in yourselves, and see what image appears in your head when you think about the world. Images are important when you are searching for an identity. So I grew up thinking that I belonged to a country that was far from the great, powerful centers of culture where everything significant was happening; we even had a big cordillera that separated us from the rest of the world like a wall. But I felt contented in this world. I related much to the Leopardi’s poem mentioned by Doctor Rossi in her lecture:
“Always dear to me was this secluded hill, and this hedge, which from so great a part of the farthest horizon excludes my view”
As a member of an educated middle class with certain privileges I did not feel marginal in my own country.
The situation certainly changed when I became an immigrant and had to move to Canada. I was no longer in the center of my world but at the edge of it, marginalized by the language, by the lack of a shared history and culture, even by my profession as a theatre actor and director. Theatre in itself is a place at the edge. What worried me the most was the fact that everything that most people here knew about Chile was negative. Everybody knew about the military coup, the dictatorship, the killings and the torture. I remember looking in the Camosun College Library for books about Chile and they all started in 1973 with studies of the Chilean military coup. The mainstream chose what they wanted to know about us. I felt that nobody knew about the good things we had, our contributions to the world in all kinds of fields.
Looking in the catalogue of the University of Toronto Library under “American”, I received another shock. I was looking for books about the history of different South Americans countries, and could only find books about the United States. I felt then not only marginalized, but disappeared. We, who had always considered ourselves belonging to the American continent, were catalogued under “Hispanic American”. I felt I was being defined from the outside and I rebelled against that. I think most immigrants share this feeling. I started to search for ways of correcting this, and of course, my way was through theatre, which has always been my profession. This is why I founded PUENTE Theatre: to tell the stories of immigrants to Canada from Latin America, so that the rest of Canadian society could hear our own voices, instead of being interpreted and defined by somebody else. We started with a play about Latin American women, called “I wasn’t born here”, followed by a play about Latin American immigrant men, a musical called “Crossing Borders”. Then we did a play about the immigrant couple called “Canadian Tango”. And so on and on, we explored the immigrant experience from many angles. At one point we started to include the experiences from other cultures too, and PUENTE became a multicultural theatre, not only Latin American. But then we felt this wasn’t enough. We were telling our stories from the moment we arrived here, but what about sharing our culture, our Latin American theatre? so rich, so exciting, and so different! And sharing it live, not only as a text, but also as a complete theatrical experience. This was very difficult. For many years I tried to convince theatre groups in Victoria to stage plays written originally in Spanish. I searched for the right translations – not easy to find- and the right topics. I tried to overcome the fears of artistic directors about producing plays from alien cultures that hadn’t been tried previously in New York or Toronto. It is understandable. The theatre is such a risky profession; it has such a precarious life in our society, that it is very costly to make a mistake when choosing a repertoire. I organized readings of García Lorca’s plays but they were deemed too “strange”, too apart, only for an elite. At the end I realized that if we wanted to do this we would have to do it ourselves. And so PUENTE created two new programs: staging plays from Spanish speaking countries, and doing play readings, where we included plays from all the cultures that have wonderful theatre and that you will possibly never see on a stage here. To this date we have produced staged readings of about twenty plays from countries such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Japan, Italy, Holland and Lithuania. Some Latin American authors we have included have been Chileans Jaime Silva’s “The dark night of Marguerite de Roberval” and Carlos Cerda’s “Something in the Air”. Article on Worldplay:
Of course, our ambition was to fully produce as many plays from Latin America as possible. Given our limited budget this was not easy, but we did accomplish several productions we are very proud of.
The first one was from Spain: Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba”. This production was done in partnership with Full Spectrum Society, another Victoria theatre organization. It was an exciting experience of cross-cultural communication for the whole cast. We worked hard revising and polishing the translation, finding the right music, the adequate gestures, understanding the world of rural Spain in the early thirties, trying not to loose the poetry of the words, of the imagery. I think this production was enriching for everybody, actors and audience.
Our next production of a Latin American play was “Evita and Victoria”, by Argentinean Monica Ottino. This happened the same year Madonna had produced her musical “Evita”, her own interpretation of a very complex Argentinean phenomenon: the ascent to enormous power of a woman such as Eva Duarte. I felt at that time that I really wanted to allow an Argentinean author to have a say, to let people here in Victoria to hear what her interpretation was, as somebody who had lived this story in her blood, and was not using it for effect. This production was also a very rewarding exercise. The play tells the story of an imaginary meeting between Eva Peron and Victoria Ocampo, an Argentinean aristocratic intellectual, and also a very powerful woman. We had to adapt the text and add scenes to explain the historical background to Canadian audiences. We worked in this with full support from the author.
Our latest venture into overcoming marginalization by trying to bring Latin American theatre to the Victoria audiences, is our production of “Letters for Tomas”, by Chilean Malucha Pinto that premiered in April 2001 at the Belfry Studio, and which we will be presenting again in November. This play, the story of a mother of a profoundly disabled child, has a universal theme. Here we did not have to adapt or explain anything: the play speaks directly to all human beings. We have kept the form, the style, the Latin American magic realism: in some moments Spanish is spoken. The music encompasses a variety of Latin American rhythms and instruments. One wonderful aspect of this production was that the author, Malucha Pinto, was able to travel from Chile and attend the opening night, and we could share her, and her outstanding personality, with the Victoria audience. And she wa s able to tell us what she felt when she saw this reincarnation of her play, that had already been performed for a year in Chile, and that had its first performance in English here in Victoria.
These productions make me feel that we have made an attempt, set a precedent of bringing Latin American theatre to our new homeland Canada. We are not so far anymore, not so much at the edge. The opportunity is there for all to see and experience Latin American theatre in a new form. Because it is produced here it receives a new life, a new language. It is a powerful mixture which includes the actors, many of whom are Canadian born and have never visited Latin America, the author, the director, the translator, the musician, everybody bringing the best they have to give life to this new product that they all understand deeply, viscerally, because it is about human feelings that transcend artificial marginalization. By trying to overcome marginalization I feel we are embarked in a journey that can only have positive repercussions for all of us. Update on productions of plays by Latin American authors http://linadeguevara.ca/works/plays/as-director/