Civic Participation Through Theatre

A life-story, by Lina de Guevara.

Prologue: Five Images

• The final scene of the play “I Wasn’t Born Here”, shows a group of Latin American women setting a table, decorating it with flowers and garlands and bringing food. Then one of them says, drawing her two children into her arms: “We brought the best we have. Please, enjoy!”  She invites the audience to come on stage and share.

•  In “Crossing Borders”, a group of Latin American men use music to tell about their struggle to preserve their identity amidst the confusion and dislocation they have experienced as refugees and immigrants.

•  “Canadian Tango” offers Latin American ballroom dancing as a metaphor for marriage The immigrant’s dilemma is portrayed through complicated and dramatic tangos, romantic boleros and sexy mambos.  For example, the “Waltz of Two Loves” is a scene where a woman dances with two partners, going repeatedly from one to the other, trying to choose. She exclaims: “It’s like having two lovers!  You feel so guilty. You want to love one and forget the other, but it’s impossible!”

•  “Journey to Mapu” explores the mysterious and ancient links between Latin Americans and Canadian First Nations. It examines the contradictory responses to the feeling of recognition that many Latin Americans have when meeting First Nations people.

•  In “Familya”, immigrant Latin American parents and teenagers present scenes about the tensions, contradictions, separations and rapprochements within the family, and ask the audience to propose solutions for the problems they are uncovering.

In these plays produced by PUENTE Theatre, Latin American immigrants are using theatre as a way of having a presence in Canadian society and participating in the civic life of their adopted homeland.   It’s only in recent years that minorities are appearing on Canadian stages, so these plays, performed by Latin American immigrants, telling their own stories, using their own music, their inherent images and movements, had impact and significance.  Unlike many other communities that have large immigrant populations that can support theatre in their own languages, we wanted to talk to the larger community by stating who we were in the language of our new country.

Act One

I founded PUENTE, and became its artistic director, in 1988 as a response to my own needs. I arrived in Canada in 1976 and settled in British Columbia, in Victoria, a small city with a population of 250 000. I was already forty-three years old and had a complete adult life behind me. I had been working in theatre for many years and had an established career in my homeland. Suddenly, everything changed for me. During my first years in Canada I felt a growing need to explain myself to my new fellow Canadians. I had lost all of my old connections.  I was no longer living among people with whom I shared a past, a culture, a language and a history. I needed to tell my fellow citizens who I was and where I came from. This was particularly important because I came from Chile, a Third World country, known for its problems and not its successes. Most Canadians knew that Chile had undergone a bloody military coup, and suffered under a cruel dictator. Few knew that Chile had two Nobel Prize winning poets, that we had great architects and that the University of Chile was an internationally respected institution. (It would be as if Canada was known in the world only by the clear cutting of its forests and the abusive residential schools.) Consequently I wanted to tell my story the way I saw it. Most importantly, I did not want to be looked down upon nor did I want to be pitied.  I wanted to be known and respected on my own terms.

After spending several years of confusion, feeling stunned by the changes in my life and not knowing how to achieve the connection I yearned for, I realized that having worked in theatre all my life, it should be my vehicle of communication. With five other women, also Latin American immigrants, we decided to create a play to tell the story of how we had become immigrants, what heartaches and losses it meant, the funny things that happened and the sad ones. We wanted to let everybody know that we were not threats or burdens to their society; that we brought values, knowledge, and humanity to our new country. The other women had no theatre experience and their intention was not to become actresses, but to recuperate the voice they had lost. They had an intense desire to tell their stories, and they were willing to learn the skills required to do this.

Act Two

In the late 1980s, the Federal Government provided employment-training grants and because we all met the criteria, we qualified.  I cannot stress enough the importance of having time to develop a project of this kind. Usually people are supposed to do theatre “after hours’, in their spare time, as if creating a play were some light hobby that doesn’t deserve more than a few hours. The reality is very different. As one of the participants told me, “I have worked in many jobs—in a factory, in a laboratory, in restaurants—but never in my life have I worked as hard as when rehearsing the play.”  The reason for this is, of course, that when you work in theatre, you have to engage body and soul.

“I Wasn’t Born Here” was PUENTE’s first play. It was very important for establishing PUENTE as a theatre company with a mandate to tell the stories of immigrants to Canada. We were enormously lucky to get proper funding that allowed us to establish strong roots.  During that first project we developed methodologies for our research, training and rehearsing. For people who were not actors and, in some cases, spoke very little English, it was a huge challenge to write, act in and produce a play, but our limitations became spurs.  We found creative ways of overcoming those challenges: we used written signs when our English wasn’t good enough; we found expressive images that didn’t require words; we had scenes simultaneously in English and in Spanish; and found surprising ways to use props.  As the director, I started to welcome the difficulties and obstacles. They seemed to provide a frame of reference, a springboard for our work.

“I Wasn’t Born Here” was very successful. The fact that the actors were immigrant women, talking with their own voice about their own lives was something that truly touched our audiences. They were moved and delighted by our stories.  The Latin American community also took pride in our performances and felt understood and respected. The play toured widely and was the subject of several video documentaries. “Creating Bridges” was broadcast nationally as were a number of later projects.

It seemed natural, after telling the story of immigrant women, to tell the story of immigrant men. A second play was created in 1990, “Crossing Borders”, a musical exploring the experiences of Latin American immigrant men. In these plays, we started a PUENTE tradition: in all our productions, at one point during the performance, the audience is invited on stage, to dance the tango, to share a meal, to sing, or just to be included in the stage picture. Our aim is to build bridges and connections between cultures.

Act Three

Our participation through theatre in the life of our Latin American community became more practical and concrete during the production of “Canadian Tango” that explored the effects of immigration in couple relationships. The research for this play showed clearly that violence against women was a serious issue in the community at large. To raise awareness and to educate our public about the prevention of family violence, we used the work of Brazilian Augusto Boal and his “Theatre of the Oppressed”.  From then on, PUENTE adopted its techniques of “Forum and Image Theatre” for exploring and discussing issues present in the lives of immigrants: family conflicts; racism; work related frictions; human rights abuses; sexual harassment; and other oppressions. We created scenes about these problems and members of our audience came on stage to intervene and propose solutions. They become, to use Boal’s expression, “spect-actors” instead of passive spectators. As sufferers of many of the oppressions we discussed, they were the experts in knowing how those oppressions could end! I am always astonished to observe the great creative and healing energy that is released when the audience comes to share the stage with the actors. These theatre techniques make it possible for people to bring about positive changes in their community.

Another aspect of our work is bringing to the Canadian stage plays written in Latin America.  We want to draw attention to the fact that Latin American theatre is rich, imaginative and meaningful and that Canadians can find commonalities in it that allows everyone to appreciate those cultures more.  Some of our latest productions are, “Evita and Victoria” by Argentinean Monica Ottino, about Eva Perón and Victoria Ocampo, two fascinating Latin American women; “Letters for Tomás’ by Chilean Malucha Pinto, a poetic and moving story of a mother with a severely handicapped child; and “Pastorela de Juan Tierra, el inmigrante” by Chilean Jaime Silva, performed in Spanish using the traditional Mexican pastorela form, and presented in the Festival de Pastorelas en Mexico City.  We also produce staged readings of contemporary Latin American plays and we are always looking for ways to raise awareness among Canadian society about Latin American achievements in the world of theatre.

But PUENTE not only stages the stories of immigrants from Latin America and shows its theatre culture, but it is now embracing the stories and cultures of immigrants coming from every corner of the world. We believe that our own experiences have made us more sensitive to others’ realities. In welcoming people from other cultures and working together to stage meaningful plays, we hope to create a bridge of understanding with every one who lives in Canada.  In its almost 20 years of existence, PUENTE continues to provide a place for those immigrants who want to use art to participate and influence their environment.  How far reaching their influence is, is not, I think, as important as the acknowledgement of the existence and validity of this kind of participation.

What have been the difficulties and challenges of this attempt to participate fully in Canadian society?  There are many.  Our reality is that PUENTE exists in a small city, and what might be an easier task in Toronto or Vancouver is harder in Victoria, just because of its size and the make up of its population. Traditionally, Victoria has been the least multicultural city in Canada.  I pride myself in thinking that we have had a small role in convincing a sector of the population in Victoria that theatre from Latin America is valuable, and that Latin American immigrants have a human and artistic richness to contribute to the cultural life of this country. Our audiences are not huge, but they are growing. Language, of course, is a great challenge. In staging, we have had to be ingenious and find creative ways of solving the difficulties in communication and the search for suitable translations is never ending.  . But the hardest and most irritating difficulty has been the unspoken or sometimes expressed assumption that our work is of lesser quality than the traditional established theatre; that it is of interest only to special groups; that theatre from Latin America is “quaint”, unsophisticated, minor. Prejudice is always something we have to contend with, and it is very tiresome. On the other hand PUENTE has many strong supporters and friends in Victoria and we enjoy a warm and rewarding relationship with them.

To return to the personal and looking back on my many years of work in this area, I can say that my experience with PUENTE has defined my identity as a Canadian. Paradoxically, I feel more Canadian, because my feeling of rootedness in Latin America has been strengthened through my work. I can proudly stand on my heritage and reach out. Paraphrasing the character in “I Wasn’t Born Here,” I say, “We really have brought the best we have. Enjoy!”


Cuando empecé a tratar de expresar mis ideas sobre este interesante tema, me ocurrió algo que demuestra claramente mi condición de inmigrante: no sabía si escribir en inglés o en español, y sentía que en ambos idiomas me iba a encontrar en dificultades. Para obviar un poco esto, y para no abandonar mi idioma natal, agregaré un corto comentario en español.

Mi anterior relato ilustra la forma en la que yo, como mujer de teatro, he logrado participar en la vida política y social canadiense desde mi inmigración en 1976. Ha sido un viaje complicado, lleno de obstáculos, pero fascinante, que me ha acercado a mis raíces latinoamericanas pero tambien me ha hecho ocupar un lugar verdadero en mi pais de adopción. Creo que, justamente por el hecho de afirmar mis raíces, soy mas canadiense. Pero una canadiense de nuevo estilo, de esas que están viviendo en dos mundos, no diré confortablemente,  pero si con autoridad. Creo que los inmigrantes tenemos la posibilidad de aportar algo nuevo, tanto a nuestra cultura de origen como a la actual. Antiguamente se suponía que los inmigrantes tenían que olvidarse del pais natal, cambiarse de nombre, disimular su acento, ocultar sus costumbres mas entrañables. Por fortuna, ya no es así, y podemos todos mostrar con orgullo lo mejor de nuestras culturas de origen ,  abandonar  sus aspectos restrictivos y retrógrados y, en conjunción con lo mejor que Canadá puede ofrecernos,  crear nuevas costumbres, nuevas formas de ver y organizar el mundo.

Printed in Ruptures, Continuities and Re-Learning. The political participation of Latin Americans in Canada” Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) 2006