It takes one to know one

PUENTE Theatre, based in Victoria, British Columbia, has been in existence since 1988. Its mandate is to explore through theatre, the experiences of immigrants to Canada. PUENTE started as a way to feel a personal need I felt as an immigrant. I wanted to explain myself and my culture to the rest of society. Because I was a theatre person in Chile, my country of birth, it was natural for me to use theatre as a means of expression. I searched for, and found other women from Latin America who felt the desire to express themselves and their experiences. Together, we created the first PUENTE Play, which we called “I wasn’t born here: Stories of unexpected journeys’

That first project, which was supported by a Job Development grant from Manpower and Immigration Canada, played a key role in establishing the roots of PUENTE. The six months we had to work on the play offered a unique opportunity, allowing us enough time to train actors who didn’t speak English and who, in most cases, didn’t have a performance background. We also had time to do extensive research in the community, and to develop a methodology for our rehearsals and for the creation of our script. Since the completion of that first play, these tools have continued to evolve. Every new play requires its own approach, but it was the long time we were able to dedicated to that first project that became so fruitful afterwards.

“Crossing Borders”, “Canadian Tango” and “Familya” all were plays dealing with the effects of immigration on the lives of Latin Americans. Almost everybody who participated in these plays was from there. In 1996, we expanded to include performers from other cultures. We found that the common experiences of immigration provided a strong link between all of us. “Of Roots and Racism”, “Sisters/Strangers”, “Act Now Against Racism”, “Story Mosaic” and “Story-Telling Our Lives” are expressions of this phase in PUENTE’s life.

We have explored several topics in our struggle to express the shared experiences of our common immigrant communities. In researching the social realities of our community (immigrants from Latin America), we have examined and discovered the differences between the experiences of men and women. Many men have arrived here alone, as refugees, escaping wars in which they had been forced to take part, either as rebels or as soldiers. Women more commonly arrived as part of a family group, with husbands and children. As a general rule, the men were out in the workforce while women remained isolated at home. But there were also many examples of role reversals: women as wage earners, men doing housework, and children taking on the roles of parenthood, speaking for their parents and becoming their link to the new environment. Nostalgia was an emotion shared by all, and it could become paralysing and overwhelming. The relationships with the family back in the homeland were very complex. Guilt is another feeling that many immigrants share. Losing one’s profession, changes in status, feeling misunderstood, diminished and discriminated against are some of the negative emotions we all experience. A sense of power in overcoming difficulties, the excitement of living an adventure, the broadening of horizons and the freedom provided by breaking loose from strict traditions are some of the positive aspects of being an immigrant we have experienced.

All this has become the emotional background of our plays, but we still had to find the theatrical expressions. These included the stories, the images, the movement, the music; all the ways of relating to an audience that the subject of immigration meant to us. As a director and a writer, I often have the feeling that our plays create themselves out if the reality we’re exploring, out of the demands of theatricality, and out of the restraints imposed upon us by our immigrant condition. For example, we don’t have a total command of the English language, which leaves the question of what stories we can tell and how we are going to tell them without language.

Representing the other by representing ourselves

The theme of “representation of the other” awakens interesting thoughts in me. Until now, I have never been concerned with it, because I’ve never felt we were representing the “other”. I’ve felt I was representing our own reality. I think this feeling comes from how strongly the experience of immigration acts as a uniting factor. Despite differences in race, religion, culture, and even gender, all immigrants have lived through similar moments> For example, waking up one morning and asking ourselves: “What have I done? What am I doing here?” On the other hand, I have often been bothered by the way “my “ reality has been pictured by the mainstream. I seldom feel happy with the way Latin Americans are portrayed, and cultural appropriation offends me when I see it happening in a superficial and uninformed way. I have no strict rules about this. I support and applaud every effort made to really comprehend another culture and another community. I have had the experience of having a “foreigner” come and teach me to appreciate aspects of my own culture that I was ignorantly dismissing.

I believe much racism and discrimination comes from the fact that our cultures are known to the mainstream through our problems and not through our successes. Latin American are seen as coming from a needy continent, full of military dictators, where people dance, sing and are colourful but have no idea on how to solve their own political and social problems. A more in-depth analysis of our history, culture and economy, and more respect for our achievements in education, science, the arts and traditional social structures are lacking.  I believe knowledge about the achievements of other cultures is essential to the elimination of racism.

What can be done about it? We have our own field of action: the theatre. PUENTE (in collaboration with the Belfry Theatre and Full Spectrum Productions) is into its Third Play Reading Series, featuring plays written in countries from which many immigrants come. These include Chile, Ghana, Portugal, Nigeria, Japan, Lithuania, Jamaica and South Africa. We have found some admirable scripts that have provided us with exciting insights. I definitely do not believe the only theatre worth knowing is produced on Broadway. We also do readings of poetry from around the world, in English and in the original languages. We do workshop translations, mostly from Spanish into English. In our interactive theatre presentations in community centres, high schools and other educational institutions, we always acknowledge the source of our methods, the work of Latin American theoreticians, such as Augusto Boal and Paulo Freire.

Aside from our own scripts, we would like to produce more plays by non-English authors. We have staged “The House of Bernarda Alba”, by F. García Lorca, and “Evita and Victoria”, by Monica Ottino. These are excellent plays, the former from Spain and the other from Argentina. For a small organization like ours, these ventures are risky and complicated, so we must go slowly.

We are committed to supporting and mentoring theatre people who are recent immigrants and live in Victoria. They need guidance about the Canadian Theatre scene, help when dealing with granting agencies, and most of all, they need to feel hope that it is possible for them to continue practicing their art here.

Our work during these eleven years has been very interesting and has led to many reflections and discoveries about theatre, immigration, culture and community. It is wonderful to have avenues such as ALT. Theatre in which to open discussions and exchange ideas with others embarked on similar adventures.

Printed in Alt.Theatre October 2000