restricted access Negotiating Spaces: Latino Theater in Chicago
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Negotiating Spaces:
Latino Theater in Chicago

In recent decades, due to a steady flow of immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, Chicago has become one of the U.S. cities with the largest and most diverse Latino populations. This process of immigration has been instrumental in the development of various Latino cultural activities that both utilize the infrastructure already in existence—museums, radio and newspapers, festivals, art galleries—and create other new cultural spaces. Some examples of the latter are the Mexican Fine Arts Museum, the Latino Film Festival—whose latest edition was organized by the recently founded International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago—and the rise of Latino literary figures such as Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, and Luis Rodriguez, whose books have been published in the mainstream press. This process implies a double volition: on the one hand, the desire to build a location within the new space—Chicago—and contribute to its transformations; and on the other hand, the need to establish a “mark”—a Latino thing—that is not homogeneous, but rather expresses different meanings according to the origin of the group and its relationship with the new space.

Latino theater in Chicago has developed within this context. Analyzing it implies an understanding of its double intention. Latino theater expresses a specific ethnic component clearly related to the Latin American theater tradition. But it is also incorporated into the current theatrical movement taking place in Chicago. In this sense, my purpose is to propose a hypothesis about recent Latino plays that have been produced in Chicago. As a hypothesis, it leaves several questions open. I have observed that the main characteristic of the latest performances by the Latino theater groups of Chicago is the portrayal of a self whose voice is denied. At the same time, this self insists on being heard in order to demonstrate his/her existence. This type of representation might be related to the place that Latino theater [End Page 199] has within the greater context of Chicago theater, as a voice that is ignored (or limited to the Latino stereotype) but that demands a place (and therefore an existence) in Chicago’s theatrical development.1 In order to support this hypothesis, I will analyze the latest performances of Teatro Vista, the Aguijón Theater Company, Luna Players Ensemble, and Grupo Cuerda Floja.2 In some cases—especially when I refer to Teatro Vista and the Aguijón Theater Company—I will not only analyze their latest productions, but also delineate the trajectory of the groups, as this, too, supports the hypothesis of a double cultural volition in Latino theater.3

Teatro Vista

In 1989, Henry Godinez and Edward Torres, after working together on a play in Chicago, decided to found Teatro Vista. What motivated them to create Teatro Vista was the fact that Latino actors were only called on to play stereotypical roles. In addition, one of Teatro Vista’s initial goals was to develop a bridge with both Latino and non-Latino audiences. Behind this can be seen the double cultural volition of this group and its need to play a role not only within and for the Hispanic community, but also outside of it, within the greater Chicago theatrical context.

This double relationship has characterized Teatro Vista’s trajectory. In fact, the locations of the spaces chosen for its theatrical performances reflect its desire to make a cultural “mark.”4 In January of 1991, for example, they produced an English version of Hugo Salcedo’s The Crossing—its premiere in the United States—at the Mexican Fine Arts Museum. This play, dealing with the deaths of 18 undocumented Mexican workers, was acclaimed by the Pilsen audience, the most important Mexican-American community in the Chicago area. In October of the same year, Teatro Vista produced Broken Eggs by Eduardo Machado, a tragi-comedy about a Cuban-American family after Fidel Castro’s revolution. This time, the performances took place in the Rogers Park community, on Chicago’s North Side, an area where there is a considerable Cuban-American and Caribbean population. It is clear that the choice of the locations where these plays...