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  • Staging América: The Subject of History in Chicano/a Theatre
  • W. B. Worthen (bio)

The social world represented in the writings of Chicano men and women is an emphatically political one. And yet, the very act of representation urges a distinctive kind of political consciousness upon us through a deliberately constructed set of imaginary and symbolic productions.

—Ramón Saldívar, Chicano Narrative1

Do you know what I like best about discovering new lands and people? You can name them anything you want. Indians, America, Fresno, Boca Ratón.

—Carlos Morton, Los Dorados2

From the actos devised by El Teatro Campesino in the late 1960s and 1970s through a variety of plays written in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, an important strain of Chicano/a theatre has been concerned with recovering the history of Aztlán—what is now the southwestern United States and northern Mexico—and relating that history to contemporary political and social action. Plays like Carlos Morton’s Los Dorados (1978) and Rancho Hollywood (1979), for example, Luis Valdez’s The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa (1964) and Bandido! (1982), or Cherríe Moraga’s Heroes and Saints (1992) document Mexican/Mexican-American/Chicano/a histories occluded by a dominant “American” narrative. Doing so, they also use history to provide an empowering body of imagery, a narrative that locates Chicana/o agency in history as a way to support and enable Chicano/a identity—and identity politics—in the present. At the same time, however, many of these plays are also reflexively preoccupied with the indeterminacies of staging history, preoccupations that sort oddly with their emphasis on historical recovery and revision. While revisionist history appears to empower Chicana/o identity politics, “history” is also shown to be an interested discourse: the [End Page 101] “subject” of Chicano/a history is at once grounded in an authorizing narrative, and seems to emerge at the intersection of competing modes of representation, a position to be gained, occupied, used. 3

The politics of Chicana/o historical drama are inscribed in its forms and means of representation; for this reason, the politics of form are critical to any discussion of a Chicano/a theatre. Chicana/o theatre is a deeply hybridized theatre, drawing on a wide variety of formal traditions: Aztec ritual; Spanish and colonial drama; Mexican drama; pastorelas and other Church drama; the popular carpa and zarzuela shows operating in Mexico and the Southwest from the turn of the century through the 1950s; genres like the novela drawn from Mexican film and television; and forms derived from European and Euro-American drama, both a realism echoing Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams and an insistent reworking of formal and ideological “alienation” in the Brechtian mode. Yet generalizing about the ideological work of hybrid forms is unusually difficult, impossible outside the social and cultural framework in which those forms are used. While some critics attempt to see through the syncretism of Chicano/a theatre and performance to authorizing “sources” in, say Brecht or in popular performance traditions, this tendency seems to misread the ideological work of hybridity in Chicana/o theatre, which has the dual function of legitimating aspects of Chicano/a culture (themselves often deeply hybridized) and at the same time of reframing the representation of Chicanos/as produced in dominant culture. In this essay, I want to consider some of the ways that staging “history” works to inflect Chicana/o identities, at once appearing to locate identity in a specific history of ethnic and political struggle and at the same time to subvert the grounding of a “monologic subjectivity” in historical representation. 4 The staging of Chicano/a history articulates what Norma Alarcón has called a “subject-in-process,” fashioned in relation to “a network of signifying practices and structural experiences imbricated in the historical and imaginary shifting national borders of Mexico and the United States,” signifying practices that include the hybridized “history” played in contemporary Chicano/a theatre. 5 [End Page 102]

The strategic syncretism of Chicana/o historical drama is a symbolic (and experiential) engagement with the particularity of US-Mexico border history, a narrative of Spanish, Mexican, and Euro-American colonialization, US expansion...

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