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925 Silver Collection

Chicano Theater: Sixty Years Young By Liz Goldner

When the lights go down at Teatro Frida Kahlo in Los Angeles on March 2, the actors in “Caravana” will begin speaking their lines with heartfelt emotion. The play, by Chicano playwright Carlos Morton, relates the story of Honduran immigrants who band together for protection against gangs, police, and the border patrol. They soon start a theater to distract officials, enabling them to cross the Mexico to U.S. border. Sitting in the darkened theater, listening to the characters in “Caravana” deliver their impassioned and often desperate lines in English and Spanish, can bring out the humanity in all who attend.

Poster for "Caravana" by Carlos Morton

Mexican immigrant Rubén Amavizca-Murúa opened Teatro Frida Kahlo 30 years ago to mount plays addressing the challenges facing Chicano people, including issues with alcohol, drugs, suicide, mental health, and domestic violence. Performers attend classes and act in plays to promote their Hispanic heritage and multilingualism and to fulfill their need for artistic expression. A few graduates have been cast in Hollywood films.

Chicano theater itself was developed organically by Luis Valdez. Born to migrant farm workers in 1940, he worked in the fields from a young age, and began producing plays and puppet shows while still in grade school. He graduated from San Jose State, and in 1965, organized field workers into the El Teatro Campesino (Farmworkers’ Theater). As the cultural arm of the California farmworkers’ union, the theater helped raise funds for striking workers and awareness of Chicano issues.

Ruben Amavizca-Murúa, director of Teatro Frida Kahlo, sits under a mural of Frida Kahlo by muralist Ricardo Soltero at the theater. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times. Photo: James Carbone

Campesino began as political theater incorporating influences from German playwright Bertolt Brecht and Mexican comedian Cantinflas, according to Valdez. The plays were, and often are today, bi-lingual, with about 20 percent of the dialogue in Spanish. And as with Chicano visual arts, the theatrical themes allude to the Chicano Moratorium of the 1970s, to the plight of Mexican descendants today, and to the difficulties of immigrants. Both art forms reference Aztlán, the mythical ancestral home of the Aztec people (situated in later-day California), relating that history to contemporary social and political issues.

But Chicano theater goes further, drawing influences from Spanish and Mexican theatrical prototypes, including pastorelas, plays recreating biblical passages. These creative tools enable viewers to inhabit the emotional worlds of the playwrights and the performers.

As Chicano theater evolved and as Mexican Americans became more assimilated into America’s coarsely woven fabric, many Chicanos began identifying as Latinos. And those in the performing world began partnering with their Puerto Rican and Cuban colleagues, attending theater-related meetings, festivals and presentations together, recognizing their commonality.

Antonio Bernal, “Del Rey Mural,” El Teatro Campesino, Del Rey, California, 1968, paint on plywood. Courtesy of © Antonio Bernal. Photo: Robert Sommer.

Latino dramas over the last several decades have been exploring an expanding range of universal themes, with the general public in increasing attendance.

Examples of this evolution are realistic dramas, such as Octavio Solis’ 1980 crime story, “Santos and Santos;” docudramas like Valdez’s 1979 “Zoot Suit,” the first Chicano play to appear on Broadway; and recent entrees into magical realism, such as Milcha Sanchez-Scott's 1993 film, "Roosters.”

Many Latino stars today, including Jennifer Lopez, James Edward Olmos and America Ferrera, began their careers in Latino-based theater and film. The Latino playwright Luis Alfaro received a MacArthur "Genius" Foundation Fellowship and was Playwright in Residence at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And three Mexican directors, Guillermo del Toro, Alfono Cuaron and Alejandro Inarritu have won Oscars. The theater genre that Valdez started — while continuing to address the original values and concerns of the writers and actors — has become more mainstream.

Ignacio Gomez, “Zoot Suit,” 1978, screen print, 47 1/4 x 33”, for the play by Luis Valdez. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Then there’s the mega-star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose parents emigrated from Puerto Rico and raised him in upper Manhattan. He emerged as a top musical theater talent with “In the Heights” about the Latino community in his neighborhood. Following that came his Broadway mega-hit, “Hamilton.” Miranda boldly cast Blacks and Latinos for the parts, and he played the lead. He appropriated the sources of rap music and compellingly adapted it in a way that thrilled fans of musical theater.

In his virtual play,“Trumpus Caesar,” produced at UC Santa Barbara in 2020 Carlos Morton has the multi-ethnic cast speak entirely in English. The play throws a barrage of characters in your face, power- and money-hungry Republicans, fighting by every means available, lawful or not, to gain political domination.

Photo from "Trumpus Caesar,” by UCSB Theater and Dance Department

The four-year-old play, inspired by Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” contains a message about Donald Trump that is prescient and of deep relevance to our historical moment, beyond traditional Chicano issues. Still, the play conveys an issue about Trump and authoritarianism that concerns many Latinos today.

The nearly 60-year-old Chicano/Latino theater genre, created by the son of Mexican immigrants, is thriving today thanks to his numerous artistic descendants. Yet there remain some bigoted people who say Chicanos and many other groups are “poisoning the blood of our country,” a statement dripping with racial prejudice. While it is no accident that racism and bigotry are enjoying a comeback in both our culture and on our national psyche, Chicano theater is an important piece of our pushback.


Photo of Carlos Morton. Courtesy of Texas State University, San Marcos


Today, Chicano/Latino theaters span the U.S., some of which include: Teatro Milagro, Portland; Teatro Avante, Miami; Repertorio Español, New York City; Latino Theater Company, Los Angeles; Su Teatro, Denver; Cara Mia and Teatro, Dallas; Teatro Luna, Chicago.

While teaching at UC Santa Barbara, Morton created the course, “Culture Clash: U.S. Latino Theater from 1965 to the Present,” The syllabus read, “Latinos have become the largest minority in the United States, and their art is beginning to make a significant impact on American culture. Since the 1960's, the theater and film of Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans and other Americans of Latin American origin have been making their mark on the professional stage and in Hollywood.”

San Diego-based Morton has produced more than 100 theatrical events across this country and abroad. He won First Prize in the Latino Playwriting Contest at the New York Shakespeare Festival. His plays have been in five anthologies in the U.S., Cuba and Mexico. He retired in 2020 after 30 years of teaching at several UC campuses.

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