Trinity University researchers examine Shakespeare's stories as told from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Credit: Trinity University

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There were times in the life of Paloma Díaz-Minshew when she’s felt like the only Mexican American “theater kid” in Texas.

After all, the theater stage in English-speaking countries has historically been a space dominated by Anglo-centric perspectives and politics, with none greater being the Bard himself, William Shakespeare.

But at Trinity, as part of English professor Kathryn Vomero Santos’ “The Bard in the Borderlands” project and the Mellon Initiative for Undergraduate Research, Díaz-Minshew, class of 2024, is working to amplify the voices of playwrights who’ve transformed Shakespeare’s stories into depictions of life along an area commonly referred to as La Frontera, or the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

“This is my dream,” says Díaz-Minshew, a Global Latinx studies and English double major who hails from Dallas, but has family with roots in Mexico and San Antonio. “I get to talk about borderland politics, immigration, and also theater and Shakespeare? Yes, please!’”

The culmination of this research project — launched by Santos in 2019 — is a soon-to-be-released publication called The Bard in the Borderlands: An Anthology of Shakespeare Appropriations en La Frontera. This will eventually hit shelves as an open-access book with 12 previously unpublished plays.

“In our research, we started coming across examples of plays by Chicanx and Indigenous playwrights who were radically adapting Shakespeare’s works to meet the needs and tell the histories of the borderlands,” says Santos, who eventually wants to see these plays taught in border-region classrooms the same way traditional Shakespeare has.

This research is all happening inside Trinity’s new Dicke Hall, a unique facility dedicated specifically to humanities studies — one of only a handful of its kind in Texas.

The Borderlands project being conducted at Dicke Hall is perhaps the perfect example of the timelessness of the humanities themselves: a tradition of answering questions — and questioning answers — all in a physical space that invites the type of collaboration and interdisciplinarity that has become synonymous with Trinity’s brand in the modern era.

After all, the plays that Santos, her collaborators and her students are exploring go beyond merely revamping Shakespeare: Each represents a transformative storytelling process. Imagine Romeo and Juliet, but with Juliet coming from an upwardly-mobile Mexican American family seeking to assimilate into Anglo culture, and Romeo as an undocumented immigrant.

“These playwrights insert moments of linguistic contact and conflict in significant places in the plays,” Santos said. “For example, Juliet has been told not to speak Spanish as part of her family’s emphasis on assimilation. So, Romeo becomes a way of connecting to her heritage and connecting to her language.”

To glean this type of insight, Santos has set students like Díaz-Minshew to work parsing through the scripts of each play. Her undergraduate researchers have then transcribed these plays, identified moments in the text that they thought required more annotation and more historical research, and helped frame the types of discussion questions that future school teachers might use to teach these adaptations to their own students.

This rigor is the name of the game for undergraduate research at Trinity, which supports scholarship and discovery in the fields of the humanities with the same fervor that it does the social sciences and STEM fields. Santos and her team have capitalized on numerous sources of funding, such as from the Mellon Initiative, which is specifically aimed at arts and humanities subjects and provides housing and summer stipends for students as well as additional resources for faculty.

Santos, in addition to her research and teaching, also co-leads a special Trinity resource known as the Humanities Collective, which fosters humanistic learning and enables meaningful action through programming, support for research and beyond. This initiative actually provided the initial funding for the project through the Public Humanities Faculty Fellowship.

“Our Bard in the Borderlands project really started to get going because of this [Humanities Collective] initiative,” Santos says. “At Trinity, we are invested in exploring what humanistic inquiry can do to enact social justice.”

For Díaz-Minshew, exploring the culture of La Frontera has been invaluable to her Global Latinx studies major. “One of the reasons I actually came to Trinity in the first place was because I was going to get to learn about my identity, my community and also get credit for it. That’s super cool,” Díaz-Minshew said.

This is what’s at stake for Santos: finding a way to bring more attention to stories with cultural significance to people who might feel ignored or marginalized. And in turn, this is also why Santos wants her team’s work to be open access, in order to help bring it to as many classrooms as possible.

Ultimately, one of these plays might end up in the hands of the next Díaz-Minshew.

“As a Mexican American, there were a lot of times during this research that I would be reading things and just start crying because seeing yourself accurately represented, that’s something that doesn’t happen often,” said Díaz-Minshew. “Getting into this research, getting into this world, and realizing, ‘Of course there are other Mexican American theater kids!’ I was never exposed to that.”

Jeremy Gerlach is the brand journalist for Trinity University, a national liberal arts university in the heart of San Antonio.