The bad old days of drive-by shootings on San Antonio’s West Side have largely passed into lore, but the generational trauma of violence can live on.
Such is the message of Chato’s Bridge, a play by Mono Riojas Aguilar running March 23-26 at the Guadalupe Theater.
The action of the play bounces between the 1979 Ghost Town neighborhood, near the Cassiano Homes Apartments along Apache Creek, and the same area in the present day. An incidence of tragic violence against a young girl results in the deaths of two boys, leaving her and two surviving companions traumatized.
Their paths diverge as the girl seeks therapeutic help and learns to move on, while the two boys grow into angry men unable to overcome their desire for revenge.
Beyond the stereotypes
Most importantly, Aguilar said his depiction avoids stereotyping these characters by highlighting their full range of complex emotions, hopes and dreams of a better life.
“When people think about Chicano gangs, they think about movies that came out in the ’80s set in L.A.,” Aguilar said. “And people immediately go to that stereotype — the way they look, the way they talk, the way they dress. I try to make sure with my directors and producers, this is a specifically San Antonio, West Side play.”
Though Chato’s Bridge deals with tough, sensitive subject matter, Aguilar said “none of it is gratuitous. And none of it is stereotypical. It’s all stuff that absolutely could happen. And they deal with it as real people would.”
A previous production of the play in 2017 crossed the line from fiction to reality, with the casting of former Ghost Town gang member Juan Guajardo in a lead role. Guajardo is now a member of the Ghost Town Survivors, a group that lived through the gang wars of the 1950s and ’60s, went to fight in the Vietnam War, then returned to found the Brown Berets, which Aguilar described as the militant arm of the Chicano movement.
After the production, Guajardo gave Aguilar a Ghost Town Survivors challenge coin, which plainly states the group’s purpose in embossed words. In part, the coin reads:
We were young in poverty, despair … Our lives were challenged in the barrio … as we stood up for each other on our turf. Young men died, drugs, gang warfare and prison. By the grace of God we survived! …. Determined to do what is right now we give back to our barrio with God as our beacon.
By then in their 70s and 80s, the Ghost Town Survivors “came out in force” to see their lives performed in Chato’s Bridge in 2017, Aguilar said.
They proved to be an enthusiastic audience, “just whooping and hollering and screaming,” Aguilar said. “The place was electric before we even raised the curtain. … With that much buzz and electricity, the cast couldn’t help but put on a fantastic show. And we’re hoping that occurs this time, too.”
The production is helped by director Georgette Lockwood, an actress who had previously performed in Aguilar’s plays but now steps off the stage to make her directorial debut.
Her acting experience has prepared her well for taking on this new role, she said, encouraging her actors to explore their full capacities for portraying complex emotions, from comedy to darker moments.
The play’s lead roles are played by Ruby Raquel Ruiz as Dolores, Isaac Gutierrez as Chale, and Salvador Salcedo as Simon.
“The characters really do flip on a dime,” Lockwood said. “But everything that comes out of them is from this very deeply seated wound from their past. It comes out sometimes as hilarity and sometimes as complete tragedy, depending on what is going on with them in that moment. I feel that my strength is being able to pull that out of the actors in a very truthful way.”
For this production, Aguilar switched the genders of several characters from male to female, in part because of the strength of the female actors who auditioned. “We didn’t want to lose that talent,” he said.
Incorporating more female characters also added “a different dimension” to the characters’ relationships, Aguilar said. “Just the difference between the father figure and the mother figure, already there you see some differences in the dynamics.”
Staging Chato’s Bridge in a Westside theater located in the same neighborhood makes perfect sense, said Jorge Piña, theater arts program director for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.
“I come from here, from the West Side,” the 59-year-old Piña said, “so I know the downfalls of living in a community where poverty is very heavy. I can relate to all the characters because I lived it.”
Piña saw the original 2014 staging of Chato’s Bridge at San Antonio College, where Aguilar teaches composition, literature and creative writing, and the 2017 staging at the Guadalupe Theater. Piña said the main reason he brought it back as a production of the theater arts program was because “it’s a beautiful and powerful story.”
The play will be compelling to anyone, not just those who grew up on the West Side, he said. “Just like Shakespeare, like Cervantes, all the greats, it’s where you express a tragedy, and then that tragedy becomes universal.”
And despite the difficult subject matter, Piña said Chato’s Bridge offers hope, in a way that mirrors the lives of the Ghost Town Survivors.
“The hope is within the people that have learned how to survive,” he said.
Tickets for three evening performances and a Sunday matinee of Chato’s Bridge are available through the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center website.