Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta did more than launch a labor movement. Their work on behalf of Chicano migrant workers also inspired the beginnings of Chicano theater, first in California, then across the nation.
One sub-movement that grew out of the 1965 Teatro Campesino (Farmworkers’ Theater) of playwright Luis Valdez was the Teatro de las Chicanas, started by students of San Diego State College in 1971, acknowledged as the first Chicana-specific theater group.
Trinity University will celebrate the long history of Chicana theater with a daylong symposium, Chicana Theater: Past and Present, this Friday, March 1 from 9-5 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, but participants are required to register here.
Distinguished guests of the symposium are playwrights Denise Chávez and Cherríe Moraga, both of whom have received numerous awards for their plays, works of fiction, poetry, and essays. Chávez will give the opening talk, and Moraga will deliver the closing Madrid lecture.
San Antonio teatristas Marisela Barrera, Vicky Grise, María Ibarra, and Ruby Nelda Pérez also will give presentations.
At one time, Latinx and Chicana representations were so rare in mainstream theater that Moraga has said, “We never get to see the complexities of who we are as human beings” on stage.
To counter that omission, according to the documentary series Makers, Moraga’s plays “feature characters rarely seen in mainstream theater: Chicanas, migrant workers, lesbians, and indigenous peoples.”
Moraga’s own awakening occurred when she came out as a lesbian while a college student in Los Angeles. Only then did she realize, she says, “that I really began to make connections about other forms of oppression, including that I had a right to be Chicana.”
In 1981, she went on to edit the first volume of writings by women of color, titled This Bridge Called My Back, with Gloria Anzaldúa, also an important author in the ongoing Chicanx cultural movement.
Speaking of audiences for her 2012 play New Life, Moraga said, “Suddenly they saw themselves, they saw their grandfather, their grandmother, their aunties, their cousins on the stage.”
Barrera has performed several original plays focused on the lives of Chicana women. After winning a 2019 NALAC San Antonio artist grant for a project focused on Tejana life along the border, she said, “Right now so much national and world attention is on South Texas, in terms of what’s happening in the Rio Grande Valley,” and suggested the attention is an opportunity to listen to more Tejana stories.
Barrera echoed the lifelong subject of Chávez, who ran the Border Book Festival in Mesilla, New Mexico, near her hometown of Las Cruces, from 1995 to 2005.
Chávez currently operates the Cultural Center de Mesilla. The cultural center is located in the town where the Gadsden Purchase was signed in 1854, in which Mexican General Santa Anna ceded territory that would become the states of Arizona and New Mexico to President Franklin Pierce. That territory remains central to border disputes.
In a 2010 issue of Desert Exposure magazine, Chávez echoed thoughts that prevail in today’s debates: “In this time of racism and misunderstanding about what it is to be a Latino, a time of hostility toward immigrants in general, we want to inform people about the beautiful aspects of Chicano-Latino culture. … Why are we afraid of our differences? Let’s try instead to inform and understand one another. In a way, that’s our objective here.”
She spoke then of the community work of the Cultural Center de Mesilla, but her words might also describe Chicana theater in general, and the Chicana Theater: Past and Present symposium. More information on Friday’s events is available here.