Faith, Part One of the Trilogy
By Dale Reynolds
Senior Arts Critic
Evelina Fernández, wife, mother, actress, playwright, has become a major female force in Latino-American theatre. The complex that she and husband José-Luis Valenzuela run in downtown Los Angeles has become a hub for quality Latino-flavored theatre.
A second-generation Mexican-American, Fernández was born and raised in East Los Angeles, graduating from Garfield High School and Cal State University Los Angeles. She co-starred in the seminal film of incarcerated Latino men and the effects of those incarcerations on their wives, American Me (opposite Edward James Olmos), A Million to Juan (opposite Paul Rodriguez and Cheech Marin), and Luminarias, written by herself, again co-starring with Marin, and Robert Beltran. Her film career has garnered her a Nosotros Golden Eagle Award (for American Me), an ALMA Award, and a best actress award at the Ibero-American International Film Festival in Spain (for Luminarias).
Being intelligent, talented and experienced, she realized that there was never going to be enough meaningful film and television work for her and other Latinas, so she wrote plays and screenplays, which have enhanced her reputation in the arts.
Her career began in Los Angeles, as Della in Luis Valdez’ 1940s Latino drama, Zoot Suit. She later performed for El Teatro de la Esperanza, New York Shakespeare Festival and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. As a founding member of Latino Theatre Center (LTC), she has acted in a dozen shows and wrote Luminarias for them, along with Premeditation and How Else Am I Supposed to Know I’m Still Alive? (the last one filmed by the Universal Hispanic Film Project). She has also had two of her plays published by Routledge Press.
So what prompted this current trilogy of plays based on her family’s history? The third one to be produced (but the first in the trilogy), Faith, sets up the second play (first to be produced), Hope, and the third in the series, Charity, played earlier this year at L.A. Theatre Center with the famous Mexican actress, Ofelia Medina, starring as the ancient grandmother. Faith begins when this woman is 15 and explores her early life in a mining town in Arizona, a housewife married to a union organizer, with three daughters to raise during World War II.
“I wanted to show that this family are regular Americans: patriotic, tax-paying, sacrificing the same way other Americans of the era did,” said Fernandez. “They planted a victory garden, sold war bonds, used ration cards. What prompted me to write this trilogy was that in my mother’s hometown, Jerome, Arizona, there is a town museum with no mention of the Mexican workers who worked the mines. And my mom still has so much stuff from her parents’ era.” Her main concern is with the increase in hate-speech against Mexican immigrants, citizens or not. Real people should not be erased from the history books, is what she is saying.
Her grandparents arrived in America from Jalisco, Mexico, in 1910, during the fratricidal civil war raging in Mexico at the time. “We’ve been here over a hundred years now – that’s three generations of American-born Latinos – and these stories deserve to be told. Latino’s have been contributing to this country for hundreds of years now. It’s true that all immigrants go through this same process, while living through the same social/political events as everyone else: the Depression, WWII, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.” And there simply aren’t enough Latino/a writers to tell these epochal stories.
The Latino Theatre Company they founded has fought a difficult war, especially after moving into LATC (which is owned by the City of Los Angeles). They had a rocky start, but have finally found their footing. What surprised them was how few Latinos came out to see their Spanish-language plays. “We’ve done well with Anglos for our English-language plays, but since we cannot pay for stars, we’ve had a difficult time bringing in other minorities, although Asians and African-Americans have been interested in the themes of our work here.”
Now that Fernández has finished the last of the plays (which play through November 11th), she will be re-writing and trimming them so that they can present the entire trilogy in 2014 in all-day performances (not unlike Angels in America and The Kentucky Cycle, or the brilliant Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby).
What has made all of Fernández’ writing so meaningful is that they all emphasise the evolution of women’s rights. “Most of my main characters – and certainly in this trilogy – have been women. The latest ones follow a young Mexican girl, raised in the traditional Latin ways, who finds her own daughters prefer their new American ways, since they’ve been raised as independent, strong thinkers, who cannot lie. This gets them often into trouble, so that even the over a hundred-year-old Nana in Charity has become so wise about the world and what she’s lived through, that this character, especially, represents the evolution of the female consciousness throughout the ages.”
And while reaction to her body of work has been mostly positive, Fernández has found getting them produced outside of Latino theatres difficult, “almost impossible,” she said. “I’ m blessed that I’ve worked with the same company for 27 years as we discuss the ideas together, knowing the work will get produced. Most immigrants don’t see these positive portrayals on stage or on film enough and [true for all folks] we need to have these untold stories about Latinas in front of us. We’ve found it to be true that anyone can appreciate the psychological and emotional journeys of these characters.”
Well-grounded as an actress (she studied with Stella Adler after college) and as a writer, political activism is close to their collective hearts at LTC. “I was bored playing (or offered) roles as gang girls, wives of gang members, maids, etc, so I began to write for the theatre so that the world could see Latinas as passionate, intelligent, beautiful women – I won’t be playing Gang Grandmothers!”
Unlike the late Lupe Ontiveros, a talented actress who played such a character on the TV cop-show, Southland, and who should have been given greater opportunities to play a wider variety of roles. “My character in Faith is named Lupe, in homage to the flirtatious and talented [Ms. Ontiveros]. Such a sad passing. She was a member of our company since its beginning. We honored her as a pioneer in her field.”
Fernández has been married to Valenzuela for twenty-three years, but together thirty-two years, spawning two children, Fidel Gomez, now 33, and Esperanza America, 26, both actors. For the elders, there is a fine line between Community Theatre and Professional Theatre. “We try to elevate Latino theatre. We have a very young demographic at LATC, as there is no subscription-base and we sell single affordable tickets. We believe that exposing young people to strong and good theatre will make for strong and educated audiences.”
Faith now playing through November 11, 2012 at the LATC located at 514 S. Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles. Tickets $40, visit: http://www.thelatc.org.