Dear Chicano Theatre

Luis Valdez of El Teatro Campesino

By Sol Castillo

I’m sorry.  Forgive us.  My generation fell into the trap of passivity and let all the work you did just pass us by. You did so much for us. You gave us a voice. You gave us rights. You gave us your blood. Literally. You trusted us with carrying the torch you used to set the world on fire, and we didn’t even let it slowly go out. We dropped it. I dropped it.

We silenced the voices that rose as one in protest and song to cry “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido!” to not say anything at all.  We went from a million voices shouting as one “Si Se Puede!” to using our own voices to shout “Mine.”

Chicano theatre, I am sorry that we wanted so badly to fit in. Instead of fighting the system from the inside, we became part of the system. We were invited in and instead of using the voice you gave us to make change we hid. We just gave in.

(L-R) Lupe Ontiveros, Evelina Fernandos, Pepe Serna, Enrique Castillo, Fausto Barajas In Roosters
(L-R) Lupe Ontiveros, Evelina Fernandos, Pepe Serna, Enrique Castillo, Fausto Barajas In Roosters at LATC

I, like many of my generation, grew up saying words like”ese“, and “símon“.  I grew up on theatrical productions like Roosters, Stone Wedding, Los Vendidos and theater played out on the back of a truck or pressed under the suffocating heat of a carpa. I marched for causes. Now I try to find something, anything to fight for that makes me feel as frightened and alive as when walking with you. Now I’m always wondering if I’m still a part of something, something that matters?

Chicano theatre, I’m sorry that the heart of what mattered most to you was sold to make room for minivans and 401k’s. Chicano theatre, I’m sorry that when people think of you and your legacy they don’t even remember that you came from a proud pedigree of warriors, fighters, soldaderas. The only legacy they want to ask about is, “how come the Mayans weren’t right?” Mensos.

Enrique Castillo Performing Los Vendidos with El Teatro Campesino
Sol’s parents Yolanda Perez and Enrique Castillo (center) & Felix Alvarez with El Teatro Campesino

Your beautiful history has been left back in history.  Now instead of continuing to make history like you did, we would rather watch what you did on PBS. They don’t even tell your story on the History Channel. But you don’t belong in history anyway. The dialogue from your scripts should be written down. Your stories, your songs, your true legacy should be passed down from generation to generation, Father to son, Mother to daughter, Nanas and Tatas to esquincle. It should be sung, acted, danced, performed, on stages big and small. In the fields, schools, rallies, car shows, and done with rasquache love on major stages. Just like the old days. Not like you’ve become. In our desire to be more “legitimate”, we let them romance you, then hang you out to dry.

This was never more evident than when I watched, in tears, (yes tears), the travesty of Zoot Suit at the San Diego Rep in 2012. What I saw could only be described as Hispanic Hooked On Phonics. There was no memory of what it once was. I don’t even think I watched Zoot Suit that night. I sat, in breathless agony as I saw the direction of Kristen Brandt stripping the play and punching, beating, and spitting on a part of our history. How did we let her and her staff turn one of the most iconic plays of Chicano theatre, into a racist, bad high school version, joke? I sat, in shock, like when watching the tsunami in Japan swallow the land, cars, homes and families. Thinking it just can’t get any worse. But it wouldn’t stop. It wouldn’t stop.

Enrique Castillo as Henry Reyna in Zoot Suit
Enrique Castillo in the original  Zoot Suit

I could not believe that I was actually watching cast members wearing cheap Tijuana 2 cent zarapes while playing trumpets. Looking like the frog mariachis sold to tourists.

All of the zoot suits, except two, looked as if they were thrown lazily together from the Big & Tall trash can.

What happened to “the idea of the original chuco was to look like a diamond”? There were slides being projected to announce every scene, song, character, as if we the audience were too uneducated, too stupid, too uncultured to follow along. Or perhaps it was because the director thought that the audience was going to be mostly “simple” Spanish speakers so we just wouldn’t know any better. It’s not a far off thought that she would feel that way. The costume designer was questioned as to why the women weren’t dressed in nylons. She responded with “Well they were poor, so they couldn’t afford nylons”.

Then when I thought that I had had enough, and there was nothing else that could possibly be worse, I got the knockout punch. During the show the song Handball, (a song from the movie not the original production) was performed. If you knew the words you couldn’t hear them. Not over the laughter, and jeering while four actors, with backs downstage, hands in their pants,” masturbated” through most of the song. The pachuco sang the song, but no one knew it. The audience laughed. The band played the song, but no music was heard. They laughed. They laughed. The director made us into a joke.

culture-clash-life-death-revolutionary-comedy-paperback-cover-artChicano theatre, you sacrificed yourself to give us pride, passion, a future. But we let the director, and her staff, make a mockery of your sacrifice and laugh about it all the way to the bank. They laughed at us, and we let them. I’m sorry Dad. I’m sorry Mom, Bel. I’m sorry Eddie, Lupe, Luis, Cesar, Octavio, Corky, Jose Luis, Latino Theater Company, Culture Clash, Teatro Campesino, Teatro de la Esperanza. You deserve better than to have your work, your lives, your legacy be treated like Taco Bell left overs.

But is that all there is? Is that the end of the story? When we look back on the legacy of your life do we see a life still in its infancy still growing and moving forward? Still learning how to walk, walkout, march? Or do we look back and see a life left to legend? Left to be mistreated and mishandled by those who never cared to love you, or even know your name. Will you be displayed to the next generation of Chicanitos as a cheap white washed representation of what you once were? Covered like Siqueiros’ America Tropical mural on Olvera Street.

CHALE!!! Because your fire, your fury still hasn’t gone out. You still have fight. Your legacy hasn’t fallen to legend. It’s still being written. There are still those out there who are inspired and brought to life because of what you’ve done. So they want more. They continue to write, and produce, and direct with love and ganas! They tell your stories and write more. From stages small to even film.  Children of Aztlan put to bed at night with stories of Aztec kings and queens. Being sung to sleep with La la la la la la la la la means…I love you. Dreaming dreams while holding Mami or Papi’s old brown beret. Children fed by tamales, not “tuh mall ees”. Children who were told they would one day carry the flag of the revolution, and stand on the shoulders of giants.

Children…now grown. Who know who they are culturally and know who they were born from; who won’t sit passively in a theater and watch as someone not born of the struggle, and pain of the last decades where you sacrificed your youth, and beauty, and bled your life onto the stages from Delano to Denver; who won’t be silenced with a paycheck, and a chance for the Big Stage where we let go of our heart; who will instead stand there, as equals, because they have earned it. Because the stories, the work is just as romantic and inspiring as any Shakespeare or Williams.

Sol Castillo in La Posada Magica at So. Coast Rep
Sol Castillo in La Posada Magica

Chicano theater…don’t give up on us yet. Because you’re still alive. In the hardwoods of San Juan. From the Mission District of San Francisco to the yellow brick road of the Coronado Bridge, and even in the Metro trains of Amtrak.

So for those who think that Chicano theater is gone. Stories on a bookstore shelf gathering dust and slowly fading from memory. Those who think that Chicano theater is a silly legend, like the Chupacabra. Those who think they can make a joke out of our history and culture. We say Nel Ese! We are Chicano, Con Safos! 

 Sol Castillo is an actor. He grew up watching both his mom and dad performing with El Teatro Campesino, and singing the songs of “El Movimiento” in their group Flor Del Pueblo.  He was four years old when he first saw his dad play Smiley and then the lead role of Henry Reyna in Luis Valdez’s groundbreaking play Zoot Suit in Los Angeles.  Thirty years later he too would be cast as Rudy in the twenty year revival of Zoot Suit at the San Diego Rep production  directed by Bill Virchis.  He continues to do theater across the country.

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