Josefina Lopez: Telling the Stories of her Community

A Woman’s Curves – A Man’s Power

by Dale Reynolds for www.latinheat.com


In the early 80’s, Josefina Lopez burst onto the theatrical scene with her play Real Women Have Curves which used humor to tackle serious issues all centered around a young Latina.   Her play, which examines how a first-generation American Latina finds her place in society without submitting to the generational and cultural demands of marriage and family over “selfish” dreams, would eventually be made into a film starring America Ferrera and Lupe Ontiveros, which went on to win the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award in 2002.

Lopez was born in Mexico in 1969 and was brought to this country when she was five.  Her family settled in East Los Angeles, home to thousands of Hispanics, native-born and immigrant.

“At 19, I had written American Dream, which was toured by El Teatro Campesino, then filmed in 1988 as a “filmed play” for PBS,” Lopez recounted.  Real Woman came to me after my own experience working in a sewing factory, while undocumented. Eventually I received my legal residency card,” Lopez explained.  “Then I studied under the fabulous Irene Fornes in New York and wrote the play while in her Esperanza Workshop.  It was subsequently produced by Mission Culture Center in San Francisco, and toured for two years.”  Years later Lopez would work with producer George LaVoo on the screenplay for Real Women, which went on to win the coveted Humanitas Prize with the film being selected by the National Board of Review for Special Recognition For Excellence In Filmmaking. Real Women Have Curves earned over five million dollars at the box office and brought the previously unknown Ferrera to the public’s attention.

Lopez is one of today’s preeminent Chicana writers, having written over a dozen plays and several books.  Her plays have had over 100 productions across the United States.  Her latest play Trio Los Machos is, as was Real Women Have Curves, based on a her family, this time her father.

“I think of my dad as John Wayne, a Mexican cowboy who grew up on a farm in northern Mexico,” Lopez explains.  “Unfortunately, [my parent’s] relationship was tainted by his indoctrination concerning the narrow box women were supposed to live in.  But it turns out he helped me find the weapons to use against sexism, including the right to be educated.  He allowed me to fight for my dreams.  And considering that he was raised within those [cultural] limitations, his support was amazing.”

Lopez, now in her early 40s, explained the genesis of Trio Los Machos:  “When I stopped being afraid of what he’d think of me, I wanted to get to his core.  He and I grew up in different worlds, and had different fears.  I saw how much men suffer in society when it’s proven they don’t have all the power.  Women are allowed to be freer with their emotions, whereas men aren’t as free to express them.  And when Braceros [imported agricultural workers as her father was] are treated like cattle, they are forced to inhabit concentration camps of the mind.  He was often treated as a second-class citizen; especially difficult to accept when you are raised to be tough.  Eventually he retired to Mexico, unable to live here with the dignity he demanded.  He’s 75 now, living with my mother in a dangerous section of the country, where drug cartels flourish.”

The three musicians (the trio) in the play represent the three sides of her father’s personality.  In actuality, her dad was a member of a trio group (a group of three musicians playing who played ballads).  He played guitar in the group that sang the songs of the popular Mexican group Trio Los Panchos, which is why their music plays such a major role in her play.  Seeing this tribute play to her dad, Lopez’s siblings, who all live in Los Angeles, relish seeing their father’s past relived on stage.

Two years ago, Lopez and her director-husband, Emmanuel Deleage, founded Casa 0101, in Boyle Heights.  It was important for them to create a “community” theatre, of the highest standards.  They rebuilt a storefront and warehouse space into a lovely and large, well-equipped theatre that works under the Actors’ Equity 99-Seat Plan contract.  “Our budgets are of necessity, low; very low.  Except for one paid person, we are all volunteers producing 10-12 plays a year.  We have an open-door policy, meaning anyone can be in or around it.  For us, we want a home, not a fortress – if we make it impenetrable to the community, it’s too difficult.  And we welcome non-trained actors, although professionalism is our standard.”  To uphold those standards, they conduct acting classes for children and adults, with an added flourish in improvisation classes.  In addition, Lopez runs screenwriting and playwriting courses.

Clearly a major factor in her professional life is helping others to discover their own stories, the one’s not mentioned in history texts.  It is of prime importance to her.  “We want to give those without a platform a chance to be seen and heard.  I want to challenge Latinos and Latinas to create leading roles for themselves – exciting parts to play – allowing them to grow.”  She is especially interested in women’s roles that allow women to leave their comfort zones.  To that end, they are sponsoring an upcoming theatre festival for gay Latinos, which she acknowledges will be discomforting to some of their target audience.

“Last year, we created the first Latina musical ever, The Pink Chatroom, but hardly anyone came from the community.  The play was about being single, which most of us can feel, but it reinforced for me the need to present these stories that have a crying need to be heard, such as the issue of bullying.”

Another recent theatre-piece she produced, Tamales de Puerco, was a “triangle” play – written in English, Spanish and in the language of the deaf, American Sign Language (ASL) – by a student of hers, Mercedes Flores y Islis, whose child is deaf.  “She was determined to be an advocate for her son – to be his voice.  We continue to work on it to make it into a full-length play.”

Lopez published her first novel three years ago, Hungry Woman in Paris and is also one of the authors of Latina empowerment anthology entitled Eight Ways to Say I Love My Life, coming out this November.  “They’re the stories of eight professional Latina who share their stories of empowerment and how they learned to love their lives.  They were first presented as monologues at Casa0101 and went on to win an Imagen award for Best Live Theatrical Performance.”

For Lopez telling stories and  discovering the history (and in particular “herstory”) of Latinos/as a-la Tyler Perry, is also on her agenda.

In addition to her previous film, she has written half-dozen screenplays, one nearly finished, Detained in the Desert, an anti-anti-immigrant story, set on the Sonora/Arizona border.  The SAG-AFTRA ultra-low-budget drama, which is currently in post-production,  will debut at the end of this year.  They are currently in the process or raising the last $15,00 needed to finish the film  on the crowdfunding site Indigogo.com.

So, this woman who holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Screenwriting from the School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA, is pre-eminent in her field, a playwright and author, a teacher and mentor, and an inspiration to many having her own lauded theatre to produce Latino stories in, she has indeed made a mark for herself and for her various communities in Los Angeles.