An Authentic Californio Experience: The Latin Wave Series by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo
May 16, 2017 The San Gabriel Mission Playhouse opened its three-week Latin Wave series Sunday, May 7th with a screening of the silent film classic, “The Gaucho,” starring Douglas Fairbanks and Lupe Vélez. The film is the perfect teaser to a series focused on exploring the appropriation of the Latinx image and persona in Hollywood over the last century. Vélez is best known as the original “Mexican Spitfire,” and whose character precedes such Hollywood personalities as Desi Arnaz in the 50s, Charo in the 80s and today’s Sofia Vergara. “Hollywood has a history and the industry honors it,” said William Anthony Nericcio, author of “Tex[t]-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the ‘Mexican’ in America,” in his short ten-minute talk before the screening. In other words, Hollywood has been regurgitating an archetype that began with Vélez 90 years earlier because it proved to be a moneymaker. An industry obsessed with profit, Hollywood continually searches for the next bankable star as in the new-Brad Pitt or the new-Scarlett Johansson. “Lupe Vélez [modeled] a successful way to break into Hollywood,” said Nericcio. Though the image of the Mexican Spitfire — sexy, fast-talking and feisty — may be bankable it doesn’t mean it is altogether authentic. That hasn’t stopped audiences from ingesting this image as truth for decades. “[Movies] seduce us,” said Nericcio, “because they are like dreams…and our subconscious is being affected long term.”
Lupe Vélez (seen here in "The Gaucho") epitomized the hot-tempered Latina trope as she played the Mexican Spitfire.
“The greaser, the señorita, the spitfire were all set in this period. We still have these stereotypes. To me, it means we can still use language like ‘Mexicans are rapists’ and nobody flinches. It comes from seeing these [personas] portrayed in film and TV for 100 years.”But if Hollywood films are meant for escapism, good theater is meant to shake us awake by calling on audiences to question their point of view and inviting them into dialogue. Or at least, this is a hope of About… Productions’ “They Shoot Mexicans, Don’t They?” co-written by Theresa Chavez and Rose Portillo and directed by Chavez. The production, which opens Thursday, May 18th and runs until Sunday, May 21st, is the grand finale of the Latin Wave series, which also includes a symposium and an ongoing exhibit in the Playhouse’s Glass Room Gallery.
This site-specific theater event will lead audiences through the architecture and history of the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse while they follow the Ramirez Family Dancers as they prepare for the 1927 production of the Mission Play — a California pageant from the early 20th century that was so popular Douglas Fairbanks himself had box seats for opening night of that same year. The Mission Revival-style Playhouse was constructed between 1923 and 1927 by architect, Arthur Burnett Benton, for the sole purpose of housing the pageant written by John Steven McGroarty, which glorifies Mission and Californio history. Though the pageant can be criticized for simplifying and celebrating a complex and violent history, it also featured local performers from various backgrounds including the play’s co-writer and director, Theresa Chavez.
Chavez’s own family once owned a dance studio across the street and performed each year. “They Shoot Mexicans, Don’t They?” is part family history as audiences will watch the Ramirez family work to stage the show and deal with a film director coming into town with dreams of turning the Mission Play into a Hollywood film, possibly bringing stardom to some family members.Chavez shares that the performance will begin outside the theater’s backstage door. Audiences will travel along with the performers from the back of the theater, walk across the stage and slowly move through the house to end in the front lobby. “Every time we take [the audience] to a new location there is a new way of looking at the space or looking at history. The whole point of turning it upside down on its head is that we want people to rethink what they know about the period and Latinos in film.”The original production of “They Shoot Mexicans, Don’t They?” was performed at the Autry Museum nearly 15 years earlier in collaboration with choreographer Francisco Martinez, film director Isaac Artenstein, and with original music by the Grammy-winning Los Angeles band, Quetzal. All collaborators are now back for this on-site production at the Playhouse, a possibility which Rose Portillo, co-writer and lead actor, recalls was once only dream for her and Chavez. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do it? Wouldn’t it be great?” she remembers thinking. She now calls re-staging the play a gift. “You write about a particular moment in history and a particular place and then you have an opportunity to be in that place that actually reflects the story you’ve been telling for a while.” But the location, the Playhouse and the San Gabriel Mission down the street—a structure the theater’s architecture mimics—has a negative side too. “It has its eeriness and its ambivalence because so many of the beliefs of the time and the appropriation lives in this building as well and that’s difficult. The whole range of bigotry and self-loathing and conquering and oppression and rising up is all right here. I can feel the bubbling, the boiling pot in the earth underneath me.” Portillo is in part referring to the rape, murder and enslavement of the Gabrielino Indians by Spanish missionaries in the 18th century, a history that is often rewritten for a quaint image, not unlike the “happy slave” of Southern revisionist history, both of which Hollywood has helped perpetuate in the early half of the 20th century and later.
Chavez and Portillo feel they are reclaiming the space and hope the piece will help uncover a history and a complex people—specifically the early Californios—that has since been forgotten. In her direction, Chavez not only had the actors interact with the original location for a sense of authenticity, but she also commissioned silent film shorts depicting scenes from the original Mission Play to be projected onto the Playhouse walls as a way “of layering a point of view, a history, a critique of the period, and [illustrate how it] resonates with what is going on today.” As Nericcio shared in his opening talk, Hollywood singlehandedly created the “Mexican” images we are familiar with. This is a major focus for Chavez. “The greaser, the señorita, the spitfire were all set in this period. We still have these stereotypes. To me, it means we can still use language like ‘Mexicans are rapists’ and nobody flinches. It comes from seeing these [personas] portrayed in film and TV for 100 years.”
The Ramirez Family portrayed in “They Shoot Mexicans, Don’t They?” | Theresa Chavez
Gilbert Saldivar who plays Raoul de Ramirez, a young choreographer looking to break out on his own, is all too familiar with these stereotypes. Salvidar is a professional dancer and has only recently moved into acting. He remembers when he first began gaining roles in TV how “in the chunk of two months, on an episode of ‘Dexter’ I stole drugs. On an episode of ‘The Closer’ I stole a car. I got hit with it right out of the gate.” In response, he has chosen to look for training in theater projects and was recently in the revival of Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit (along with castmates Melinna Bobadilla and Rose Portillo who also played Della in the original production). “I don’t like stepping into a room and proving the stereotype you already had before I walked in. [That’s why] I decided to make relationships through projects like this.”Bobadilla plays Rosita de Ramirez, a naïve performer willing to do almost anything to be in movies like her idol, Dolores Del Río. Bobadilla says she is not like her character and recalls an audition for an indie film to portray a Mexican, USC grad student from L.A.. An Ethnic Studies alumna of UC Berkley and an Angeleno, she felt she was not much different from the character she was asked to portray, but when she spoke the lines in her own voice the casting director prodded, “We want her to have more of an urban [accent].” She did not acquiesce and shrugged, “[Casting directors] always use coded language.” Looking to have a career in TV and film, she hopes to one day be considered for roles like the “girl next door” because “I got neighbors on the left and right too,” but progress is slow moving. “I think there are young people of color who are really progressive. They are pushing back and are creating their own work like Issa Rae from [HBO’s] ‘Insecure,’ but then you still have Sofia Vergara doing that same role.”The Latin Wave series has been produced in collaboration with About… Productions and the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. According to the series program, it “offers a vantage from which to consider the ways racial and national identities in the 1920s and 1930s were expressed and carried out through cultural forms” and persist today. For Portillo, she hopes the series can “Uncover the history. If we can do that in a creative and entertaining fashion, that’s a lot.” When certain government officials want to paint Mexicans as foreign and dangerous, The Latin Wave series and “They Shoot Mexicans, Don’t They?” hope to reveal a more true image of the Native and Latinx experience in California that spans centuries.Top Image: Dolores del Rio in "Bird of Paradise" | Courtesy of About ... Productions