Man on the Verge

Celebrated ASU playwright Guillermo Reyes -- who's Latino and gay -- gives thundering voice to the marginalized

"I survive whether you help me or not, and whether you like it or not, and whether I'm legal or not. I am an immigrant, I am the future of this great country of ours. They call me Federico the Gay Little Immigrant That Could. I am an American success. I'm here to stay . . . so . . . get used to it."

Deporting the Divaspostulates that having a homosexual in the family is not nearly so troubling as having an immigrant. The play offers a less fanciful ending for the Border Patrol officer and his undocumented gay lover. Border man goes back to his family, and his boss at the Immigration and Naturalization Service cites the compelling reason:

"The family comes first -- you're a fucking Latin! You ought to know that."

D. Scott Withers directed the Phoenix performance of Deporting the Divas.
Paolo Vescia
D. Scott Withers directed the Phoenix performance of Deporting the Divas.
Steven Peña and David Jones in Deporting the Divas.
Angela Jimenez
Steven Peña and David Jones in Deporting the Divas.

The family in Mother Lolita consists of a single, Chilean-Italian mother, with homicidal tendencies, raising an effeminate son alone in Los Angeles. Mother and son are described as "the deadliest Chilean imports since the tainted grapes."

The Hispanick Zonealso satirizes issues of Latino identity and sexual identity. Mrs. Crumley, the white, sophisticated upper-class character, opens the show by exclaiming, "I never realized Hispanics might have a sense of humor about their social condition."

"Campus Borders," one of Zone's monologues, is called a "partial self-portrait." It's delivered by a geeky young man who is being interrogated by a campus committee for alleged politically incorrect behavior. Even though he's half Spanish, the young man checked the box that said "Chicano." Instead of admitting that he's sexually ambiguous, he checked "gay." The university acceptance committee welcomed him as a member of two marginalized groups and put him in the gay Chicano dorm. Now he's gone and fallen for an Italian-American princess, and the PC police are on his case.

"I am both Spaniard and Indian, I am straight and gay, I am here and there," the character says. "I straddle fences and borders, correct and incorrect. . . . I came to campus to openly explore the universe without being accused of being a traitor to my people . . . so go ahead, shower me with rotting fajitas!"

Reyes' affinity for characters with inner conflict is understandable. He grew up at the intersection of many cultural planes. He's a Chilean-born U.S. citizen, though he admits that's a long introduction. Latino is fine, provided people know what that means.

"I went to lecture a class in history of theater and the professor introduced me as 'Guillermo Reyes, one of our Chicano playwrights.' I'm not a Chicano, and I had to explain that."

For his theater students, Reyes begins with what Latino means: a person living here whose family comes from a Latin American country.

Chile was in the midst of political upheaval when Reyes' mother, Maria Cáceres, came to the U.S. in 1970. She says many people assume she was a political refugee, but she came in search of opportunity.

"People in my country have a dream about coming here," Cáceres says. "The situation in my country wasn't very good, so I came."

Reyes followed a year later. He was 9 years old. His father was no longer with the family, so Cáceres raised him on her own, doing menial labor and working as a nanny. It wasn't exactly the American dream she imagined, but it did provide a new world for herself and her only son. Reyes spent most of his formative years in Los Angeles. He was immersed in English-only schooling, and went on to attend the racially diverse Fairfax High School. He got his BA in Italian literature from UCLA, and his master's in theater from UC-San Diego.

Reyes says the early years in tumultuous Chile played a role in how he developed as a writer.

"My sensibilities may seem strange. I write comedy, but I also come from a country that tortured people. My work is funny but sometimes morbid," he says.

Growing up Chilean-American gave Reyes a sense of culture clash that would become the focus of his writing.

"It seemed to me whenever I would gather around my mother's friends who were all Chileans, their view of life was so insular. The newcomers were the worst, always making snotty remarks about other people, Mexicans, Argentineans -- they ran the gamut, being prejudiced about just about everybody. You go to a mixed school that taught you to be sensitive to other cultures -- and then you go home."

The division between school and home was one of the many borders Reyes crossed while growing up.

"It's a divided mentality," he says. "Being Chilean, bilingual, gay. It's a bipolar personality."

The homosexual experience infuses much of his writing, but it's something Reyes doesn't like to talk about on a personal level.

"I felt like a late bloomer," says Reyes, who came out in his early 20s. "It was very difficult. I was coming out of that Latin-American self-denial. It's something you don't talk about with your family or a lot of people. You don't expose yourself that way -- you keep quiet."

Reyes' characters certainly don't keep quiet about their sexuality. His mother admits she doesn't always understand it, but she thinks his work tackles ideas people are hesitant to discuss.

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