Playwright Guillermo Reyes Thinks Phoenix Theaters Need to Shine More Light on Latino Culture

The 2016 edition of New Times' Best of Phoenix is out now, featuring a series of "as told to" profiles that explore how our city's proximity to Mexico makes it better.

It’s been more than 20 years since I moved from Los Angeles to become the head of the MFA playwriting program at Arizona State University. I worked with local theaters, then I founded Teatro Bravo, a Latino theater company, in 2000 with partners Trino Sandoval and Daniel Enrique Perez. I’m grateful that while it lasted, we created a space for various artists to do plays in English or Spanish, to appeal to a community that isn’t always represented in local theater or, until recently, in national theater, either.

Some Mexican American writers have written about pre-Columbian cultures, but these types of plays rarely get produced in the U.S. I directed American Victory in 2012, written by Jose Zarate, about the personal family struggles of Henry Cejudo from the West Valley, who won the 2008 gold medal at the Olympics. The headlines read, “Son of Illegal Immigrants Wins Gold.” Henry’s story wasn’t exactly obscure local gossip, either. It was an international Olympic story that just happened to start in our neighborhood. We ignore our own backyard at considerable cost.

Childsplay has been the only consistent theater in including Latino themes for children. Jose Cruz Gonzalez wrote a play about the Spanish conquest of Mexico, The Sun Serpent, which I thought was some of his best work and was expertly directed by one of my colleagues, Rachel Bowditch. There are a lot of stories to be told, dramatized, filmed as well.

Our own continent is still a void in our imaginations. If we’re going to build a wall today, we should start at the Bering Strait. The restless, roving homo sapiens kept coming. I just think our ignorance often breeds the misunderstanding of who “those” people are and how rampant immigration has been part of our development as a continent.

Real estate has affected the art form I practice. Arizona Jewish Theatre Company practically gave us space at Teatro Bravo with a minimal sublease, but then the space was taken over by Phoenix Theatre, charging “market” prices. You can forget doing anything for the community then. So what type of culture is being promoted? The type of gentrification that basically makes everything expensive, that has already transformed a place like San Francisco into an upper-class enclave. I worry that culture, particularly theatrical culture, which was already exclusionary in the Valley a few years ago, will become even more so. Who can afford rent?  It’s the bottom line.

My family’s originally from Chile, but my roots go back to Spain and the Bering Strait, where my other ancestors crossed without papers. I grew up in a Chilean and Chilean-American immigrant family, and I lived in Italy in the ’80s, and that also became part of my background. I just came back from Italy. I’m immersed in projects that delve into Italian and Italian American culture and its intersections with Latino culture. That’s the framework for my new play, Hit Music, which I developed with Theater Works and will be workshopping at ASU. It’s a play with music, not a musical per se, about an Italian Latino family of singers. The other project is a more ambitious long term project about the Italian-American actor Rudolph Valentino and his true relationship with a Chilean heiress. I’m trying to imagine this hybrid play that tells that story with tango music and dancing, storytelling, and a certain theatricality.

Whatever the recent political struggles of immigration, it seems like we never know enough about the exchange of cultures and how they are or should be depicted in theater or film. Mexican culture has been part of the American Southwest from the beginning of time perhaps, going back to a pre-Columbian era and beyond. But it’s hard to explain all that when we get caught up debating whose culture should be taught and which language. Recent studies have shown that multilingualism connects brain cells, that it might forestall Alzheimer’s. But monolingualism has become a form of rigid ideology in some states like Arizona. We’re missing a few brain cells as a culture. — As told to Robrt Pela

Playwright Guillermo Reyes is director of the dramatic writing program at Arizona State University's Herberger Institute School of Theatre and Film.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela