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Out of the Wings

Sick of being cast as maids--or not at all, the founders of Teatro Luna made their own place on the stage.



Tanya Saracho was one of only three Latinos in Boston University's 200-person theater program, so when three of her bilingual, Latina-themed plays were produced there, white non-Latino students took starring roles. Saracho was disappointed with the productions. Actors were mispronouncing Spanish words and didn't quite grasp their characters. Saracho couldn't "hear" what she had written.

After graduating in May of 1998, she returned to the border town of McAllen, Texas, where her family had moved from Guadalajara when she was 11. She was thinking about where and how to launch her theater career, and in late summer she moved to the first floor of a Lakeview two-flat in Chicago. She chose the city for its modest cost of living, vibrant theater scene, large Mexican population, and Latino theater companies.

Saracho spent her first months here writing plays and going to the theater. She began auditioning for shows in 1999 and got a lot of callbacks but was never cast. At five-foot-five and 200-plus pounds, she assumed her weight was a reason for this, but so, she believed, was her Mexican ethnicity. She swung her rent with money from temp receptionist jobs and with help from her father, a customs broker who's a former head of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) in Sinaloa, Mexico.

One of her friends here was Matthew Gabor. As a Boston University graduate student interning as a director at Victory Gardens Theater, he'd been looking for something to direct, and in 1998 he submitted an eight-character play Saracho had written as a student. He mined the Victory Gardens performer files for Latino actors, but the few he came up with were either inexperienced or already in Los Angeles. Saracho tried to reach local Latino theater companies. But Latino Chicago Theater had burned down nearly two years before, and the Latino Experimental Company was undergoing a reorganization. She didn't reach anyone at Teatro Vista, and didn't know the city well enough to call, for example, the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, which presents two performance festivals annually, or the Aguijon Theater Company. Non-Latino friends assured her that they could pass for Latino or had been cast as Latinos before. Saracho eventually convinced a Mexican-American former boyfriend who'd graduated from the BU theater program and two Puerto Rican actor friends living in New York to perform the piece. A fourth player was found by chance--Gabor's girlfriend's brother's fiancee, a Cuban-American actress living in Chicago. A Latino student in a Victory Gardens theater class was also cast, and the play's three other roles went to non-Latinos.

Last fall Saracho was denied a chance to audition for a Latina part in a local independent film because she was "too light-skinned." Stunned, she left without putting up a fight. The women who got to audition looked like "light-skinned blacks and Filipinos," she says. She auditioned for television commercials and industrial films, and several times found herself reading for the same basic part, a dim-witted character named Maria.

At an audition this past January, Saracho met the "cutest girl with red hair." The woman introduced herself as Coya Paz, and Saracho, cued by the name (she hadn't immediately pegged Paz, with her red hair and green eyes, as a Latina), spoke Spanish. Paz responded in kind.

Paz's father is Russian and her mother is an American of English and Native American descent. Culturally, Paz considers herself Latina. Born in Peru and raised in Ecuador, she moved with her family to Takoma Park, Maryland, when she was 12. Later, in the theater program of Saint Mary's College of Maryland, she and the program's only other Latina, Marta Suarez, produced and performed their own shows.

Paz graduated in 1997 and then she and Suarez moved to Chicago to produce plays. But first Paz waitressed at the Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park and auditioned for mainstream shows. She says her hair was curly and blond and she was repeatedly asked to play the "dumb girlfriend," a part she refused. In the fall of 1997 she and Suarez began producing women-centered shows, "because there are so many women auditioning for parts and so few roles," Paz says. In 1998 Paz was selected as an understudy in the Goodman's production of Death of a Salesman. She valued the opportunity to work with professional actors more than the play itself. "It was not the kind of work that I want to do as an artist," she says. "It didn't have a lot of women in it." She remains willing to act in all kinds of plays, but she's decided to produce only ones written by and about women.

In Paz's third show, she and Suarez took turns portraying a pregnant Latina. There were problems booking the theater, few people came, and Paz and Suarez had creative differences. On the verge of quitting theater altogether, Paz confided some of her troubles to Saracho that day at the audition. Saracho invited her to collaborate on a project. Paz was interested but "fed up" with the whole theater scene. Saracho did not give up on her. As July's presidential elections neared in Mexico, she called Paz and told her that if Francisco Labastida, her father's political godfather, won the Mexican presidency, she expected local support to materialize for her new theater company. Paz agreed to meet for breakfast at an Andersonville restaurant.

Saracho believes a Latina company should showcase pieces that its members write about their own lives. But it should also give them the chance to play mainstream roles, like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. The works of Latina playwrights should be performed, and so should classic plays, with male actors and with a Latino spin.

As Saracho and Paz discussed possible company names, Paz learned Saracho's middle name, which is Selene, means "moon." She says her own first name, Coya, was the title of the Inca woman charged with making the moon happy. "You've got the moon, and you've got the moon that's happy," Saracho says. "The moon rules women's menstrual cycles. Most violent crimes committed by women have been committed during the full moon. It's a siren. The female moon entity, it's a goddess. So we were like--Teatro Luna. That's it." The meeting, which moved from the restaurant to a coffee shop and ended in a spin around Andersonville in Saracho's car, lasted nearly five hours. During it, Paz fell in love again with the possibilities of theater. Perhaps Teatro Luna would become the city's first Latina theater company.

The PRI lost the presidential election. His political influence at an ebb, Saracho's father promised to help her raise money by putting up for sale a Texas home he'd bought her for her 18th birthday. She and Paz advertised for Latina directors, actors, writers, technicians, stage managers--people interested in building a company from the ground up. Last July, 13 Latinas showed to audition at an Uptown recreation center. Five non-Latina actors, and even a non-Latino male playwright, also came. When the day was over, the women had their ensemble: ten actors who'd encountered discrimination and stereotyping in their careers and were committed to making Teatro Luna a success.

In August the group began meeting in a donated room in a Ukrainian Village beauty school to write and rehearse their first show. The players are in their early 20s to mid-30s and are, variously, of Cuban, Dominican, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Spanish, and even Filipino-Puerto Rican descent. Erika Martinez, born in Jersey City, New Jersey, of Dominican parents, is regularly taken for African-American; her talent agents send her on as many auditions for African-American roles as for Latina parts. Marisabel Suarez, who was born in Miami of Cuban refugees and has naturally blond hair and fair skin, has been denied auditions for Latina roles because she is "too Anglo-looking." Typically cast as the "American girl next door," she has played all of two Latinas in her six-year acting career.

Then there's Tilda Del Toro, who was born in Chicago of a Peruvian mother and Puerto Rican father, has black hair, olive skin, and brown eyes. After she met Paz she began to think about what being a Latina really means. "She's had more exposure to the Peruvian culture than I have," Del Toro says of Paz. "But my mother is from Peru and I'm darker skinned. I'm perceived as Latina all the time. Coya is not. She grew up with Spanish as her first language. My first language is English. What makes her Latin? Does it make her Latin because she was born on the land and because of her existence, because of who she is in her heart? It's a huge question. I find Coya so interesting because of that--because she is Latina and I don't think anyone can tell her that she's not."

Among the things the actors found they had in common was a history of casting directors who asked them to be "more spicy,'' and do "the accent." Saracho--who says, "I always get asked to do a 'generic' Latina. Like, what is that, you know?"--wrote a scene based on a dialogue she'd had with a casting director.

"What kind of Latin accent? Do you need a Mexican accent? One that just crossed the river, or who's been living in East LA for a while? Orale ese. Waz japenin'! Do you want Cubano Cubano or a Cuban from Miami, which is hardly noticeable but it's a lot of hand gestures. Puelto Lican? De Puelto Lico o Nuyorican like Rosie Perez? Cuz, mira, I can do that one too. South American? Obviously not Portuguese di Brazil, because you asked for His-panic. Pero yo se que voz no queres un Argentino. Ni tampoco un Venezolano. Chamo. You want Spanish, maybe you want Spain. De Castilla or Catalan? There is a difference."

The company struggled with whether to identify itself as Latina or "Hispana," and with no consensus finally decided on both. "Part of what Latino means is somebody from Latin America in general, so you're talking about people who would be from South America, Central America, maybe from the islands, depending on your definition, but not Spain," Paz says. "Whereas Hispanic is more about culture. Some people who are of Latin American descent really resent the sort of colonial implication that we are still of Spain." For an array of reasons--including simply not liking the sound of the word "Latino"--some people of Latin American origin prefer to be referred to as Hispanic. Saracho, in America on a resident visa, pushes the discussion a step further. "You don't become Latino until you become American," she says. "I'm technically not Latina yet....According to the government I'm a foreigner or a resident alien."

By late August only one directing candidate had come forward--and she lived in Los Angeles. The ensemble could not afford to pay her, so they selected Aarati Kasturirangan, a Saint Mary's graduate of Indian descent who had already codirected one of Paz's Chicago plays, to direct their first show. In September Saracho played a prostitute in a local, independent Spanish project in exchange for video equipment and a crew to film Teatro Luna in performance. The prostitute wasn't "dim-witted," says Saracho, and she "gave it some shading."

Saracho and Paz say Teatro Luna intends to honestly portray Latinos who up to now have existed onstage as stereotypes. "Why are there so many maids, or so many factory workers?" Paz asks. "Or so many people in gangs who are Latino?" Says Del Toro, "We're interested in going to the source of that for ourselves, and for everybody else."

In mid-October, the performers presented a 45-minute show, Probadita--When I Was Born, on the mainstage of Victory Gardens. The work explored aspects of the lives of its Latina performers; about 170 people attended the free performance and most hung around afterward to chat. "White people were encouraging us to keep going on," Saracho says. "Latinas were demanding it." The audience left $576 in the company's donation box.

Probadita means "a little taste," and that's what the audience got. It is the first part of a show Teatro Luna is developing and hopes to present beginning in March at Phoenix Ascending Theatre if it can raise the $10,000 it needs for a six-week run. (The company is well on its way to its goal--a buyer is about to close on Saracho's Texas property.) The rest of the show will explore the conflicts between American-born Latinas and their foreign-born parents, and the conflicts and commonalities between Latinas of different national descents. It will be performed free December 11 at Victory Gardens.

Marcela Munoz, a cofounder of the 11-year-old Aguijon Theater Company, which presents Spanish-language and bilingual productions, was in the audience for the first Probadita. It excited her, and now Teatro Luna may begin rehearsing at the Aguijón. Dennis Zacek, artistic director at Victory Gardens, is another admirer. In 1979 a Puerto Rican actor smarting from the lack of Latino roles auditioned for an African-American part at Victory Gardens. Zacek, touched by the actor's plight, applied for and received a $94,000 grant to develop a gender-balanced Latino company and put on a show. He readily found the men, but not the women. When the company, which would become Latino Chicago Theater, the city's first professional Latino company, was launched it was composed of four men and two women--"and they were hard to get," Zacek says.

Henry Godinez, a cofounder of Teatro Vista, a Latino company formed in 1990, reflected on the environment that makes Teatro Luna necessary. "What these ladies are doing makes me smile, because this is exactly what we did ten years ago," he says. "What was true for us then seems to be true for them now--the disparity of the roles, the stereotyping that seems to be asked for, especially in the television and commercial world. And there still isn't enough open-mindedness when it comes to casting in the theater. It's better than the commercial world, but it can still be better." Godinez, an artistic associate at the Goodman, recently directed its mainstage production of Zoot Suit, the Goodman's first large-scale Latino production. Godinez hopes it won't take Teatro Luna ten years to be able to attempt something similar.

This year the Screen Actors Guild cited Latinos as one of the most underrepresented groups in the entertainment industry. The National Council of La Raza asked Latinos to boycott the major television networks. The National Latino Media Council, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, American Indians in Film, and the National Asian Pacific American Media Coalition all charged the networks with failing to hire sufficient minorities in either acting or production. Someday Teatro Luna hopes to invite men and non-Latino actors to perform; in a perfect world, say Saracho and Paz, actors would have access to any role regardless of race or nationality. But for now, they say, white men and white women get most parts. "It just seems unfair to us that we don't get cast in 'regular parts' because we're Latina, and then we can't even get cast in Latina parts,'' Paz says.

Saracho and Paz point to Teatro Vista's recent production of Aurora's Motive, which featured a non-Latina as the Spanish lead. They say the actor did an excellent job, but surely there's a Latina who could have done the same.

Edward Torres, Teatro Vista's artistic director and the director of the play in question, says the term "Latino" implies inclusiveness, and that's what his ensemble is. "It's African. It's European. It's Asian. It's indigenous. It's all those beautiful, wonderful mixes of people," says Torres, whose Puerto Rican mother and father, are, respectively, of African and Spanish descent. At Teatro Vista, African-Americans and whites have played Latinos and Latinos have played whites, he says--adding that Teatro Vista has played a major role in giving Latino performers Latino parts. As for Aurora's Motive, a Latina ensemble member was originally cast as the lead but then landed a movie role that conflicted with the play. Of the Latinas and non-Latinas who later auditioned, he says, the best actor won the part.

Torres applauds Teatro Luna's efforts. And Teatro Luna's founders say they highly respect his company and the role it has played in providing Latino performers with acting opportunities. Still, Saracho and Paz hold fast to their argument: to level the playing field only Latinos should play Latinos, and they should also be able to play every other type of role. Says Paz, "The main thing that we want to do is create more opportunities for Latina artists to work. Part of doing that is to break down stereotypes. If you're casting a stockbroker, why does that stockbroker have to be white--because you think all stockbrokers are white? Why does this character, who is not [racially] specified, have to be white? Why do we assume whiteness has to be the standard?"

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