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Teatro Luna: Exploring the experiences and cultures of Latina Women

Stephanie Gentry-Fernández
Date Published: 

Teatro Luna, Chicago’s first and only all-Latina theater, has been telling the life stories and family histories of Latina women since June of 2000. The original ten ensemble members came together upon realizing that the experiences of latina women are often stereotyped, undervalued, or altogether ignored, not only on the Chicago stage, but beyond. Many ensemble members, like many actors of color, found themselves being type-casted for stereotypical and often offensive, one-dimensional roles of pregnant gangbangers, spicy sexpots, “illegal” immigrants, voiceless maids, and the like. Ensemble members also found the roles they were cast in often being highly influenced by their skin color or by their fluency (or lack thereof) in Spanish. Lastly, ensemble members were also concerned that the few [email protected] roles that existed were given to [email protected] actors.

In the vein of Augusto Boal’s “Theater of the Oppressed,” Teatro Luna’s co-founders and co-artistic directors Coya Paz and Tanya Saracho develop their plays through a series of workshops with their ensemble members, artistic associates, casts, and other community members. Paz and Saracho often hesitate to even take full credit for the work that is developed, as their plays are authored by so many voices. Teatro Luna includes community members by inviting them to workshops, conducting interviews, having on-line surveys, and holding what have come to be known as probaditas (little tastes) of their works in progress. In late 2000, the first probadita gave theater-goers a chance to see their first developed work, Generic Latina. Since then, Teatro Luna has made a tradition of holding probaditas before unveiling their final production, to ensure they accurately portray the various races, ethnicities, religions, citizenships, sexual orientations, classes, and gender identities represented in their ensemble and in their communities. Unlike many theater companies, Teatro Luna encourages feedback from the community to ensure that their art is relevant. “Theater for theater’s sake or art for art’s sake--in my head, that doesn’t exist. It has to be relevant” stresses Saracho.

Tackling everything from racism and sexual violence to immigration and anti-war sentiments, Teatro Luna holds a strong anti-oppression framework that miraculously manages to be light, humorous, and accessible. In The Maria Chronicles, ensemble members hold a hilarious protest of the “crack problem that is sweeping the nation” --referring to low-waisted jeans that are usually designed for the typically less-curvy figures of white Amerikan women. This protest culminates in a United Farm Workers-style chant of “¡Nalgonas Unidas Jamas Seran Vencidas!” (Fat-Bottomed Women Will Never Be Defeated!). In Machos, a boy band-inspired song-and-dance parody entitled “Girl, I’m Not Gay” uses interviews almost verbatim of men who have had same-sex experiences, but whose internalized homophobia did not permit them to identify themselves as queer. And in S-E-X-Oh!, the memorable phrase “Trader Joe’s gets me hot” is used to sexualize and fantasize about the wonders of organic and locally-grown food.

A doctoral candidate in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, Paz believes that “racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, and homophobia are structures, not personal feelings, and that you cannot work to dismantle one without working to dismantle them all. Movements fail when they cannot account for the whole of a person’s lived experience.” It is this honoring of lived experiences that enables the creation of such powerful work. One of the factors that makes Teatro Luna unique is that they are pan-Latina, as opposed to other theater companies that are, for example, exclusively [email protected], Boricua, or Spanish-speaking. Ensemble members, artistic associates, and cast members have varying levels of Spanish (and English) fluency and/or bilingualism, represent many different countries, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, class backgrounds, gender identities, and several are multiracial. Teatro Luna’s inclusivity and commitment to honoring life stories and family histories shows the diversity that exists within the too-often stereotyped label of “Latina.” These differences, both nuanced and glaring, create work that invites the audience to relate, bridge, and build. Before every performance, audiences are encouraged to be vocal, react, and interact with performers, making nearly every performance a work-in-progress. “We want people to come to the theater and leave excited about something, and not just entertained,but galvanized” says Paz. Ultimately, Teatro Luna’s work dismantles oppressions by creating opportunities for discussion, representation, and resistance to a typically white, English-speaking, Amerikan-born, male, heterosexist, and privileged theater canon.

And their work does, in fact, move. Their two-time Jeff Award-winning production of Machos has already toured in Texas, Indiana, and Chicago-area universities and community centers, and their production of S-E-X-Oh! toured in the San Francisco Bay Area, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan, Indiana and Maryland in 2006. The widely celebrated Machos was born out of collaboration with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas. Teatro Luna (TL) wanted to bring a male perspective to their obviously female-inspired repertoire. The interview-based production began when 18 San Antonio-area men were asked questions about what it meant to be a man. Before the script was completed, 52 men living in Texas, New York, Indiana, California, Florida, Michigan, and Illinois had each spent at least one hour being interviewed by TL ensemble members, artistic associates, and Machos cast members. On-line surveys were conducted with more than 50 additional men, and feedback was gladly accepted during the entire scriptwriting process.

The final product explored masculinity through lenses of race, class, and sexual orientation, but also through less demographic angles such as sports team loyalty and relationships with mothers. Cast members had months of training to embody what are considered to be masculine physical mannerisms and voices. Costumes were carefully chosen to hide curves, make-up was applied to accentuate jaw lines and create facial hair, and set and lighting designs were manipulated to make the female actors appear larger than they actually were. By the time Machos was ready for the stage, audience members were amazed to witness that eight Latina women had--for the purposes of performance--become men. Gender as performance had significant and often shocking impacts on audience members. But the purpose was clear: sexism, gender roles, homo/transphobia, and heterosexism affect men as much as they do women. And if gender is more performance than it is biological behavior, why is it necessary to continue perpetrating systemic violence against those who question the male/female dichotomy? It is also significant that an all-Latina theater group working from an anti-oppression framework is based in Chicago.

Much of [email protected], Boricua, [email protected], and [email protected] activism has been documented as having occurred along the Mexican border, or in more historically [email protected] areas such as California, New York, Colorado, or Florida. However, Teatro Luna’s location is testament to the unique position Chicago holds as having both the second largest [email protected]/Mexican-American/[email protected] population in the country, as well as the second largest Puerto Rican/Boricua population in the country. Chicago has seen a literal explosion of people immigrating from Latin America, with the US Census reporting a 58% increase in population in the short time between 1990 and 2000. More significantly, [email protected] activism happening in resistance to gentrification, post-9/11 anti-immigrant xenophobia, poverty, and violence, and in favor of better educational and immigration rights has taken place. Teatro Luna serves as witness to and participant in this building and growth.

By “exploring the experiences and cultures of Latina women, showcasing the creative talents of Latina artists, and providing a forum for social, political and educational outreach,” Teatro Luna deconstructs barriers for an array of communities, including women, people of color, [email protected], artists, immigrants, and queer people. Their work is a powerful and thoroughly entertaining testament that theater can be an effective tool in anti-oppression struggle and work.

All quotes are taken from Teatro Luna's website or, or from their promotional DVD, which can be found on YouTube.

Stephanie Gentry-Fernández is a poet and performer from Chicago, Illinois.