The teatro (theater) experience transformed the many women who were part of it, and the progressive street teatro movement of the 1960s and 1970s was, in turn, transformed by those women who contributed their talents and their hearts to it.
This book is about the women in the Teatro de las Chicanas, a grass-roots troupe that later operated under a variety of names, including Teatro Laboral and Teatro Raíces. For over a decade, beginning in 1971, the women performed at political rallies, at antiwar demonstrations, in high school gyms, at community centers, and at practically every imaginable makeshift venue. This ragtag group put on short plays about the issues of the day, from immigration to police brutality, to discrimination in the public schools and the emerging feminist movement. It was the time of the "Chicano Movement," coined to describe the social movement of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest against social discrimination.
The kernel of the idea for an all-woman teatro started when the women of MEChA decided to bring their mothers to the university campus setting. They organized the Seminario de Chicanas so that the mothers could understand what their daughters were going through in college. Several women wrote and performed Chicana Goes to College. As a result of that experience Felicitas Nuñez and Delia Ravelo undertook the formation of the Teatro de las Chicanas.
In those years the core of the Teatro de las Chicanas was Felicitas Nuñez and Delia Ravelo, but dozens of young women participated in the teatro. They all gave to the teatro, and in return the teatro experience, one of camaraderie, sisterhood, and solidarity, gave something special to the women who were part of it. All of those experiences were distilled in the cauldron of the socially and politically turbulent era that was the sixties and seventies.
Teatro de las Chicanas was started by students at San Diego State College. It was begun at a time when the Chicano theater movement was growing. The Chicano teatro movement began with the formation of El Teatro Campesino by Luis Valdez in Delano, California. The style of El Teatro Campesino was based on the experience Luis Valdez had had with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. El Teatro Campesino developed as an arm of the United Farm Workers union. It became an effective and accessible way to spread the word of the farm worker struggle.
And the teatro movement itself soon spread very quickly throughout California and the Southwest. By 1970 teatros had sprouted in scores of cities. Some were community-based. Many were based at colleges and universities. Some became much more polished than others. Some writers and actors in those early theater groups had aspirations of pursuing careers in "legitimate" mainstream theater. But most participants saw the teatro as an end in itself, serving the purpose of educating communities through agitprop performances featuring actos, or short, didactic skits. Teatro was an educating and politicizing tool.
The young women in San Diego also wanted to use the teatro for a political purpose. Felicitas and Delia were influenced by the leftist political ideals of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. They united with the objectives of the Chicano movement—social justice, bilingual education, unionization—but felt that they needed to go further politically by adding a voice to the definition of women's equality. They used "Chicana" in their name and years later changed the name to address the political issues of the day.
Teatro de las Chicanas wrote the acto Bronca in order to protest and reject the stereotypical role assigned to women in MEChA. They also performed The Mother to support unionization in the San Diego area. Teatro Laboral wrote No School Tomorrow in response to the Alan Bakke lawsuit against affirmative action programs in the universities. Teatro Raíces wrote E.T.—The Alien to raise awareness about the issues of the undocumented worker. They also wrote Archie Bunker Goes to El Salvador as a satire on U.S. involvement in Central America.
The women involved in the Teatro de las Chicanas found it a transformative experience. Most of the young Chicanas came from small farming communities throughout California. Most of them were the first in their family to leave home in pursuit of a college education. Some came to the college campus scared and not sure of what to expect. Others came with confidence, intending to embrace the college experience. But all of these women needed friends. They found that friendship and familia in the Teatro. What kept them together were political ideals.
The women of the Teatro de las Chicanas/Laboral/Raíces were diverse. Some came into the teatro for a school semester and some participated many years after leaving college. All of the women involved contributed something valuable, and the teatro contributed to the nourishment of their spirit. In the opening essay, teatro cofounder Delia Ravelo Reyes writes passionately about the hardships she and her family encountered and had to overcome. About the teatro experience Delia says, "The teatro awakened my senses in every imaginable way." The stories of the women in this book echo her sense of discovery and self-realization.
This book was prepared by some of the women who comprised Teatro de las Chicanas/Laboral/Raíces. Seventeen women tell their stories. The essays touch on such themes as self-discovery, burgeoning independence, sisterhood, survival in the face of enormous challenges, and political awareness and empowerment. While the essays reflect the personal growth and experiences of the individual women who wrote them, they also reflect a transcendent experience and reveal emotions and values common to all of the women who were part of the teatro.
In some of their stories the women talk about the sacrifices their families had made crossing the border for a better life in the United States. They talk about working in the fields as children and adolescents. Other women talk about abuses. Some speak about memories of being punished for speaking Spanish at school, or of having teachers Anglicizing their names and breaking their spirit. The darker memories include incest and sexual molestation as children. Painfully, the memories surfaced as the women regrouped decades later to write this book. Many felt that the stories needed to be told to help us understand the significance of young Chicana women banding together to speak about social injustices.
The book also includes some of the actos performed by the women. Some were adaptations of plays, movies, or television sit-coms, and others were written by the women. Some photos and other archival materials were also added.
This book project was started in 1999, and can perhaps be called a collective memoir. It contains the reminiscences of the strong women typical of the group, women who are today engaged in a variety of professions. The exciting days of teatro are far behind them, but the experience remains an important part of their lives.
This compendium invites readers into their lives and into the realm of the teatro. There are lessons to be derived from both excursions. We hope you enjoy the reading.
"This collection of testimonials of early Xicanistas and their work in teatro is an important contribution to the preservation of the spirit and energy that made the Chicano Movement."
—Ana Castillo, author of The Guardians and So Far from God
"These memoirs are the personal, honest, and riveting testimonials of seventeen Chicanas who performed Chicana theater during the 1970s. These carnalas empowered themselves and thousands during the tumultuous years of the Movimiento by performing plays for working-class communities. From college campuses to the fields where campesinos toiled, estas mujeres had the courage to fight gender inequality. We need their courage today. And we need their stories for a new generation of Chicanas and for working women everywhere."
—Rudolfo Anaya, author of Bless Me, Ultima and Curse of the ChupaCabra
"'Órale, ya era tiempo.' Stories of 'the Movement' too often emphasize men's roles, ignoring the vital participation of women or relegating them to the sidelines. In Teatro Chicana, women are central to the ideas, emotions, strategies, writing, art, and music of the 1960s and 1970s when this country—and much of the world—rocked with revolutionary imagination and fervor. The Chicano Movement, like most social movements, also had many women warrior/leaders—this struggle was shaped and ignited by women, fed and nurtured by women, with many men at their sides. I was part of this—I knew first hand how feminine spirit, energy, and love embraced and impelled us. Seeing it again through the voices of the elder-teachers in this book, I'm reminded—no movement is complete without la mujer."
—Luis J. Rodriguez, author of Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. and Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times