The Making of the Latina Monologues
by Angela C. Trudell Vasquez, Poet
This program of ¡Adelante! includes interviews with performers, as well as clips from The Latina Monologues. Begin watching at minute 8:30 and continue through 21:00.
In the Beginning
How can I say this? Sometimes the impossible happens and you achieve something that wasn’t even on your horizon and it’s terrific even to unbiased folks who don’t already love you, and it surprises you and you didn’t even know you had it in you to be this great, amazing even, and it’s a complete change because you can never go back to who you were before and that’s what happened to me with the Latina Monologues. I will never be the same.
In late 2008 a friend told me the Latino Student Union was putting together a production called the Latina Monologues and was seeking material. I sent them several poems I had written and when they asked me to become part of the cast I said yes without hesitation. And so it began; little did I know I would forever be changed by the experience, gain new friends, skills and a voice I did not yet know that lived inside me waiting to come out.
How It Came to Be
Veronica Sotelo was our young director and the driving force behind the production, then and now. At the time she was also president of the Latino Student Union and a full time college student. She selected the pieces and arranged them, and her vision of what it should look like on stage became a reality. We all had a hand in the production from our acting, to accessing our deepest emotions, so we could accurately depict the struggles of our family, our ancestors and our people who had been much maligned as of late. Never before in my experience had all the pieces in a play been written by Latinos/as and performed by primarily Latinas. This was not only new territory it was a test of my own skills as an artist. Right away some of us were chosen to work with a voice coach at the university, Assistant Professor Michelle Lopez-Rios.
In the one session I had with her, Michelle changed how I read/perform my poems in public. I was reborn by the experience into something else: a performing poet where delivery is an art in and of itself. Lyrical or loud, breath matters, body language matters, and so does your expression and evocation of the vowel, verb and consonant, every syllable matters; it’s different, more all encompassing as an artist and all consuming too when you are in it and on stage.
Now when I perform I think this may be the only chance I have with this person, this audience, and I want to be as strong and effective as I can. It’s all about connecting at that moment. Can you see, feel, or hear it? And that’s it. Reading poems aloud has become something else and I like it. Michelle planted the seed and taught me what was possible, and Veronica enforced it in the many hours of practice, after work during the week and on weekends. And I worked on it alone in my house, while doing the plank position or while biking to work along Lake Michigan. I practiced my new big voice everywhere in the shower, under my breath at the bus stop and while walking around. My voice is stronger now post Latina Monologues’ entry into my life.
Where We are Now and the Community
The Latina Monologues has had three lives as of this writing and there may well be a fourth incarnation this spring in 2012. The first version was less than an hour, and now we actually need an intermission. Hundreds of people have seen it in Milwaukee and Madison. We added a show in Madison at Edgewood College in spring of 2011 with the help of my friend Andrea Potter and her colleagues at Edgewood College.
The Latina Monologues has grown but remains the same in its mission, which is to depict the various lives of Latinos/Latinas in the United States and in other countries, our struggles, our victories, our diversity, and our day-to-day lives then and now. This is us telling our own stories, not someone else writing them for us. We are defining ourselves, and not being defined by someone else. We are creating our own history.
There are several parts/themes to the play currently: growing up, memories, ancestry, identity, roots, generations, leaving homeland, inheriting the earth, under our skin and woman. There are many authors whose writings are represented and vital to the script such as: Ximena Soza, Demtria Martinez, Aurora Levins Morales, Maritza Zapata, Jose Rivera, Elias Miguel Munoz, Sandra Cisneros, Ernesto Gallarza, Gustavo Perez Firmat, Alvaro Saar Rios, Marisal Herrera-Anderson, Esmeralda Santiago and Paul Martinez.
Sharing space in the script with these writers was an honor and the multitude of voices helps depict the many varied lives of Latinos in this country. We cannot be stereotyped and pigeonholed, as we do not fit easily into any category. In the clip from 2009, you will see my sister, Tricia Young, interviewed about how she would like all her students to see this production and we did just that in 2011. We took the community show to Bay View High School and the students, under the direction of their art teacher, Angelo Ruiz, who goes by “sensi,” worked the stage, and the Latino Club and their teacher, Ira Garcia, sponsored us.
Prior to the show at Bay View High School, I went and spoke to the kids about the need for them to become aware of the struggles our people were facing in Arizona and in the United States, how if some people had their way the children of undocumented people would no longer be allowed to attend public schools even though this was written into the United States Constitution. At the time this was one of the new provisions being touted in Arizona’s SB 1070 law though I believe later it was dropped. I went to Bay View High School as a writer, an activist and as an ambassador for the Latina Monologues show. I encouraged them to come and to bring their parents to our free event.
The Latina Monologues is a group effort and every member is essential to the show's continued success, all actors and volunteers, past and present. We have also been fortunate to have friends who agreed to help promote us and share our story, for example, our good friend, independent film producer and documentary filmmaker, Salvador Gomez, has made two mini-documentaries about the making of the Latina Monologues. One appeared on Milwaukee Public Television, MPTV’s show ¡Adelante! in 2009, http://www.mptv.org/video/watch/?id=123#at [see video at the top of this page] and another for Telemundo in 2011, http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=527211109678&saved.
Why It Matters to Me and My History
The Latina Monologues is especially important to me because I myself am a third generation Mexican American on my mother’s side and second generation on my father’s side. My father was the first one in the family to go to college. He went on the GI bill and our early years in Iowa City in family student housing impacted me and my work just as much as the stories my mother told me about her family’s struggles growing up in Newton, Iowa in the 50s and how they persevered.
Little known fact: the cemeteries in Iowa are full of dead Mexicans from fighting in all the wars the United States has been involved in, beginning with the late 1800s to the present. My father is named for a half brother who was plucked out of his high school classroom in Newton, Iowa, and told he was going to the front in World War II. Two brothers were sent and only one came back. This is a common theme. My maternal grandmother remarked that before World War II there were plenty of boys to dance with at the Mexican dances in Des Moines, Iowa, and after not so many.
One poem of mine included in the Latina Monologues, is a poem I wrote years ago called “Dark Man.” It depicts my dad’s experience and my grandmother’s experience of entering the public school system in Newton, Iowa for the first time:
pushing back with
the strength your mother did when
she enrolled you in
primary school, walking down
the cold hallways,
not speaking any English
yet, neither do you,
In another poem I wrote that is included in the script called, “Human Maze,” I attempt to show the mixing of the Spanish Conquistadors and the indigenous people of Mexico, the infiltration of religion and language and how we as a people survived new rulers. It is my attempt at a historical poem, not just from a conquered people’s point of view, but also from a female point of view and a feminist perspective and it decries at the end victory too:
….., and lifting their
lily white bodies up from earth just
like our language and food infiltrates English.
Iowa, Washington, and Wisconsin Influences
I wrote “We Dream” while living in Seattle. I was teaching English as a Second Language as a volunteer teacher for Casa Latina, an immigrants’ rights organization. I wrote it during a strategic planning session/retreat, and we were trying to figure out how the organization would grow and prosper in the future. It was part of the first and second LM productions:
We dream of one house
one edificio where Latinos’
dreams can come true,
where there is daily work
for every man and
support for every woman
who needs an ear to share
their troubles and tongues
how to take care of her
children, her man,
herself, where there’s
a chair to rest,
a bed to sleep,
a shower to clean,
a place to grow
where one can seek shelter
from the storm
and learn to conquer the
My students were often homeless, hungry and tired from sleeping in the streets, but still they came to learn English and I taught them as best I could for five years. They advanced my education further and made me more aware of how our society impacts the world more than any lesson plan.
My poem "Lessons" was also part of LM productions 1 and 2. In it I examine the lives of Latina women not just in this country, but also in other countries around the world. I talk about the “disappeared” in Chile and the many hands that provide us in this country with our creature comforts, like coffee, chocolate and the clothes on our back. We often don’t think about this on a daily basis, but other people suffer so that we can live in ease. Once you learn this it is something hard to forget. I do not let myself off the hook, either. I too live a privileged life:
She walks through yellow fields, migrant worker
bronze goddess, reaper of corn, not worthy
of our scorn, as we mourn her calloused hands
and turn away afraid it might be catching.
She weaves a web protecting her dead children
from memory loss, preserving the story
of their demise in rich red cloth
woven by hand, washed with tears, soaked
in blood, then sold to western tourists who
can’t understand how a son or daughter disappears.
She works at a factory sweating
for fifty cents an hour, pressing the clothes
rich women will buy to hang in their closets
and not on their slim well fed tan bodies
as they stroll on easy street never breaking a nail.
She buys café mochas for $2.50
from the man in the stand
by the corner before driving
through rush hour to work downtown
not savoring the aroma of brown backs
burning in the sun bending to pick
beans one by ones selecting only
the choicest ones to sell on the
American slave market.
These two preceding poems, We Dream and Lessons, were not included the third incarnation of the Latina Monologues, but two other new ones were, Dream Act Poem and my latest Milwaukee poem were. I wrote the Dream Act Poem shortly after it died once again in the US legislature. I did not think it to be a very good bill and was surprised how upset I was at it not passing. It’s the first poem I ever wrote for the stage and I wrote it specifically for the Latina Monologues. It’s to be performed in three voices and when I perform it solo I change the voices so it is clear there are three voices speaking:
Dream Act Poem
Is a dream deferred any less bright?
Does it shine brilliant over an ebony night?
Does its hair lie kinky or smooth upon its head?
Does it matter if or when it’s dead?
Children vie for crumbs at the table
and bright minds scramble for their piece of the pie.
It’s not right they were children people say and I agree
we all know children have little (say) control on their
environment or destiny.
They were not the decision makers.
But some, learn the hard way -
a Mother detained,
the 11 year old stands up,
becomes an adult,
weans the baby on condensed milk,
takes siblings to school
on an old bike in cold temps,
cooks, cleans, keeps
up with homework,
prays for their Mom
to come home
have been abandoned
by us Americans.
Some stand up
but we need more,
children belong to parents
who love and care for them
not on their own struggling
because of ICE in our veins
or economic discontent.
So what about forgiveness without strings attached?
Complete amnesty I say.
Let all come forward and register.
The Dream Act was never enough but it was something.
I know adults who worked the fields as little kids
with their families and it was hard, no schooling,
no chance for education as a child,
and I could see it in his eyes (my student’s eyes)
his memory hurt him – the boy that he was bending.
And don’t we all pity ourselves sometimes?
Is it not part of the human condition?
But then I remember what’s good
and forget what’s painful and am thankful,
for the sun, the water, the good earth at my feet,
say a prayer, move on pledging to fight
for my brothers and sisters’ right,
for peace and full citizenship in this country.
A dream dimmed for the moment no less bright.
My “Milwaukee Poem #2” is my tribute to all the good people who work for social justice day in and day out with little reward. Howard Zinn said you could only see progress from a long way a way or 100 years or something along those lines. I remember him now that he has left this earthly world, and it gives me hope. I am currently working on a new series of poems called, ‘standing on the shoulders of our ancestors,’ I hope to complete it in 2012. We’ll see.
there is an energy here,
a rustling of wings,
ideas and solutions
that plague us,
All three LM productions have concluded with my poem, “Who Am I.” It is performed with me in the lead and support from the cast. It was partly inspired by a fellow poet from Seattle, Raul Sanchez. We were both members of Los Nortenos in Seattle, Washington, and became friends and colleagues. This poem also closes my second collection of poetry, Love in War Time.
“Who Am I,” tells my own story and in part that of my ancestors who settled in the Midwest. We came with the railroads. My family was recruited from Mexico to work on the railroads like many other families. I cannot tell you how often people will come to me after a show or a reading of this poem and say, me too, my family also worked on the railroads, and they are often white and German, Irish and/or Polish. This is a poem/story of many immigrants who came to this country: it’s not just mine or unique to my family’s history.
Years ago the state of Iowa used one of my first poems, “One Brown Face,” for a diversity workshop piece, and they used a photo from their collection that depicted the railroad workers from the time: African Americans, Mexicans, Irish, and Chinese. The poem, “Who Am I,” also shows the strength of the women who came with their men to this country and established a home for their families. I have met people in Washington and Oregon who also share this lineage, and in some cases, the railroad car they lived in was what they built their home around. It provided the base, I was told by a fellow poet. They moved it off the railroad tracks, placed it beside the tracks and built additions off its structure. It’s still there today he told me.
“Who Am I,” is also my story of growing up in an Iowa that was 98% white at the time we lived there. It is less so today but not by all that much. I was aware of class at a very early age, having a big family with varying levels of education and money. This poem is also influenced by knowledge of my privileged status and my awareness of this privilege amidst everything else that was happening between 1967 and the present. I go into my activism influenced early on by the Civil Rights movement and later the fight against AIDS, and ongoing wars the US was involved in from Vietnam to the present. It was born out of Seattle, too, and the WTO riots and anti-war marches, and from my experience here in Wisconsin.
Who am I
I am the woman of cinnamon skin and high arches
who emerged safe third generation
and scored in the 99th percentile all through school.
I am the woman who quit poetry during the years she separated from God
and wrote fiction when reality was too strong to take.
I am the woman who fought back the man she loved
and left the first time
who had the courage to love and remarry the next.
I am the woman who writes down her inner most feelings
and then is surprised
who keeps notes on everything and measures her success against time.
I am the woman who dances for joy when a good song is played,
who reads the paper and cries inside for days.
I am the woman who stood on stage and read her lines
before she knew them to be true
who knew she was a writer at seven
but learned she was a Mexican at age ten and two.
I am the woman who was crowned Miss LULAC at age 18
a beauty queen who never felt pretty
among blue eyed dyed blonde bomb shells
who felt beautiful the moment she went to college.
I am the woman who used to bake and make nasty kitchen mistakes
who can now clean out the fridge and make a good meal cheap.
I am the woman who is the product, the daughter,
the descendant of Mexican immigrants, whose family built the first railroads,
fought in many wars and continue to today.
I am the woman who holds a sign for peace
and marches in the streets of Seattle
who chose not to go because she did not agree ever
who writes what she feels and scratches and bleeds
inside for what is right,
who fights the machine
and sometimes gets published.
I am the woman whose ancestors worked the fields and built the railroads
crossing the Midwest towing their families in box cars,
settling down in the plains to go to school long after
a young pregnant woman swung in a swing designed by her husband
to keep her from motion sickness and jarring rattling rails.
I am the woman who came from the woman
who scrubbed your floors and suckled your young.
I am from the working poor. I am from the middle class
caught in the clutches of a cultural gap neither belonging
to one or the other, an anomaly of class, alone and yet the same;
born of egg, sperm and space, gestating in a womb nine months,
born of flesh, blood and bone into a might makes right ruled world,
among war in its mad dash for blood and gore in Vietnam.
People are marching in the streets now just like then
against an illegal war. Maybe it's time
for me to plant my seed of hope in the world,
my man his seed, my womb, our genes,
our bulging need to make a difference
keep spreading the message of love and peace.
I feel more powerful now after the Latina Monologues. When I read poems aloud, I am more conscientious of my delivery and eye contact. I try to memorize my poems so that I do not have to read them. While I may hold the paper in my hand for security, I don’t necessarily need to unless it’s newer. Poems have more impact if you memorize them and can interact with your audience. I know this now and I try to look up often if I am reading. I try not to muffle the words in the page. When I am teaching a workshop and kids read their work, I tell them to be loud and clear and to lift their heads up while they are reading so we can hear them better.
Now when I write it may or may not be for the stage or a theatre piece per se, and I know the difference. There are some poems that I know would be better with multiple voices pitching in, and I can see how maybe we would stand or sit on the stage for greater effect or how we might move across the floor while reciting. I might conjure a lower register for a particular stanza and think about who the speaker is, whose voice it is, and who pipes in with various lines amidst the body of the poem. I may consider the background,what can be included on the stage on a screen, to better tell the story visually too.
As proud as I am to be part of the Latina Monologues for artistic purposes, for personal development and fulfillment, and pure joy, I see the importance of the work as a collective. Plays like the Latina Monologues are even more necessary today because the war on “illegals” is still being waged in this country; especially in a big election year where candidates are showing how tough they can be on undocumented people and where any hint that they would provide a reasonable path for citizenship or any type of immigration reform without separating long established families is seen as being contrary to the American way of life and its people’s desires. This makes productions like the Latina Monologues all the more relevant.
When we tell our stories and share our experience people learn about us and it is harder to dismiss an entire group of people when you know something about them or empathize with them and their plight or if they are humanized in the least bit. Poland recently provided a path to citizenship for its undocumented people. It made sense from an economic point of view, according to the article I read. I can only hope the United States learns from the example. The state of Utah has also made some humane immigration reform choices of late, in stark contrast to Arizona, so there is hope.
Unfortunately, this past year ICE deported more people than ever in the history of the United States; and other states continue to try and enact their own immigration reform in light of the Federal Government’s inability to enact legislation, often with dire consequences. In Alabama right now farmers’ fields are going un-harvested and people are afraid to send their children to school. In some places people are afraid to leave their homes for work, school, or church for fear of getting picked up and being deported far from their loved ones. This culture of fear serves no one but those people who want to build new private prisons with tax dollars to house good people who would otherwise contribute to our society and who are contributing currently.
Perhaps someday I will be able to write a poem about how things used to be when families would become separated for lack of documentation and process or mistaken identity until then I will continue to write the truth as I see it and if it becomes a part of the Latina Monologues in the future so much the better. Our stories need to be told by us, for us and for the people who can’t speak or stand up for themselves for fear of reprisal.