Though the United States is quickly approaching a Latinx majority (2044 is the projected year), Latinx theatre remains largely invisible despite the presence of some high-profile artists—Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Karen Zacarías, Melinda Lopez—and a robust national movement spearheaded by the Latina/o Theatre Commons (LTC). One place it’s increasingly visible, though, is among scholars, who have been welcomed and woven into the fabric of the LTC. Why are scholars suddenly being so thoroughly taken into the fold now? Where have they been all these years? And might they have a role in increasing the wider visibility of a movement that’s gained increased coherence and purpose in recent years?
Scholarship around Latino theatre—or teatro, as it’s commonly known in the movement—traces its origins to Jorge Huerta, who received his doctorate in 1974, becoming not only the first Chicano with a Ph.D in theatre but also the first person to formally study Latino theatre. By the turn of the 21st century, enough scholars had done graduate work in Latino theatre and performance that Irma Mayorga, assistant professor of theatre at Dartmouth College, and Ramón Rivera-Servera, associate professor of performance studies at Northwestern University, were able to found the Latina/o Focus Group of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.
Still, there haven’t been many scholars studying teatro. That began to change in 2013, when the LTC emerged with a national convening at Emerson College in Boston. The newly formed LTC steering committee met with Latino theatremakers from a diverse array of artistic disciplines, regions, career stages, genders, and sexual orientations. In partnership with HowlRound, the LTC formed to create, in its official words, a “national movement that uses a commons-based approach to transform the narrative of the American theatre, to amplify the visibility of Latina/o performance making, and to champion equity through advocacy, art making, convening, and scholarship.”
The Boston convening was a watershed moment in Latino theatre history in the U.S., as the first gathering of its size and scope of Latino theatremakers in more than 25 years. Scholars were part of that history from the early stages of planning. And as the LTC has grown, so has the involvement of scholars.
What kind of scholar, though? While that term can certainly include dramaturgs and people with MFAs, scholars in the LTC include not only those who teach in theatre departments but teachers of English, Spanish, and women’s studies. More often than not, events are designed with scholars’ participation in mind.
Having scholars in the room, creating a living document of the movement, was deliberate; Brian Eugenio Herrera, assistant professor of theatre at Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, was commissioned to write The Latina/o Theatre Commons 2013 National Convening: A Narrative Report before the Boston convening even happened. This has continued with all LTC programming, primarily in the form of LTC’s digital journal, Café Onda, housed online at HowlRound, which provide lead-up content, narrative reports published while events are still ongoing, and after-the-fact reflection pieces that synthesize the conversation for those not in attendance.
It was not always such a cozy relationship. Though I have never personally felt excluded or unwelcome, nearly every senior scholar I’ve met has a story illustrating the mistrust or suspicion that older generations of artists have harbored toward those in the academy. The main fear, it seems, is that scholars might infringe upon an artist’s creative process. There is also the related perception that a “holier than thou” attitude pervades the academy, and that if scholars are let into the room they’ll want to impose their own views onto the work.
For their part, it isn’t that scholars have not wanted to be involved but that they have not been traditionally given a seat at the table. That’s what makes the inclusion of scholars in the LTC all the more noteworthy. While the LTC is still navigating this relationship, simply putting theatremakers and scholars into the same room has allowed for a sharing of ideas and a synthesis of the conversations.
Scholarly writing emerged organically from this proximity. There is no mandate that says that scholars attending LTC events or those on the steering committee must dedicate their writing to the movement, but many have taken on the task. By maintaining a symbiotic relationship between the academy and the theatre, the LTC has the potential to produce insight and reflections in conversation with theatre practitioners, who often seem to be walled off from scholarship.
When I asked Jorge Huerta what role, if any, he played in ensuring that scholarship would become a foundation for the LTC, he quickly noted that he has long bridged the divide. Not only is he the “abuelo of Chicana/o theatre scholarship,” as he put it, he is also a director, and was one of the founders of TENAZ (Teatro Nacional de Aztlán). Huerta’s reach extends beyond teatro, as well: He served as the thesis chair for director Michael Greif at UC San Diego.
That’s why Huerta’s involvement in the early days of LTC was crucial. As artist/scholar Irma Mayorga put it, from Boston onward Huerta “has dutifully reminded all scholars participating in the LTC about the import of working to observe and record, to help make Latina/o theatre in all its facets and variegations visible and therefore legible in the wider discourse of U.S. American theatre more broadly.”
Artist/scholar Anne García-Romero, another LTC founder, agreed. “Many of the founding members of the LTC are also theatre professors,” she said, who “understand the historical importance and ongoing need for scholars to document the field of Latina/o theatre.”
The first major piece of scholarship, not surprisingly, was the one that LTC commissioned. Herrera’s A Narrative Report is not only valuable for anyone looking to learn about community organizing through the arts; it is also an essential piece of Latino theatre scholarship.
But despite its unquestionable importance to the field, both in practice and in scholarship, Herrera’s report raises some challenging issues—or rather, its very existence and provenance does. For one, A Narrative Report does not “count” as peer-reviewed scholarship, and as such doesn’t contribute toward Herrera’s tenure file. Taking time out to create this invaluable resource, in other words, has had an insignificant, perhaps even a negative impact on Herrera maintaining his academic position. So why did he bother? Aside from wanting to connect more to contemporary theatre artists, Herrera says he wanted to ensure that the event was not lost to the annals of history.
“I decided I needed to try to figure out how to utilize my tools and skills as a historian to document a contemporary event,” says Herrera, “because as theatremakers we tend to think of archival practice as something that happens after the fact rather than as a principle and practice of documentation that is constant, methodical, and ongoing.”
Though Herrera knew that the book would not help his tenure file before he agreed to write it, it was a calculated risk. And he’s not alone: Many Latino theatre scholars feel the need to take these leaps of faith so that the teatro movement can move forward, even if the academy does not fully understand their import. This is due to change: If the academy is to stay relevant in conversations about art-making, it should recognize the crucial work of artist-scholars. What’s more, in the digital age universities need to understand the importance of public-facing scholarship with the potential to revolutionize fields such as Latino theatre. In short, this work should be tenure-worthy.
In my own work as co-champion of Café Onda (with Emily Aguilar, MFA and theatre faculty at Bowling Green State University), I solicit writers, many of whom are professors. But while many scholars have contributed to the journal, at least half of those I approach decline, citing a need to focus on peer-reviewed academic journal articles, or telling me that their departments view such writing as service, not scholarship. But even the least-viewed Café Onda essay has a readership far beyond any academic journal article. (Even as I write this article, which is likely to be my most read piece of writing to date, I wonder if I shouldn’t be working on my book or a journal article instead—such are the confused incentives of 21st-century scholarship.)
The Boston convening in 2013 brought together a special discussion group was centered on scholarship. The group agreed that both artists and scholars were obligated to document teatro. The group offered two key strategies—collaboration and documentation—“to cultivate academia as a hospitable site for both the collaborative development of contemporary Latina/o theatre, and the archival documentation of its legacy,” as Herrera put it in A Narrative Report. During this conversation the LTC agreed to four tenets upon which the movement was formed: advocacy, art-making, convening/networking, and scholarship.
During discussion group share-outs, El Teatro Campesino producing artistic director Kinan Valdez quilted a poem from the words spoken. Herrera recorded the poem’s most important takeaway: “We envision scholars in the theatres and artists in the universities.”
That mutually beneficial vision is taking shape. Today’s scholars are fully in conversation with the artists they study. In my own experience as an ally, it is integral to my ethics and research to maintain an active dialogue with the theatre artists I’m writing about. So often it feels as if I am writing with them instead of about them. We develop relationships with artists not only to learn more but to produce more knowledgeable critiques. This doesn’t stop scholars from placing critical pressure on the work—we certainly do. Being critical is our work, and we must maintain a critical distance of interpretation that criticism requires. But if one performs ethical scholarship, then scholarship can be mutually beneficial for all parties involved, producing more scholarly work that is both culturally competent and knowledgeable about teatro history.
As a member of the planning committee for the Boston convening, Huerta suggested creating a “Timeline of Latina/o Theatre,” a visual illustration of the field from the 1960s to the present. A long piece of white butcher paper was taped across the wall in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at Emerson College. Sections were marked off for each decade. Throughout the convening, participants filled in teatro history by adding notes, mementos, pictures, and other ephemera to the timeline. Those in attendance thus made their history visible—a history that has been invisible within so much of American theatre history. This tradition stuck, and was continued at the 2014 LTC National Convening at the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC), Encuentro: A National Latina/o Theatre Festival, and the 2015 LTC Carnaval of New Latina/o Work (and no doubt at the LTC New York Regional Convening, Dec. 1-4), with attendees constructing the Timeline from scratch each time. As the LTC welcomed more people into the fold, the timeline grew; by Carnaval in Chicago, the Timeline featured Lin-Manuel Miranda’s face on the cover of The New York Times Style magazine as his megahit Hamilton was just opening on Broadway. Though for many in the broader culture, Miranda seemed to appear from thin air, the timeline placed him in a long, proud context.
Another seminal moment in foregrounding scholarship as a tenet of the LTC involved the planning of Encuentro in 2014. Paralleling the proactive inclusion of scholars, the festival featured three resident scholars: Tiffany Ana López, director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre at Arizona State University; Chantal Rodríguez, assistant dean of the Yale School of Drama; and Huerta. In an LATC room that had formerly housed its bank vault, they created a space branded “The Vault,” a sanctuary for scholars to come together, discuss the work of the festival, and begin a plan for documenting the movement. In addition to the Timeline, the Vault housed glass cabinets featuring nearly every book ever published on teatro, both scholarly and creative. The Vault showed irrefutable evidence of how far Latina/o theatre scholarship has come since the days of Huerta embarking on the first Ph.D. in the subject.
The LTC relies on a mix of scholars who have anywhere from no practical theatre experience nor a degree in theatre to scholars who have MFAs, such as Anne García-Romero (playwriting) and Irma Mayorga (costume design). This mix of artist/scholars is pivotal to the LTC. In Mayorga’s words, “making theatre—as a director, playwright, or designer—deeply informs my scholarship. I arrive to scholarly pursuits from the impetus of thinking as a maker, which is a theoretical mode. Characterizing me as solely a scholar grossly neglects how that scholarly mind came to knowledge.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there are several scholars who made their way to the LTC despite little to no experience in making theatre or arts advocacy. I offer my own journey to the LTC as an example. I am a Latino theatre scholar, but while I grew up in a theatregoing family and acted until college (I’m still trying to destroy any existing archival video of my turn as Professor Fodorski in All American), I have no formal training in theatre, nor did I have any experience or practice when I joined the LTC steering committee. As a graduate student in Spanish, I began studying Latin American and Spanish literature before I found my way to teatro.
But after attending Encuentro as a spectator, I had to get involved. Once home, I emailed LTC producer Abigail Vega and was quickly welcomed into the fold. Despite my lack of a theatre degree or any theatre practice, I was fully accepted and encouraged to use my scholarly tool set for the LTC’s benefit. In the last two years, I’ve used my aptitude in Spanish on the Translation Committee, my grant-writing skills on the Resource Generation Committee, and my writing and editing skills on the Café Onda editorial board.
Currently I’m an adjunct professor in the Department of Hispanic Studies and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Program at the University of Houston. Beside myself, other LTC scholars without Ph.D.s from theatre departments include Teresa Marrero, full professor in World Languages, Literatures, & Cultures at the University of North Texas, and Marci R. McMahon, an associate professor of English at the University of Texas—Rio Grande Valley. That said, the majority of scholars in the LTC are affiliated with theatre departments, including Patrice Amon, Anne García-Romero, Brian Herrera, Tiffany Ana López, Irma Mayorga, Gregory Ramos, and Beatriz Rizk.
With the support of the LTC and a now-vast nationwide network of artists and scholars in constant dialogue, what started as a simple gesture of including scholars in the conversation has spawned many new projects across the country—projects that represent the type of thinking that has emerged from the new Latino theatre movement. They speak to the central idea that emerged from Boston, of having scholars in theatres playing a more hands-on role in art-making. In what follows, I detail several projects currently underway.
Despite scholarship being a constant in all LTC activity, during the Seattle Regional Convening in April 2016 it became apparent that the organization needed to readdress its relationship with scholars. There was clearly a disconnect between those in and out of the academy in regards to scholarship and publishing. To address this issue, the steering committee formed a “circle of scholars” to focus on two key questions: How can the LTC serve scholars, and how can scholars serve the LTC? This committee began meeting in July 2016 and quickly identified the need to have a database of scholars who research and teach Latino theatre across the country. This scholar database, available on the LTC website, allows those who self-identify as scholars to input their information into the form: What types of departments are they in? What are their research areas? What artistic hats do they wear? While it is too soon to quantify the long-term results of this initiative, simply knowing who is working on teatro across the country is valuable new data that will allow us to better connect with each other and fill gaps in scholarship.
There are a few other tangible projects worth mentioning here: the 50 Playwrights Project, a digital archive of interviews with contemporary Latina/o and allied playwrights, and a new anthology of Latino plays that emerged from Encuentro, which I am co-editing with Teresa Marrero and Chantal Rodríguez. I anticipate that this volume may set a precedent for the sort of published scholarship that can emerge from LTC initiatives. Not only is it imperative to publish new Latino work to update the archive of the American theatre and legitimize the work within the academy, publishing also happens to be the name of the game in academia. For scholars, publishing remains the gold standard for landing a position as a professor, tenure, and promotion.
But is something called El Fuego initiative that may best represent the future direction of scholarship within the LTC. El Fuego is a project that aims to “fuel the American theatre with Latina/o Plays, to help grow, support, and ignite the field with new Latina/o theatre works.” It began under the auspices of Lisa Portes and Olga Sanchez Saltveit, who in the run-up to Carnaval asked which theatres could commit on the spot to producing one of the playwrights featured during the festival. Twelve theatre companies stepped up—without even knowing who the playwrights would be. Artistic directors, professors, literary managers, etc., trusted the LTC’s process. On the final night of Carnaval, a total of 18 theatre companies and universities had committed to producing one of the playwrights.
Aside from simply guiding Carnaval playwrights into full productions, El Fuego initiative is forward-thinking about building scholarship around these productions as they move through the stages of development. Under the direction of artist/scholars Irma Mayorga (professor and co-author of The Panza Monologues) and Olga Sanchez (a Ph.D. student in Theatre Arts at the University of Oregon and artistic director emerita of Milagro in Portland, Ore.), El Fuego will pair each play with a scholar who will produce critical inquiry about the play, playwright, and production. By situating scholars as a crucial aspect of a play’s development, El Fuego will create a vast body of scholarship about aspects of both rehearsals and performances while also documenting and situating these plays and playwrights within the critical discourse of American theatre. Having a living record and critical inquiry about these works will be fundamental in updating the narrative of American theatre to include a plurality of voices that more accurately reflects the United States in the 21st century. El Fuego echoes the mission of the LTC to support new work by Latino artists while also encouraging scholarship that examines, gives context, and creates an archive of this artistic production.
“In developing the El Fuego initiative we understood that it was absolutely necessary to bring scholars into the room to document the intentions, manifestations, and generosity of this unprecedented undertaking,” says Sanchez, adding that these scholars are not participating in these productions as dramaturgs but are instead “framing the current wave of Latina/o theatremaking, its aesthetics, concerns, perspectives, genres, and relationships to producers and audiences.”
These scholars have begun to disseminate their work via a Café Onda blog series called “Ignited: Communiqués from the LTC’s El Fuego Initiative.” Here scholars will share their reflections as the work makes it through the development process. In addition to a volume of the plays themselves, the long-term goal is to create an anthology of critical writing centered on these productions. A scholarly companion volume will promote the longevity of these new plays and cement their place in the archive. As Mayorga notes, “A publication that collects the works with critical scholarship to accompany the plays will enable them to circulate in new manners and, not unimportantly, circulate themselves into classrooms of all sorts.”
What scholarship will eventually mean for the Latina/o theatre movement remains to be seen. In the 42 years since Jorge Huerta received his Ph.D., the field has grown from one scholar to dozens with advanced degrees in the study of Latina/o theatre. The number is still admittedly low. But while we all bring diverse training, backgrounds, and interests to the table, collectively we are updating the narrative of the American theatre. In a time in which Latino writers are winning MacArthur Genius Grants, Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards, and Obie Awards, and Hamilton has permeated mainstream U.S. culture like no other product of American theatre since perhaps Rent, Latina/o theatre must be recognized. The narrative must be updated.