Staging the Chicano’s World: Teatro Inlakech

Staging the Chicano’s World: Teatro Inlakech

By Corinna J. Moebius (written in 1993)

All the world might be a stage, but the stage of Chicano theater is the world.

Indeed, when members of a community collectively create a play, act its parts, and perform it in schools, backyards and churches, it becomes difficult to determine who is actor and who is audience.

“When you see [Chicano theater], it becomes a reflection of what can be . . . and what we need to create for ourselves,” remarks Javier Gomez, founder and director of the 16-year-old Chicano theater group, “Teatro Inlakech,” based in Oxnard, California.

The ancient Mayan philosophy of Inlakech means “You are my other self. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself. If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself,” explains Gomez, a soft-spoken man with a long salt-and-pepper mustache.

Like theater, “Inlakech shows a mirror to the people,” he adds.

While teaching Chicano drama at Oxnard College in 1976, Gomez decided to rename a theater group he had started several years earlier, “Teatro Inlakech.” He based it on the Mayan concept Valdez had introduced him to in 1970, the concept which “struck [him] like lighting.”

“Luis Valdez opened up my eyes,” attests Gomez. There is more to theater than “taking a script and then learning the characters, just performing them and
producing the shows.”

Chicano Teatro as an Active Social Partner

Whether addressing issues such as AIDS or drug and alcohol abuse, family problems or racism, teatros dramatize the same topics brought up after church, discussed in backyards, lamented about during funerals, quietly mentioned over morning coffee.

“There’s a greater vision than just the simplicity of putting on a production,” states 42-year-old Gomez. “When we get into our gang-banging drama, we deal with issues,” he explains. “How do we solve this problem? What are you going to do to change your attitude toward another barrio? What can you do to make it better? “And in that respect,” he continues, “that’s how the teatro becomes more of a direct link, more of an active social partner in dealing with issues and problems in the community,” a community where many are of Mexican descent.

When members of the audience approach Gomez after a performance, he notes that many voice their concerns about “young people and what they’re going through,” including youth violence, a main focus of the material Teatro Inlakech presents. “The mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the homies–they’re the ones that feed us that direction,” relates Javier. “I think we’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t address those issues that are impacting all of us.”

Gomez estimates that about 35 Chicano teatros exist in California, and more than 200 across the country, with a high concentration in Los Angeles, New York and the Southwestern states.

Interpretations of History

Teatro Inlakech also offers its own reconstructed and popularized versions of Mexican/Chicano history, employing the “acto” style, a humorous blend of spicy satire, double-entendres and familiar group archetypes.

Spanish conquistadores forget to use “condom sense.” Mexicans are “treated like a King,” in reference to Rodney King, and Father Sierra [Junipero Serra] of Spain persuades the audience to “vote–remember to vote for Father Sierra for sainthood!” in “Columbus Bash,” one of three skits Teatro Inlakech performed for the staff of the United States Penitentiary, Lompoc, California, in October, 1992.

The Teatro’s “Acto”: Challenging the Myth of the American Dream

The teatro uses the acto to inspire action from the audience by accentuating social problems, expressing what people are feeling, and offering possible solutions. The acto was first coined by Teatro Campesino leader Luis Valdez, distinguished Chicano playwright, director and producer [“La Bamba,” “Zoot Suit”].

Actos are “theatrical weapons,” observes Chicano theater scholar Nicolás Kanellos in a 1987 essay. He notes that, by “questioning the credibility of the American Dream and by re-enforcing Mexican American popular culture,” actos counter current stereotypes of Latinos and promote instead a positive ethnic identity. “The culture conflict that teatros exhibit,” he adds, “is the result of the long history of real-life warfare, discrimination and misunderstanding.”

The Teatro as Extended Family

At the dress-rehearsal the night before, 10 actors, most of them youths, gather on the glossy-floored gym at Richard Barrett Haydock Intermediate School in Oxnard, where Gomez teaches 40 hours a week. No one has a script (it doesn’t exist). Members practice lines they may have come up with themselves.

Small talk and laughter freshen the room from the static hum of fluorescent lights. “Hey, let’s use that!” suggests Gomez, chuckling, when actor Luis Alba improvises into his lines a reference to the Presidential election.

The collective creation of pieces makes “this is a grass-roots theater company,” claims Gomez, “in the sense that it’s from the blood and sweat of all the people that are working together.”

The teatro is like an extended family, with infants and grandmothers among its 40 to 50 volunteers. Gomez encourages family members to get involved as much as possible–he wants “parents to be proud of their own kids.”

And pride does warm the face of a father at the dress rehearsal. He watches from the sidelines, and shares his smiling glances with his actress-daughter and the baby he holds in his arms.

Javier’s wife, Irene, and their three teenaged children are teatro actors and helpers. Irene runs most of the vital “behind-the-scenes” operations (i.e., props, makeup, wardrobe). Even Javier’s two-year-old granddaughter, Xelina, sometimes participates.

Castmembers must rehearse at least two nights a week for 10 weeks in preparation for a show, preparation which involves set construction and other duties less glamorous than acting. Although this results in a high turnover of participants, the company has secured more reliable “core-members” in the past five years.

Still, the company always “keeps the door open” for new recruits.

Mobile Theater

Teatro Inlakech performs in libraries, schools, prisons, churches, backyards– “you name it, as long as we have the space,” jokes Gomez.

The mobile tradition of Chicano theater received its jump-start when Luis Valdez founded Teatro Campesino in 1965. His travelling troupe of farmworker-actors, who first performed in the fields during strikes led by labor leader César Chávez, became so popular that it sparked an entire movement of Latino labor and community theater throughout the country.

Teatro Campesino paved the way for Chicano drama on Broadway, on Hollywood’s silver screen, and as a discipline at universities, such as California State University, Northridge, where Gomez met Valdez.

“The teatros must never get away from La Raza [the people] . . . If the raza will not come to the theater, then the theater must go to the raza,” writes Valdez in a 1970 essay.
Teddy Lopez, 21-year-old ward at the California Youth Authority in Camarillo, Calif., saw Teatro Inlakech perform and envisions bringing more teatros into “neighborhoods where [Latinos] have no sense of where . . . their ancestors came from, or what their whole culture means.”

How many productions does Teatro Inlakech offer annually?

Teatro Inlakech currently produces an average of nine shows a year, and with additional directors, could fill requests for more.

Requests come often. After an October performance at a penitentiary, a few prisoners working as cooks for the staff banquet spread the word among other inmates. Now the prisoners are asking for Teatro Inlakech to return and perform for them.

It “is crucial to do live theater in our community,” asserts Gomez. “It’s living,

it’s breathing and it’s alive.” Lopez attests that “. . . just sitting there and seeing them perform . . . made me feel like a part of it.”

Nevertheless, the group must now “do a lot of promotions in the community and educate them about the importance of live theater,” admits Javier. Foster an audience at an early age, suggests Tony. “Get them in the habit of going.”

Bilingual Theater

Another way Teatro Inlakech reaches out to “La Raza,” is by incorporating both English and Spanish into most shows, reflecting the primarily bilingual audience
and surrounding community.

Teatro skits may contain references to frustrating language conflicts some Chicanos and Mexicanos experience in dealing with schools, hospitals and other public institutions.

Gomez remembers, for instance, his six years of elementary school when he was placed in classes for the emotionally and mentally disabled–because he didn’t speak English.
He is the same person, however, who since has won numerous honors, including the Cultural Arts Leadership Award from El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, a leading advocacy organization in the county.

“Trucha Raza la Revancha”: Watch Out People, the Revenge is Coming

“We’ve done plays where I’ve gotten off of the stage and people have told me how much it has hit home,” comments core member Jesus Antonio (Tony) Magaña.

The production with probably the greatest impact on Gomez and the audience is “Trucha Raza La Revancha” (“Watch Out, People, the Revenge is Coming”), a tragedy he helped write in 1979 for Teatro Inlakech and restaged in 1990. He considers it one of the Teatro’s greatest successes.

Gomez felt inspired to write the piece after talking with a Chicano teenager just expelled from a local junior high school–a teenager Gomez empathized with and decided to talk to. He wanted to discover what had led up to that incident.

In the play, teenage Chuy and his father struggle with a chilly relationship despite their love for one another.

The audience witnesses the same pattern of distance between the father and his father. “The same mirror, the same reality being recreated . . . there was no change,” stresses Javier. Meanwhile “Death,” a masked actor dressed as a skeleton, is “lingering and walking with the kid, waiting for his death to happen, but you never know when he’s going to die,” he says.

On the evening Chuy tells his father he wants “to change his life” for the better, his father reacts pessimistically, discouragingly, and, in an ensuing argument, slaps his son across the face. Chuy storms out of the house, and when his father turns around to apologize, it is too late.

It is too late because that evening Chuy is shot and killed–by his own cousin, Beto.

“He never got to tell his son he cared for him,” says Javier, his voice lowered, somber, breaking slightly. “He never got to tell his son he’s sorry.”

Gomez remembers the night his own brother was shot, and arriving home to find his father sitting on the edge of the couch, in shock. He blamed himself for always chasing his son out of the house.

“My dad was rough when he was a young man,” recalls Javier, who found it ironic “to see this man, this all-powerful man, sitting slumped in his chair and helpless as can be, with tears just running down his face . . . trying to say, ‘Please, can’t I do something?’”

Lessons of Inlakech

How did the audience react to “Trucha Raza”?

“The impact when I was out this time in the audience,” remembers Gomez, “was when Beto comes in to pick up his mother from the church.” In tears, she tells her son about his cousin’s death, a cousin he never knew he had because of the estranged relationship between his mother and her brother–Chuy’s father.

When “the audience suddenly connects Beto with the night of Chuy’s murder . . . you hear the gasps,” he recalls. “You hear silence. You hear sighing. People in total shock.” Imitating a member of the audience, Gomez whispers, eyes wide, “He killed his cousin!”

“And you see people getting out of their chairs . . . they can’t handle the power of what happened,” he recollects, leaning forward, eyes direct and eyebrows raised.

This is Inlakech in action.

“As in Trucha Raza,” warns Gomez, “what harm you give out, there will be a time and there will be a place when that harm will come back to you . . . or someone
close to you . . . So we need to be alert to the negatives we give out and correct those negatives and make them positive.”

Teatro and Chicano Identity

How do teatros influence a sense of identity for Latinos?

“The way they forge Latino identity,” Gomez shares, “is that you see Latinos performing on stage . . . And you’re seeing your own people being successful in the production, whether it’s a classical piece or a grassroots production from a local theater company.

“The plays are generally going to be real-life stories about what’s happening to the people,” he continues, “and that’s going to serve as part of a sense of pride, as a sense of identity.”

After presenting new and experimental works the first half of the year, the teatro offers an annual “Day of the Dead” production and later the religious fare of posadas, pastorelas and a play for the revered “Virgen de Guadalupe.”

Gomez emphasizes that “identity or cultural identity in our society is really crucial. Not identity of a nationalistic fervor,” he points out, “where you lose sight of humanity, but nationalism in terms of being proud of who you are as a person.”

“We teach you where you came from, where you’re at, and where you’re going,” offers Magaña, matter-of-factly. “You came from Mexico, your ancestors were Indios mixed with Spaniard, you’re in the state that was yours, originally, and where are you going? You gotta go and . . . help out your community, help your people.”

Chicano Pride

These days, “it seems like more people aren’t ashamed” to listen to Mexican music, observes Lopez. “And that’s cool, because before, they wouldn’t be listening to [it].” Now it’s not uncommon for his friends to mention listening to Vicente Fernandez or another popular Mexican artist.

“I feel happy, I feel good about that,” comments Teddy, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and North Hollywood, but was born in Mexico.

Magaña notes, however, that he still meets people of Mexican descent who refuse to claim their heritage, as if it were a source of shame.

“¡Basta–Ya Basta! [That’s enough!]” he shouts at the end of “Columbus Bash.” To the heavy thump from the speakers, he raps, “Let me tell you kids that you are growing up too fast, and you will be harassed with the things of the past . . .”

Teatro member Catía Tapía Reyes, 15, gets angry when Latinos criticize their cultural roots “because they’re embarrassed about who they are,” she claims. “I’m proud of who I am, of my parents being Mexican.”

She is one of the actors in “Garage Dogs,” a skit which ends with a truce between two warring packs of “dogs.” Ripping off their red or blue bandanas, they hold hands and chant, “United, unidos for the rest of our days!”

Magaña, 32, whose streetwise youth is still evidenced by his tattoos, is not convinced that one performance will prevent young people from finding an identity based on territory, as opposed to ethnicity. He does note that more plays, more teatros and more consistent attendance could make a positive difference.

Reaching Youth

Javier hopes that more youth will join the Teatro now that budget cuts have eliminated a number of local programs for youth.

“We’re providing this, you know,” he insists, as if directly to some teenagers. “C’mon and join us, it’s free, we don’t charge. Take our acting classes or be involved in our drama piece.”

“Directly involve [youth] and work with them” adds Javier, so they can “see themselves more clearly. And that is with the dramas.”

If young people are “graffiting the walls–what are you doing to prevent that?” he asks. “Incarceration–is that prevention? Taking them away from the homes and putting them in foster homes–that isn’t prevention.

“Prevention means that you work with those kids,” he advises, “and you involve them in a project that will enhance their artistic skills and provide them with another way of looking at life . . .”

Participation in Teatro Inlakech has “taught me a lot about my culture, where my ancestors came from,” claims teatro member Edna Santillan, 13. Now “if I’m doing something wrong, I correct it.”

Fellow teatro member Catía notices that, besides having a lot of fun, she and her actor-peers become more active after joining. “[One male actor her age] never did talk or anything. And since he got into the play we did . . . he’s more open, he’s talking more, getting into things.”

Inlakech actors gain a sense of “carnalismo” (“brotherhood”) through their participation, hopes Gomez.

Lopez affirms that if he were a teatro actor, not only would he be able to express his culture and some of his beliefs, but “people can see it . . . If I could bring our culture and have [Latino youths] understand where we come from, I think it would bring us together.”

An Investment in Community

Gomez considers his work “a lifetime commitment” toward ensuring that the realities of the Latino community “are staged–there’s not enough movies and TV [programs] . . . that are being created to speak to the issues of the Latino persons in this society.”

Gomez, who usually gets up at 6 a.m. and goes to bed as late as 3 a.m., devotes 40 to 50 hours of his week to the teatro. He is not only its director, but also producer,
grant-writer, set-builder and an actor.

Is there money to be made for all the effort he invests?

“Money should not be the factor that guides us in the direction of enlightenment and in helping others in our community,” he stresses. Although small stipends are sometimes available to participants, Gomez says the priceless payback is “the joy and the gift of making somebody else feel good.”

Chicano Theater and the Entertainment Industry

Interviewed during a break between teaching classes, Gomez has just presented a lesson in Spanish about drugs. Hands shoot up politely from all sections of the room in response to his review questions, and at the end of the class, he pops in a tape of a Spanish-speaking female rapper, who warns of the dangers of drug-use.

Three students quietly enter the room and sit patiently, taking notes. They’re reporters for the bilingual school newspaper and are doing a story on Teatro Inlakech.

“El teatro . . . es un grande forma . . . para communicar [Theater is a major form for communicating] . . .,” Javier begins to dictate, as one of the girls writes as fast as she can.

He hopes that the Teatro will “be a catalyst for [participants] to pursue other interests in the acting or in the entertainment field.”

Magaña is actively pursuing a professional career in acting, having already completed several commercials. Member Luis Alba (Colombus in “Columbus Bash”) has started his own film company and is producing his own shows.

Gomez thinks that Chicano teatro on film will have “a tremendous impact.” He wants to produce “Trucha Raza” as a movie.

“It is very inspiring,” vouches Lopez, to see Chicano actors from “the barrios,” “because it lets us young people know that there is a way–if you really want to make it in life you can . . .”

Television, movies and teatro can co-exist, too, claims Magaña, but “television has got to tell the people who don’t go out what’s out there.”

The Inlakech Cultural Center

“What’s out there” in Oxnard includes the many other cultural programs Gomez has founded and directs, including the 12-year-old Ballet Folklorica Regional, an arts academy, a youth drama workshop, and a cultural enrichment school which meets on Saturdays.

In November 1992, Gomez opened “his dream for 10 years,” the “Inlakech Cultural Center” in Oxnard, underwritten by state and private grant monies. The center serves as a base of operations and new rehearsal space for cultural activities, including Teatro Inlakech.

In October, the center displayed a five-foot high painted paper mache skull in its picture window, a grinning reminder of “El Dia de Los Muertos” celebrations, during which families honor the spirits of their deceased relatives.

“. . . All the human essence of the barrio,” confirms Valdez in a 1970 essay, “is starting to appear in the mirror of our theater. With them come the joys, sufferings, disappointments and aspirations of our gente [people].”

“There’s so many stories to tell,” says Gomez, smiling.