Monthly Archives: January 2003

Viva El Paso!

The Approach
The Reproach
Concepts and Contrast

Concepts and Contrast

McKelligon Amphitheater was originally built to house El Paso del Norte, a historical outdoor drama that opened on July 4, 1976, part of the nationwide Bicentennial celebrations.

“I was one of the actors in that show,” said Hector Serrano, creator and Artistic Director of Viva! A natty fellow, both fitter and younger than you’d expect from someone in his 60s, he proudly told me that he “spoke the very first words ever in this theater, and they were in Spanish, and they were ‘canto de amor,’ which means ‘song of love,’ love song, and I think it was prophetic, because that’s what this has been for me.”

El Paso del Norte lasted for two years. Serrano told me, “it was very historically accurate, but a little on the dull side.” The city officials wanted something “more lively, more youth oriented…more entertaining.”

They contacted Serrano, who developed a new show concept: Viva El Paso! would tell the region’s history through the song and dance of the four major culture groups that had, at one point, held ownership in the area: Native American, Spaniard, mestizo Mexican, and what is variously called (depending on whom you ask) “cowboy”, “Western”, “pioneer”, or “Anglo”. The show was a hit. The press release photos I studied before my road trip showed bright costumes, dancing bodies, rhinestone sparkling in spotlights, big smiles.

This merger of sparkly spectacle with earnest cultural inclusiveness set off my alarm bells. Having grown up in San Diego (and despite the best efforts of the public education system) I came to Viva! plenty aware of the ways in which colonialist soldiers and mission founders violated Native American populations; and how a young American government performed similar violence upon Mexico in the 1850s and onwards.

El Paso, seated at the natural land pass to the North between two mountain ranges, had a particularly colorful past. Don Juan D’Oñate, the general who founded settlement at el paso del norte, cut off natives’ hands for any imagined or real resistance towards Spanish colonialism. Two hundred years of violent conflict over race, settlement, railroads and industry, mining rights, worker rights, labor conflicts, and, of course, the border, followed.

Abject poverty, drug smuggling, rampant violence and oppressive working conditions continue to run through the veins of this region. To even think of El Paso as separate from the sprawling Ciudad Juarez to the south is absurd–El Paso makes up less than one-quarter of the combined metropolitan area and is more like a suburb than a discrete entity. Nowhere else in America is the fictionality of “border”–and the violence results from the need to preserve a fictional border–more apparent.

And they’re going to tell this embattled, often wretched tale of the borderlands through song and dance?, I thought.

“Dance really reflects the culture of the people,” Serrano said.

“Like the Spanish, they’re very proud people, so when they stand and when they dance they reflect that; and the Mexican are not, they’re more wild, they’re freer. And a lot of people when they think Hispanic they lump us all together. But just those two distinctions—the Spanish being proud and noble with fans and the hands and all that, and the Mexicans being very loose, they say: hey they’re different, Mexico and Spain.”

What an oversimplification! I thought. What a pander! It’s the kind of thing you’d say to the kind of culturally ignorant person who would assume no there’s difference between Mexicans and Spaniards because they all speak Spanish.

Had David Romo, writer, activist and sometime translator of Chiapas revolutionary Subcomandante Marcos, heard Serrano’s break-down of the cultural differences between Spaniards and Mexicans, I imagine he would have shrugged it off with a small smile, the same way he shrugged off Viva! when I spoke to him earlier that day. Romo also ran The Bridge Cultural Arts Center in downtown El Paso. A center for political activism and multicultural advocacy, The Bridge provided local experimental artists a gallery in which to present work, a stage for poets and musicians, a bookstore selling subversive literature, and a coffee-shop for people to both meet and organize.

Members of the Bridge had been participating in a fight against the City’s decision mount a larger-than-life Juan D’Onate on horseback. Romo wryly noted that the horse was sculpted to be anatomically correct—it was all just too perfect, the giant horse penis made possible with taxpayer money, to honor a butcher of Natives.

Romo also was attempting to combine historical clarification with local business development. Downtown El Paso was a beautiful ghost town, bleached in the sun and increasingly empty. Romo told me he was working on creating tours of historic downtown that would tell untold histories—a tour of hot spots of the Mexican Revolution, for example; or visits to the “reservation,” as the red light district was known, and within whose boundaries prostitutes were left alone by city fathers and law enforcement to ply their trade.

The commitment to writing and disseminating a people’s history of El Paso animates Romo’s work. (His most recent book is Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juarez, 1893-1923.) So of course he dismissed Viva! as a trifle. Viva! replaces El Paso’s bloody history with singing, dancing tableaux of a fictional, joyous past in which D’Onate arrives on horseback, proudly gives some orders, and then clomps off with not so much as a severed hand while proud Spaniards in fancy dresses dance flamenco in the background; a past in which every young Mexican girl came from a family well-off enough to have a dueña; a past in which “Miss Kitty,” a white woman with a troupe of pretty can-can dancers, runs a happy-go-lucky saloon, not a whorehouse.

The Reproach

I took my orange plastic seat. I saw a backdrop of scrubbly wildlife with a couple of primitive set pieces stuck in the canyon. I saw, projected onto the hills, the light splitting over a two-dimensional cut-out of a Spanish Mission, a 20-foot long logo for Southwest Airlines, corporate sponsor for the season.

Sitting there in a twilit amphitheater with a thousand other people rustling and murmuring did somehow intensify my normal pre-show anticipation—that squirmy, excited feeling that something big was about to happen. I get that feeling every time I sit down to see a play. I’m always excited, expectant. Perhaps that’s why the word I use more than any other after a play ends tends to be “disappointed”.

Then the show started—and I mean, blam, it started. The house dropped to black, and performers began surging onstage in a rainbow of neon ruffles and white spandex, blazing some serious energy, all dancing to “La Bamba.”

Just when I thought more people couldn’t come onstage, they did—in lime green and neon pink, and sequins, with aggressive, take-no-prisoners smiles—while colored lights flashed and loud music blared. It was a jazz recital on steroids: at least fifty dancers moved on and offstage, performing simple steps with crisp execution, shimmying relentlessly, forming lines, circles, crossing in pairs, waving streamers and carrying flags and marching forward with big signs that spelled out “V-I-V-A.”

I was paralyzed by the sight—tears burst out of my eyes without permission and rolled in streams down my cheeks as I broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggles, my body shaking in my seat, trying to maintain some semblance of self-control and realizing it was useless. The earnest, radiant spectacle caught me completely off-guard. I could not remember the last time I had been rendered so utterly helpless by theater.

The Approach

The summer is brutally hot, Friday night highways thick with cars. Cities all somehow look alike from the highway crowded with billboards, strip clubs, poured cement chain box store strip malls. Take the Patriot Freeway of the 10, exit at Fred Wilson, a left turn and right turn at a beat-to-shit liquor store, and you enter McKelligon Canyon.

A surprisingly quiet, inoffensive state park, it seems untouched but for three things: the simply paved road winding through it; an overlook marked by a ring of orange picnic tables; and an enormous amphitheater carved into the side of one of the low-lying mountains. It is home of Viva El Paso! a historical outdoor drama and dance show that had, at that point, been running for over 25 years.

A young director fresh from Manhattan, I had traveled thousands of miles to see what, if anything, could be learned from populist forms of American theater like Viva! After three years, I felt that if New York was the center of theater in America, we were in big trouble.

Perhaps it was the way I saw people going to see plays—not for pleasure or even escapism, but as a cultural check-mark, like visiting a museum, like it’s good for you. This is bad for theater on a number of levels—theater’s supposed cultural cachet intimidates and strips power from audiences in a way other entertainments simply don’t—people who have never heard of a key grip will rip apart a movie they dislike; couch potatoes with beer guts will confidently provide full color commentary during NFL games with no shame.

Not so with theater. I remember once walking down Broadway at around 10:00pm when the shows were letting out. I wandered among the disappointed tourists, listening to them—“well, that one actor was good,” “that one speech at the end was kind of—”, “I guess I didn’t understand it”—trying to justify the $90 they’d just spent on something that had failed to dazzle or move them.

I heard about historical outdoor dramas, site-specific performances of American history staged annually, mostly in the summer, in amphitheaters all over the country. It seemed clear to me that this theater knew something I and my cohorts in New York did not know, and I decided to go find out what it was.

That being said, I arrived in El Paso (the first major Outdoor Drama I saw, during the first of a 10-week itinerary) with a well-developed sense of snobbery masked as critical distance. They were dishing out plates of bargain barbecue before the show, and the audience members, seniors brought in by the busload, families and couples poured through the buffet lines on their way to their seats. A live mariachi band blared in the front courtyard—according to Christy, the perky PR intern for Viva!, “loving what they do, playing their cultural music, doing their thing.”