Bay Area playwright Marisela Trevino Orta
with set designer Carlos Fresquez.
Photo by Don Bain
By John Kuebler
September 10, 2008
In late 2006, a little known Bay Area playwright named Marisela TreviÃ±o Orta won the prestigious University of California Irvine Chicano/Latino Literary Award for her first play, Braided Sorrow. The play is a poetic meditation on the hundreds (some say thousands) of unsolved murders and kidnappings in Ciudad Juarez over the past 15 years. Most of the victims in these cases are young women who flock to the city to work the maquiladora (sweatshops) that sprung up in Juarez during the 1990s as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The climate of worker disregard, police apathy, and criminal impunity has made Juarez one of the most violent and dangerous cities in Mexico, with over 800 murders officially reported so far this year.
I caught up with Marisela recently to talk about the world premiere of Braided Sorrow at El Centro Su Teatro in Denver, September 18 – October 18.
John Kuebler: How did you come to write a play about the women of Juarez?
Marisela TreviÃ±o Orta: The first time I heard about the femicide in Ciudad Juarez was in 2004 when NPR broadcasted a story about Juarez and the missing women. At the time I was just beginning to venture into playwriting, and after hearing the broadcast two thoughts entered my mind: 1) that these women were casualties of global economics, seen as expendable or replaceable, and 2) the current economic conquest of Latin America reminded me of the fall of the Aztec empire—that is the cultural conquest of the Americas by the Spanish. As a student of Latin American history I found the parallel between the situation in Ciudad Juarez and the fall of the Aztec empire intriguing. They say history repeats itself. What if that’s what’s happening in Juarez, just different players, but the same devastation?
The story stayed with me for several days. It’s unfathomable, the idea that 400 women (that was the number at the time) had gone missing or had turned up murdered all in one city.
In some ways I think the play’s subject matter chose me. What I mean is that for me the plays I write are the stories that haunt me, that stay with me. In this case I knew almost immediately that I needed to write a play about the women in Juarez.
JK: I know you are an accomplished poet. What sort of windows does playwriting open that poetry does not or cannot?
MTO: Lorca said, “A play is a poem standing up.” I couldn’t agree more. A play is a living poem inhabiting three-dimensional space. Whereas a poem lives on the page and can be experienced by a solitary reader, a play requires the collaboration of actors, directors, set designers, etc. This collaboration allows all the artists involved in the production to be co-authors in a sense since the exact same production can never be repeated, it exists for the duration of its run. Yes, it can be produced somewhere else, but different artists bring different experiences, perspectives, and talents to each different production. Because of this each production feels ephemeral, special in its own way. I say all this to underscore that plays are a special collaboration, one I enjoy because it has allowed me to work with some truly amazing and talented artists.
JK: How does poetry affect your playwriting?
MTO: My own poetics greatly informs my playwriting. I’m an image driven poet and it’s evident in my playwriting. I’m interested in images that can be layered with meaning, take for example the pomegranate. Feminine, and with juice the color of blood, the pomegranate is a symbol for the missing women in Juarez. It evokes the Greek myth of Persephone who was kidnapped, tricked into eating seeds of a pomegranate, and forced to spend half the year with Hades in the Underworld.
I’m a big fan of Greek myths, and mythology in general. Their images and stories saturate our culture in unconscious ways. Therefore when they appear in my plays I feel they bring to the piece a layered meaning that an audience may recognize as a reference or resonate at an unconscious level.
JK: You’ve been commissioned to write plays for theaters like Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley and Teatro Vivo in Austin. Are these socially conscious plays like Braided Sorrow?
MTO: Yes, my two other plays are social justice plays. All three of my plays focus on issues related to the border (immigration, deaths along the border). And I imagine that I still have a few more plays on the subject still in me. I’ve said before that even though I’m fourth generation Mexican American the border is a preoccupation of mine. In a way it’s an apt metaphor for my personal struggle to define my cultural identity. Therefore the issues connected to the border I feel are connected to me.
JK: Do you see your work as an extension or evolution of classic Teatro Chicano, or do you identify more with another school of theater?
MTO: I came to theater through poetry. I was the resident poet of El Teatro Jornalero! a social justice theater company composed of Latin American immigrants and living in San Francisco. Working with ETJ! was my first experience with a theater of resistance. And since I’ve never formally studied theater, I can’t say I’m consciously adopting any specific school of theater. Of course, as someone who is greatly influenced by her culture, it makes sense that my work can be seen as sitting somewhere on the spectrum of Teatro Chicano. I am a Latina, a Mexican American, a Tejana, a poet, a playwright, a woman—all these facets of my identity feed into my work.
JK: Would you say the issues raised in Braided Sorrow are as relevant now as they were when you wrote the play 3 years ago?
MTO: Absolutely. Women are still disappearing and virtually nothing is being done on the part of the Mexican government. The average American knows nothing if anything about the femicide in Juarez, or their connection to it. What I mean is, we as Americans are connected to this issue by the very fact that the factories that employ so many of the missing women are American-owned. Therefore American owners, stockholders, and even consumers benefit from the fact that those factories are in Mexico where a lower wage can be given to its employees thereby maximizing profits while keeping the cost on the market low as well.
I’ve often said that if American factories in one city had 400 American women employees go missing or turn up murdered over the course of ten years no one would stand for it. Not the public, not the government—even the companies would try to save face by getting involved. Yet, because these factories are located just south of the border the companies, at least, don’t seem concerned with the safety of their workers.
JK: What has your experience been like working with Su Teatro to premiere Braided Sorrow?
MTO: Working with the actors for the July reading of Braided Sorrow was very informative. The stories that were shared had one similar thread: there was almost a sense of resignation in Juarez, that the death, the murders, the horror going on over there is becoming every day life. There’s nothing more tragic than normalizing atrocities.
My July trip also gave me time to hang out with Su Teatro staff, which was wonderful fun. Su Teatro has a strong sense of family and community. And they welcomed me right in and made me feel right at home.
Inaugural experiences are very special occasions. I will always remember my first production. Always remember Su Teatro and the thrill of seeing my first play take its first steps onto the stage and into the future.