Seven years ago, three B.C. Latinx theatre artists set off a controversy that captured attention across the country. Carmen Aguirre, Pedro Chamale, and Alexandra Lainfiesta signed a letter objecting to the casting of non-Latinx actors in the two romantic leading roles in a show called The Motherfucker With the Hat.
“It went public,” Chamale tells Pancouver in a Zoom call with Aguirre. “We had over 200 signatures of allies and Latinx folks expressing their interest about why this happened.”
According to Chamale, this provoked an intense backlash. He says that he and the other signatories were accused of jealousy and of acting like jilted performers.
“I mean, Carmen has been fighting for our community for decades,” Chamale says. “She warned us, but it was so visceral. It was so real.”
Chamale and Aguirre insist that their goal was to highlight systemic discrimination in the arts. But it dawned upon them that the counter-reaction occurred in the way that it did because they came forward as individuals.
So in response, they decided to organize and create a nonprofit organization, the Canadian Latinx Theatre Artist Coalition, to advocate collectively. And shortly before the pandemic, it held its first “Coyuntura” on unceded Coast Salish territory to discuss issues of common concern and anticolonial practices.
At the time, Aguirre mentioned that coyuntura meant taking historical context into account in the present situation in deciding how to proceed in the future.
“The thing about systemic racism is that it is a system,” Aguirre says over Zoom. “So a systemically racist way to argue with somebody who speaks up, like myself, is to make it about the individual.”
Scarcity of Latinx stories on Canadian stages
She adds that those who are keen to pathologize their critics don’t have to acknowledge the existence of any system. This makes it easier to characterize the person raising concerns as crazy or an extremist or someone having an emotional response.
“It is an actual system that was put in place 400 years ago for these reasons: colonization and extraction of labour,” Aguirre declares. “So, the only reason why things have started to change is because people like myself, people like Pedro, have put ourselves on the line for many, many, many years.”
Aguirre also emphasizes that there’s a scarcity of Latinx stories on Canadian stages, including in Vancouver.
She acknowledges that she doesn’t know if the letter had ramifications in the actual casting of film and TV roles. However, she says it certainly generated a great deal of conversation.
“As hard as it was, I have heard oftentimes now that it was a game changer in the Vancouver theatre,” Aguirre says.
She then cites a statement that Chamale made at at a town hall regarding how he and Aguirre would proceed if they were eager to stage a play about any other community, whether it’s Vietnamese, South Asian, or anyone else.
“We’re not just going to get a bunch of Latinx friends to put on this Vietnamese play in a vacuum and have not a single Vietnamese person involved on- or off-stage,” Aguirre says. “I think that’s what’s changed since our letter.”
Just last week, she says that a young, racialized actor went out of their way to thank her in public in front of a bunch of other actors.
“They literally said ‘You changed my life because then, I thought I was being crazy. I was being gaslit all the time. To see what you folks did—I was, like, oh my God. It’s not just me imagining things,’ ” Aguirre recalls.
Coyuntura will address self-identification
On April 15 and 16, the Canadian Latinx Theatre Artist Coalition and SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs will hold the second Coyuntura on unceded Coast Salish Territory. It will focus on nationality, ethnicity, and cultural competence, as well as the politics and ethics of self-identification.
Each day at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts will end with a three-hour general assembly. Participants will gather in a circle moderated by theatre artists Columpa Bobb and Tania Carter.
“We don’t want it to just be a bitching session, which is why we have these two wonderful, amazing facilitators,” Aguirre says. “We want to walk away with actionable items.”
Chamale offers a reminder that the Latinx community is not a monolith. In fact, there’s a great deal of diversity. Most people from that part of the world speak Spanish. However, in the largest country, Brazil, the national language is Portuguese.
“We have to think about Afro Latinx people and Indigenous folks from Latin America,” he says.
This is on my mind! Listen up Hollywood and platforms! https://t.co/yDCipUBwZ5
— John Leguizamo (@JohnLeguizamo) November 1, 2022
Leguizamo engages in similar advocacy
In the meantime, the coalition has created a database of Latinx theatre artists. Chamale says that this makes it more difficult for shows to claim that there aren’t Latinx actors available for certain roles. He points out that the coalition can now ask producers or casting directors if they’ve checked the database.
Aguirre says that the issue of self-identification has been a concern since the coalition was created. As a gatekeeper, it wants to ensure that anyone who describes themselves as Latinx in the database is either from the region referred to as Latin America or their family is from there.
“We want to make it really clear that we’re never referring to gender,” Aguirre says.
In Hollywood, actor John Leguizamo has raised similar concerns about actors of Latin American ancestry losing out on roles for Latin American characters. And he’s said that this dates back generations.
One of his examples was Al Pacino, an Italian American, playing Cuban drug lord Tony Montana in Scarface.
Last year, Leguizamo wrote an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, declaring that Spaniards are not Latin American. Yet they too have received roles for Latin American characters. He cited two high-profile Spaniards in particular, Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem, describing them as “white Europeans”.
For her part, Aguirre appreciates Leguizamo’s advocacy. She points out that Spaniards were the colonizers of racialized Latin Americans and imposed their language on the region.
Conversely, in the United States and Canada, Spanish is viewed by many as a racialized language.
“A lot of people are, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know Spaniards weren’t Latinx. I thought they were Latinx,’ ” Aguirre says. “Of course, you thought that because Spaniards are playing Latinx.”
The Canadian Latinx Theatre Artist Coalition and SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs will present Coyuntura on Saturday and Sunday (April 15 and 16). For more information and tickets, visit the SFU website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.