Dolores Prida saw and heard much to impress her in 1976 in Caracas, Venezuela, where she was reporting on an international theater festival for Visión, a Latin American newsmagazine. However, she was surprised to note that not a single one of the plays she viewed took up issues then being aired by the feminist movement. At the time, Prida was actively involved with feminism on her home turf of the United States, and she knew that the same issues preoccupying women there were also preoccupying women in Latin America and elsewhere around the world. When Prida discovered that plays addressing women's issues within Latin American contexts were scarce, she was determined to write a play that would help remedy that scarcity. Beautiful Señoritas is that play. It was staged in New York City in 1977 at the DUO Theatre.
In the essay "The Show Does Go On," published in Breaking the Boundaries, Prida's description of Beautiful Señoritas reveals its particular feminist focus. That focus is on female gender roles and stereotypes, particularly as they pertain to Latin women. Beautiful Señoritas, she says, is "a modest one-act musical play that poke[s] fun at longstanding Latin women stereotypes—from Carmen Miranda to Cuchi Cuchi Charo to suffering black-shrouded women crying and praying over their tortillas to modern-day young Latinas trying to re-define their images." Although it was published in 1991 in two acts, Prida would nevertheless call the work a one-act play owing to its brevity.
Like most of Prida's subsequent plays, Beautiful Señoritas is both comic and serious and has been staged many times. Prida is, indeed, a well-established American dramatist, and most large libraries hold volumes of at least some of her plays. Beautiful Señoritas can be found in the volume titled Beautiful Señoritas & Other Plays, published by Arte Publico Press (1991).
Dolores Prida was born on September 5, 1943, in Caibarién, Cuba. In 1959, following Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba, Prida's father fled the country for the United States, and his family soon followed. Established with her family in New York City in 1961, Prida made Manhattan her base. In New York City, Prida began working in a bakery and attending night classes at Hunter College. Soon, she was writing for various Spanish-language publications, such as El tiempo and Nuestro. She was also writing and publishing poetry at this time.
Eventually, Prida developed an interest in the theater, forming a connection with the Latino collective group Teatro Popular on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Her first play, Beautiful Señoritas, was performed at DUO, an experimental theater where Prida would go on to stage more of her plays. Although Prida is best known as a playwright and has devoted most of her creative energies to writing drama, as opposed to other forms of fiction, she has written nonfiction as well. For example, in 2005 she was a senior editor at Latina Magazine.
A number of concerns characterize Prida's plays. Women's issues are the focus of Beautiful Señoritas. Prida also explores the themes of biculturalism, in Coser y cantar (1981), and the plight of the poor, in The Beggars Soap Opera (1979). Prida is very much a modern playwright, whose plays evidence the instincts of an avid experimentalist and dedicated entertainer. Prida experiments in the sense that she does not hesitate to mix and match dramatic forms and moods in a single play. Thus, Beautiful Señoritas is both comic and tragic and borrows from Broadway musicals. Besides borrowing from Broadway, Prida also draws on popular cultural forms, such as soap operas (as in the 1986 play Pantallas), in her effort to entertain her audience. While Prida might parody elements of the popular forms from which she borrows, she understands what is powerful about them and utilizes those strengths to her own purposes.
A vital figure in American drama and letters, Prida is a highly respected member of the many communities and organizations in which she is so active. She was honored with the Cintas Fellowship for literature in 1976 and the Creative Artistic Public Service Award for Playwriting in 1976, and she received an honorary doctorate from Mount Holyoke College in 1989.
Beautiful Señoritas opens with the character Don José pacing nervously and smoking a cigar. From what he says, the audience learns that he is awaiting the birth of a child, whom he expects to be a boy. On receiving the news that the child is a girl, he expresses disappointment and disgust. The man's masculine self-regard and disdain for things female set the tone for Prida's play about women's second-class status in traditional Latino and Latin American cultures.
Four Beautiful Señoritas take the place of Don José on stage. They speak nonsensically, sprinkling their speech with Spanish words. While dancing, they sing a song that, despite its nonsensical Page 35 | Top of Articleportions, still conveys coherent ideas: namely, that in the eyes of non-Latinos, Latino culture in the United States is a clichéd group of notions, among which is the female stereotype that Latin women are "always ready for Amor [Love]."
The four Señoritas exit the stage, and two different female characters, María la O and the Beauty Queen, appear. They are in a dressing room at a venue hosting a beauty pageant. They converse about their chances of making money by banking on their good looks. They exit, and the Midwife and Girl enter. As the Midwife speaks of the worries of women who rely on their beauty, the Girl sits at the dressing table at which María la O was seated earlier. She applies makeup, her back to the audience. Once the Midwife stops speaking, the Girl turns to face the audience. Her face is painted like a clown's.
A Master of Ceremonies (MC) takes the stage. He is presiding over a beauty pageant somewhere in the United States. The contestants are Miss Little Havana, Miss Chili Tamale, Miss Conchita Banana, and Miss Commonwealth. All of them, save Miss Commonwealth, sing a short song when they are introduced. They play up to the MC, who asks them ridiculous questions. They also all take the roles of different Women characters immediately after they appear as contestants. As Women characters, they express their inner thoughts and dreams.
A Man enters with a chair, places it in the center of the stage, and sits on it. The Girl enters and sits at the edge of the stage with her back to the audience. She is followed onstage by four Catch Women, who sit around the Man. As they speak, it is as if they are instructing the girl. They talk of how to tantalize and confuse men. When they have finished, the Man sings a song about how the women "do it all" for him: "They do it all for me / What they learn in a magazine / They do it all for me."
Then the Nun enters, grasps the Girl, and commands the Girl to pray. The Priest and four Señoritas enter. The Señoritas begin confessing to the priest their transgressions involving boyfriends and men. The scene ends with all except the Girl overcome by sexual hysteria.
As the act opens, the MC is making a "welcome back" speech. A Woman sits on a swing, swinging and singing. She sings about men who promise love and say sweet things but really have only seduction and betrayal on their minds. The stage, which has been dimly lit, now is lit fully. A group of Señoritas sits together and speaks at a dance. The Girl is also present with a Chaperone. A man, a seducer, dances with various of the Señoritas. He leaves with one of the Señoritas as the others relate tales of seduction, betrayal, and reputations ruined.
The action changes as the female characters sing a wedding song. The song explains that when women marry, they give up all their dreams and devote their energies to their husbands and children and their houses. The Martyr female figures are on stage, wearing wigs with rollers. They mime typical household duties, such as ironing and sweeping. They speak of the drudgery and boredom they endure and of being physically abused by their husbands, as if this were inevitable and part of what it is to be a wife.
The Guerrillera (meaning "female guerrilla fighter") arrives in the midst of the Martyrs. She rouses them with stirring words about how women must liberate themselves and create richer and freer lives for themselves. She says that there will be a fund-raiser for the cause of women's advancement, and everybody sings a song about the fund-raising event, which will only mean more work for the women, while the guerrilla men talk about change. Afterward, the female characters remember that there are chores awaiting them, chores they are neglecting. The Martyr characters leave the stage, and a Man enters dressed as a campesino, a farm laborer. A Social Researcher questions him, and a picture of his and his wife's life emerges. The point of the scene is to show that the campesino's wife endures far more hardship than he. She has had sixteen children and works so long all day that she is still doing chores once her husband has gone to bed.
The setting shifts to a family scene. The family depicted is a traditional, poor one. The Daughter wants to go out to play but is not allowed because of her gender. The Son, on the other hand, is indulged. The Wife is submissive to her Husband, and the Mother and Father train the children in traditional gender roles. The Daughter announces that she is pregnant. The Son, as Brother to Sister/Daughter, announces that he will exact revenge for her shame. The Son says that he has made his own girlfriend pregnant, that she has nowhere to go, and that he cannot support her. The Mother tells her son not to worry, to bring the girl into their home. The play ends with Women characters speaking of what women endure: beating, rape, disrespect, lack of equal opportunity. They tell of their dream of a Page 36 | Top of Articlebetter future. The Girl joins in, talking about the better future that awaits women as they develop a sense of what they want from life and from the societies in which they live.
Miss Conchita Banana
The MC introduces the beauty pageant contestant Miss Conchita Banana as an invention of Madison Avenue for the United Fruit Company. In other words, this character represents a figure created by advertisers to sell bananas. Like Carmen Miranda, this figure is a tropical stereotype. As Woman 3, this character expresses her wish to one day become a real person, as if to suggest that stereotypes deny the humanity of those who are stereotyped.
Beautiful Señorita 1
No character in Prida's Beautiful Señoritas has a proper name, the Beautiful Señoritas of the title not excluded. Rather, four actors portray four different Beautiful Señoritas, who, as their generic naming suggests, cannot be distinguished from each other in any appreciable way other than through their costuming, which points to Latin female stereotypes propagated by Latinos themselves. These four characters appear very briefly in the play, as a group, at the play's beginning. According to the stage directions, they are to appear on stage dancing, accompanied by rumba music, and they sing a song. Quite nonsensical, the song nevertheless conveys two major ideas. One is that most people have come to think of South American Latin culture largely in terms of clichés. One typical line of the song, for example, is "Guacamole Latin Lover." The second major idea is that Latin women are "always ready for amor," "amor" meaning "love." In other words, a stereotype of Latin women is that they are sexually precocious—"hot-blooded," "hot Latin," and so forth. Of course, since the Beautiful Señoritas resemble famous Latina women in popular culture, Prida points out that Latinos themselves reinforce these stereotypes. Eager to cash in, Latinos caricature their own culture.
One señorita—perhaps Beautiful Señorita 1—is to be dressed as Carmen Miranda. Miranda is most well known in the United States as a singer and movie star who made her fortune portraying the stereotype of the heavily accented, happy-singing-and-dancing tropical woman. Her most notorious items of costuming are a dress that leaves her midriff bare and an immense headdress made of tropical fruits.
Beautiful Señorita 2
Judging from Prida's stage directions, Beautiful Señorita 2 is to act and be costumed so as to bring to mind the Latina entertainer Charo. Charo's famous suggestive trademark line "cuchi, cuchi" underscores her image as a sex symbol projecting the hot Latin stereotype.
Beautiful Señorita 3
Beautiful Señorita 3 appears as Iris Chacón, a Puerto Rican entertainer of the same stamp as Charo. Chacón hosted a widely popular television variety and talk show for many years.
Beautiful Señorita 4
According to Prida's stage directions, Beautiful Señorita 4 is to call to mind María la O, a stereotypical Latin female character in the style of Beautiful Señoritas 1, 2, and 3. María la O appears in a zarzuela (light opera) of the same name written by a Latin composer. A bit later in the play, this character is referred to quite simply as "María la O." In this second appearance, she is in conversation with the Beauty Queen. The women compare notes on how they can parlay their good looks into money.
Despite the large number of characters appearing in Prida's play, only a small number of actors are required. Actors simply exit as one character, make a quick costume adjustment, and then return to the stage as a different character. Thus, one of the Beautiful Señoritas next appears as the Beauty Queen.
The Beauty Queen converses with a character named María la O, explaining how she is tired of her life of competition and smiles. Hoping eventually to be discovered by a movie producer, in the meantime she appreciates whatever money she makes when she places in a beauty pageant.
This character appears in a scene designed to display gender roles within less educated Latino and Latin American families. In response to the news that his sister is pregnant by a friend, the Brother declares he will make his friend pay in blood ("con sangre"). Appearing as the Son, this Page 37 | Top of Articlecharacter enjoys pride of place in relation to his sister (the Daughter figure).
There are three Catch Women in Prida's play, Catch Woman 1, 2, and 3. There is little difference between them. The only reason there are three and not just one is that they carry on a conversation. Their conversation is about how to please men so as to keep ("catch") them. They are manipulative and cynical characters; partnership with men brings them no joy.
Miss Commonwealth is the last contestant, a figure apparently representing a Caribbean hybrid culture, as her name is Lucy Wisteria Rivera. This suggests that she comes from an island that was once a part of the Spanish Empire (Rivera) before becoming part of the British Empire and Common-wealth (Lucy Wisteria). As Woman 4, she thinks of how an idyllic seaside childhood has given way to her present life in a large, unpleasant city.
The Daughter is a somewhat tragic and pathetic figure in the play. In her guise as a tragic character, she dreams of freedoms her Mother and Father do not allow because she is a girl and not a boy. In her guise as a pathetic figure, she appears as a young woman who has been fooled by the promises of a faithless young man and who has failed to protect herself sexually. Thus she finds herself pregnant and without the means to support herself and her baby.
The Father character appears as a man who enforces traditional gender roles in his children. For example, he speaks as follows to the Daughter, who has just asked permission to go out and play: "No. Stay at home with your mother. Girls belong at home…. Why don't you learn to cook, to sew, to mend my socks…." As the Husband character, he exerts control over his deferential Wife.
The Girl is the most important character in Prida's play. Unlike most of the other characters, she appears throughout. Most often, she is in a scene observing the actions of one or a group of the women characters. Then, she mimics their actions. For example, she watches María la O and the Beauty Queen converse in a scene that takes place in a dressing room where the two women are busy with cosmetics and the like. At the end of this scene, the little girl begins to apply makeup herself. By the time she has finished, she has made herself up like a clown. In this way, Prida conveys the ideas that girls learn by example and that women's obsession with beauty amounts to a disfigurement of their humanity. The Girl's presence in Prida's play communicates in no uncertain terms that each successive generation of women will continue to struggle with the same limitations and inequalities until notions of what is gender appropriate change and these new ideas are taught to little boys and girls.
The Spanish word guerrillera means "female guerrilla fighter." (The Spanish term for nontraditional, small-scale warfare, guerrilla warfare, has been adopted in English; guerra means "war," and guerrilla means "small war.") Male and female guerrilla fighters are recognizable figures within Central and South American cultures, as so many small-scale insurgencies have been fought in so many of these nations. Quite often, guerrilla fighters represent an indigenous peasantry or a lower class that is fighting to wrest power from a corrupt or European ex-imperial elite. The Guerrillera in Prida's play is thus a revolutionary figure, a figure wishing to liberate others from an injustice or servitude. She tells a group of female characters named Martyr 1, 2, and 3 the following: "We can change the world and then our [women's] lot will improve!" In a humorous, if sad, denouement to this scene, the roused Martyrs and the energetic Guerrillera find they must put their plans to change the world on hold, as their husbands will be home any minute wanting their dinners.
Don José is the first character to speak in Prida's play. He is pacing, waiting to hear news of his wife, who is delivering a baby. He is dreaming of what he will do together with his son, as he is certain his wife is having a boy. When he learns that she has given birth to a girl, he is disgusted.
Don José's actions and words make clear that he is a Latin macho male. He is so certain of his godlike power and superiority over women that he believes he has controlled biology to guarantee himself a male heir. That he is the first character to speak in the play is telling. This conveys the masculine character of traditional Latin culture, the way that men always come first. The birthing scene also Page 38 | Top of Articlecommunicates the idea that young Latins are groomed in their gender roles from the day they are born.
Miss Little Havana
Miss Little Havana is one of the play's beauty contestants. The song she sings tells the story of one class of Cuban (now Cuban American) women, those upper-class women who fled Cuba with their families and as much of their wealth as they could gather in the aftermath of Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba in the name of the country's impoverished masses. Castro confiscated the land and monies of the wealthy, redistributing the land and reapportioning the monies. As Woman 1, this contestant's inner thoughts are divulged. She thinks of how invisible she is in the United States, how her accent renders her a nonentity, how her social status has thus changed dramatically.
The Man speaks to the Social Researcher character, who is an educated outsider in his village, studying the village's ways. Answering questions about his wife, he declares that she does not work because she stays at home. Then, quite ironically, he tells the Social Researcher what his wife does all day at home: cooking, cleaning, tending the animals, and so forth. His inability to see the contradiction reinforces Prida's point that men are deluded in their belief in their superiority.
Three martyr figures named Martyr 1, 2, and 3 appear in Prida's play. They are presented as typical Latina women of the less-educated or less-privileged classes who are bound to the house and housework. Their lives amount to endless drudgery, and they accept as natural and inevitable the physical abuse their husbands dole out.
MC stands for "Master of Ceremonies." The MC appears throughout the play, as he is orchestrating the beauty pageant that, in fits and starts, unfolds as the play does. He is a stock comedic MC, always upbeat and treating the most trivial of matters with perfect seriousness, by turns smarmy and vulgar.
The Midwife appears periodically in the play. She is an ambiguous figure, sometimes directing pernicious gender clichés in the direction of the Girl, sometimes commenting poignantly on the action. The following words illustrate this doubleness:
Yes. You have to smile to win. A girl with a serious face has no future. But what can you do when a butterfly is trapped in your insides and you cannot smile? How can you smile with a butterfly condemned to beat its ever-changing wings in the pit of your stomach?
In her brief appearance, this character exemplifies a typical, traditional Latin mother. She grooms the play's Daughter to be meek and indulges the Son as the more important child. As the Wife, this character defers to the Husband of the play in all things, training the Daughter to follow in her footsteps.
A stock figure, the Nun interacts with the Girl, encouraging the Girl to forget the profane concerns of beauty and to embrace the piety of Catholicism.
The Priest hears a confession in Prida's play in a scene that suggests that the Christian/Catholic policing of sex amounts to an unhealthy repression that breeds sexual hysteria.
The Señoritas (1, 2, 3, and 4) appear in the confession scene as confessors, admitting to a priest to having kissed their boyfriends. The combination of sexual matters and the confessional proves to be a heady mixture, eliciting sexual hysteria in the Señoritas, the Priest, and the Nun.
A Social Researcher appears briefly, interviewing a peasant in a Latin American village. The opposition of Researcher and Man emphasizes the outdated nature of the Man's views.
Miss Chili Tamale
The beauty contestant Miss Chili Tamale hails from Mexico. She seems meek, and she tells the MC that her dream is to marry an American man so as to become a U.S. citizen. As Woman 2, she expresses the resentment some Mexicans and Mexican Americans who live in the American Page 39 | Top of ArticleSouthwest feel: they remember how the land was once part of Mexico until it was lost in land war with the United States.
Four Women—Woman 1, 2, 3, and 4—have a prominent part in the ending of Prida's play. They voice the concerns, longings, and dreams of all of the women of Beautiful Señoritas. They mourn how women the world over are treated as second-class citizens. They lament that women are raped, abused, and beaten and often have little or no recourse to justice. They long for a new day when women will be given all the opportunities and respect that men enjoy.
A stereotype of a particular group of people, a nation, or a culture might be entirely without foundation, a caricature of an existing characteristic, or a complex combination of the two. For example, an old stereotype of women was that they were not intellectual. As more and more women attend university at advanced levels, this stereotype has lost ground. Women have entered various professions and are now successful doctors, stockbrokers, academics, and lawyers. Still, since women were excluded from education for so long, it appeared as if they lacked the ability to perform in the professions that men did. Thus, although it was without empirical foundation, this stereotype seemed true, owing to the way in which society had been organized. Prida's play attempts to expose stereotypes of Latin women. In her depiction of the group of Martyr characters, for example, she is not saying that such women do not exist. She is saying, rather, that such women do not need to exist, that this is not a natural state of affairs. If Latin society were organized differently, then Latin women would not behave like long-suffering martyrs.
Nature versus Nurture
Prida's play emphasizes the crucial role that education plays in constructions of gender. In showing how the Girl character mimics the behavior of the Women characters, Prida argues that gender-appropriate behavior is, in large part, a matter of that which is taught (nurture) as opposed to that which is biologically determined (nature). This opposition of nurture to nature is a basic feminist argument. For example, if women are nurtured to believe that they are delicate by nature or that to be delicate is to be truly feminine, they will hesitate to take up those sports that would seem to belie delicacy. For centuries, only men took part in vigorous sports. Education for Prida is not simply a matter of the formal curriculum one learns at school; it is also a matter of everyday informal training within the family, within one's community, and through pop culture via television and film. The importance of popular culture in forming people's behavior and values, particularly in the realm of gender, is seen when Prida's various female characters appear as famous celebrities and fictional characters—as the entertainer Charo, for example. Prida's point in parading Charo's image is that if women who act like so-called bimbos (attractive but stupid) succeed financially and receive a great deal of attention, then little girls will emulate them.
In a society where women are considered less than men, masculinism reigns. Masculinism assumes that men are the more valuable gender in the world: more intelligent, better problem solvers, harder workers, and so on. It also assumes that women, owing to their lesser capabilities, are best led by men: men should call the shots politically, culturally, and in the family; women should be followers and obey their husbands. While the feminist movement has loosened, and even shattered, many of the cornerstone beliefs of masculinism, there is evidence that a degree of masculinism persists in even the most feminist of societies. In Beautiful Señoritas, masculinism remains strong. No matter that Prida's play was written in 1977, the fact remains that in certain parts of the Latin world there are still men invested in macho views, those extremes of male superiority that are seen in the characters of Don José and the campesino.
The mid-twentieth-century singer and actor Carmen Miranda was a Brazilian who spent her lucrative days in Hollywood exploiting a Latin stereotype. She appeared in films wearing outrageous costumes that conveyed the idea that Brazilians lived in a tropical paradise where everyone was happy, lusty, and wily (but just a little bit simple, too). Of course, Miranda managed to poke fun at herself while she performed in this way; she was silly and excessive enough to convey the idea that what she was doing was indeed caricaturing a Page 40 | Top of Articleculture. Nonetheless, her career in the United States reinforced this Latin stereotype.
That Prida's play features Latins who reinforce Latin stereotypes points to Prida's conviction that Latins are complicit in their own plight. It is a plight in which they lack true visibility, since many Americans evince little interest in learning about the complexities and subtleties of Latin cultures and, instead, are content to hold on to stereotypical notions. The reality, however, is that there is not a single Latin culture; there are many. There are differences between Salvadorans, Chileans, and Mexicans, and their nations have unique histories. These peoples emigrated to the United States for a variety of reasons. As long as Latins propagate stereotypes in conjunction with non-Latins, the true nature of their cultures, and of themselves as individuals, will remain invisible to outsiders.
New Directions in Characterization
There is not a single character in Prida's play who is given a proper name. All the characters have generic names, such as Girl, Brother, and Daughter. On the one hand, this serves the very specific purpose of Beautiful Señoritas, which is to point out to the audience that standard, set gender roles are doled out to men and women alike: in some senses, all girls are the same girl, all wives are the Page 41 | Top of Articlesame wife. On the other hand, Prida's use of character points to new directions in characterization in contemporary drama. Playwrights no longer feel compelled to present characters who act like people in real life. This is not to say that Prida's characters act unusually all of the time. Still, the fact that the audience is not introduced to a character with a proper name who is a part of a story with other such characters suggests the degree to which Prida feels free to experiment widely.
In reading a novel or in seeing a play, most people expect a chronological narrative (story). In this kind of narrative, a number of characters are introduced and proceed to interact in ways that produce or reveal various problems or complexities. At the end of the story, the narrative resolves—whether for good or for ill. There is no narrative in Beautiful Señoritas, not even in the way that the play (very loosely) takes place in the form of a beauty pageant. Indeed, this pageant is only barely felt as an ongoing, unfolding event, so that on the whole the play takes place as a series of completely unconnected events. At any given moment in Beautiful Señoritas, two characters will converse; at the next moment, two or three entirely different characters will interact—new characters, to whom the audience has not been introduced and whom they will never see again. Prida, in short, feels no need to present a story to her audience. Like many contemporary playwrights, Prida believes that narrative belongs to the realm of the novel and short story on the printed page and that drama, in its aural and visual—that is, live—dimensions, can and should be something entirely different.
The Cuban Revolution
Prida and her family are members of a particular group of Spanish-speaking immigrants and their descendants in the United States—Cuban Americans. Many of these Cubans came to the United States when Prida's family did, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They came in the wake of Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959. In 2005, Castro was still Cuba's leader, but he was ailing and not expected to rule for very much longer.
The situation that led to Castro's success in Cuba in the late 1950s was one that plagued not only many Central and South American nations, but also parts of the United States as well as other countries around the world. A small group of people controlled most of the nation's wealth, with a vast impoverished underclass wondering when its turn to earn would arrive. When would leaders create the conditions for the sort of industry that would improve the nation's economy and so enhance people's lives? When would the impoverished gain access to education? In the mid-twentieth century, with the existence of a Communist Soviet Union that believed in spreading its message and influence, conditions such as these were ripe for Communist revolution. Soviet Communist belief centered on the idea that workers should own the businesses in which they worked, so that profits could be equally distributed among all. Soviet Communism entailed the further belief that no one, no matter the nature of his or her job, should earn appreciably less or more than anybody else. All the wealth generated in a nation must be equally distributed.
Alarmed at Castro's success in taking over the government, many wealthy Cubans fled Cuba with whatever wealth they could take with them. Of course, not all who left were rich. Some left simply because they understood that Castro was unlikely to achieve his goals without establishing a political dictatorship. These Cubans understood that such a major restructuring of society would lead to massive governmental control and intervention in all aspects of life.
The Feminist Movement
The twentieth century was one that saw major gains for women's rights in the Western world. In the early decades of the century, feminist activists won the right for women to vote in national elections. In the later part of the century—most particularly in the 1970s, when Prida was writing Beautiful Señoritas—feminists were engaged in making society understand that attitudes about men and women had to change before laws that allowed the vote and other rights could be meaningful. For example, it was not considered feminine to have opinions or to be widely informed in matters outside the home. Women who challenged this status quo were labeled masculine—unnatural—and shunned. It was often the case that although women could vote, many left that job to their husbands, since not voting confirmed their femininity in the eyes of the world. Thus, societal disapproval frightened some women into conforming, because humans, above all, are social creatures, craving acceptance. Still, feminists worked hard so that in the United States Page 42 | Top of Articlein the twenty-first century, most women feel confident that they can pursue whatever career interests them without being accused of being unnatural. Indeed, as the cost of living rises, forcing people to spend more on such basic necessities as housing, food, medical care, gasoline, and heating fuel, a household with two good earners is a must.
A playwright's first staged effort, such as Beautiful Señoritas in the case of Prida, is lucky to receive any attention at all from critics. Yet as Prida herself has said in "The Show Does Go On," in Breaking Boundaries, "the play was exceptionally Page 43
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well received—it went on to have many productions throughout the country, including a special performance at the National Organization for Women's national convention in San Antonio, Texas, in 1980." Prida's unusual good fortune is largely owing to her skill and originality as a dramatist and partly owing to the content of Beautiful Señoritas. Its feminist and Latino themes were perfectly attuned to a time when women and minorities were asserting themselves as voices needing to be acknowledged and heard in American culture and politics. That Prida's play was staged at the National Organization for Women's convention in San Antonio attests to this. What could make more sense as a learning tool and as entertainment than a production of the play at a meeting of a major feminist organization held in the Latino Southwest?
Among Prida's plays, Beautiful Señoritas, in particular, will always be remembered not only in feminist but also in Cuban American circles. The play's place in Cuban American letters is defined by Eliana Rivero in her essay "From Immigrants to Ethnics: Cuban Women Writers in the U.S.," also from the volume Breaking Boundaries. As Rivero says, Prida's Beautiful Señoritas is important as one of the first U.S. bilingual plays, a bilingualism making concrete a very particular fact of many Latinos' lives, namely, their double identity. They are both Latin and American: "this phenomenon was first registered for Cuban women authors with the presentation in 1977 of the play Beautiful Señoritas by Dolores Prida, a writer/journalist who has distinguished herself as a playwright (Coser y cantar) and as a poet."
As Rivero's comments indicate, Prida has written plays, Coser y cantar among them, that are more highly regarded than Beautiful Señoritas. As is the case with most authors, Prida's writing and concerns have gained subtlety over time. Prida has Page 44 | Top of Articlecomposed works entirely in Spanish, such as Coser y cantar, even while she continues to write bilingual works like Beautiful Señoritas.
Dell'Amico is lecturer in the English Department of California State University, Bakersfield. In this essay, she discusses the feminism of Prida's play.
In 1976, Prida was in Caracas, Venezuela, to report on a theater festival for a magazine. She was struck by the fact that none of the plays she saw addressed a current major area of concern, women's issues, and she decided to write such a play herself on her return to New York City. This play is Beautiful Señoritas.
Beautiful Señoritas explores gender roles and stereotypes as they manifest themselves in Latin American and U.S. Latino cultures. Like so many feminists of the time, Prida is driven to question notions of what women are and how they should behave. In this play, she also looks at ideas about men, masculinity, and the stereotypical concepts of Latins held by non-Latins.
Although Beautiful Señoritas is humorous, the play conveys serious ideas and insights. The most obvious of these insights is communicated through Prida's clever decision to present the play in the form of a beauty pageant. In this way, Prida explores the idea that women are supposed to be beautiful, that they are even encouraged to compete with other women in this regard. Feminists find this use of beauty, and its implications, disturbing, and question the beauty standard for women. For example, if a woman is concerned with being beautiful to ensnare a man, it means that she does not work directly toward her own security by pursuing an education and creating a career. Rather, such a woman ensnares a man and then expects him to take care of her. One problem with this is that people divorce. What does the divorced woman do without an education or marketable skills? As feminists point out, before alimony laws were instituted, many women remained in unhappy, even abusive marriages because they realized that if they divorced, their standard of living would be dramatically reduced.
Another disturbing implication of the beauty standard is that brainwork is left largely to men: women are important for their bodies, men for their minds. This view not only encourages women to forgo a career but also underwrites the idea that women are not as intelligent as men. This pernicious notion has kept many a worthy (working) woman from receiving the promotion she deserves, as many companies buy into this belief about lesser intelligence and simply cannot see how a woman worker could be as competent as a male worker.
Of course, the idea that women are not as capable at work as men is a fallacy, a misleading belief with complex foundations and one of the most profound contradictions of traditional gender ideology. Prida addresses this contradiction with great skill in her play. At one point, she presents a researcher who is studying the culture of a traditional Latin American community. The researcher asks a man, a fieldworker, about his wife. The man says that his wife does not work, that she stays at home. He is the worker of the family, the man asserts, the one who earns money by working in the fields. When asked what his wife does all day at home, the man replies:
Well, she gets up at four in the morning, fetches water and wood, makes the fire and cooks breakfast. Then she goes to the river and washes the clothes. After that she goes to town to get the corn ground and buy what we need in the market. Then she cooks the midday meal.
When the researcher asks what she does after that, the husband says that she walks the few miles Page 45 | Top of Articleto the fields to bring him his lunch and then returns home to take "care of the hens and pigs," along with many other things. In short, the wife is still performing laborious household chores when her husband, following a good dinner cooked by her, of course, is tucked up snugly in bed.
This interlude seeks to dramatize the feminist argument that being a homemaker does not mean that a woman does not work. Rather, women who choose to stay home perform duties crucial to the upkeep of the family and hence vital to the wellbeing of the nation. Women, in other words, must be respected and acknowledged for whatever work they choose to do, no matter that this work does not take place in public. To put it another way, since women's work traditionally has taken place in the private sphere as opposed to the public one, it has not always been recognized as work. Thanks to this insight about women's work, alimony laws have been instituted in the realm of divorce legislation. Lawyers can finally argue that homemakers perform unpaid work. They can present figures for what it would cost a family to employ full-time nannies, cooks, chauffeurs, and household accountants and managers. Alimony payments are a way for society to acknowledge that women's traditional work is valuable and real. These payments also give divorced women time to train for professions that could support them when the payments might stop. (Now, of course, divorced men can and do also receive alimony payments if they took on the role of the homemaker or lesser earner in the partnership.)
Contradictions more pronounced in Latin cultures, in particular, are also addressed in Prida's play. For example, at the same time that women are encouraged to be seductive and attractive to men in these cultures, they are also supposed to emulate the Christian Virgin Mary and display innocence of mind and meek manners. Thus, Prida's preening Beautiful Señorita characters morph into the seductively teasing Catch Women, who, in turn, morph into the modest Señoritas who pray devotedly at church. Another, related contradiction is dramatized in the way in which Prida's Latin male characters expect their wives to be faithful while they themselves feel free to visit prostitutes, prostitutes whom they feel they can also despise. While such extreme and contradictory notions of gender are not limited to Latin cultures, they are more pronounced in them owing to the influence of the Catholic form of Christianity, as it is practiced by the people, which tends to encourage a dichotomous virgin/whore mentality: the Virgin Mary versus Mary Magdalene, as it were. Prida dramatizes these contradictions vividly in the confusions, costumes, and makeup of the Girl in Beautiful Señoritas:
The GIRL enters followed by Mamá. The GIRL is wearing all the items she has picked from previous scenes: the tinsel crown, the flowers, a mantilla, etc. Page 46 | Top of Article
Her face is still made up as a clown…. The GIRL looks upset, restless with all the manipulation she has endured.
In the range from the "tinsel," which points to how women must put their beauty on display, to the "mantilla," which is the veil Latin women used to be required to wear in church, Prida's audience sees in the Girl the contradictions of gender role ideology, especially as they pertain to Latin women. Further, the clownlike face of the girl suggests that women who spend a great deal of time manipulating their looks turn themselves into caricatures of humans—clowns. The clownlike face also points to the way that women who are overly concerned with men's opinion of their looks are always self-conscious, always on display, always feeling as if they are objects being looked at by an audience.
Another important component of Prida's play is its treatment of stereotypes. This is seen in the way that the Beautiful Señorita characters at the beginning of the play resemble famous female Latin icons, Charo and Carmen Miranda among them. Where the Brazilian Miranda made her money performing a tropical stereotype, Charo made hers taking advantage of the myth that Latin women are always ready for sex—the "hot Latin" myth, as it were. It is significant that Prida features Latins conforming to stereotypes. Her point is that some Latinos in American culture are quite willing to exploit stereotypes if it means making money. In other words, these stereotypes are not promulgated only by unthinking non-Latins. Likewise, she shows how women are complicit in their own objectification in the figures of the calculating Catch Women. These women pass on advice about how to keep men in sexual thrall to females. By doing so, they knowingly further the women's body-sex equation.
The world has changed radically for women in those countries that experienced the feminist agitations of the 1960s and 1970s. Before those decades, the majority of middle-class women believed that serious careers were for men only. In the twenty-first century, more women than men are graduating from medical schools in the United States. Nonetheless, at the same time, many of the social structures that feminists find contradictory persist. One has only to peruse the supermarket magazine racks packed full of fashion magazines aimed at a female audience to see that the beauty industry is booming. Indeed, its profits are in the billions of dollars worldwide, with surgeries for breast enhancements and liposuction in demand as never before. Of course, it is also true that makeup for men is now a fast-growing industry.
Has women's success in the public arena changed the meaning and effect of women's being better groomed than most men? Does the fact that men are becoming more conscious of their bodies suggest that beauty is now a way to advertise one's health and fitness? Are people who are interested in fitness expecting to have partners of like mind? Perhaps the surest test of women's definitive equality to men in U.S. society is the presidential one. When will political parties determine that running a woman for president is not a risk? When will it be true that the average American will be just as likely to vote for a woman as a man?
Source: Carol Dell'Amico, Critical Essay on Beautiful Señoritas, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following essay, Prida provides background information on her evolution as a playwright and comments on the growing Hispanic theater movement.
Over ten years ago, when my first play was produced in New York City, I dragged my whole family down to a dank basement in the Lower East Side to see it. My mother, who never really Page 47 | Top of Articleunderstood what I did in the theatre, said to me after the show was over: "Todo estuvo muy bonito, m'ija, pero, en todo eso que yo vi, ¿qué fue exactamente lo que tú hiciste?" I explained to her that I had written the play, that I was the dramaturga. She just said, "ahhh," and shook her head.
I fantasized about her, next morning, telling her coworkers at that factory in Brooklyn where she used to sew sleeves onto raincoats all day long, "¿Oye, Rosalía, tú sabes que mi hija, la mayor, es dramaturga?" And Rosalía answering, "¿Dramaturga? ¡Ay pobrecita! Y eso, ¿tiene cura?"
My mother passed away three years ago, and I regret I never took the time to explain to her what being a dramaturga meant to me, and why it can't be "cured," that once bitten by the love of the theatre, you are infected with it for the rest of your life.
Now it is too late to share with her why I put up with the long hours, the lack of money, the unheated basements: the thrill of opening night, the goose pimples when an audience laughs at the right lines, or when you can hear a pin drop at the right moment.
It is not too late to share some of it with you.
I didn't start off as a playwright. As a teenager, I wrote poems and short stories that nobody read. In fact, nobody knew I wrote them because I didn't tell anyone. Writing poetry wasn't the "in" thing among my peers. I am from a small town where there was one single bookstore and one single library, which was closed most of the time—I don't know why, maybe because it was right next door to the police station.
We had two movie houses, one that showed Mexican and Argentinian films, mostly three-hanky tearjerkers. In the other one—el cine América—you could watch the latest Hollywood films, with subtitles or dubbed into Spanish. I actually grew up believing that John Wayne was really from Madrid by watching movies in which he would speak perfect Castilian: "Alzad laz manoz, matonez."
One thing we didn't have in Caibarién, Cuba, was a theatre. I didn't get to see a live play until I came to New York. That was in 1961. It was a musical, and I became fascinated forever with the idea of people bursting into song and dance at the least provocation.
The first play I wrote—Beautiful Señoritas—was a play with music. And I wrote it in English.
In 1976, I went to Caracas, Venezuela, to cover an International Theatre Festival for Visión, the Latin American news magazine. It was my first festival and I enjoyed every minute of it. I saw plays from over thirty different countries, many in languages I did not understand. But one peculiar thing caught my attention: not one of those plays dealt with "the women's issue." At the time, I was quite involved in the women's movement in New York and knew that la liberación femenina was also being hotly debated in Latin America and Europe. Yet, the stages of an international theatre festival didn't reflect it. I decided, then and there, that when I got back to New York I would write a play about women. And I did.
Beautiful Señoritas was produced by DUO Theatre in 1977. It was a modest one-act musical play that poked fun at long-standing Latin women stereotypes—from Carmen Miranda to Cuchi Cuchi Charo to suffering, black-shrouded women crying and praying over the tortillas to modern-day young Latinas trying to re-define their images. The play was extremely well received—it went on to have many productions throughout the country, including a special performance at the National Organization for Women's national convention in San Antonio, Texas, in 1980.
From then on, most of my plays have been about the experience of being a Hispanic in the United States, about people trying to reconcile two cultures and two languages and two visions of the world into a particular whole: plays that aim to be a reflection of a particular time and space, of a here and now.
Of course, not all of my plays are women-oriented or totally Hispanic. Being a woman and being a Hispanic is neither an asset nor a handicap but a fact. And, as an artist, I do not wish to be categorized just as a "Hispanic Playwright" or a "Woman Hispanic Playwright," but rather as a person, a playwright who happens to be a woman and a Hispanic and who feels committed to writing on those subjects because they are part of the universe.
I find it particularly rewarding being able to write non-Hispanic characters, male or female, who are believable and authentic. And writing believable and authentic characters is what theatre is all about. Of course, good theatre also springs from writing about subjects and situations one knows best. And what I know best are the ups and down of being a Hispanic woman playwright living in New York City. And I am not contradicting myself.
I consider myself a "theatre worker" rather than a "theatre literata." Theatre is not literature; theatre is to be "done," not read, seen, not imagined. Theatre is people. Theatre is team work. We need each other: playwright, director, designers, actors, choregraphers, technicians, carpenters, composers, ticket takers, audience. We don't exist without each other. And I have tremendous respect and admiration for the skills and talent of everyone involved in bringing a production to the stage. I love actors. I adore choreographers. I am awed by composers and musicians. Directors? Putting your play in the hands of a good director who has vision and understands your work—well, that's icing on the cake. Good directors, however, are few and far between.
The first thing I did at Teatro the Orilla, a collective theatre group in New York's Lower East Side, was to sweep the floor and collect tickets at the door. Then I ran the sound equipment, made lights from empty tomato juice cans and supermarket light bulbs, went shopping for costumes and props, filled out endless forms for grant money, and then, only then, I began to think I could write a play that would appeal to that particular audience: people who had never been to a theatre before.
My theatre life came into being soon after various Hispanic theatre groups began to get established, thanks to newly available public funds in the late sixties and early seventies. It was all part of a process, a side effect of the ethnic and racial reaffirmation that followed the black civil rights movement, the women's liberation movement, the anti-war demonstrations.
I did not get into the theatre for the "let's-put-on-a-show" fun of it, but because I felt I had things to say about immediate and relevant issues and I wanted to say them with comedy, with music, with songs. Live.
Besides those already mentioned, I have also written about gentrification (Savings), about anti-poverty agencies (The Beggars' Soap Opera), about Hispanic theatre itself (La Era Latina), about Latin soap operas and nuclear war (Pantallas), about cultural assimilation (Botánica). Waiting their turn are plays about AIDS (so many of my friends are gone) and teenage pregnancy (What happened to women's liberation? Have we failed the younger generation of women?).
Also, I've had plays canceled for the alleged "insidiousness" of my politics. "Maligned in Miami" is the Hispanic community's equivalent of "Banned in Boston."
The need to use the theatre as a medium to discuss relevant and immediate issues and experiences is not new, except in one sense; today, many Hispanic playwrights are writing about these experiences in English, whereas the earliest examples were in Spanish (of all my plays, only two, Pantallas and Botánica, are in Spanish).
There are two stories I always like to mention when speaking of the origins of Hispanic theatre in the New World. One is fact, and one is fiction.
The fictitious event I like best, because it concerns the earliest example of Hispanic American musical theatre. It comes from a passage of El arpa y la sombra, by the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier. One of the sections of the book, "La mano," is written as the travel diary of Christopher Columbus. Let me share it with you in its original splendor:
Más adelante—fue durante mi tercer viaje—al ver que los indios de una isla se mostraban recelosos en acercarse a nosotros, improvisé un escenario en el catillo de popa, haciendo que unos españoles danzaran bulliciosamente al son de tamboril y tejoletas, para que se viese que éramos gente alegre y de un natural apacible. (Pero mal nos fue en esa ocasión, para decir la verdad, puesto que los caníbales, nada divertidos por moriscas y zapateados, nos dispararon tantas flechas como tenían en sus canoas….)
So here we see that one of the first, although fictional, Hispanic theatre performers in the Americas (Christopher Columbus, producer) was a musical comedy, and that it was panned by the audience.
The second—and much-quoted—story is fact, according to researchers. It documents the actual first performance of what could be called a play, in what is today U.S. territory. In 1598, a group of conquistadores, led by Juan de Oñate, crossed the Río Grande from Mexico to take formal possession of all the kingdoms and provinces of New Mexico in the name of King Philip of Spain. They struck camp on a spot near the present-day city of El Paso, Texas.
Among the group was a captain of the guard named Marcos Farfán de los Godos (how's that for a stage name!), who, besides being a soldier, dabbled in the art of "dramaturgy." That evening, he prepared un espectáculo to entertain his fellow conquistadores. The theme of this presentation is reported to have dealt with the question of how the church would be received in the newly "discovered" lands of New Mexico.
This presentation is considered to be the first theatrical piece ever performed in what is today the United States of America. It predates, by sixty-seven years, the first recorded English play produced in the New World. It predates, by eight years, the French masque perfomed in Acadia, Canada, in 1606.
Both these theatrical events, whether fact or fiction, also sprung from the immediate reality of those first "Hispanics," and their experiences as conquistadores in a new land. Had they not come here, they would not have written those particular plays. Therefore, they are "American" plays.
Today's Hispanic American playwrights, arriving at, or being born on, these shores more like conquistados than conquistadores, continue that tradition.
From a Miguel Piñero, who writes Short Eyes from the inside the nightmare of a prison, to Eddie Gallardo's family in the South Bronx's Simpson Street, to Eduardo Machado's upper-class Cuban families arriving in Miami with suitcases chockfull of jewels, to Manuel Martín's working-class Cubans celebrating Thanksgiving in Union City, to Gloria González' Café con leche, to my own Coser y cantar, which deals with how to be a bilingual, bicultural woman in Manhattan and keep your sanity, to a host of as-yet-unproduced new plays by young Hispanics developing in the wings, Hispanic American theatre is slowly becoming a hall of mirrors in which our society and ourselves are reflected, sometimes documenting the intangibles of being a minority in the United States with more subtlety and depth than many an expensive sociological research paper.
However, much of this work is unknown or ignored, both by the Hispanic and the general community. For Hispanics, going to the theatre is a tradition that generally we do not bring along from our countries of origin. There the theatre is, in most cases, for the social and intellectual elites. In coming here, we find that the arts are not necessarily considered a luxury but perceived as being some-what irrelevant, something for which one usually does not have time.
The need for many immigrants to struggle, survive, and adapt does not allow them the luxury of attending the theatre. Going out means going dancing or to the movies—what they think is accessible and "fun." Regular escapist entertainment is found nightly in the never-ending telenovelas and in the weekly convulsions of Iris Chacón's hips. Only a minority within our community goes regularly to the theatre. Many of our 99-seat houses are half-empty many a night.
Although non-Hispanics come to see our plays, it is more like a novelty, or a duty—as in the case of the classics. I mean, you have to see a García Lorca or a Lope de Vega play at least once in your lifetime, and, of course, the latest effort by novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.
In the Hispanic theatre community, we are aware of the need to further develop our audiences. I believe the type of plays we are now writing, in which Hispanic American audiences can identify with the characters and situations they see on stage, is contributing to that development (in 1986, Bodega, Federico Fraguada's first play, broke all box office records at the 20-year-old Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre in New York City. Nearly every New York City bodeguero and his family went to see the play. It was presented again in the 1987 season). Musicals and comedies are attracting younger audiences who used to think that going to the theatre meant they were in for a boring evening and opted to stay home and watch music videos.
Adding to the problem of lack of visibility and audience growth, we face the sad fact that in the Hispanic community we don't have a responsible media with responsible, knowledgeable writers who can discuss art and culture intelligently. American critics are, in most instances, either patronizing or insensitive to the work produced by Hispanics, even if it is English.
THE UNIVERSITY'S UNIVERSE
I feel the academic community has a large role to play in bringing Hispanic American theatre and literature into the mainstream of this country's cultural life. Fortunately, today there are many college professors who have a deep interest in our work, are studying it, writing papers, and struggling to include it in their curricula. This is a must. Because they are not only trying to enrich the lives of their students by exposing them to the art and culture of the soon-to-be largest ethnic minority in this nation, but also building theatre audiences for the future.
Unfortunately, these few pioneers face many obstacles from within and without the walls of academia. From the outside, there is the problem of not enough published literary and theatrical works by U.S. Hispanics. From inside the walls, opposition, confusion, misunderstanding, and—why not say it?—plain, ugly racism from faculty and administrators.
Because, they ask, what is "Hispanic literature"? What is "Hispanic drama"? Is there such a thing? And if so, where is it? Where does it belong in the curriculum? They don't know, or don't want to know, what to do with the whole darned big enchilada.
This metaphorical enchilada, like the small real ones, is meant to be eaten, and enjoyed! You can't worry about heartburn a priori! I say, what's wrong with bringing U.S. Hispanic literature and drama into the American Drama Department, along with black and Asian-American works? It also belongs as an interdisciplinary subject in Latin American departments. ¿Por qué no?
My increasing theatre contacts with Latin America and Spain reveal that there is a tremendous interest in what is happening in Hispanic theatre in the United States. One of my plays, La Era Latina, a bilingual comedy I cowrote with Víctor Fragoso, won an award in Venezuela. Right now I am busy preparing an enormous amount of information on Hispanic theatre in the U.S. for a book on Latin American theatre, to be published next year by Spain's Ministry of Culture.
YES, BUT WHAT IS IT?
I define Hispanic American theatre, or literature, as that written by Hispanics living and working in the United States whose subject matter, whether written in Spanish or English or both, reflects their expressions in this country in the same manner that, before us, the Jews, the Irish, the Italians documented their experiences and their histories that came to be part of the history of this nation.
Hispanics are here for many different reasons. Many have been born here. Many were here before parts of this land came to be called the United States of America. Some came a lifetime ago. Some came yesterday. Some are arriving this very minute. Some dream of returning to where they came from. Some will. Some have made this place their home for good and are here to stay.
Millions of Americans live next door to a Rodríguez or a Fernández. They go down to the corner bodega and buy Café Bustelo and Goya Beans. They eat tacos and enchiladas (big and small) as if there were no tomorrow. They work shoulder to shoulder with millions of Hispanics at every level, every day.
However, in the schools, in the universities, these same Americans learn nothing about those strangers they ride the elevator with. They are not taught who they are, what they think, why they came here.
This is the place, and this is the time. And theatre, and painting, and dance, and poetry can help bridge that gap.
In the theatre, we have that saying—you know the one: "The show must go on." As I said before, soon Hispanics will be the largest ethnic minority in the U.S. Our presence here promises to be a long-running engagement—despite the bad reviews we get most of the time, despite the problems we may have with the lights, and the curtain and the costumes, and the enter and exit cues. Despite all that, this show will go on, and you might as well get your tickets now.
Source: Dolores Prida, "The Show Does Go On (Testimonio)," in Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, edited by Asuncion Horno-Delgado, Eliana Ortega, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 181-88.
In the following essay, Rivero surveys the history and evolution of Cuban women writers in the United States, mentioning Prida as a pioneer of linguistic dualism.
For those readers who are not in touch with the wide diversity of literary traditions present in American society, many of the artistic works produced in the last two decades are hidden behind mirrors. Texts that reflect the readers' own selves and ideas are very visible, but others, beyond the silvery white surfaces, simply do not exist. Minority writers are routinely ignored, even when they are published by mainstream presses. And if this happens regularly with male ethnic writers, it occurs even more often with the large numbers of female writers of varied nationalities that populate the literary landscapes of this country; women of all colors are even "more invisible" than men. The appearance of publications such as The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States in 1980 was a landmark, with a message that is yet to be recognized in its entirety within canonical circles.
More recent books, such as the widely distributed reference compilation, American Women Page 51
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Writers, the much-touted Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English, and the "comprehensive" Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America, either totally ignore the notable contributions of U.S. Hispanic female authors who had already appeared in the Third Woman anthology (while at the same time recognizing the ever-growing production of African-American, Native American, and Asian American women), or severely misrepresent the numbers and importance of Hispanic women writers in our midst. Ostriker, in Stealing the Language, makes only a brief mention of two poems by Cherríe Moraga. And yet Ostriker's book appeared five years after the prestigious Pitt Poetry Series (University of Pittsburgh Press) had published Lorna Dee Cervantes' Emplumada, the first important book in English by a Chicana poet. Important fiction by Hispanic women, such as Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street (Arte Público Press, 1983, recipient of a recent American Book Award), remains on the fringes of the canon—even the revised Anglo canon—despite the increasing attention given to it by feminist critics.
The work of Hispanic women writers in the United States has been ignored, in quite a few instances, due to an uninformed linguistic argument; the bilingualism barrier is deemed insurmountable. This, of course, does not address the prevalent absence of research about such women in departments of Spanish and Latin American studies. In many cases, the subject of U.S. Hispanic women writers is referred to its "natural habitat," i. e., women's and ethnic studies departments. But after reading works by many Hispanic female authors, especially Chicana and Puerto Rican women writing in the continental U.S., one realizes that any efforts to sustain the "linguistic handicap" criterion can only be proven ludicrous. More and more Hispanic women are writing in English, their works appearing in monolingual publications, and translations of poetry and prose are increasing by women who prefer to speak with a Spanish literary voice. Ultimately, the most powerful argument for inclusion of Hispanic minority women within the parameters of what passes for "American literature" might be the latter's characteristic pluralism. Some critics argue that since the so-called American mainstream is basically multiethnic and pluralistic, it, in fact, Page 52 | Top of Articleconstitutes the "macro context" for all ethnic minority literary manifestations within the U.S. border; Jewish, Afro-American, and Chicano writings, for instance, have been called the American "counter literatures." For years, this has also been the contention of MELUS (Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature in the United States). One of the underlying assumptions for this article is, then, that women writers of Hispanic ethnicity are as much an integral part of the North American literary scene as Alice Walker or Isaac Bashevis Singer.
And yet the generating conditions and surface features of literary texts produced by Hispanic women writing in the U.S. differ greatly from those that appear in the traditional mainstream publishing houses of this country. Further, particular idiosyncracies can be noted for each subgroup of Hispanic women writers: from those who write in standard Spanish and speak from an experience of immigration and middle-class origins, to those who write in standard English and speak from the conditions of a working-class background. In between, there appears a wide spectrum of bilingual and/or bicultural writers who, although with diverse origins and in very different literary modalities, seem to unfailingly address themselves to what it means to be female and Hispanic in this pluralistic society.
In discussing the subject of Hispanic sub-groups in the United States, I make a distinction between the "native Hispanic" and "the migrated Hispanic." The first category comprises Mexican-Americans or Chicanos, as well as Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland (Neorricans); the second reflects the waves of migration that, for political or economic reasons, have deposited on these shores a vast contingent of Cubans, Central Americans, and South Americans. Most writers who are in the latter category have been born (and often raised) outside the borders of the United States; however, some among them, especially younger individuals, are in the midst of effecting the transition from emigré, exile, or immigrant/refugee categories to that of ethnic minority members. In a special sense, this transition entails coming into a personal awareness of biculturalism, and takes for granted the reality of permanence in a society other than the one existing in the country of birth. For some Hispanic women writers, a link with the native country and its literature can be maintained if return to the homeland, however short or temporary, is possible: such is the case of a few Argentine, Central American and, lately, Chilean writers who reside in the United States. They, as a rule, consider themselves as Latin American "emigré" or transplanted writers and have a niche in their own national literatures, whether these are written inside or outside the homeland. Among Cuban women who migrated to the U.S. after the Revolution in 1959, the only one that fits adequately in this category is a writer who has been considered a significant figure in the island's literary tradition since the fifties: the Afro-Cuban folktale researcher/writer Lydia Cabrera, best known for her celebrated work, El monte (1956).
Some other Cuban women who were writers before being immigrants are squarely situated in the "exile" modality; in their works, they mostly re-create inner and outer landscapes of their native land: social, political, and personal. Their work is tinged with nostalgia for the homeland, as in the case of the poet Ana Rosa Núñez, or their texts live within a space populated with the inner demons of individual and social analysis; the novelist Hilda Perera and the poet Belkis Cuza Malé are good illustrations. Other Cuban women who belong in that same generation are Rita Geada, Pura del Prado, Martha Padilla, and Amelia del Castillo; a younger group of often published poets also includes Juana Rosa Pita and Gladys Zaldívar. Yet none of these names exemplify the transition from exile to ethnic minority member. Their texts often bespeak an existential alienation that denotes an inner struggle with roles and identities; nevertheless, they "neither treat nor engage the U.S. experience."
A few Cuban women writers who were born around 1940 and migrated to the United States in the late fifties or early sixties began, in the mid- and late-seventies, showing in their work a consciousness of change: this was frequently a feminist Page 53 | Top of Articleawareness that at times clashed with their middle-class values and conservative ideology. Sometimes a detail as subtle as a North American geographical name or an English song title would appear in their descriptions of daily happenings; or perhaps it was a flat statement about a house in the suburbs gladly given up to return to Cuba. These authors included the poet Maya Islas (Sola … desnuda … sin nombre, 1974; Sombras papel, 1978); the poet, novelist, and short story writer Mireya Robles (Tiempo artesano, 1973; En esta aurora, 1978; Hagiografía de Narcisa la Bella, 1985); and the poet and short story teller Uva Clavijo (Versos de exilio, 1974; Ni verdad ni mentira y otros cuentos, 1977). Sombras …, En esta aurora, Versos de exilio, and Ni verdad ni mentira are among the first works published by Cuban women in the U.S. that document American society through the authors' literary personae, bearing witness to the cultural impact of a very different lifestyle.
It was in 1976, nevertheless, that the fully conscious recognition of a "double identity" was registered in the works of Cuban women writing in the United States. Lourdes Casal, poet, short story writer, essayist, scholar, and political activist, who died in Havana in 1981 after a prolonged illness, is exemplary in marking the transition from a consciousness of immigration to a certainty of permanent dualism, existential as well as sociocultural. After living twelve years in the United States, Casal returned to Cuba in 1973 for the first of several visits; she remained there during her last one, being hospitalized and in serious condition until her final days. Her published works are many, but most important to this study are the literary texts collected in Los fundadores: Alfonso y otros cuentos (1973) and in the posthumous book of poetry, Palabras juntan revolución (1981).
Casal's experience of living alternately in two cultures, in two radically different sociopolitical systems, profoundly affected her view of reality. Her poem, "Para Ana Veltfort" (first published in 1976), best portrays the dichotomy experienced by a Cuban outside her primary cultural milieu; her poetic persona functions in two different environments but fits completely in neither. The text, full of recollections and nostalgic remembrances, tells about her sense of double identity:
… Nueva York es mi casa.
Soy ferozmente leal a esta adquirida patria chica.
Por Nueva York soy extranjera ya en cualquier parte.
Pero Nueva York no fue la ciudad de mi infancia,
no fue aquí que adquirí las primeras certidumbres,
no está aquí el rincón de mi primera caída
ni el silbido lacerante que marcaba las noches.
Por eso siempre permaneceré al margen,
una extraña entre estas piedras,
aun bajo el sol amable de este día de verano,
como ya para siempre permaneceré extranjera
aun cuando regrese a la ciudad de mi infancia.
Cargo esta marginalidad inmune a todos los retornos,
demasiado habanera para ser neoyorkina,
demasiado neoyorkina para ser,
-aun volver a ser-
cualquier otra cosa.
Havana is the "mother city" of identity but New York—cultural megalopolis—is an experience that will forever define the writer's sense of marginality. The poet feels somehow alien, a stranger and a foreigner in either place, the native and the adopted space of life, yet both sites are familiar and very much a part of her being.
Such a marked self-awareness of "hybridism" appears explicitly in the fabric of such poetic texts as the one quoted above; but it was also beginning to be interwoven by Casal in her fiction writings as early as 1973. In "Love Story según Cyrano Prufrock," a double discourse of recreation about Havana and New York, a male narrator goes in search of love and identity, and is evidently much influenced, in his speech and perceptions, by Casal's own studies of Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres. The reader finds allusions to a complex quilt of readings, noticing an American cultural presence in which, nevertheless, Cuban/Hispanic elements are basic to an understanding of the totality of the text:
Ay poetisa, los tigres no eran tres sino miles … hacíamos la revolución y el amor y todo en medio de la interminable noche habanera …
Y me senté a tu lado a declamarte discursos impresionantes sobre el destino de la década, lo que se nos habían vuelto los sesenta, el sueño de la razón engendra monstruos (fíjate, piba, terminamos con Nixon de presidente), los gallardos caballeros que se fizieron (te regalé un poster de Malcolm X), la sociedad de consumo lo deglute todo (te regalé un disco autografiado por Marcuse que se estaban liquidando en Marboro), Peter Paul and Mary se separaron y los Beatles ya no existen…. ("Capítulo 1. Beatriz encontrada with a little help from my friends, from Johnny Weissmuller to Jean Luc Godard")
Allusions to French film directors, Hollywood movies, Goya's "black" paintings, American radical leaders, New York stores, and legendary musical figures are interspersed with memories of the native city, speech imitations of medieval literary language, references to night life, song lyrics Page 54 | Top of Articlepopular both in the U.S. and Cuba, not to mention the not-so-subtle intertextual signs pointing to T. S. Eliot, Edmond de Rostand, Erich Segal, Dante (J. Alfred Prufrock, Cyrano de Bergerac, Love Story, Beatriz), and Cortázar's Rayuela (the two-city motif, "piba"). English appears still as a point of contact, as a reference; the second language is a cultural tool that has not yet become part of the author's "natural" literary voices and rhythms. Casal wrote mainly in Spanish, but her texts—whether essays, film reviews, poems, short stories, or editorial articles—are thoroughly permeated, during the last five years of her life, with the double vision of biculturalism. There is a sense of irony when one reads, today, her young words of 1957, written while still in the native country:
Todos los pueblos de Hispanoamérica están de acuerdo en una actitud defensiva y hasta agresiva frente a la potencia del Norte; pero el influjo del triunfo aparente de ese estilo de vida, que nos es ajeno, ha determinado, sin embargo, la duda y la acceptación de costumbres importadas con etiquetas de "Made in U.S.A." que se han ido infiltrando en nuestra América….
Finally, that "alien lifestyle" also became her own, although her basic Cubanness was unmarred with the acquisition of cultural dualism.
To the end of her life, Casal's painful awareness of an insurmountable dual reality—one that had to be lived out daily—was still best expressed in her reiteration of motifs belonging to Havana and New York. Her own tale of two cities reflects her ultimate fear: the erosion of time, that inexorable leveler that makes contours disappear under the dust, that erases all known things:
Que se me amarillea y se me gasta,
perfil de mi ciudad, siempre agitándose
en la memoria
y sin embargo
siempre perdiendo bordes y letreros …
("La Habana 1968," Palabras juntan revolución, p. 49)
The same fear of not capturing reality, of losing all memories, assaults the poet, who yearns to "name" the features of her adopted city, her second identity source:
Recorro las calles de este New York vestido de verano,
con sus guirnaldas de latas de cerveza
obsedida por la pasión de nombrar,
azotada por la furia de fijarlo
y recrearlo todo en la palabra,
esta batalla irremisiblemente perdida
contra la caducidad de todo,
esta batalla incesante y dolorosa
contra la erosión,
y el olvido,
que lo devoran todo.
("Domingo," Palabras …, p. 58)
It is with Lourdes Casal that Cuban women writers in the United States can fully claim their cultural dualism as immigrants. But, more importantly, her life and works give witness to the first full-fledged step in the direction of becoming Cuban-Americans, in the best sense of that term. Ethnic name hyphenation implies a recognition of existential and sociocultural hybridism, and Cuban women in the U.S. are, at present, involved in the process of recognizing themselves as such "others," not only because of the gender imperative, but, more crucially, because of their irrevocable historical situation.
In the works of other U.S. Hispanic writers, it is usually the emergence of bilingual texts that signals, for them, an established conscientization ("self-awareness") of minority status; in other words, the political consciousness of being "dual," or "other," is clearly best expressed at the linguistic level. This phenomenon was first registered for Cuban women authors with the presentation in 1977 of the play Beautiful Señoritas by Dolores Prida, a writer/journalist who has distinguished herself as a playwright (Coser y cantar) and as a poet. She was also one of the first editorial members of the Latino publication Nuestro, and her work for the stage in the 1970s is pioneering among Cuban women.
But the establishment of ethnic awareness/affirmation as a permanent literary presence for Cuban-American women comes in the mid-eighties with the young poet, short story writer, and playwright from Chicago, Achy Obejas. At this writing, she has not published a book yet, but her promising works have appeared in Woman of Her Word (1983), Third Woman (1984; 1986), and Nosotras: Latina Literature Today (1986); a 1983 play she cowrote, "Carnicería," was highly acclaimed and is considered the most successful play in the history of Spanish-language theatre in Chicago. Her texts, whether in English, Spanish, or a language-alternation mode, are highly polished, well-crafted, and evidence the bilingual/bicultural world vision that distinguishes other well-known "native" Hispanic women poets, such as the Chicana Lorna Dee Cervantes and the Nuyorrican Sandra María Esteves. Obejas synthesizes the process of searching for roots and the consciousness of "hybridism" in texts such as "Sugarcane":
can't cutPage 55 | Top of Article
cut the cane
azuca' in chicago
you can't can't cut
cut the blood
lines from this island
train one by one throwing off
the chains siguaraya
no se pue'e cortar
pan con ajo quisqueya
cuba y borinquen no
se pue'en parar
In this code-switching discourse, the island motif of sugarcane, with all its implied meanings for Cuban culture, draws on an intertextual past of Afro-Caribbean poetry, on song lyrics that portray the speaker's acquaintance with popular cultural icons, and with the experience of Hispanos in the barrios of midwestern and northeastern America. The words of a fifties' Afro song by Celia Cruz—noted Cuban singer, reborn as an entertainer in the heights of salsa fever—constitute a takeoff point for the refrain, "no se pue'e cortar." The lyrics of the song, "Siguaraya" (tree especially revered for its magic properties in the Yoruba religious belief system), repeated the refrain: "Siguaraya, yo va tumbá, con permiso de Yemayá." Obejas changes the positive affirmation of the slave chant—"I am going to cut the tree down with permission from [the goddess] Yemayá"—into a "negatively" phrased reaffirmation of radical cultural pride ("you can't can't cut/cut the blood/lines from this island"), marked at the verse level by the imitated staccato patterns of the song. Siguaraya and sugarcane, two native, life-giving plants of the Caribbean, are intimately tied to the economic, social, and cultural life of the Great Antilles. The three islands, recognized in the text by their Taíno names (Cuba, Borinquen, Quisqueya), are equated for what they share in the "magic," the life rhythms, and the social awareness that the poet sees as vital to her bicultural life in the United States.
Obejas also publishes in standard Spanish, as with her poem, "El bote" (Third Woman 2, no. 1 : 33): "no nos acabamos de ir del país/tú y yo, siempre con el mapa abierto." This composition treats, in a symbolic manner, a recurrent motif for Cuban-American women: leaving the native country. The same theme forms the background for "The Escape," a sober portrayal of cultural, as well as real, death, a short story that brings into play all the elements of the Cuban experience of political flight to, and exile in, a foreign country. A seven-year-old girl looks around her and sees strange, pale, lifeless North Americans with blond eyelashes that seem "fuzzy and alien" (Nosotras, p. 46). She kills one of them, only to fall prey to the ocean waves, drowning herself while rafting for pleasure, at fourteen, amid the fearful, stormy Atlantic currents off the coast of Florida.
Basic distinctions between a Cuban woman writer in the United States and a Cuban-American woman writer are, thus, the full consciousness of dualism, the sense of belonging to a minority, and the use of English that appear in the works illustrated above. Cuban-born women writers in the U.S. who belong to the older generations still identify, for the most part, with a "writer-in-exile" definition. That situates them squarely within the realm of a Latin American status quo vision, whereas minority writers in the U.S. usually speak from an experience of marginality and discrimination due to race, class, and/or sex. More to the point, Cuban "writers in exile"—women and men—tend to identify with the establishment and reject the Third World stance of many native Hispanic writers, and thus do not feel part of an underprivileged ethnic minority.
In general, Cuban women who were writers before they migrated preserve the literary notions and standards they learned in their intellectual and artistic formation, often considering themselves as part of the literature of their native country and/or of Latin America. Still, some of the writings done by Cuban women in the United States present a modified vision of cultural reality due to the prevalence of a feminist ideology in their texts, and to the naked, critical portrayal of sociocultural myths, such as the submissive, petit-bourgeois wife and her pathetic Don Juanesque husband. An excellent illustration is Hagiografía de Narcisa la Bella, by Mireya Robles (now residing in South Africa, after almost thirty years in this country). This 1985 novel is a well-crafted, avant-garde work with similarities to some of the best productions of Latin American prose fiction in the last decades (Puig, Donoso, Lynch, Vargas Llosa). Its locale is a provincial town of Cuba in the fifties, and its plot ends with the terrible ritual death of the ugly, sensitive, clairvoyant Narcisa, victimized at the hands of her family. Jean Franco has praised the novel, saying of Robles that she has:
el don genuino de la sátira y lo cómico, algo relativamente escaso en las letras hispanoamericanas.
Robles represents, in the characterization of Cuban women offered in these pages, the immigrant writer who associates her craft with Latin American or Hispanic/universal canonical forms, while Achy Obejas symbolizes the other end of the spectrum: the Cuban-American in her dually Page 56 | Top of Articlegrounded vision of culture and society. To put it in general terms, the most distinguishable feature that separates older immigrant generations of Cuban women from their younger compatriots in the U.S., beyond their choice of language, is the problem of their cultural/political identity and affiliations. These vital connections, with their own inner and outer selves, constitute on artistic mother lode of inquiry, rejection, and affirmation.
For Cuban-American women writers, then, the process of establishing themselves in the multicultural U.S. literary scene has just begun. They are already partakers of what Lourdes Casal defined more than a decade ago as a "marginality immune to all returns"; but the road ahead promises to give them a place behind the one-mirror surfaces of the American mainstream as well. Theirs is, nevertheless, an exciting location at the margins: on the cutting edge of Latina cultural ethnicity and gender awareness.
Source: Eliana Rivero, "From Immigrants to Ethnics: Cuban Women Writers in the U.S.," in Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, edited by Asuncion Horno-Delgado, Eliana Ortega, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 189-200.
Prida, Dolores, Beautiful Señoritas, in Beautiful Señoritas & Other Plays, Arte Publico Press, 1991, pp. 21, 24, 30, 36, 39, 40, 41, 42.
―――――――, "The Show Does Go On," in Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, edited by Asunción Horno-Delgado et al., University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, p. 182.
Rivero, Eliana, "From Immigrants to Ethnics: Cuban Women Writers in the U.S.," in Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, edited by Asunción Horno-Delgado et al., University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, p. 195.
Aston, Elaine, An Introduction to Feminism and Theatre, Routledge, 1995.
As the title of this work suggests, Aston's book introduces readers to the works and theories of feminist dramatists.
Kevane, Bridget, and Juanita Heredia, eds., Latina Self-Portraits: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers, University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
This collection of interviews provides insights into the goals and concerns of Latina women currently writing in the United States.
Pérez-Stable, Marifeli, The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course, and Legacy, Oxford University Press, 1999.
This is an accessible and thorough look at Fidel Castro's Cuba from its inception to 1999.
Sandoval-Sánchez, Alberto, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach, eds., Puro Teatro: A Latina Anthology, University of Arizona Press, 2000.
This anthology is a wonderful collection of plays by American Latina playwrights, Prida included.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420700013