Encontrándome: Meeting Myself
Throughout my life I have always felt that being raised in the tiny town of Chetwynd, BC has left me without a connection to a culture, or a homeland or a larger family. This absence has manifested itself in a strange wad of emotions that I have carried with me throughout my life. Just stuck there, wedged into my ribs, weighing me down or causing me to break out into flop sweats. Sure, I have been quite fortunate in the things that have come my way in life. I am lucky to be able to pursue a career in the arts, to find an artistic partner who challenges me every day to go beyond what is the easy choice, and I have been lucky enough to find the love of my life, whom I will soon marry.
This November I had the extreme privilege of going to the second convening of El Encuentro del las Americas in Los Angeles, California. El Encuentro brought together theatre companies from Mexico, Peru, Columbia, Cuba the United States and, of course, Canada. It was hosted by the Latino Theatre Company that operates out of the LA Theatre Centre in the heart of downtown LA. For three weeks we filled the LATC with theatre, heated debates, deep conversations, a river of coffee, tears, laughter, and most of all, fiestas.
Never had the thought of going to the land of Mickey Mouse and movie stars filled me with such dread than I felt as the days ticked down towards my departure for Los Angeles. I had known this day was coming, we were in the middle of rehearsals and I was feeling very confident with the show. That show was Carmen Aguirre’s new play Broken Tailbone, produced by Nightswimming Theatre. It’s a beautiful show and I am proud to be a part of it.
Without giving too much away, Carmen weaves together Latin American history, a dance lesson, and tales of her sexual conquests while I mix a curated set list of greatest hits from the Latin American dance hall cannon. There is no set text, only story points that Carmen needs to hit, moments of banter between the two of us, and plenty of examples of Latinx dancing.
We have had a few workshops of the piece already and this round of rehearsals was intended to figure out how Carmen was going to deliver the text bilingually. One of the requirements of attending the festival was that each show needed to provide super titles for either English or Spanish. Since there is no set script, we could not provide that. The solution was working live translation into the piece. And since I speak to Carmen and to the audience during the show, that meant of course I probably needed to speak Spanish.
And, of course, there was that feeling again.
Most of my life I have spent avoiding speaking Spanish in front of others (other than my mom), especially if those others were people who have been speaking Spanish all their lives. Of course, I have been speaking it all my life, too, but always with great trepidation or a stutter that I never had when I spoke English. In fact, alone or with my mother, my vocabulary was often quite vast…or at least larger than when I’m confronted with conversing with a fluent speaker.
We land in LA and right away I hear it. Spanish.
Right away, that feeling.
I walk the terminal in LAX awaiting that first awkward conversation. That strange jostling of trying to tell them what they want to hear, through sluggish bumbling vocabulary. We are approached at the baggage claim by an old Mexican woman who asks us to call her pueblo since she was supposed to be picked up but has not seen her ride yet. She doesn’t have a cell phone or even the number for her driver. Just her home number. We try in vain to reach her home but no call makes it through. Luckily her husband spots the car that they have been waiting for and we say our goodbyes.
That night we have the festival opening ceremonies where we are expected to step up to a microphone and declare who we are in front of the entire contingent of companies.
I watch as one by one people go up there and proudly declare themselves and where they are from. I watch as they roll their Rs or shout in recognition of a phrase I had no idea warranted a response. I also see, with dread, the line shrinking as it comes close to my time to speak. I begin to practice my own name under my breath, uncertain whether to say it ‘anglicized’ or how it’s meant to be said. When it finally comes to my turn, I look at the crowd while I shake and I say it. Not anglicized.
Relief. Of sorts.
As the festival continues, more Spanish, more occurrences of this unknown emotion. It keeps itself present more and more. I can almost name it.
And then I get it. I find the name to that feeling that I have carried with me for as long as I can remember.
I know that no one is to blame for it. I certainly do not blame my parents for raising me away from any semblance of a shared cultural experience with other Latinx people, but I still have shame inside me. Shame at not knowing how to fluently speak Spanish, at not knowing the latest movements that are happening with my people and, most of all, shame for taking this long to accept myself as Latinx.
It took being immersed in a city with a population that is 50% Latinx and the largest proportion of Mexicans outside of Mexico. It took being forced into conversations with amazing artists who could speak less English than I could speak Spanish. \It took three weeks to finally put a name to this feeling. It is not that it is all gone, it simply has a name now and that name has allowed me to chip away at it. It does not stop my words dead in my throat anymore (although I still stumble) and now I have a hunger.
And so now I move forward with that hunger to my new play, Made In Canada, that will (hopefully) have me meeting and conversing with Latinx migrant workers here in Canada. Maybe we will speak in Spanish or perhaps English will just be easier, but I am ready to try. I have also earmarked my earlier works Mis Papás and Small Town Hoser Spic for rewrites: to go back with this shame and see how those plays may change and move forward. Maybe there was something I was too afraid to say or explore. Maybe I was just running away like I did with my previous Latinx encounters.
No more running. I am Latinx.