Theater in Latin America and Spain is a political tool, but students in this country usually study it out of context, says Juan Villegas, UC Irvine professor of Spanish,
"In American universities, we study plays in terms of style, not in terms of the audience the plays were intended for and the correlation between the two," Villegas said in a recent interview.
Even worse, said Villegas, the professionals who pursue the subject of Hispanic theater "usually know very little about each other's work."
To help remedy these problems, last April UC Irvine launched a new journal, Gestos (Gestures) devoted to critical studies of Spanish, Latin American and Chicano theater. It will be published by UCI twice a year. Villegas, 52, is the editor.
"While there are (individual) journals on Spanish or Latin American or Chicano theater, there is nothing that draws correlations among them," he said.
"What is new about this is the attempt to integrate all studies in Spanish theater and critical theory." The contents are divided into essays, reviews, reports of theater performances from around the world and unpublished scripts of original plays. (The writers retain copyright to their plays, Villegas said; the only stipulation is that they can't publish the work before it appears in Gestos.)
The first play is "Jenofa Juncal, la Roja Gitana del Monte Jaizkibel" (Jenofa Juneal, the Red Gypsy of the Jaizkibel Mountain) by Alfonso Sastre. Villegas called Sastre "the best Spanish playwright of our time."
"The play presents a Gypsy hiding in the mountains from the persecution of the police in Spain. The time is about four centuries ago, but all references make you think of Franco and the representatives of a police state."
(Scheduled for the second issue, to be published in November, is "Los Hijos del Terremoto"--The Children of the Earthquake--by Argentine playwright Osvaldo Dragun.)
Villegas, a native of Chile, said that he has been trying to found a journal ever since he began teaching at UCI as a part-time visiting professor in 1983. (He was chairman of the UCI Spanish and Portuguese department from 1973-1976.)
He said he believed that a journal was necessary to give "a strong image to the department" and help it "become an international forum."
"The problem was money, and also what topic to choose," he recalled. "I found a niche because what was missing in all the (current) journals was the interrelationship among the various theaters and their intersection with critical theory."
Jose Gonzales, 29, project director of a recent Hispanic project at South Coast Repertory, sees the journal functioning as "a resource."
"People are always looking for plays," he said. "When you put something on paper, you cannot believe how it can get to people across the country or around the world.
"The journal would give us a chance to see what's happening in Latin America--where there's an explosion of writing--and elsewhere, and they would also get to see what's happening here. That's terrific."
The journal will cost approximately $11,000 a year to produce, "but the ideal budget would be $15,000," Villegas said. Funds were received from the UCI deans of humanities and graduate studies and from several UCI professors.
Villegas hopes that other donors will be forthcoming. Subscription costs are $16 for individuals and $25 for institutions.
"If we have about 500 subscriptions by the end of the third year, we can survive--barely," he said with a laugh.
Villegas said that he took months to decide the title for the journal, Gestos, rejecting "traditional titles like 'Stage' or 'Theater.'
"But Gestos means what I want to do with the journal. Everything we (as critics) do is an attempt to interpret something, to communicate something--a gesture. This is true even of actors in plays who try to communicate something.
"None of us know if what we want to say is communicated. And anyway, it's not a final word but an effort we're making. Someone else will come along and make another one."
In addition to the academic purpose of the journal, Villegas sees the journal as having the "potential for serving the community in Spanish.
"It can provide leadership for the Hispanic communities--there are maybe 25 different ones locally--and bridge between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities.
"If the journal becomes a success, we may be able to create a center of Hispanic theater (at UCI) and have a theater festival, which would be in Spanish. That's done nowhere else."
Villegas feels that the journal also can be influential in helping Hispanics who "don't feel that there is something to be proud of in their heritage and the diversity of their cultures."
He does not consider this pride in roots divisive, however:
"That kind of pride doesn't imply a rejection of American culture," he said. "In fact, it's part of American tradition. But Hispanics must have proof of that culture, not just in history books but in action."