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'Tortilla' Finds Comedy in Cultural Confrontation

February 09, 1989|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

Dolores Cantu is making tortillas when her kitchen suddenly resounds with the singing of angels. The lights brighten, and Cantu puts on her glasses to take a closer look at the tortilla she has been shaping.

"Is it you?" Cantu asks, gripping the counter to steady her weak knees. "Yes, yes, I know it's you. Virgencita! Virgencita! It's a miracle!"

The Virgin Mary appears to Cantu in a tortilla, and that vision introduces "Our Lady of the Tortilla," the play that opens Theatre/ Teatro's 1989 season. Theatre/ Teatro, part of the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, presents its Latino plays in separate Spanish and English performances.

Cantu, a spinster in mid-50s, lives in East Los Angeles with her sister and two nephews. The laughs in "Our Lady of the Tortilla" come from the conflict between two generations of Latinos: Cantu and her sister, who believe the Virgin can produce miracles, and the Americanized nephews who think the older women are crazy.

"The confrontation makes the comedy, and the comedy helps us to better understand our two cultures," said Margarita Galban, director of the play.

Cantu's vision is immediately the talk of her block, and television reporters arrive to take pictures of wheelchair-bound neighbors who line the yard waiting to be healed by touching the holy tortilla.

Eddie, Cantu's wheeler-dealer nephew, urges his aunt to go public. The Virgin, Eddie says, has an image problem in the 1980s and wants a down-to-earth spokeswoman like Cantu.

"You ever read what sells at your grocery check-out?" Eddie says. "It's just what people are starved for. A tortilla with a message."

Although the play centers on the customs of a middle-class Latino family, director Galban said people of other cultures can easily identify with Cantu. "Everybody in the world has an aunt like her," Galban said. "In Italy, she might have seen Jesus in a pizza."

"Our Lady of the Tortilla," written in English by Luis Santeiro, was first performed in New York about three years ago and last year was staged by the Reader's Theatre of the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts. The play got such a positive reception that Galban, one of the foundation's original members, translated the play into Spanish for this year's Theatre/ Teatro season.

Performances of "Our Lady of the Tortilla" in Spanish will be Feb. 15, 16, 17 and 18 at 8 p.m. with a matinee on Feb. 19. The opening in English is Feb. 22, with other performances on Feb. 23, 24, 25 at 8 p.m. and a matinee Feb. 26. After that through April 2, English performances will be Wednesday and Thursday nights; Spanish performances will be Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.

The theater is at 421 N. Avenue 19, Los Angeles. For information, call 225-4044.

In April, Theatre/ Teatro presents "A Cry in the Distance," a drama about a Chilean woman's inability to forget being tortured by the government.

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