Actresses Luisa Leschin and Diane Rodriguez began to realize they had fallen into the rut of Latina stereotypes when they looked at their resumes and noticed that nearly all the characters they had played on television were maids or pregnant women named Maria.
"I began to become really expert at making tortillas," Rodriguez said.
So they decided to team up with two Latino actors, Rick Najera and Armando Molina, who had often been cast as gang members or drug dealers named Juan, Paco or Hector, and write the type of show no one was offering--comedy.
After all, as Najera said with mock seriousness, "There's nothing funny about drug dealing."
The show, their first together, is "Latins Anonymous," is at the Los Angeles Theatre Center through Oct. 29.
It marks the first time that the Latino Theatre Lab at the LATC has sponsored a group that it has neither commissioned nor developed itself.
Lab director Jose Luis Valenzuela sees this as "an important step that we hope will open up a way for us to get to more of these groups and bring them into the LATC."
Part of what sold Valenzuela on the group was, simply, that it made him laugh.
"We haven't been able to find a lot of comedy," he said. "Everything else has been real political and heavy. This is actually fun."
But the jokes carry a serious side.
The name "Latins Anonymous" is a takeoff on Alcoholics Anonymous. The actors, who play characters named Rick, Armando, Diane and, for reasons to be revealed in the show, Nicolette rather than Luisa, each stand up and testify about the first time they realized they were Latino.
In the course of a workshop production of the show presented by the Old Globe Theatre's Teatro Meta in San Diego, their barbs fall on everything from the guilt of Latinos who cannot speak Spanish, such as Najera and Rodriguez, to the embarrassment of Latinos who change their names, as did Leschin, who was born Luisa Josefina Gomez.
The jokes struck a nerve with an influential network of Latino directors working for major theaters, who have carefully nursed the show toward its LATC debut.
Jose Cruz Gonzalez, creator of the Hispanic Playwrights Project at South Coast Repertory Theatre, signed on last year as co-director with Miguel Delgado, choreographer of three of the last four Teatro Sin Fronteras projects at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Raul Moncada, program director of the Teatro Meta program, produced a workshop production at the Progressive Stage Company in early September after falling "on the floor laughing" when the group tried out its number on changing names at Theater Theatre in Los Angeles last February.
Moncada had changed his name back in 1970 when he said Actors Equity told him it had enough Latino actors out of work and did not want any others. So he signed up as Jeffrey Grimes.
"That lasted only three years, but they were three very schizophrenic years," he recalled.
As for the group, they are pleased by the fact that the show exists at all.
"This is therapy," Leschin said of the project just before a San Diego rehearsal.
"We admitted truths on stage that we would never have admitted in real life," Rodriguez said.
"We have participated in our own misrepresentation long enough," Molina added.
"They are writing from their reality," said Leschin of Los Angeles writers. "Hollywood writers are seeing their image of Mexicans as their maid or their gardeners. Rather than complain and moan about it, we decided to do something about it."