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Theater reflects the lives of first-generation Mexicans

The new-immigrant perspective of Teatro Mitote y Cine, visiting from Phoenix, grows from members' life experiences.

March 08, 2013|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Juan G. Cuevas, left, Enrique Vazquez Lopez and Samuel Ruvalcaba of Teatro Mitote y Cine.
Juan G. Cuevas, left, Enrique Vazquez Lopez and Samuel Ruvalcaba of Teatro… (Teatro )

In "Cada Quien Su Mexicano" (To Each Their Own Mexican), a one-act comedy with dark satirical edges, male actors attired as clowns take turns listing the things that make them Mexican.

"I'm Mexican because I drink Mexican Coca-Cola!" one offers in Spanish. "I'm Mexican because I eat beans and rice!" says another.

Then a third clown abruptly shifts the play's tone from farcical to unsettling. "I'm Mexican," he declares, "because I eat ... well, I don't eat."

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It's the kind of theatrical effect that the Arizona performance troupe Teatro Mitote y Cine likes to conjure, designed to make their largely Spanish-speaking audiences laugh, contemplate fundamental questions of identity, and perhaps shift a little uncomfortably in their seats.

Angelenos may experience all the above sensations when the Phoenix-based company makes its first out-of-state trip to present "Cada Quien Su Mexicano" at 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday at Off the Tracks in the Eastside El Sereno neighborhood.

But what the theater company most desires is to reflect the experiences of first-generation Mexicans and relatively recently arrived Latin immigrants to the United States — as opposed to native-born Chicanos and other Latin Americans whose families have been assimilating here for decades or even generations.

"We try to paint a portrait of the Mexican who is trying to establish himself in the United States," says José Antonio Ocegueda, 38, the company's founding artistic director and principal writer, a native of the Pacific coastal state of Nayarit, speaking by phone in Spanish.

"The Chicano is not the same as the Mexicano," Ocegueda continues. "I don't want to sound like a racist in this terrain, I simply want to be clear that the sociology of us first-generation Mexican Americans living in the United States is very different in the form in which we live, think, eat, realize ourselves, communicate."

Although the nine-member company uses English-language supertitles in its productions and welcomes all comers, Ocegueda says it principally seeks to address Spanish-dominant, culturally underserved audiences through theatrical productions and short films. Teatro Mitote y Cine attempts to depict "a reality that you can't see in movies, that you can't see in telenovelas, that you can't see in television programs," he adds.

In many ways, the company's new-immigrant perspective has grown organically from its members' life experiences. Some are U.S. citizens. Others were born in Mexico and are here legally because they possess work permits or residency cards. Several of them first entered the United States without documents by walking across the desert and later obtained legal status.

Samuel Ruvalcaba, 35, who migrated with his family from Jalisco to Phoenix as a child, said that he grew up bilingual and turned to theater as a way of exploring, and maintaining, his cultural roots. He said that another of the company's productions, "Los de Enmedio" (Those In Between), a series of poetic monologues, expresses the culture clash he sometimes felt as a Mexican immigrant who didn't identify with the idea of being Chicano.

"We love the Mexican part, but we love being in the U.S., so what are we?" he says. "That leaves us at los de en medio — we're in the middle."

Befitting its artistic focus and its members' biographies, Teatro Mitote's performance style synthesizes several approaches. The influences include Antonin Artaud's vigorous theories about rejecting bourgeois theatrical conventions, the work of the modern pantomime Etienne Decroux and the cultural traditions of indigenous Mexican civilizations such as the Tarahumaras and the Mayas.

Those components come together in works like "El Grito de una Máscara" (A Mask's Scream), which uses stylized indigenous costumes, designs and choreographic tropes.

"We never have presented any classic work by any writer like Federico García Lorca or Emilio Carballido," Ocegueda says. "Everything that we have done as work we have accomplished by ourselves, because our theater is a theater of social reality."

A reality, he adds, that begins to change for Mexicans the instant they cross the border.

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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'¡Cada Quién Su Mexicano!' (To Each Their Own Mexican)

Where: Off the Tracks, 5068 Valley Blvd.

When: 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $15 adults, $5 children

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