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MEXICAN-AMERICAN THEATER

MEXICAN-AMERICAN THEATER. Spanish-language entertainment, amateur and professional, flourished in many forms in Texas before 1900. A lively amateur theater dates from the seventeenth century. The Franciscans in Mexico sought to educate the Indians through religious dramas. Spanish colonists throughout the Southwest continued the practice. One drama, Los Pastores ("The Shepherds"), was a widely produced Spanish-language religious play. Early versions of this and other religious plays are difficult to date. Arthur L. Campa states that they were "modeled after the Spanish autos" that were "strictly seventeenth century at the earliest." Amateur productions of Los Pastores were common throughout Texas. The Spanish-language acting companies that entered Texas from Mexico in the nineteenth century established a theatrical tradition in the United States that continues today, though their advent is difficult to date. Some Mexican-American actors had turned "professional" by 1875. In Austin a building called the Mexican Theatre opened in the winter of 1875 southwest of the courthouse and near the Colorado River. It specialized in Spanish-language theatrical fare, but it may have offered other entertainment as well. The permanent structure suggests that both visiting Mexican companies and professional Mexican-American companies residing in the United States performed there on their tours.

The earliest documented professional Spanish-language acting company in Texas performed just prior to December 3, 1884, at the Salón-Teatro del Mercado in Laredo. Details are scanty. The company had at least four "distinguished" actors well-known on the Mexican stage. One actor, Francisco E. Solórzano, later played a prominent role in developing the Mexican-American theater in Texas. The Laredo audience apparently was pleased with the performances and repertory selections. The company also performed in San Antonio before returning to Mexico. The actors remained active on the Mexican stage until the end of the century. Touring companies may have established a regular route in Texas by 1900. Other theater companies also performed in Texas, according to broadsides, playbills, promptbooks, and private collections of plays and memorabilia. Most of the actors were from Mexico, but a few came from Spain. These companies occasionally produced other genres, but generally they specialized in opera, operetta, zarzuela (Spanish operetta or musical comedy), or drama. The dramatic companies were the most numerous and best documented, a fact that reveals audience tastes and theater practices. At least eight dramatic troupes that performed in Texas had much in common in organization, policy, and practice. The Compañía Dramática Solsona was particularly well known. Both audiences and performers emphasized appropriate behavior at theatrical events. The audiences included families and also upper-class Mexican and sometimes Anglo societies. The theater was an important gathering place. The family was the basis for the acting company and tailored its fare to suit everyone. The theater was a cohesive force in the Mexican American community, a factor shown through the church's willingness to sponsor or participate in the activity. The theater provided a wide variety of fare for a varied audience and catered to a wide spectrum of community tastes and values.

After 1900 the number of theatrical companies performing in Texas increased. The theater in the provinces prospered in part because Mexico City supported thriving companies, provided a training ground for actors, and offered a steady supply of talent to provincial companies. Demand for performances grew as population centers developed farther north. Provincial troupes provided the entertainment for most of the Spanish-language stage in Texas. Visiting stars on occasional tours also gave performances. Between 1900 and 1910 twenty-five dramatic acting companies performed in Texas. There were three types: touring repertory companies, resident companies, and large combination companies from Mexico City. The touring stock companies, the most common type, spent most of their time in Mexico and played in Texas only occasionally. The companies ranged in size from ten to thirty individuals. To sustain public interest, they varied every performance by combining full-length serious dramas with comic afterpieces. They performed plays imported to Texas, as well as dramas of local origin. The performances helped Spanish-speaking communities in the United States appreciate their cultural ties with Mexico. The audiences sometimes included Anglos and Italians as well. Mexican dramatic companies faced a crisis when the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910. When the conflict erupted in northern Mexico, several touring companies emigrated to Texas. By 1917 as the national turmoil increased, more companies crossed the border into the United States.

As early as 1915 a new type of dramatic company appeared on the scene, the resident company. Although resident companies were few and rather short-lived, they played an important role in the Mexican-American theater in Texas. The first of this type was the Francisco E. Solórzano company in Laredo. Solórzano, who had earlier booked, organized, and performed with itinerant companies of varying types, had settled in Laredo by 1910. Dramatic performances by professional actors at the Teatro Solórzano began on a regular basis. The theater became a stopping point for companies en route to Texas. Nevertheless, little is known of the enterprise. Most of the information on resident stock companies comes from surviving descendants and collections pertinent to the Carlos Villalongín Dramatic Company. The resident stock company contributed to the ongoing success of the Mexican-American theater. Theater managers learned that they must increase promotions to build a thriving, successful business. The companies spawned the first native Mexican-American actors; children born to company members often remained in the state and follow in their parents' profession. Interest in native drama grew among companies seeking new plays. Above all, resident stock companies established an audience and made the theater a permanent part of the local community.

Resident companies contributed to their own demise, however, by accommodating combination companies. By 1917 these larger, more sophisticated companies were performing in San Antonio, Laredo, and El Paso to approving audiences in regular theaters. Combination companies-that is, those that traveled with stars and a full company-appeared less frequently on the Mexican-American stage than other kinds of companies, but they had a greater impact on theater practices and policies than the other types. These companies came primarily from the Mexican stage, although a few were from Spain. The Compañía Dramática Mercedes Navarro performed in El Paso in 1919 and the Gran Compañía Dramática Mexicana of Rosita Arriaga in El Paso in 1920. The Compañía María Guerrero (from Spain), which featured its renowned actress and her husband, Fernando Díaz de Mendoza, performed as late as 1927 in San Antonio. The Compañía Virginia Fábregas was the first combination company to perform in Texas. The star of that company may have appeared in Texas or near the border in 1899. This company, composed of thirty members of Spanish and Mexican origin, had been formed in Spain and arrived in Mexico with Luis Martínez Tovar as the leading man. It introduced the practice of giving consecutive performances of a single play featuring "stars," a practice new to the Mexican American stage. The company began a tour of Texas in December 1917 with a female star and a male star in five plays that both stars had made famous. The combination companies also performed in larger theaters generally not available to Spanish-language acting companies. The Compañía Virginia Fábregas performed in Laredo at the Royal Opera House and later at the Teatro Strand, in El Paso at the Texas Grand Theatre, and in San Antonio at Beethoven Hall. María Guerrero performed at the Municipal Auditorium in San Antonio. These theaters were outside the Mexican-American communities and typically had non-Spanish-speaking audiences. Thus combination companies made a major contribution by broadening the audiences of Spanish-language entertainment.

As combination companies displaced resident companies, the touring stock companies were forced to perform in the smaller Spanish-speaking communities in Texas. They extended their tours to cities becoming accessible by train, automobile, and truck. In 1918 the Compañía María del Carmen Martínez performed at the Teatro Washington in Brownsville, and the following year the Manuel Cotera company made a regular tour through Southwest Texas. In 1926 the Compañía Azteca performed at Hebbronville, Benavides, and San Diego. They began the tour in June and by August had appeared in Mercedes, Pharr, and Mission. Small Valley towns became regular stops. A theatrical circuit for Spanish-language troupes ran from Rio Grande City to Brownsville. By 1928 even the Compañía Fábregas visited McAllen and Rio Grande City. In 1930 the Compañía María del Carmen Martínez performed at the Teatro Chapultepec in East Donna, near Edinburg.

When the Great Depression struck the United States in the early 1930s, Mexican-American resident stock companies were among the first casualties. Spanish-language vaudeville, motion pictures imported from Mexico, and local Spanish-language radio replaced theatrical entertainment. Amateur productions, however, both religious and secular, continued the tradition of theatrical fare in Spanish and helped preserve the values of Mexican Americans. The decline in stock-company activity lasted through the late 1930s and World War II.

Mexican American theater revived in 1965 with the founding of El Teatro Campesino, whose success stimulated the rise of a generation of Chicano theater groups. Several significant groups emerged in Texas. Unlike its appeal to a broad spectrum of the community during the early years of the century, Hispanic-American theatrical activity now addressed a small portion of the Mexican-American population. The groups in Texas were organized around amateur performers, as El Teatro Campesino had been. Teatro Chicano de Austin presented actos, that is, short skits modeled after those originated by Valdez. Like other student groups around the country, this group became an integral part of the Chicano movement in Texas. Teatro de los Barrios, formed in 1970 in San Antonio by college and high school students and community members, prepared and produced in 1973 El Alamo: Our version of what happened. Hector González, a member of the troupe, wrote the script. The narrative included brief dialogues between the major figures in the story in both Spanish and English. Anglo-Americans immortalized in the famous battle appeared in a different light from that depicted in the history books: David Crockett was an Indian-hater who killed for the sport, William B. Travis had abandoned his wife and children, and James Bowie was a slave trader and land swindler.

Several groups were the product of traditional theatrical training. Teatro Bilingue of Texas A&I University in Kingsville, directed by Joseph Rosenberg, a Jewish-American married to a Mexican, produced Spanish-language theater in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of his students were Chicanos, and they addressed their productions to both Mexican Americans and non-Hispanics. The performances were in either Spanish or English, but not both. The troupe produced and translated many Latin-American plays and toured both the United States and Mexico. Graduates of Rosenberg's program became actors, directors, and designers. Chicanos from Texas also contributed to the larger area of Mexican American theater. Ruben Sierra, a playwright and former artistic director of Teatro del Piojo in Seattle, Washington, began writing plays as an undergraduate at St. Mary's University in Texas. Elizabeth C. Ramírez also began her career at St. Mary's. She received a doctorate in theater at the University of Texas at Austin and founded and directed the Chicano Theatre Program at California State University, Sacramento. Tina C. Navarro, a costume designer for plays off Broadway in New York City and the Los Angeles Theatre Center, taught at Trinity University in San Antonio. The Chicano orientation of Hispanic theater in Texas continues today. See also FOLK DRAMA.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Elizabeth C. Ramírez, Footlights across the Border: A History of Spanish-Language Professional Theatre on the Texas Stage (New York: Lang, 1990).

Elizabeth C. Ramírez

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Elizabeth C. Ramírez, "MEXICAN-AMERICAN THEATER," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/kkmvs), accessed September 20, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.