I arrived in this country in 1970, after five years of directing and acting with a group in Spain, at a time when the seeds of today's blossoming artistic life were just being planted. The Kennedy Center was getting off the ground, the D.C. Black Repertory Company and the Washington Theatre Lab were laying their foundations.
With the exception of the Arena Stage, the offering for serious theatergoers was sparse; and as far as Latin American theater there was virtually nothing: occasional church-group performances, or special one-time events such as the Spanish language production of Lorca's "Yerma" at the Kennedy Center. One of the few theaters at this time whose doors were opened to minorities was the Back Alley, and I began working there in a bilingual program for children.
As I became more deeply involved with the problems of the Hispanic community, I experienced the real clash of two cultures. I could also see the great need for establishing a legitimate Spanish-language theater which could fill a cultural void, and I became convinced that this was my objective. In 1976, with a handful of volunteers organized by Rebecca Read, the administrative motor of the group, and actors brought together in a workshop I taught, GALA (Grupo de Artistas Latinoamericanos) was incorporated as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.
From the biginning the group had two goals: 1) to bring contemporary or current Latin American plays to the attention of the Spanish-speaking peoples in Washington who often put aside their own culture and language in order to adapt to the mainstream of American society; and 2) to make the English-speaking public aware of the richness and variety of Hispanic theater. For this reason, our approach has been totally bilingual. Not only do we present most of our plays in both Spanish and English, but we also try to choose dramatic material that will reflect the reality of today's Latin America.
The bilingual nature of our program has not made our task an easy one. In the first place we usually have to translate as well as adapt our plays for the American audience. In the process of adapting there is always the risk of distorting the original text and thereby losing its full significance. After translating and adapting, we face bilingual casting. Although GALA has a core company of bilingual actors, they are not all equally proficient in both languages. Sometimes we have to find a substitute for a role in one language or the other. Whereas most theaters confront one production at a time, we have to deal with two simultaneous productions of the same play.
Another issue that has troubled me is the tendency to label GALA as a political theater because of the material we produce. We have never defined ourselves as political. On the contrary, our season is specifically designed to include a variety of theatrical styles as well as themes so that we can provide our audiences with a comprehensive view of Hispanic theater. We sometimes present plays that seem politically biased to a particular group of people because they make important statements about the current social situation in Latin America. For instance, in our next production, a cuban comedy entitled "Contigo, Pan y Cebolla," ("A Loaf of Bread, A Jug of Wine and Thou"), one of the characters says "Until when? I'm tired of waiting." She is reproaching her husband for not having gotten the raise they were anxiously expecting. This dialogue could be interpreted as political if related to the Cuban revolution of 1959. However, the play in its entirety is an entertaining and tender analysis of a family's fight for survival, with universal significance.
After six years as the producting director of GALA, I see even more clearly the need to continue Fighting for the development of a professional Hispanic bilingual company in this city. The Hispanic population of Washington has boomed in the past 10 years, and its composition is constantly changing. Hispanic businessmen are now fully entrenched in the American system; Hispanic professionals are successfully pursuing their careers; and the community as a whole is more politically organized. At the same time there has been a new wave of immigration that is forcing us to re-examine our audience and its cultural roots. This process of re-examination is a healthy and necessary challenge.
With adequate financial support, our goal for the future is to establish a national Hispanic performing arts center that will unify us while at the same time recognize the diversity within our cultural heritage.