Introduction to Edit Villarreal’s
The Language of Flowers

[print edition page number: 1]
Edit Villarreal’s The Language of Flowers, which first premiered at California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) in 1991 under the title R and J, is set in a Mexican American community during Día de los Muertos, a ritual commemoration with deep roots in Mexica spiritual practices. The tragic arc of The Language of Flowers, in which the protagonists die on the cusp of adulthood, is shaped by the sequence of Día de los Muertos celebrations, from Día de los Chicos, which is reserved for honoring the lives of children who have died, to Día de los Difuntos, “the day of the dearly departed adults” (2.6). Reflecting these traditions, calaveras, or skeletons, appear throughout the play — although the living characters usually do not notice them — and their presence destabilizes the stark line between life and death that characterizes the tragic ending of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

The play’s central conflict is between Mexican Americans who feel pressure to assimilate into white capitalist structures of power and those who embrace their Indigenous roots and imagine a future in which freedom is possible. Juliet’s father, Julian, embodies the former, as he wishes to deport undocumented Mexicans and hopes to marry his daughter to a young lawyer with “the right credentials” and “[t]he right friends” (2.8) — a stark contrast to Romeo, an undocumented immigrant from Michoacán. In Villarreal’s appropriation, Romeo and Juliet’s love is doomed not by a feud between their families but by endemic colonial violence and its aftershocks, as Romeo is killed at the border while attempting to return to Juliet at the end of play.

The colonial dynamics of the Borderlands informed the creation of The Language of Flowers from the outset. The development process began in 1990 at the Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Arizona, where José Cruz González was directing Villarreal’s best-known play, My Visits with MGM (My Grandmother Marta), which depicts her grandmother’s life as a Mexican refugee in Brownsville, Texas. As theater professors based in Los Angeles, Villarreal and González were both frustrated with the lack of roles for their Latinx students and wanted to produce [2] versions of the classics that resonated with audiences in LA.[1] Appropriating Romeo and Juliet for their contemporary context, then, expanded not just who could perform in the play but also which audiences might see themselves represented on stage. Indeed, as Villarreal explains in her essay, “Catching the Next Play: The Joys and Perils of Playwriting,” writing a play can be an opportunity to create from and for the margins:

Plays are also about marginal people, that is, people on the edges of society, either entering it, or being exiled from it. I too have always felt marginal. As a Latina growing up in the United States, as a woman playwright in professional theater, as a woman professor working in academia, it is impossible to feel otherwise.[2]

Villarreal and González continued to work on the play together over the next few years, staging it under González’s direction at Cal State LA; at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, as part of the Hispanic Playwrights Project; and during the multi-venue “Shakespeare in the Non-English Speaking World” conference held in Los Angeles in 1991. The version of the play that appears in this anthology is based on Villarreal’s 1995 revision. Germaine Franco, who is now well known for her work on the films Coco and Encanto, composed the music. The Language of Flowers had its Equity premiere at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle under the direction of Norma Saldívar that same year and has been performed in universities, community colleges, high schools, and community and professional theaters.

The innovation of The Language of Flowers lies in its merging of Romeo and Juliet with the tradition of Chicanx theater, or teatro. In keeping with the convention of teatro, Villarreal replaces Shakespeare’s Chorus with a corridista, a performer of corridos or narrative ballads popular in Mexico and the Borderlands, who intermittently sings throughout the play. The corridista highlights the connections between several Latin American migration patterns resulting from poverty, violence, and war, often due to U.S. intervention. The lyrics of one corrido state that the city is filled with

Nicaragüenses y salvadoreños,
Guatemaltecos all fleeing from war [3]
Pobres cubanos, también mexicanos,
Searching for work for themselves,
Bringing their families here to stay. (1.2)

The Language of Flowers dramatizes the impacts of U.S. economic and military policies in the 1990s, which made living conditions difficult in Mexico and Latin America. At the same time, immigration was criminalized and migrants were often met with violence, both at the militarized border and once they settled in cities such as Los Angeles. Villarreal’s use of the corrido in The Language of Flowers highlights Mexican appropriations of European forms and signals that she is performing similar work with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

In keeping with teatro’s emphasis on the Indigenous ancestry of Chicanxs and their long struggle against colonial power, The Language of Flowers brings Mesoamerican mythology into conversation both with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and with the technologies of the colonial surveillance state that has imposed militarized borders on Indigenous land.[3] In the play’s opening scene, Romeo’s friend Benny, a combination of Shakespeare’s Benvolio and Mercutio, responds to the accusation that he is a “wetback” saying,

We’re all wetbacks from somewhere. Some of us walked over here. Like the Indians. Across Alaska, mano. In winter. Red-brown indio mules, they walked all the way to Patagonia. Later, some of these same indios changed their minds and came back. They flew out of the valles of Mexico, the barrios of Central America, the favelas and barrancas of South America like hungry birds. “We’re back,” they said. “Buenos días.” (1.1)

This opening situates Los Angeles within a Pan-American Indigenous history, calling attention to the original inhabitants of the Americas and to broader patterns of voluntary and involuntary migration. Benny critiques the settler colonial idea of national borders, which deems some people citizens and others “illegal.” Whereas this earlier migration of Indigenous people is depicted as relatively peaceful, the play exposes the colonial dynamics of poverty and war that influence modern migrations. Benny closes his monologue by recalling that, “Eventually somebody said, ‘Why can’t we all get along?’ But nobody listened,” referencing the question posed by Rodney King, whose beating by white police officers in 1991 sparked a series of uprisings in the following years when they were acquitted (1.1). [4] In this act of quotation, Benny calls attention to the experience of Black residents of LA, whose migration was shaped by histories of enslavement and who experience anti-Black state violence.

These racial and colonial dynamics are reflected in the play’s treatment of language. Juliet’s father and his associates reject Spanish, seeking to speak without a Mexican accent and objecting when their names are given Spanish pronunciations. Even as Juliet begins to learn Spanish, however, Romeo and Juliet find a more fundamental connection in “the language of flowers,” a phrase that encapsulates a Mexica linguistic genealogy that transcends English and Spanish and signifies a more embodied and land-based language of love. Romeo and Juliet meet near a magnolia tree, which prompts Romeo to note, “In México, we call magnolias ‘yoloxochitl.’ Flowers of the heart” (1.9), and he later refers to Juliet herself as a yoloxochitl, explaining that “It’s Nahuatl, the language they spoke in Mexico before it was Mexico” (1.13). Romeo’s use of Nahuatl aligns with Villarreal’s emphasis on the Indigenous roots of Día de los Muertos, and the play’s imagery of flowers includes the marigolds, or cempasúchitl, which were sacred to the Mexica and are traditionally placed on graves during Día de los Muertos to entice souls to return from the dead.

Romeo also frequently thinks about his experiences in relation to Mexica mythology. He feels especially connected to Tezcatlipoca, the god of the Great Bear constellation whose name translates as Smoking Mirror and whose worship was central to sacrificial traditions, in which a young prisoner of war lived in luxury for a year, impersonating the god, before he was sacrificed. Romeo invokes Tezcatlipoca’s smoke as a sign of the death that surrounds Los Angeles but also as part of a broader, rejuvenating spiritual cycle. Los Angeles, he says, is full of “[n]othing but hate. You can smell it. The barrio on fire with uzis light as feathers. Tezcatlipoca’s dark smoke burning bright. Brighter than the sun. And nobody sleeps. Even at night” (1.4). This darkness ultimately prevails. Romeo also notes, however, that “Tezcatlipoca’s smoke … burns in the eyes of those in love” (1.4), and he imagines his reunion with Juliet as occurring in the presence of his “favorite Mexican god, somewhere in his palacio, his house of love” (2.18). Read in relation to the Tezcatlipoca myth, Romeo and Juliet function as sacrifices, but they also live on in the afterlife, in the thirteen heavens of Mexica belief systems.

Indigenous healing practices promise to facilitate Romeo and Juliet’s reunion after Romeo is deported to Mexico, but this happy ending is thwarted by state repression. María, the housekeeper employed by Juliet’s father, recognizes the plants Father Lawrence cares for as indigenous to her own country, where they are “[u]sed by curanderos … [t]o cleanse the body and calm the mind” (2.13), and [5] it is she, not Father Lawrence, who uses the plants to facilitate Juliet’s false death. Upon hearing that Juliet has died, Romeo finds a coyote, or trafficker, to take him across the border, but they are ambushed by a huge figure of Uncle Sam who shoots at them. Romeo explains that he is an American who speaks English and is married to an American, but Uncle Sam rejects him, shouting, “COWARD! BEGGAR! YOU THINK AMERICA WANTS YOUR KIND?” (2.22). Although Romeo has purchased fatal poison from a curandero, he doesn’t need to use it, as he is killed by the violence of the militarized border and of the streets of Los Angeles, violence that is conflated in the rapid succession of images at the end of Villarreal’s play. Bloodshed in Los Angeles, Villarreal suggests, results from colonial state repression and cannot be disconnected from the racist violence that Romeo and his fellow migrants face at the border.

Although Romeo cannot reunite with Juliet in life, death brings them peace within the play’s Indigenous worldview. The spirits of the dead, manifesting as calaveras, help to facilitate this passage. When Juliet sees Benny Calavera holding Romeo in the form of a “Mesoamerican pietà,” she runs to him and stabs herself with a knife given to her by another calavera (2.26). Revising the Christian ethos of Shakespeare’s play, Villarreal’s ending charts Romeo and Juliet’s physical reintegration with the earth and spiritual integration into a Mexica afterlife. Benny Calavera prays, “Romeo and Julieta, may your souls fly to the thirteenth heaven. And with the bodies of hummingbirds, may they fly free forever,” while the other calaveras chant:

Your body a flower
Your heart a flower
Give them to earth
And return! (2.26)

Romeo and Juliet, “children of Mexico,” are ready to begin their next journey and to “become what [they’ve] always been. Flowers and song” (2.26). Amidst Texcatlipoca’s rising smoke, Romeo and Juliet pledge not to be separated, with Romeo using the Spanish “juntos” and Juliet saying “together” (2.26). Beyond merging Spanish and English, though, Romeo and Juliet end the play speaking the language of flowers, the language of the heart and of their Indigenous ancestry.

— Katherine Gillen, Adrianna M. Santos, and Kathryn Vomero Santos

  1. Susan Mason, “Romeo and Juliet in East L.A.,” Theater 23, no. 2 (1992): 88–92,
  2. Edit Villarreal, “Catching the Next Play: The Joys and Perils of Playwriting,” in Puro Teatro: A Latina Anthology, eds. Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez and Nancy Saporta Sternbach (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000), 331.
  3. For the role of Indigeneity in Chicanx drama, see Jorge Huerta, “Feathers, Flutes, and Drums: Images of the Indigenous Americans in Chicano Drama,” in Native American Performance and Representation, ed. S. E. Wilmer (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009), 182–92.