Introduction to James Lujan’s
Kino and Teresa

[print edition page number: 133]
Through an innovative recontextualization of Romeo and Juliet, Taos Pueblo playwright James Lujan’s Kino and Teresa demonstrates the power of appropriation to call attention to the racial and colonial dynamics surrounding Shakespeare’s plays. In 1598, just one year after Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was first published in London, Juan de Oñate led an expedition of Spanish settlers and established the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México. Lujan brings these two histories together in Kino and Teresa, which takes place after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the subsequent Reconquista of 1692, when the Spanish, led by Governor Diego de Vargas, reclaimed the land amidst ongoing Pueblo resistance. Lujan’s tragic love story crosses this colonial divide, as Kino is the son of the governor of Pecos Pueblo, Felipe Chistoe, and Teresa is the daughter of Lorenzo Madrid, el Maestre de Campo de Santa Fe. While some characters see their union as a pathway to peace in the wake of recent turmoil, others regard it as an acceleration of cultural genocide. Because the feud between the families is shaped by decades of colonization and anticolonial resistance, it ultimately cannot be solved by Kino and Teresa’s love.

Written for Native actors, Kino and Teresa emerged from a multi-phase development process involving many collaborators. Lujan was first commissioned to write Kino and Teresa in 1999 by Marjorie Neset of the South Broadway Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Americans for Indian Opportunity hosted a reading shortly thereafter. In the following years, the play was further developed in collaboration with Native Voices at the Autry, the resident theater program at the Autry Museum of the American West, which “puts Native narratives at the center of the American story to facilitate a more inclusive dialogue about what it means to be ‘American.’”[1] It premiered in 2005 at the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. The play was produced again the [134] following year by Teatro Nuevo México at the VSA North Fourth Art Center in Albuquerque, where it was directed by Sabina Zuñiga-Varela.

In contrast to many works of Borderlands Shakespeare in which Spanish signals a resistance to Anglo hegemony, Spanish functions exclusively as a colonial language in Kino and Teresa, with colonial officials punctuating declarations with words such as “¡Silencio!” (1.1) and “¿Claro?” (1.2). English, then, operates as a more removed language, one that would not have been spoken in the historical setting of the play but which is widely spoken by audience members. The lack of Pueblo language in the playtext points to intersecting histories of linguistic and cultural oppression. By centering Native actors and perspectives within the framework of Romeo and Juliet, Kino and Teresa reaffirms the sense, as Laura Lehua Yim observes of Indigenous appropriations of Shakespeare, that “a seemingly vanquished Native people continue in their actions and words, even when articulated out from beneath the structures of white settler colonialism.”[2]

Kino and Teresa addresses the devastating effects of Spanish colonial rule on the Indigenous Peoples of New Mexico. Whereas the Prince is portrayed as an arbiter of justice and the law in Shakespeare’s play, Gobernador Vargas clearly represents Spanish colonial interests, and it is his son Juan who takes on the greatly expanded role of the Paris figure. Despite the Governor’s calls for peace, many of the Spanish continue to regard Pueblo people as “godless heathens” in order to justify the dispossession of their land and the exploitation of their labor (1.1). Rebuking Spanish acts of genocide, a Pueblo soldier contends:

You are the treacherous, murdering savages. You came to our land, we welcomed you with open arms. How did you return our friendship? You turned us into slaves; you tortured and killed us for speaking our language and practicing our ceremonies. (1.1)

Indeed, it is the devastating effects of the exploitative labor system known as the “repartimiento” that fuel the deep-seated anger of Kino’s mother Anieri, wife of the historical don Felipe de Chistoe. Meaning “partition” or “distribution,” the repartimiento was a Spanish colonial system in which Indigenous people were distributed among Spanish settlers and forced to labor on their behalf. In Kino and Teresa, Pueblo people toil in Spanish fields, while their own communities starve. As Kino’s mother Anieri remarks, “This isn’t peace. It’s slavery” (1.1). Anieri’s powerful resistance as a respected matriarchal figure reflects an egalitarian [135] Indigenous worldview that counters the oppressive patriarchal dominance of both the Spanish crown and the Catholic church.

In this colonial context, Kino and Teresa’s love is viewed as miscegenation by the Spanish and as cultural capitulation by the Pecos Pueblo community. Their love story, then, is by necessity tragic, and it is characterized by racialized power dynamics. Teresa’s desire for Kino to shed his identity takes on the logic of cultural erasure, as she laments in the balcony scene that “It would be so much easier if you could simply cast off your Indian skin and become Spanish and earn the acceptance of my family” (1.6). Her willful innocence reflects her privilege to ignore the effects of colonialism, including forced assimilation, as she asks, “What is an Indian, after all?” (1.6) and “Why should color matter? A red rose and white rose are still roses, no matter what the color” (1.6). In his love for Teresa, Kino is willing to comply with her colonialist fantasies, offering to abjure both his name and his people “if either [she] dislike” (1.6) and wishing for the “glorious day … when it matters not if one is Indian or Spanish” (1.6). Even the love of the two young protagonists cannot escape colonial tensions.

Rather than unproblematically embracing the lovers’ proclamations, Kino and Teresa offers Anieri as a compelling voice of dissent. To her, the potential marriage constitutes an act of betrayal and erasure, a continuance of colonial efforts to destroy Pueblo culture, which include exacting “severe penance” for “practicing … Indian ceremonies in kivas hidden in the mountains” (1.2). For Anieri, the prospect of interracial marriage portends destruction, and she predicts that “One day, our great, great grandchildren won’t be Indians anymore. They’ll be Spaniards” (2.3). As such, Anieri considers killing Teresa and provides encouragement to Juan Vargas, Kino’s rival for her love, in an attempt to protect the one thing she has left to ensure a future for her people: “The Spanish have taken away my land, my religion, and my language. But they will not take away my son” (2.2). Anieri’s trenchant commentary problematizes Kino’s willingness to forfeit his identity for the sake of love.

Kino and Teresa’s rejection of the facile view that interracial union will solve colonial conflicts is also evinced through the figure of the mixed-race Cristóbal, the play’s Mercutio figure. Cristóbal is “at war with [him]self all the time” and “want[s]to tear [him]self apart, tear either the Spanish side or the Indian side, whichever comes out first” (1.4). His mixed-race status precipitates his tragic demise, and he dies cursing both peoples and “watch[ing] as all the Spanish and Indian blood flows out [his] veins!” (2.5). Whereas Cristóbal reports that his Spanish girlfriend left him after discovering that he “wasn’t a full-blood Spaniard” (1.4), Teresa explains that she loves Kino even “after everything [she’s] been taught — after everything [her] family told [her] about Indians and their godless [136] ways” (1.6). For his part, Kino believes in the power of love to bring about not just social reconciliation but also a broader rejuvenation of the land and Indigenous communities.

Kino’s faith in intercultural exchange is influenced by his close relationship with Fray Olvera. The friar expresses sympathy toward the Pueblo people, from whom he has learned the “power of plants and herbs,” and he bemoans the policies that “force them to unlearn what they know” (1.7). Despite Fray Olvera’s concern for Kino and his community, however, his teachings support the colonial project, as Christianization often served as a force of oppression. Ultimately, this colonial legacy hampers the friar’s efforts to save Kino, who escapes to Taos after he is banished, a punishment that echoes the violent history of Native removal. When Fray Olvera’s friend, Fray García, travels to Taos to tell Kino of the plan to reunite him with Teresa, he is reprimanded by the Medicine Man, who fills the roles of Chorus and Apothecary and serves as a connection to the spirit world. This connection, the Medicine Man sharply reminds Fray García, is not one that can be maintained in the language of the colonizer. “I have nothing to say to a Spanish priest. Except in my own language,” he retorts, as he “spews out a Pueblo curse,” according to the stage direction (2.11). A holder of Pueblo cultural, spiritual, and linguistic knowledge, the Medicine Man resists both the religious oppression of Christianity and the linguistic dominance of Spanish. In Lujan’s version, it is the Medicine Man’s poverty that ultimately forces him to “consent” to sell poisonous herbs to Kino, thus evoking the play’s larger commentary on colonial systems of enforced agricultural labor and unequal access to food for Native people (2.11).

Kino and Teresa’s love cannot survive in this violent context. Instead, as the Medicine Man says in his version of the play’s famous prologue,

The future can only be seen in the realm of the spirit world, where the souls of the departed return to where they started. In this land of Indians and Spanish, hope for the future does not bode well for these two peoples, both alike in dignity, but whose ancient feuds will mark the end for a pair of star-crossed lovers, children of old enemies, who as, in so many tragedies must pay for their fathers’ sins. It is the lessons of such sacrifice that will decide the fate of fair Santa Fe, where we lay our scene. (1.1)

Crucially, Lujan’s play does not end with peace after the death of its title characters, and Spanish dominance remains unsettled in the years following the Reconquista. Indeed, the “glooming peace” described in the epilogue takes on new meaning in the voice of the Medicine Man (2.13). Whereas Chistoe wishes to bury the strife between the Spanish and the Pecos People along with his son, [137] Anieri vows to avenge Kino’s death as she proposes to band together with other Pueblos and Indigenous Peoples of the region to “kill the Spaniards and finally take back our land” (2.13). By avoiding what can be perceived as a hollow sense of reconciliation at the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet, this ending reminds modern readers and audiences that the subsequent centuries of colonization by Spain and the later annexation of New Mexico by the United States were not inevitable, leaving space for resistance in multiple forms.

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

  1. Jean Bruce Scott and Randy Reinholz, “Native Voices at the Autry,” in Casting a Movement: The Welcome Table Initiative, eds. Claire Syler and Daniel Banks (New York: Routledge, 2019), 147.
  2. Laura Lehua Yim, “Reading Hawaiian Shakespeare: Indigenous Residue Haunting Settler Colonialism,” Journal of American Studies 54, no. 1 (2020): 42,