Introduction to Olga Sanchez Saltveit’s
¡O Romeo!

[print edition page number: 399]
Olga Sanchez Saltveit conceived and devised ¡O Romeo! in 2014 for the annual Día de los Muertos festival at the Milagro Theatre, the premier Latinx theater company in Portland, Oregon. The play, co-created with the Milagro cast, takes place in 1616 as Shakespeare is on his deathbed. While the historical Shakespeare died in April, the death of Sanchez Saltveit’s Shakespeare aligns with celebrations of Día de los Muertos, opening the possibility for understanding the concepts of life and death as well as the legacies of Shakespeare’s works through Indigenous frameworks. ¡O Romeo! takes a humorous approach to such serious topics, using satire and absurdity to make a trenchant anticolonial critique while also reflexively commenting on the politics of Shakespeare’s afterlives.

The play’s central conceit is that Shakespeare is writing what he hopes will be his most important work: a play about Mexico. His source is a series of letters that his housekeeper Rifke — a Jewish woman from Spain who fled the Inquisition — has received from her brother, a missionary in the “Nuevo Mundo” (1.1). Shakespeare’s in-process play relates the love story of Don Armando, a Spanish conquistador, and Xochiquetzal, a woman from Tenochtitlán, the ancient capital upon which Mexico City was built. In ¡O Romeo!, Shakespeare’s creative process reflects his curiosity about Mexica (commonly known as Aztec) culture, but it also reveals his limited cultural awareness and the appropriative impulses he shares with many other European writers. Shakespeare is eager for new knowledge from the Americas. He enthusiastically learns Spanish from Rifke and presses her for information about Mexica culture. He marvels at the “mystical potion” xocalatl, or chocolate, and he takes Rifke’s advice to incorporate a hummingbird, which was “very important para los Aztecas” into his play, leading to a line about a “huitzilin that sips the flower’s dew” (1.1). However, Shakespeare naïvely believes that his art can transform colonization into a benign process of cultural exchange, and he hopes to write a story in which Xochiquetzal “[i]ntegrat[es] her life and her faith with” those of Don Armando (1.1). Rifke reminds him that this is not the reality of colonization. “Los conquistadores no integran, imponen,” she insists (1.1). Conquistadors do not integrate, they impose. [400]

¡O Romeo! emphasizes the persistent power of Mexica spirituality, even in Shakespeare’s colonial imagining of Mexico. Xochiquetzal, who is named after the goddess of beauty, sexual love, and fertility, has a transformative effect on Don Armando and his worldview. Don Armando is further swayed by the power of Coatlicue, “creation’s fire, / La madre of all gods and stars and moon” (2.2). When Don Armando experiences her wrath in response to his attempts to build a cathedral on the grounds of her temple, he agrees not to impede the sacrificial rituals that occur at the sacred site, including the sacrifice of Xochiquetzal. Connecting her death to the rituals of Día de los Muertos, Xochiquetzal explains to Don Armando, “Año tras año, yo visitaré / A mi ofrenda, decorada con / Flores de cempasúchitl” (2.2). Following her death, Don Armando does create an altar to her, thus suggesting that his faith has been expanded to incorporate hers and that Mexica beliefs endure despite colonization.

The tradition of Día de los Muertos, moreover, gives Shakespeare the opportunity to reconcile with his deceased son Hamnet and to confront his own mortality. Rifke creates an altar that she hopes will help Shakespeare connect to Hamnet. She succeeds in calling spirits to the altar, not only of Hamnet but also of Shakespeare’s characters, who are, as Titania insists, “sus hijos, born of his spirit” as well (1.2). Shakespeare initially confuses his own son with Romeo, giving the play its title and further compounding Hamnet’s sense that his father loved his work more than he loved his children. Shakespeare is remorseful, regretting that he “was in London, at the theatre, when [his] son died” and questioning whether his “rolls of ink-stained pages” were worth the time he spent away from his family (1.5). Once the spirits perform Shakespeare’s Mexican play, Shakespeare recognizes Hamnet as his son and as a talented poet, and he asks him for forgiveness. Shortly thereafter, Shakespeare realizes that it is his birthday, which modern audiences also recognize as his death-day, and the spirits mark these milestones with a round of “Las Mañanitas,” welcoming Shakespeare not only to the day of his birth but to a new morning in the afterlife. Ultimately, as in the story of Xochiquetzal and Don Armando, Mexica spirituality prevails, its sustaining power evident in the celebration of Día de los Muertos that ¡O Romeo! commemorates.

¡O Romeo! won a Drammy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Devised Work in 2015, and Sanchez Saltveit’s commitment to community work is clear in her approach to the devising process in which “rehearsals began without a script” and in which she gave a great deal of control to the actors in developing the play.[1] [401] As with many Chicanx plays that draw on the teatro traditions of caricature and satire, ¡O Romeo! uses humor to approach political issues. In particular, the co-created play parodies Shakespeare and his outsized stature in order to emphasize resistance to colonial structures and oppression.[2] The improvisational ethos of teatro is also evident in the performance of Shakespeare’s Mexican play by the spirits of his characters, who see the play as an opportunity to advance their own agendas. The villains believe that they have been defamed in Shakespeare’s plays and, like Hamnet, have been “neglected, disregarded, abandoned” (1.4), and they hope that a bad enactment of Shakespeare’s Mexican play will cause him to burn his corpus. The “good” characters, on the other hand, hope that the performance will help Shakespeare see the value of his work.

¡O Romeo! thus uses Shakespeare’s theatrical experiment to comment on connections between colonization and the politics of artistic representation and appropriation. As Sanchez Saltveit remarks, her play “used Shakespeare’s penchant for writing from extant sources to illustrate the history of colonialisation that cultivated modern-day Día de Muertos traditions.”[3] By highlighting Shakespeare’s own appropriative impulses and giving voice to Mexica deities, Sanchez Saltveit and her collaborators remind us that Shakespeare’s plays are not his exclusive property, as they were created collectively and appropriated from several sources, including — as in the case of The Tempest — from the trauma of Indigenous people. The plays, it follows, constitute material that can be recuperated by Indigenous playwrights and other playwrights of color. Although Sanchez Saltveit implicates Shakespeare in the appropriative “colonising forces that sought (and seek) to eradicate Indigenous traditions,” her play also reverses expected colonial power dynamics.[4] It is not the Mexica who need to be civilized or educated by Shakespeare but rather Shakespeare who needs Mexican spirituality and his Mexican play in order to heal.

The politics of language play a role in this rebalancing of power. Sanchez Saltveit’s Shakespeare fumbles through his newly acquired Spanish, and the play contains not only dialogue in Spanish and Nahuatl but also Shakespearean lines translated into other languages, such as Russian, French, and Korean, thus prefiguring Shakespeare’s global reach and highlighting the work of translators and [402] adaptors in making Shakespeare communal property.[5] By sprinkling translations throughout the play, Sanchez Saltveit shows how, 450 years after his birth, Shakespeare’s writing has reached a much broader audience than the one for which it was originally intended. ¡O Romeo! thus invites future students and scholars to examine what Shakespearean translations and adaptations can reveal about imperialism and colonialism throughout history.

The play also invites audiences to see Shakespeare — a figure who has been made larger than life in the cultural imagination — as a human who is subject to the same forces of death as everyone else. As Sanchez Saltveit writes of her play, “the revered Bard is levelled … by mortality, remorse and cultural ineptitude.”[6] Removed from the rarified space of the canon, Shakespeare is free to work with artistic collaborators in an egalitarian, rather than oppressive, way. When Shakespeare arises from the afterlife to visit his own altar, he gives Rifke a pen and ink so that she can finish his masterpiece, symbolically handing off his craft to others, including those from different cultural, religious, and linguistic backgrounds. ¡O Romeo! ultimately suggests that artists around the world will continuously transform Shakespeare through their appropriations, achieving a more truly diverse, intercultural vision than the historical Shakespeare himself was able to achieve.

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

  1. Olga Sanchez Saltveit, “¡O Romeo! Shakespeare on the Altar of Día de los Muertos,” in Shakespeare and Latinidad, eds. Trevor Boffone and Carla Della Gatta (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021), 39,
  2. On Chicanx uses of humor, see Carl Gutiérrez-Jones, “Humor, Literacy, and Trauma in Chicano Culture,” Comparative Literature Studies 40, no. 2 (2003): 112–26,
  3. Sanchez Saltveit, “¡O Romeo!,” 38.
  4. Sanchez Saltveit, “¡O Romeo!,” 43.
  5. In keeping with the collaborative spirit of the production, some lines were directly translated by cast members. The Korean translations, for example, were done by Heath Hyun Houghton, the actor who played Hamlet.
  6. Sanchez Saltveit, “¡O Romeo!,” 38.