Introduction to Seres Jaime Magaña’s
The Tragic Corrido of Romeo and Lupe

[print edition page number: 219]
Seres Jaime Magaña’s The Tragic Corrido of Romeo and Lupe is a bilingual adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that was first performed in 2018 at the Pharr Community Theater in Pharr, Texas, under the direction of Pedro Garcia. Nearly all of the characters in The Tragic Corrido are Mexican American. Some have deep roots in the Rio Grande Valley, and some are immigrants, both documented and undocumented. Romeo’s mixed-race Anglo and Mexican American family owns the Campbell Irrigation Company, while the majority of Lupe’s family members are recent Mexican immigrants who work in the fields. The Tragic Corrido situates Romeo and Juliet’s treatment of love, identity, and justice within the Rio Grande Valley, foregrounding colonialism, environmental injustice, and labor rights. Magaña provocatively appropriates Romeo and Juliet for a border context, using it not as an oppressive mold in which to fit life en La Frontera, but as a malleable frame that can be transformed by the region’s hybrid cultures, languages, and art forms. In his appropriation of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Magaña centers the voices, histories, and ways of knowing of fronterizos, fashioning the theater as a space in which the community can forge collective responses to common challenges.

The Tragic Corrido of Romeo and Lupe is set during the early twentieth century in Pharr, which is connected by bridge to its sister city of Reynosa in Tamaulipas, Mexico. This geographical specificity is highlighted from the beginning of the play, which the bilingual corrido singer, analogous to Shakespeare’s Chorus, opens by welcoming the audience to “Cage Boulevard here in the city of Pharr” (1.2). This sense that the play is situated within the community is augmented by its intense focus on the broader region of the Rio Grande Valley, which for the most part constitutes the world of the play. The Río Bravo itself plays a critical role in a play whose central conflict revolves around who has rights to the water that sustains the Valley’s land and culture. In this way, the original production run of The Tragic Corrido was aligned with the Pharr Community Theater’s 2018 season theme of water politics, which highlighted the importance of the river to the region and its inhabitants. [220]

Set “in an alternate timeline in a growing Republic of Texas,” the play’s temporality is somewhat unstable. The Tragic Corrido engages with the agricultural economics and labor politics of the 1940s as World War II looms in the background. It is also reliant on later twentieth-century contexts in its staging of Chicanx identity, engaging deeply with the tradition of protest and the return to Indigenous symbolism that was embraced by the United Farm Workers and the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 70s. This shifting temporality permits Magaña to engage with legacies of colonization that include racism, labor exploitation, and environmental destruction, as well as the militarization of the border and forced deportations that continue in the present century. This speculative, transhistorical approach makes apparent the mutating but always present systems of oppression that have impacted the lives of Valley residents. The play implicitly links, for example, the Bracero Program of the 1940s, in which Mexican agricultural workers were encouraged to come to the United States to ameliorate labor shortages, with today’s forced deportations of undocumented people, including those who have been exploited to serve U.S. capitalism. This expansive historical vista connects to, and in a sense justifies, Magaña’s choice to appropriate an early modern European play: the colonialism that began in the region in the sixteenth century continues to affect it today.

These aftereffects can be seen in the way that The Tragic Corrido critiques the role that agribusiness played in shaping the Rio Grande Valley. The Campbell Irrigation Company is buying up land so that it can expand its pipelines. As such, the Campbells promote a vision of the region as the “Magic Valley,” which María Herrera-Sobek explains is “the nickname its chamber of commerce seductively imagined for it.”[1] Driven by the desire to extract wealth from the land and its people, the Campbells exploit the Valley’s natural and human resources. As the corridista explains in her role as narrator, “nothing can stop their visions, as they build their dreams through refugees, as they build their dreams through people’s homes” (1.2).

Reflecting the political aims of the play, and its roots in the theatrical tradition that began with the Teatro Campesino during the farmworkers movement of the 1960s, Romeo and Lupe meet at a protest that interrupts a party. Staged at the Birthday of the Magic Valley, an event intended as a celebration of agricultural abundance from which the Campbells profit, this protest takes the form of an acto, or a short skit, featuring models dressed as fruit who attest to the devastation inflicted upon the region. In addition, Lupe’s cousin Ramón raps about how the duplicity of white landowners has led to poverty and oppression: “we worked [221] this earth first you returned it to us cursed / your handshake agreement is but double cross coerce / your logic is rehearsed and your compassion is even worse” (2.4). His “Tejano lament” draws on the Indigenous heritage of Valley campesinos to cast the Campbells as colonizers. His use of a Black American poetic and musical form highlights the influence of the African diaspora in Borderlands culture and within discourses of resistance and social justice. When interrupted by the Campbells’ security guards, the protestors chant, “We do not want your segregation, your discrimination, your dreams. Esta tierra no te quiere aqui. This is not your magic valley, this is the RGV. This is not your magic valley, this is the RGV” (1.6). The RGV, in contrast to the Magic Valley, is fashioned as a space that centers the lives and labor of border residents and that acknowledges the racial and class-based inequalities that shape the region. Romeo and Lupe’s love arises from these fraught contexts, emphasizing that the feud between their families is far from senseless but rather is rooted in centuries of oppression and therefore has extremely high stakes.

The Tragic Corrido responds to these colonial conflicts through a collective, intertextual approach to storytelling and artmaking. Aspects of Romeo and Juliet, translated and adapted by Magaña into a mixture of Spanish, English, and Spanglish, are integrated into the tradition of the Mexican corrido, or dramatic ballad. A Spanish form that has evolved within the Mexico–U.S. border region, the genre is known both for its malleability and for its frequent themes of border crossing and immigration.[2] According to Herrera-Sobek, “Corridos have been the voice of the Mexican and Mexican American people narrating their history, love stories, and tragedies; the exploits of famous bandits, deeds of revolutionary heroes and heroines, and any other newsworthy event.”[3] It is a music for the people that reflects the lived realities of border residents. Magaña uses the form throughout the play, in both the actual songs of the corridista and the broader depiction of Romeo and Lupe’s love story as one that would be told in a corrido.

Similarly, Romeo and Lupe privilege hybridity over the divisions that consume their family members. As Lupe articulates early in the play, “Somos de ambos lados, y de ninguno” (2.8). The lovers translanguage throughout the play, seamlessly moving between Spanish and English. Romeo approaches Lupe first in English, commenting on her beauty hidden under a veil. Lupe then responds with “Buen peregrino, you do wrong your hand too much. Qué clase de devoción [222] es esta?” (1.6). The word “peregrino,” a direct translation of Shakespeare’s “pilgrim,” acquires added resonance in a border context characterized by migration and attempts to impede it. Romeo is a “peregrino” not in the sense that he has crossed national borders but because he has abandoned his familial allegiance to learn more about the protestors’ cause. Romeo and Lupe’s mixture of Spanish and English is complemented by a sense of religious hybridity, captured in Lupe’s name, which invokes la Virgen de Guadalupe, Mexico’s most famous symbol of the interweaving of Christian and Indigenous traditions. Her likeness was even framed above Lupe’s bed in the Pharr Community Theater production. Similarly, the lovers’ exchanges integrate Indigenous myth and geography with the Christian references in Shakespeare’s text. In one striking example, Romeo references the snow of Iztaccíhuatl, one of two volcanoes whose formation is explained by a legend about a Tlaxcala princess and a Chichimeca warrior. Iztaccíhuatl and her lover, Popocatépetl, are often referred to as the Mexican Romeo and Juliet because their love story has a similarly tragic ending brought about by rivalry, miscommunication, and grief. Magaña’s invocation of this myth, which predates Shakespeare’s play, raises questions of influence and power, and it disrupts colonial timelines as well as Shakespeare’s perceived supremacy as a “universal” storyteller.

Indigenous spirituality, furthermore, informs Magaña’s depiction of the Valley. Like Friar Lawrence, Padre Lauro’s apothecary work is grounded in the land. He makes allusions to curanderismo and draws his treatments from local plants such as sábila, or aloe. Rather than using political constructs such as the Magic Valley, the RGV, the Republic of Texas, or Aztlán to name the region, Romeo and Lupe emphasize the richness of the natural environment. Magaña replaces Shakespeare’s references to various plants and animals with species found in the Valley, whether they are indigenous or have been transported there. Like Juliet, Lupe references animals to prolong her night with Romeo, saying, “Ese no fue el gallo, el que perforó tu tímpano. Listen, la chicharra still sings, cada noche canta mientras reposa sobre el mezquite. While it sings, time is ours” (2.8). Romeo responds, “That is not the chicharra. That is the green jay, and the great kiskadee, and the crow that waits for our final consequence. I must go” (2.8). The play’s emphasis on the sacredness of the earth and its connection to love is also linked to histories of resistance in the Borderlands, and the land itself is depicted as resisting colonial violence.

In The Tragic Corrido, Magaña weaves together narratives of Chicanx labor, love, and land to rewrite Shakespeare’s classic play within a colonized setting, placing struggles against oppression at the center. In this context, the tragic deaths of Romeo and Lupe cannot fully resolve the tensions between their families, [223] which are shaped by complex conflicts between Chicanxs and Anglos, between farm owners and fieldworkers, and between irrigation companies and those forced off their land to clear space for pipelines. Nevertheless, The Tragic Corrido presents the Rio Grande Valley as a generative Borderlands space where, given more just circumstances, Romeo and Lupe’s love might thrive.

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

  1. María Herrera-Sobek, “Gloria Anzaldúa, Place, Race, Language, and Sexuality in the Magic Valley,” PMLA 121, no. 1 (2006): 266,
  2. Américo Paredes, “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958).
  3. María Herrera-Sobek, “The Border Patrol and Their Migra Corridos: Propaganda, Genre Adaptation, and Mexican Immigration,” American Studies Journal 57 (2012): para. 8,