[print edition page number: xxxiii]
This volume of The Bard in the Borderlands focuses on appropriations of two of the most ubiquitous and frequently taught Shakespeare plays: Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Theater artists of La Frontera frequently use these canonical plays to center the voices, histories, and ways of knowing of Borderlands residents, highlighting the regional resonance of questions about life, death, love, and power raised by these two tragedies. As they transform Shakespearean plots, characters, and poetry, Borderlands playwrights emphasize linguistic and cultural hybridity, political struggle, connection to the land, and Indigenous spirituality. By incorporating Shakespeare into Borderlands theater traditions and reworking scenes using Borderlands languages and settings, these playwrights challenge the ways that Shakespeare’s works have been used in service of white hegemony. They also claim agency within Shakespeare’s worlds, suggesting that the plays belong in the Borderlands and can be transformed — sometimes broken open and subverted — by fronterizos. The plays collected in this volume are therefore particularly powerful entry points to Borderlands Shakespeare. These appropriations show that Shakespeare’s most famous stories resonate powerfully when they are merged with Borderlands traditions.
This volume contains three appropriations of Romeo and Juliet: Edit Villarreal’s The Language of Flowers, James Lujan’s Kino and Teresa, and Seres Jaime Magaña’s The Tragic Corrido of Romeo and Lupe. In some ways, these productions employ what Carla Della Gatta calls the “West Side Story Effect,” in which the interfamilial feud at the heart of Romeo and Juliet is recast in cultural terms. Like the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story, these Borderlands Romeo and Juliet appropriations reimagine the conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues through socioeconomic and racial difference. The drama unfolds between [xxxiv] upwardly mobile Mexican Americans and recent immigrants in The Language of Flowers; between the Pueblo Peoples and the Spanish colonizers in Kino and Teresa; and between agribusiness bosses and farmworkers in The Tragic Corrido. Because they emerge from within the communities they depict, however, these productions diverge in several respects from West Side Story, which has been critiqued both for its use of brownface and for representing Puerto Rican culture in stereotypical ways. Villarreal has noted, for example, that she chose not to depict gangs in The Language of Flowers because she “really wanted to avoid West Side Story” and did not want to replicate media stereotypes about urban violence in Latinx communities. Further, in their focus on colonial and racial inequities, these Borderlands plays avoid the sense, present in many Romeo and Juliet adaptations, that the feuds are senseless or that they can be solved by Romeo and Juliet’s love and or by their deaths. Instead, Villarreal, Lujan, and Magaña appropriate Romeo and Juliet’s love story to highlight the trauma of colonial and racist violence and to explore potential modes of resilience, resistance, and restitution.
Restitution, the plays indicate, cannot be realized fully within the trajectory of Shakespeare’s plot, as it does not address systemic inequities. Reconciliation between the feuding parties is punctured in Lujan’s Kino and Teresa by the dissenting voice of Kino’s mother Anieri, who calls for the surrounding Pueblos, Navajos, and Apaches to join in an attack on Santa Fe, in which they will “kill the Spaniards and finally take back [their] land.” As such, the détente brought about by Kino and Teresa’s deaths constitutes only a “glooming peace,” as the “woe” of the characters extends beyond themselves to encapsulate the colonial trauma inflicted on Pueblo Peoples (2.13). As in Shakespeare’s play, the union between the Romeo and Juliet figures in these appropriations cannot transcend the violence that shapes their social worlds. In Magaña’s The Tragic Corrido, Romeo and Lupe come to understand that, while their love is born of La Frontera, it can be sustained only in the afterlife, which Lupe imagines as a “world where our love can be free” (1.1). Similarly, Villarreal’s The Language of Flowers, which is set during Día de los Muertos, ends with Romeo and Juliet entering the thirteen heavens of the Mexica afterlife. Shakespeare’s tragic ending is thus reinterpreted through Indigenous cosmologies. The central characters cannot resolve deep structural conflicts in these plays, but Borderlands belief systems offer an alternate framework through which to interpret their deaths.
Indeed, Borderlands cultural practices are frequently used to reframe the elements of tragedy in several of the plays in this anthology. Tara Moses’s Hamlet, [xxxv] El Príncipe de Denmark and Olga Sanchez Saltveit’s ¡O Romeo!, for instance, were created as part of community-based Día de los Muertos celebrations. In this context, Indigenous belief systems create space for healing that Shakespeare’s tragic endings foreclose: the border between life and death is permeable, as spirits return to their altars and engage with the living. In Hamlet, El Príncipe de Denmark, Indigenous spirituality reshapes Hamlet’s famous existential quandary. Hamlet struggles to communicate with the spirit of his father, and his bilingual “To be or not to be” soliloquy reflects his oscillation between Christian and Mexica spiritual beliefs. Hamlet exists in a state of nepantla, a Nahuatl word that Gloria E. Anzaldúa defines variously as “torn between ways” and “tierra entre medio.” Indigenous beliefs also permeate Josh Inocéncio’s Ofélio, which subverts the sexual and racial politics of Hamlet by transforming Ophelia into a queer Latino who has suffered from sexual assault. In his lyrical monologues, Ofélio reimagines Ophelia’s “muddy death” and floral imagery to envision himself being healed and renewed by natural elements (5.1.182).
Shakespeare himself benefits from the healing power of Indigenous beliefs in ¡O Romeo!, a play in which his life, death, and corpus are reimagined through Borderlands perspectives. While attempting to complete a play about colonial Mexico on his deathbed, Shakespeare is visited by the spirit of his deceased son Hamnet as well as the spirits of several of his characters. This reunion allows Shakespeare to reflect upon the choices he made during his lifetime and to reconcile with his son, whom he neglected in favor of his work. Although its title gestures to Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet figures prominently throughout, Sanchez Saltveit’s play draws on several Shakespearean texts and engages with their many global afterlives. Through its references to popular adaptations and the inclusion of Shakespearean lines in multiple languages, ¡O Romeo! celebrates global efforts to imagine a life after death for Shakespeare that affirms diverse perspectives and reflects audiences beyond those for whom he wrote. As the plays collected in this volume attest, Borderlands perspectives are vital to this ongoing tradition.
- Carla Della Gatta, “From West Side Story to Hamlet, Prince of Cuba: Shakespeare and Latinidad in the United States,” Shakespeare Studies 44 (2016): 152. ↵
- Mark Pinsky, “Una Noche to Remember: Hispanic Playwrights Project Takes Center Stage at SCR Beginning Tonight,” The Los Angeles Times, August 8, 1991, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1991-08-08-ol-268-story.html. ↵
- Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 5th ed. (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Press, 2022), 84, and “Preface: (Un)natural bridges, (Un)safe spaces,” in This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation, eds. Gloria E. Anzaldúa and AnaLouise Keating (New York: Routledge, 2002), 1. ↵