tlf news Vol. xviii #3 September 1997

Entrances and Exits

[Mavis Delgado and her husband Juan Llompart are Cubans who are in charge of teatro la fragua's new branch in Tocoa.]

After a hearty breakfast we load up the van, bid farewell to Cristóbal and his wife, Antonio and several others of the Sna Jtz'ibahom group. We drop Juan and Mavis at the bus station to retrace their independent steps (Guatemala refuses land passage to Cubans). Once we're out of the city the road is good and the pine forests whisper tranquility. These days in San Cristóbal de las Casas have been a good final act to three weeks on the road in México.

[MAVIS:] I miss the green of Honduras, but nothing diminishes the ecstasy of looking on the land of the Mexica. "We're in Mexico!" as the actors of la fragua say in "Un Sueño Nuevo". A quick look, then Juan and I embrace each other; we had never imagined we'd be exploring together our country America. We entered at Chetumal, from there 24 hours in a direct bus to the Capital, from there...

I'm glad we decided to return by this highland route: there's little traffic and none of the immigration and customs checkpoints that dot the coastal road. I lost count of how many times we had to unload everything; they HAVE to check out the DX7 which goes flat on the floor. And one time a packet of dehumidifying salts in the camera case became a factory-sealed packet of coke.

[M:]...Oaxaca. When we stepped off the bus we knew we believed in reincarnation. The era you breath in that city had to have been Juan's and mine in some previous lifetime: cobblestone streets, erect street-lamps, the smell of carriages. Oaxaca is a magical city.

The first show was a disaster. A portable stage set up on the cobblestones at the side of the Santo Domingo church. We tried out the space around noon and decided to do only two pieces; the stage was too dangerous for the acrobatics of the other two. It rained all afternoon. We returned towards evening to discover that a crew had painted the stage and the rain had turned the paint into a gray muck. We mopped and wiped but it was already near dark and there was no chance of sun to finish the job. We did "El Origen del Maíz" and even its simple movement was too much.

[M:] The actors were skating. Out of fear of breaking a leg or two we cancelled the rest. But the audience was appreciative. An elderly Indian came up; he asked if we could go to his village. "And you should present this in all the villages in our zone. We need it: all the young people are leaving the villages for the cities. Only something like this show can inspire them to love the land and to stay and work the land."

After Comitán the road begins to descend into what the Chiapeños call "la selva"--the jungle. They have told us that this is the area where the Zapatistas are centered, but we see no traces of them on the road. (I suppose I was expecting something similar to the typical trip to San Salvador in the '80's, when one was stopped by a platoon of soldiers at one point, then a few kilometres further on by a squad of guerrilleros, then...).

[M:] At that moment I felt more deeply than ever how la fragua is connected heart-to-heart with the neediest and most sensitive. He embraced us all and promised us some ears of corn "so you don't have to imagine them." In whatever part of México you are now, accept a hearty embrace, our unforgettable tiller of the soil. teatro la fragua gets its nourishment from people like you.

Pedro: "This route would be much better to come wetback than the other one."

The following day, Sunday, an open-air show on a grass surface excellent for acrobatics in Ciudad de las Canteras, a beautiful park which is the focus of Oaxaca Sunday family outings. At one moment I noticed from my post at the guitar an Indian boy's eyes that seemed to be lighting up the whole area. He was not only enjoying himself; his bearing made me imagine a miniature theatre critic. Afterwards he hung around talking with Jack for a long time.

Luis is 10; his family comes into the city on Sundays to sell produce in the market. "When will you be back so all my friends can see this? When can you come to our village?" But he is most curious about the funny way the Hondurans talk. "Where are they from? What language do they speak?"

[M:] When I saw him there talking with Jack, I noticed his clothes for the first time and my eyes filled with tears; his clothes proclaimed clearly that he would never become a theatre critic; he would probably never get the chance to finish grade-school.

According to data on the map the border is at 850 meters. The border station affords us our final adventure with the Mexican bureaucracy and the last of a long line of obligatory bribes. (The keyboard again.)

[M:] Early the next morning we bid farewell to our Oaxaca hosts, Roberto Villaseñor and Rocío de la Roca (inscribed in indelible ink in our roster of unforgettable friends) and we depart for Puebla and our central objective, the Congress of the International Federation of Theatre Research at the University of the Amércias. No one can imagine the obstacle course we had to run to get there, hurdling over red tape and bureaus and secretaries. But we finally arrived.

The mountains as we enter Guatemala are very distinct from the mountains of Chiapas; lower, hotter, without the pines but still spectacular in their own way, rising sharply and rockily from the cañon the road winds through. This remains Mayan territory, but the people have a different aspect than the Mayas of Chiapas. The road is considerably worse: rough sections without pavement, rock slides at most curves.

[M:] I felt very strange in the majesty of that university. I found myself unconsciously correcting my posture or straightening my hair; something made me feel very uncomfortable. The great majority of people had a very studied walk and got lost amidst their suit-coats and fancy heels and earrings. This was clearly going to be the most demanding public I had ever faced.

The dress is very different, different designs that respond to the hotter climate. And only the women wear the typical dress; the men are universally dressed in "Western" garb. About 20 kilometres in the mountains smooth out and the pines return, although less proliferously than in Chiapas. The road get worse -- a lot of washouts. We pass a customs post with no more than a wave.

[M:] The night arrived. Luckily the space fit like ring to finger and the actors got along well with the technicians. I was cold and sweating; the audience was cold as they came in, but a different kind of cold. I saw them as massive walls and I saw whips in their hands. We tuned the instruments. Jack gave some kind of introduction to the audience in English. We began.

We climb out of the cañon and pass the turn-off to Huehuetenango without going in. The mountains smooth out a lot. Then we climb again. The pine growth is fuller and it's much cooler. We keep climbing. A warning light goes on on the dash: the tank is almost empty. Near the top we beg a gallon of diesel from a truck in order to be able to make it to the next gas station.

[M:] The actors enter and introduce themselves: "We bring you Honduras, her songs, her cries..." Nothing. The people completely cold. A woman in the first row carefully covers her mouth and nose with a scarf. The first piece: the muchachos sing, dance, act. The people are just waiting to catch the mistakes. Second piece: finally, finally the audience begins to move, to applaud. I sing, a Silvio Rodríguez song. They all applaud. I breathe. "El Origen del Maíz"": laughter, shining eyes, applause, applause. Tío Coyote: the ex-masked lady is dancing and clapping. Clapping rythmically, serious academics doubled up with laughter, applause, applause that keeps up until the end of the show. Yes, Honduras, now your songs and your cries have entered into the hearts of these people. Tears well up in my eyes. I felt something very like the grand satisfaction of giving birth to a child.

The view is stunning on top. Except it's not the top. We keep climbing. Then climb some more. At each point that seems to be the top, the view gets more spectacular. We fill up with diesel (Pologua, according to the marquee on a bus) and stop at a comedor. While we're waiting the actors play football with some Indian kids in the street. The kids (boys) are anxious and willing to have their photos taken; the women and girls flee the camera.

[M:] People came up to us afterwards, congratulated us, embraced us. A Jesuit friend of Jack hugged me and then hugged me again. "You sing beautifully, how grandly" he said in his bad Spanish. "I'm going to get you to the States." It was all incredibly moving. Some of the actors have only been working a few months; people were asking them how many years of experience they have.

We go down a bit to Cuatro Caminos and then climb again. A volcano rises in the distance across an expanse of valley; if I'm reading the map right, it should be Cuxliquel. Javier is driving; he stops for a photo. Then we climb some more.

[M:] We're alone now, just the fragua group in the cold in the dark at the edge of a pond on the University campus. There's a slight drizzle. Jack calm as always, his legs crossed, a cigarette. But his voice almost seems ready to crack as it cuts the moist darkness: "My Jesuit friend told me in English that we had made him feel very proud to be a Jesuit tonight." Jack, I didn't do it that night, I don't know, I just froze on the spot; but I really wanted to hug you and give you a very long kiss.

This is the heart of Mayan country. The influence of traditional cultural values is obvious in the way the fields are laid out; the valleys are well-cultivated, houses spreading scattered through the fields in a very regular pattern. At the very top (finally) there is an ugly quarry.

[M:] Out of the darkness appeared Mónica, a journalist who covers theatre for La Jornada and was there covering the Congress. She offerred us her house in the Capital; we accepted the offer and a few days later we were guests in her modest and pleasant apartment. We slept like a family scattered across the floor and became good friends with her cats Dalí and Chagall. Mónica Mateos has an indelible entry in our roster.

The first continental T.V. spot: We enter Mexico City heading for the Centro Nacional de las Artes. The expected happens: the police pull us over. Foreign plates. The unexpected happens: a T.V. news crew comes running up, Televisa reporters gathering a story on police corruption. Need I elaborate on what happens when you focus a T.V. camera on a van-load of actors?

For the cameras, the policías flash their lights and blare their sirens and guide us through the intersection. Three blocks further on, another cop stops us. I begin the routine. A cheer erupts in the back of the van. The Televisa crew has followed us. Lights. Camera. Action. Act II. The Televisa crew leads us to the Centro Nacional de las Artes.

[M:] Mónica's apartment in the Capital gave us the chance to forge closer ties with Gabriel Negrete (another name in bold letters in the roster), a young administrator in the Centro Nacional de las Artes. He arranged a show as part of their season, and we owe him thanks for our debut in the Distrito Federal.

The CNA is housed in the complex that was once Churubusco Studios, the studios that shot the films of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema before Hollywood gobbled up the world market. Churubusco Studios still occupy a section of the complex, but the bulk of it is devoted to the national schools of art, theatre, dance and music. It is a beautiful complex, typical of the strange contradictions at every turn throughout Mexico: the First-World, cosmopolitan face on a par with Fifth Avenue or the Million-Dollar Mile or the Champs Elysée, over against the third-world face, often an indigenous face of another language and culture.

[M:] In the audience at the CNA were a group of graduating students of the theatre school. Their laughter, their applause, their sincere congratulations moved me to the heart; as a recent graduate myself, I felt a kind of brotherhood; they took our hands very warmly. It reminded me of times five years ago when I shook the hands of troupes that acted for us.

We begin a very steep descent to the town of Nauhualá. Climbing out of that valley, we pass a police car, which reminds me that we've seen almost nothing of military along here.

[M:] The la fragua actors don't have degrees and all these future licentiates are left with their mouths hanging open. There is no doubt that la fragua is a school; it's the institution all of us graduates dream of, that anyone who wants to do theatre dreams of. I'm a graduate of the Instituto Superior del Arte of Havana. I'm a registered professional! But face-to-face with la fragua I'm barely a beginner.

The pine forests in this zone are much fuller. We pass the turn-off to Lago Atitlán and decide that even though the sun is already very low, it's worth it to keep going and spend the night in Guatemala City. That way we'll have a much easier day tomorrow.

[M:] A T.V. Azteca crew did a long interview with Jack and some of the actors. They told us afterwards that it was broadcast to all of Latin América.

When we left the theatre that night, it was "ashing": a gentle snowfall of volcanic ash had already lightly covered everything. Back at Monica's apartment I sat for a while outside on the fire escape with Javier listening to the city and the gentle ash-fall.

[M:] We're en route to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas. From the time we left Mexico City the atmosphere felt thick. Because the volcanic ash had scattered all through the city? I was between sleeping and waking, dreaming and acting. Suddenly lights. The actors invade the streets, some to the right, others to the left. They find a very modest hotel and we rest there until 3:00 in the morning. A friend of the hotel owner offers to help drive the next section. I begin to weave histories: he's a thief, he's undercover army, he's a drug-runner. At the first light of day I am vaguely conscious that we are stopped at a police road-block. The man had introduced himself as Miguel Antonio, but at the road-blocks he always says "I'm Domingo and I'm taking this group of Honduran actors to San Cristóbal." But he wasn't named Domingo. I still haven't been able to weave together those threads of memory-dream-reality-surreality.

We descend into Guatemala City and end up in an area from which I can navigate (via the map) to the zone of back-packers' hotels. The one where we had stayed on the way is full, but the desk clerk treats us like old clients and takes us up the street to another (better) hotel of the same owner at the same rates.

[M:] Climbing, climbing, climbing. My God! San Cristóbal is perched in the heavens. Everything is leaning, the cold begins to play a game with us. We close the windows a little, then a little more. Suddenly something bright red darts across the green. Then again, and again. Indians! They're Indians! Look at that little boy, look at the pig-tails on that girl. They're beautiful; my God, they're beautiful! For the first time in my life the covers of books about Indians come to life before my eyes. They don't walk, they run, scurry, uphill, downhill, but without any hurry, everything is calm, everything is very peaceful.

We go to look for a place to eat and discover that this block is a center for transvestite street-walkers. And one of them turns out to be somebody Pedro and Yuma know from their barrio, who is supposedly a wetback in the States.

[M:] We go into the city. They're all short, their clothing brilliant colors, the women with braids, leather sandals. It seems a city of ants: not because they are small but because everything is organized. I breathe freely. Here we won't have to deal with the bureaucracy or with sophistications, here we feel at home. Cristóbal, with whom we had become friends in the Congress in Puebla, takes us to eat, then back in the van to climb some more; a show in one of the villages.

The cold isn't playful now; my guitar is tense as I try to tune it, my fingers even more tense, I can't move them and they hurt. The actors have to warm up down to the roots of their hairs. Someone gives an introduction in Spanish and in Maya and the show begins. But... What's this? A cloud! A cloud is moving in here! A cloud floats down and stations itself on the stage! On the plane I felt the urge to leave the metal box and walk on that cotton mattress. And at this moment here it is, snuggling into my clothes, carressing my fingers and the guitar strings and I can't do anything but smile and feel like I'm going to freeze to death.

After chop-suey in a Chinese place, we get stopped on the street and frisked by a platoon of police. Yes, we're back home in Central America.

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