Vol. xliii # 2
teatro la fragua represents hope, community and future for El Progreso and beyond
My name is Fanny Julissa García. I am an oral historian based in New York City contributing research to Central American Studies through the focus of the impact of incarceration, separation and deportation on immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. I received a Masters in Oral History from Columbia University in 2017.
However, my oral history origin story really begins in 2002 when I met four friends and together co-founded a theater company called East Los Angeles Repertory Theater Company. We had no space, no money, and no contacts, but we had a dream - to turn East Los Angeles into a Latino theatre mecca. East Los Angeles as you may have guessed was then and continues to be now, a predominantly Latino neighborhood and at the time lacked free access to cultural spaces and events including theater. When we attempted to open our inaugural season but were disregarded by a local theatre company, we decided to produce Macbeth as part of our inaugural Free Shakespeare at East LA Parks. We were inspired by Joe Papp's The Public Theater in New York City with its mission to make theater accessible to all, not just the elite who could afford expensive Broadway tickets. Another important influence was Luis Valdez's El Teatro Campesino in California who created theater not just for the masses, but in collaboration with the people it represented and with a mission to shed light on struggles of field workers and other working class communities.
The company encouraged all its members to experiment and try to discover what they were good at and had a passion for within the realm of the theater. While serving as the Managing & Marketing Director of the company, I also contributed my skills in acting, dramaturgy, and playwriting. Ultimately, it was the playwriting that I settled on and one of the first plays I wrote required that I interview Latina mothers and daughters about their experiences living with HIV/AIDS. Together, we crafted ten monologues that were then presented by the actors from East LA Repertory at a Latino HIV/AIDS conference in Los Angeles. The mothers and daughters I interviewed for the play were in the audience, and they were moved by how their stories were presented. Instead of focusing on the tragedy that is inevitably attached to an HIV/AIDS diagnosis, we focused on their everyday lives including instances of joy and resilience.
It is at this time that teatro la fragua makes its debut in my life. After the success of the play, I began to research theater in Central America because although my experiences with East LA Rep were formative, it still lacked artistic representation from Honduras. Most of the plays we read were written by Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican and Cuban writers. I wanted to read and perform stories about Honduras, about the people from the isthmus. I discovered teatro la fragua in El Progreso, Honduras. The very town where my family lived! I did not know this because I lived undocumented for many years in the United States and as such could not travel outside its borders. However, the research that I conducted on teatro la fragua guided me closer to some of the core principles that my theater troupe implemented. I remember one article that was of particular influence was John Fleming's "Honduras's Teatro La Fragua: The Many Faces of Political Theatre" which detailed Jack Warner's goal to make theater that responded to the four basic needs in human beings - food, shelter, prayer, and art. The process of communing or making community is based on whether any or all of these basic needs are met. This is the power of teatro la fragua in Honduras. It is not just a theater company or even a space, it provides the opportunity for community-making for everyone. From the actors, to the stage designers, to the play's director, to the keepers of the space, and to the audience. teatro la fragua provides an exchange that is unique and always changing. No two audiences are alike. People continue to support the theater because it allows them to see their lives represented and provides a respite from the neo-feudal society and perpetual impunity they see from their government.
I had the privilege of witnessing this when I visited teatro la fragua for the first time in April 2022. I was invited to present a workshop about oral history methodology and implementation to members and supporters of la fragua. Sixteen people were in attendance and many more wanted to participate but could not due Covid-19 restrictions. During introductions, I asked the participants to share the role that teatro la fragua has played in their lives. A teacher who identifies as Garifuna spoke about her generational ties to the space explaining that her uncle worked there when it was a recreation area for workers of the Tela Railroad Company. Now she regularly attends teatro la fragua performances and classes to learn how to inspire curiosity for history and art in her students. A young male journalist shared that he only recently began attending educational events at the theater and that he did so to learn new methodologies for engagement with the community that he covers in the local news. Still another participant shared that he joined teatro la fragua because it provided shelter from the threat of violence in his surrounding neighborhood.
Listening to these experiences made it clear that everyone in the audience had a strong and continuous connection with teatro la fragua that they cherished and wanted to keep alive. At the end of each performance the actors close out the presentation with a boisterous slogan "Tierra, aire, fuego, agua…nosotros somos teatro la fragua!" After listening to the stories of workshop participants, I discovered that nosotros truly means that together in that moment, and beyond with our memories, truly representative of the lived experiences of the communities teatro la fragua services.
I am forever changed by my visit to teatro la fragua and I hope to return. Oral history is a listening art and I hope I can contribute this artistic skill to ensuring that future generations enjoy the work that la fragua creates.
Fanny Julissa García
Independent Oral Historian
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