La Virgen in Los Angeles - 17 Years And Counting- A Conversation with Playwright Evelina Fernandez


Roger Q Mason

Roger Q Mason

Writer


Lauded playwright Evelina Fernandez's gorgeous and long-running annual play pageant La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dio Inantzin (Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mother of God), will perform at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Downtown Los Angeles for the 17th year on December 6 & 7, at 7:30pm. As she and the team prepare to present the show again this year, I had to find out more about the production, its history, and a few tid bits on this year's presentation.

RQM: This is your 17th year - congratulations on such a long-running and successful run of this special event. Let's go back to the beginning - how did La Virgen get started?

EF: Thanks so much! We, the Latino Theater Company, first produced La Virgen at the Million Dollar Theater in 1991 right after the closing of the original LATC where we were in residence as the Latino Theater Lab and we later performed it at St. Alphonsus Church in East L.A. For those early productions we used El Teatro Campesino's version "La Virgen del Tepeyac" by Luis Valdez. Fast forward to 2002 when Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral was almost completed and our Artistic Director, Jose Luis Valenzuela, thought it would be wonderful to perform "La Virgen" there. The first response from the Cathedral staff was a "no." But, in November they changed their mind and we scrambled to make it happen, not wanting to pass up the opportunity. Campesino's script wasn't available so we decided to write our own adaptation with our own original music and we called it, La Virgen de Guadalupe, Dios Inantzin (Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mother of God) and we've been doing it ever since.

RQM: One of the things that excites me about the show is that it gives voice to indigenous peoples and celebrates their role in the mythos and ethos of the Virgen story. What research was involved with developing that aspect of the show?

EF: There are many versions of this story. But, the genesis of all of them is the Nican Mopohua, the Nahuatl narrative of the four apparitions of La Virgen de Guadalupe to Saint Juan Diego in 1531. I chose to embrace a new translation, "Tonantzin Guadalupe," by Miguel Leon Portilla (2000) which is a secular recounting of the Nican Mopohua that emphasizes Nahua culture and spirituality, unlike previous translations. I also read any and all scripts of the story that I could get my hands on, from the very religious to the very comical.

RQM: Has the show changed and evolved over the years? If so, how?

EF: Absolutely! The first year we performed at the Cathedral we had hand-held microphones and hand-held lights that began to lose power in the middle of the show. We have added new elements over the years like handmade indigenous costumes and music and dance solos that have grown organically from the participants. The story is the story, but the telling of it has grown and developed into the beautiful production you see today. Several years ago we added english supertitles to make the show more accessible for non-Spanish speakers and, most recently, we've added video projections and new sets that are designed as Mexican folk shadow boxes for the Virgin's apparitions. In addition, the script has changed over the years as I include new rhythms, suggestions and improvisations by the actors, many of whom have performed in the show for 17 years.

RQM: Theatre and religion have long lived hand in hand - back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, and later the Catholic mystery plays. What is the collaborative relationship like with the Cathedral?

EF: From the beginning the collaboration with the Cathedral has been one of mutual respect and support. The first years we performed, Cardinal Mahoney played a key role in introducing the play and the relationship between theater, music and cathedrals throughout history as gathering places to enjoy the arts. The new and open attitude of the Cathedral, the access to all to be on the altar and even sit in the Cardinal's chair made it easy for us to put up the play there. Even now, audiences are surprised that the Aztec dances take place on the altar and even consider it subversive (in the positive sense). After 17 years of working together, we have developed a "system", per se, of offering this holiday gift to all Angelenos and especially to poor and working people who cannot afford to take their families to other holiday offerings in the City.

RQM: I imagine this show attracts both traditional theatre goers as well as those who don't normally attend traditional theatre productions. What's the take away for you as a playwright to write a piece that speaks so broadly and widely to people?

EF: I always say that this is my favorite show because of the community in the play and the people who attend. Many of the participants, actors and community, have been part of the show since the beginning and doing the play is part of their holiday tradition. Yes, it's a play, but for our community, it is so much more. La Virgen de Guadalupe has long been a symbol of social justice for our community because she is the Virgin that looks like us. It's a story of hope and perseverance, but it is also story about racism, classism and the abuse of the indigenous people in Mexico after the conquest. It represents triumph for the underdog and the eventual reconciliation of the indigenous and European which represents who we are now as Mestizos. It's also wonderful to have this pageant attended and lauded by traditional theatre goers because I believe it promotes dignity and understanding of Mexican indigenous culture.

RQM: I've been told we have a new Virgin this year. Tell us a little about her and her work.

EF: Esperanza America has covered for Suzanna Guzman in the past. She's been in many of the Latino Theater Company productions at our theater, the LATC ; "A Mexican Trilogy" and, most recently, she played La Virgen in "The Mother of Henry." She's been in our productions of La Virgen since she was 5 years old. This year Suzanna had a conflict with the dates and so Esperanza is going on for her again. She has a beautiful voice and is a lovely actor. Oh, and she happens to be my and Jose Luis's daughter!