Portillo-Trambley’s challenging of the hegemony of Chicano theatre in ‘The Day of the Swallows’

(Another college essay.. if the title bores you I wouldnt read on :P but just incase anyone’s interested I thought I’d post it ;))

Since its conception Chicano theatre has limited the participation of women and displayed a distinct hegemony in its beliefs, primarily focusing on the stories of men, their problems, bonds and culture. Chicano theatre operates on the whore/virgin dichotomy, La Malinche vs. Guadalupe, that alienates and ignores Chicana issues and triumphs, whilst celebrating the revolutionary acts of men. Guadalupe, the virgin, is placed on a pedestal in the Chicano psyche, but not respected for her ideas or beliefs but merely her sexual purity, in a culture favouring the passive female and dominant male. La Malinche is portrayed as an object, a sight of degradation and evil, as the sexually uninhibited woman is excluded from Chicano culture. A perfect example of such alienation of women in Chicano theatre is Luis Valdez one-act play ‘Los Vendidos’ (’The Sell-outs’). [1]

Although ‘Los Vendidos’ (written in 1967) is considered to be a revolutionary Chicano protest play, it demonises women and supports the La Malinche (whore) stereotype by making Miss Jimenez an evil, immoral character. Like La Malinche, Miss Jimenez betrays her own people by acting on behalf of the white oppressor. She is criticised as the most anglicised member of the Chicano group, pronouncing her name with a ‘J’ sound, as Americans would, and choosing to purchase the most ‘American model’ of the used Mexicans. She represents dominant culture in the play and plays the role of ‘the bad guy’, which is evident when an emotional response is evoked in the audience as she runs off the stage defeated, leaving the group of males unified and strengthened. Because of the lack of other representations of women in the play, it suggests that there is a connection between her gender and her assimilationist ideals. [2] Miss Jimenez is held to the audience as a vessel for stereotyping, racism and stigmatism and no other female character counter-acts this horrible distinction. The Chicana woman is left out, isolated and unconsidered in this play and so many others in the Chicano theatre tradition.

However, one play broke away from the hegemony of the Mechicano belief system in theatre and to this day stands up as one of the greatest pieces of Chicano/a theatre, revolutionary for both its treatment of women’s issues and of the Chicano culture; Estela Portillo’s ‘The Day of the Swallows’. [3] Portillo is a pivotal character in the Chicano theatre movement with a short novel, several plays, short stories and poetry all richly contributing to Chicano literature. ‘The Day of the Swallows’ is one of Portillo’s most contemporary pieces, as she deals with the tabooed subject (especially in Chicano culture) of female homosexuality. Through the powerful character of Dona Josefa, a reclusive lesbian, the writer outlines the passions and frailties of human life, as she would rather face death as a martyr than her own weakness and the ridicule of the towns people who hold her in such high regard. [4] Set on the day before San Lorenzo, the day when all of the virgins come to wash their hair and bathe in the lake in the hopes of finding a perfect love, a man to marry, this is the perfect backdrop for a story of female revolt and martyrdom in the face of such traditional, macho rituals and ideas about womanhood.

From the very beginning of the play we can see that this is one piece of writing that will not falter to the usual misogyny of Chicano theatre, as it unifies a predominantly female cast in a setting of purity, light and lace, a house that has the qualities of a woman; safe, beautiful and serene. Female characters continuously compliment and admire one another in the play, showing a supreme and admirable strength, self worth and unity together. Josefa’s character is one of the most beloved and honoured members of the community with her natural, bright gentleness touching all who meet her, in contrast to the male characters in the play such as the menacing, untrustworthy drunkard Tomas and the frivolous, lusty Eduardo. In act one, scene one, Eduardo must be granted permission from Josefa to share morning coffee in her house, this is just one of the very definite messages of respect for a dominant female in the play – Josefa: ‘ask Eduardo to have some morning coffee with us today’, Alysea: ‘May I? Thank you… he’s been coaxing me’. Eduardo also comments on how the room is a lovely room ‘…for women’ in this scene, outlining his ignorance and gruffness as he would prefer to be out in the ‘wilderness.. Mountain, pines. My squaw…’, he is intimidated by the beauty and peace that women bring to the world and this home. His character is used to demonstrate what the typical Chicano male believes to be the roles of women, such as having babies and being gracious and obliging when marriage is proposed stating that ‘no one in her right mind turns down a marriage proposal’. In the following scene Clara even admits to feeling this way about women, this old fashioned idea of the woman at home caring for an unworthy husband, ‘a woman was made to love a man. To love is enough for a woman..’. One could say that Josefa is far more intelligent than this, as she knows it is not enough to obediently serve and love unconditionally, she needs love in return and the same respect that is given to these men. Clara’s husband furthers the theme of the evils and injustices of man by stating that to have many lovers and not to give love to your wife is ‘a mans way!’. This play has a definite and pointed message of anger towards the dominant male society that has oppressed the Chicana women for so long.

The incredibly risqué subject of human trafficking for the sex trade is also touched upon in scene two when Alysea explains to Eduardo how Josefa found her after she had escaped from ‘men with hard, dead looks’ where she was ‘locked up in an old house’. This was such a brave issue to address in Chicano theatre at the time, making this play all the more contemporary and important. Josefa attacks the male perception of ‘love’ in this scene also, stating that to a man love really means ‘take’ and ‘destroy’, that ‘man’s love is always a violence’. Another poignant line in this scene is Josefa’s question, ‘When has a man been fair to…women?’, which could be applied to Chicano theatre in general as well as the culture and universal women’s rights issues. Another tabooed subject that is of course addressed in the play is lesbianism, which was highly frowned upon in hegemonic Mechicano culture. The combing of the hair seems to symbolise lesbian intimacy in the play, as Josefa asks Alysea to allow her to comb her hair when she is upset, and murmurs that ‘There are beautiful things to love…’ before she gently places combs in Clara’s hair. In my opinion, Josefa’s pagan belief in her magicians is also an incarnation of her sexuality. The day she claims to have found them was the same day that she made love to Alysea and she felt as though they took her body sexually and she feels a great love and fulfilment at times when she see’s them or feels aware of their presence. Perhaps these magicians are Josefa’s personal realisation and warm acceptance of her own sexuality and love of women that make her feel comforted and at one with the earth in such a way, she also wishes for the magicians to come to Alysea, so that Alysea will reciprocate her love. The fact that the two were first joined in love on the day of San Lorenzo is a statement of contemporary female issues versus traditional, the two women exploring their sexuality instead of shrouding it in a forced innocence and virginity, as the women earlier that day had done.

The cutting off of David’s tongue in the play is of course incredibly symbolic also. By cutting off the boys tongue the women silence him for ever, in the same way that women were silenced and left without a voice in Chicano theatre and culture. It is also a metaphor for castration, the ultimate revenge on a male dominated society. Even after this bold and gruesome act however, Josefa still has no more of a voice than David. So oppressed, traumatised and censored by the dominating Mechicano society she has grown up and lived in all her life she can never admit her true feelings to the towns people who see her as such a model citizen. She is trapped in a web of lies, like the web patterns on the lace she weaves, that she needed to create to survive, to bury the ugly truth of who she really was or risk damnation and rejection. Her fatal flaw is the need to be the perfect woman in a society where nothing but that idea of the perfect, Guadalupe character is acceptable or worth respecting. In her final act of killing herself in the lake, on the day of the bathing of virgins, she believes that she is a martyr to all womankind, hoping that all women oppressed by their culture will come to bathe in the light that she is reincarnated in and the water she has passed in, that the lake will mean to them what it did to her; an awakening of sexuality, a sense of self worth and love, and not just another pedestal for the dominating male culture to place young women on both in reality, and in Chicano theatre.

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