The inaugural production of the fledgling Teatro Paraguas in 2004 was a Poesía Viva, founder Argos MacCallum tells me just before a rehearsal of the series' 15th installment. The bringing to life of Latinx poetry has always been a main tenet of Paraguas' mission, and this year's production is directed by actress and playwright Alix Hudson.
At first, I was confused about Atravesada: Poetry of the Border. Back in December, I emailed MacCallum and asked, flat-out: "Is it theater?"
"It's a performance of poetry," MacCallum, who also appears in the production, wrote back, "and I consider it 'theater.'"
Those quotation marks made me hesitate, but I decided to trust him.
I sat in on a tech rehearsal on Saturday Jan. 13. As the actors, almost all of whom are women, gathered onstage, their conversations full of code-switching and lifelong Santafesina friendships, a thought I've often had, living as a transplant in New Mexico, kept returning: How much Polish do I speak? None. How long ago did my ancestors leave Europe? Not long ago, all things considered. Can I ever consider myself "from" here? Hmm.
The rehearsal hadn't even started and already I was having Thoughts with a capital T.
But the lights soon dropped and the Thoughts were quickly silenced. Yes, these actors were reciting poetry, but the show bloomed furiously into what amounted to 37 vignettes; mini-scenes whose language was entrancing, by virtue of the medium. Director Hudson, who also performs, curated the pieces with the savvy of someone whose expertise clearly spans both theater and literature.
The delivery, accompanied by guitar work from Jonathan Harrell, is deft and nearly flawless. Without knowing the performers' backgrounds (the programs weren't yet ready when I crashed the party), I assume they are all seasoned actors with a passion for poetry, not poetry fans performing as an afterthought. The pieces become short stories and monologues, the swift movements around the sparse stage engaging and effortless, and the whole thing unfolds as an exhilarating exploration of what it means to live on the US-Mexico border.
There are three types of pieces in Atravesada: single folks reciting poems, trios or quartets acting out story-poems like scripts and ensemble bits with multiple actors entering and moving about the stage, each taking a line. It all clips along with no detectable dead air, impressively, even in rehearsal.
In the single poems, the women—particularly Juliet Salazar, Jeni Tincher and Cristina Vigil—coo their poems with swagger and confidence, seduction switching out for repulsion when one or the other is required. A duo piece with Hudson and JoJo Sena de Tarnoff, "Making Tortillas" by poet Alicia Gaspar de Alba, is so evocative we can almost see the metate, the tortillas clapping back and forth between hands, punctuating the words.
The poems that are acted out, like Gloria Anzaldúa's "El Sonovabitche" or "How I Changed the War and Won the Game" by Mary Helen Ponce, lend themselves easily to characters and blocking; the poems tell a story and even offer props in their descriptive verse.
The most effective places where poems are acted out, however, are those in which Hudson and the cast competently take more vague literary structures and create tableaus with less guidance from the poet.
A striking example was a grouping of selections from Each and Her, a book of poems by Albuquerque resident and former Santa Fe Poet Laureate Valerie Martínez. Martínez explores femicide on the border, particularly in Juárez, and one selection chosen for Atravesada describes women riding a bus home from the maquiladoras at which they work. The actresses, crowding together on four wooden blocks onstage, exude exhaustion. The cramped scene—women sleeping, women thinking, women sad or dreaming—gently tosses back and forth in unspoken synchronicity, evoking the movement of a rickety bus. Martínez' poetry can be sparse and challenging, but here, her tight verse plays out as accessibly as a scene from a film.
The question of who "belongs" on the border is an old and complicated one, of course. When you consider the new conquerors in this region appeared in the 1500s, what can a white girl like me, est. 2003, possibly understand about belonging? When you want to celebrate heartily, as in the piece at this show's climax—a swirling ensemble braying of "You Bring Out the Mexican In Me" by Sandra Cisneros—but can't crow about dancing with the rooster-footed devil without reflecting on colonization, what does that say about belonging? Anglo people can feel a deep belonging here—but is that trumped by the belonging of Hispanx and Latinx people, and is that then trumped by the belonging of Indigenous people? Is there a hierarchy? Is it that simple? Could the lines possibly be that clear?
I later picked Hudson's brain about this via email; she, agreeing with me that this is the stuff of dissertations rather than thumb-typed missives, nonetheless replied: "All the poets are Chican@s—they are mestizas," she writes. "They are metaphorical, bodily borderlands. They have, as Anzaldúa says, lineage that is 'Hispana, India, negra, Española' and 'gabacha'—yet they are not exactly any of those 'races,' being a hybrid therein. Speaking in terms of blood quantum, they are all indigenous."
When Paola Vengoechea Martini recited a poem entirely in Spanish, I was transfixed. At the actual performance, the translation of the Spanish poems will be projected on a screen, but at this rehearsal it was not. Even after eight years of public school Spanish classes, I could only listen to the sounds. The very last line comes like a punchline; from the wings, I heard other actors giggle in a cascade. But I didn't know what they were laughing at.
Atravesada let me in on a secret—only, I don't speak the language. But rather than feeling shut out, I'm intrigued. I'm hungry, and I'm humbled to have been invited to the table.
Atravesada: Poetry of the Border
7 pm Thursdays-Saturdays Jan. 18-27; 2 pm Sundays Jan. 21 and 28. Pay-what-you-wish.
3205 Calle Marie,