How I Decided To Speak

How I Decided To Speak

January Town Hall Meeting at PL 1422 in Vancouver, BC.

I have been feeling like I need to puke for the last month, ever since Carmen Aguirre, Alexandra Lainfiesta and I first decided to write our letter to the Vancouver producers of The Motherfucker with the Hat, challenging their casting choices.

It was the first time that I had ever spoken up publicly… on anything really.

I don’t like to be the heavy. When it comes to these issues I always feel like I’m swimming behind a boat hoping to catch up with those who are far better spoken than I on these subjects, those who’ve been active in these conversations for years, or who’ve already written so eloquently on the topics of race and representation.

I don’t consider myself the most intellectually nimble person out there. In fact, I am intimidated by those who are. I act on instinct, without planning my every step. But my gut was telling me it was time to speak up.

Recently, I had begun to reexamine my own heritage as a first generation Latino Canadian. I was looking around at who was making work in which I saw myself reflected. I didn’t see much. So I began to make my own.

I began reaching out to fellow Latino artists and researching the history of my ancestors. All this led to finally feeling as though I had earned the right to call myself a Latino. So when the issue surrounding the casting of The Motherfucker with the Hat presented itself I felt it was time to stand my ground and add my voice to the fray.

Which brings me to the town hall held on January 11th, 2016, and to a room full of people I respected, admired, and others I had never met before. We planned the event so quickly that I was afraid that it would only be a handful of folks talking in circles. But it wasn’t. Over 130 people came and more streamed the event online. We came together ready to listen to each other. I was amazed by the theatre community that I’m honoured to be a part of.

Since I had already used my voice to help gather people there, I wanted to take Carmen Aguirre’s opening words to heart and let those who had not spoken yet have a chance. So after taking the first few minutes to explain to the crowd why Carmen, Alexandra Lainfiesta, and myself had written the letter, I actively stepped back from the conversation. I listened.

Manuela Sosa in Mis Papás, produced by rice and beans theatre. Photo by Dan Borzillo.

I’m not going to lie, it took a lot of tongue biting to not jump in and, ultimately, I had to speak up again when someone said that, “it was just a group of friends wanting to do a play.” As if it isn’t as important for a group of actors to consider representation in casting, or that the ethics are different for them than for organizations like the Arts Club.

Maybe it is. Had the Arts Club not held open auditions for In the Heights, I hope our community would have spoken out, organized as we had around The Motherfucker, and taken the Arts Club to task. Maybe now we will be ready to do so or maybe it won’t ever be necessary again. If only.

At the end of the night I was left feeling a little blah, partly from just how tired I was from keeping my emotions in check, but also from how slow the conversation seems to move.

I can see how much effort it is going to take to keep the momentum going. How sometimes I’m going to feel guilty because there will be times that I will just want to do my art and not be an activist or advocate.

I didn’t do all this so that I could dedicate myself to seeking out all the places that Latinos are wronged. I spoke up as a Latino because no one else was and I was able to find others who felt the same.

Ultimately, I’m glad that I helped write the letter, that the event happened, and that we are talking about all of this in the open, not behind closed doors.

Maybe it seems like we here in Vancouver are airing our dirty laundry for the rest of Canada to see. First with the Letter to Jessies (whose board president and members attended the town hall event) demanding equality on our award stage. Then with a letter to the Arts Club about the portrayal of an insensitive Asian stereotype. You might be saying, “Just what is going on in Vancouver?!”

I know for myself there is already some fallout. A friend told me that, for ethical reasons, they can no longer work with me. That sucks. I may have lost a friend because I chose to speak up. But had it not been for the courage of the authors who wrote letters to the Jessies, to the Arts Club, or the openness of the participants at the public discussions that followed, I may never have had the courage to find my own voice.

Hopefully, we will build from these discussions and actually instill some lasting and meaningful change.