This week brings us to Yolanda Mendiveles, a playwright from southern California who has fashioned a wonderful play, Blanca Nieves – which is the protagonist’s name and means “Snow White” in Spanish.
Blanca Nieves takes us back to Los Angeles in 1955. Blanca Nieves‘ world has come undone after losing her spouse Jesús and trying to make ends meet as a widowed mother with children, several of whom aren’t interested in the “old” ways – and Christmas is right around the corner — and all of this is imbued with Aztec mythology.
And before you think “Oh no, not another Christmas play” this IS another Christmas play – but it’s actually one I would pay money to see.
Blanca is struggling and we know this because Jimmy the Landlord shows up:
In this context, “cabron” basically means “jerk” and that’s kinda what he is here. Especially when you find out…
Blanca’s so nice she’s making Yerba Buena for him. If you don’t know about Yerba Buena, let the US Forest Service explain it for ya:
“The leaves of this wildflower may be used to make a tea. It also figures prominently in local folk medicine: Mexican, Native, and European Americans have and continue to use it medicinally.”
That’s like the whitest explanation of anything anywhere.
Like all mothers in 1955, Blanca is very understanding:
Blanca makes Yerba Buena for the landlord…and have you noticed the English mixed with Spanish? That is called code-switching and it’s a real thing among bilingual or multilingual people. The play is full of code-switching, as is real-life for the author.
I really like Natividad – the clutch is shot and she’s loaning Blanca a ten AND she’s charging 2 bucks a burrito to the gringos- which in 1955…
If your gringo friends are paying 19 bucks for a burrito, they certainly got more dollars than sense…maybe Blanca can hit them up for rent money.
Esther is Blanca’s niece and god-daughter and Luz is Blanca’s daughter.
Her daughters love mayonnaise. Time to disown them.
huevona = idiot
Wow, Luz REALLY is Americanized…(sigh)
Marta is Blanca’s other daughter. And she’s quick with the insults…
Loco Joe really isn’t as crazy as his name implies.
The first time I read this script, I was eating oatmeal, so it was funny when I saw avena mentioned, because if there’s something better than regular oatmeal, it’s avena, a Mexican variation on oatmeal. Learn how to make it below:
What is Esther’s problem? Ham and eggs vs. avena??? Avena wins, every time.
Just don’t tell Esther about Eggs Benedict.
And again, see what a service Blanca is to the community?
You may notice some red every now and again – that’s the joy of reading a working draft. Marta acts up —
Marta wasn’t acting up, she was defending herself and her honor. Because in LA, 1955 was a hard time to be Chicana – America has a long history with discrimination against folks like Blanca and Raquel…
Things from that era would’ve included:
The people who made this map of LA in 1939 were complete jerks. This was a way for LA to remain unoffically segregated.
The red equalled “4th Class” AKA not white.
Makers of said map had this to say about the inhabitants:
For example, one neighborhood in the L.A. suburb of Claremont (C55, C56) received a C rather than D rating since it contained a “few better class Mexicans.” The San Gabriel Valley Wash community, more heavily Mexican-American, received no such consideration as one assessor described it as populated by “goats, rabbits, and dark skinned babies.” Most might have been native-born, but too many were still “’peon Mexicans” and constitut[ed] a distinctly subversive racial influence.”In her own research, L.A. historian Laura Redford of Scripps College, notes that while Japanese and African-Americans were singled out, too, the language describing Mexican-Americans in the Los Angeles area proved particularly “painful” and “awful”.
Then there was the massive deportation of both Mexicans and Mexican-Americans during The Depression. The numbers deported range from 400,000-2,000,000.
Not all these things were happening right in 1955, but they woud’ve been in living memory for the adults in the play, thus influencing their choices and actions.
I’m not crying.
You’re We’re Okay, fine I might be thinking about crying. Not only does Blanca have to raise a family on her own, she and her children face a society that would rather they not exist. Not your average Christmas play.
And the “dirty Mexican” thing? Has not changed one bit.
What’s a mom to do when her children endure white racism at school?
Tell them Aztec legends.
You can learn more about Aztlán here.
But the story isn’t just two badass gods doing badass things…
Let’s dissect the above.
- Happy ending? Check.
- Lovers with volcanoes named after them? Check.
3. Empanadas? Check.
4. Champurrado? Check.
In the final scene, everything comes together –
Loco Joe has helped unload Christmas trees that day and brought an extra one for the family.
He also asks Luz to the Winter Ball and she says “yes.”
This whole time, one more stressor for Blanca has been Mrs. Tanaka, a social worker who has observed the family – she has some news for Blanca.
Ricky invites Raquel to the Winter Ball and she accepts.
But Raquel doesn’t have high heels for the dance – but that’s OK because Esther bought her some.
And Marta and Lupito have been running errands for Mrs. Peterson, who will lend Raquel her jewelry as payment.
And Jimmy the Landlord…sigh.
Jimmy the Landlord is like the only bigoted white person to ever learn the error of his or her ways. Must be something in that Yerba Buena.
He will fix their toilet for free and lower their rent. Meanwhile, Natividad has some news…
And at the end everyone is treated to champurrado and empanadas – truly the best ending to any Christmas Eve ever –
[note to future producers of the show: please share champurrado and empanadas with audience, too]
The play ends with the singing of Christmas carols including that favorite…Feliz Navidad.
And here are the cast of a reading singing it!!!
A rcent staged reading of the play got a stellar review in the LA Times.
In addition to Blanca Nieves, Mendiveles has written several short plays including The Twelfth of Never and Consulting Spirit. This is her reading from Consulting Spirit and talking about her bilingual writing –
And she has given interviews to other theatre enthusiasts…
Earlier I rhetorically asked why isn’t this even on Off-Off Broadway??? Well, American theatre has a dirty little secret – it’s not really a secret to those who work in theatre in the US, but could be to other people.
According to the Dramatist Guild of America’s recent study, plays by people of color and especially by women of color are rarely produced. I mentioned my reservations before about this survey, namely that it is too narrow and includes a theatre that shouldn’t be allowed to exist. I believe the statistics to be worse than what the DGA reported. But let’s take a look:
While not related specifically to the play at hand, this statistic shows how inbreedingly insular American theatre can be:
All the DGA’s stats can be found here.
While I was writing this, an Indonesian friend of mine [who used to work in statistics research] said that it wasn’t right to compare these percentages to the general US population – that they should be compared to the number of playwrights writing. I understand that argument, but I feel it’s too limited in scope.
American theatre, by producing work by (and mostly for) white males, seals off a portion of American life to other Americans (women and people of color) who may have something amazing to contribute to American theatre but are discouraged by the unbearable mayonnaise-like whiteness of US theatre culture. I see many potential theatremakers being dissuaded even before they start and that would lower the number of playwrights to begin with, which is why we should compare the US population to the playwrights produced…
It’s OK if you disagree. You can write your own blog about it.
Never mind that Latinx actors make up 2% of principal roles in US theatre…
Soooo Ms. Mendiveles has her work cut out for her. But this doesn’t stop her one bit.
She is a licensed massage therapist by trade and came to the world of playwriting at the age of 52 and has been going strong for 20 years. In fact, I predict she will make it another 20 years at least. She really is an inspiration for anyone who wants to write or anyone who thinks they are starting “late” by society’s standards.
I want to also point out how positive her writing is and also just how positive she was helping me on this blog. In fact, she took the time to answer some questions!!!
How did you start playwriting?
The idea of writing my mother’s and father’s story began after my mother died in 1998. My father had been deceased since 1958 and she kept his memory alive for us and her unfailing love for him. My mother never remarried although she did have male suitors who wanted to marry after my father died.
I was on my way to Durango, Colorado in 1999 when the idea came to me as a play and I stopped in Phoenix, Arizona to write down the ideas that had come to me and even sketched out some of the scenes. From that date on I have been taking classes in writing and playwriting.
What are your influences?
Yolanda: My influences I can say were my childhood remembrances of musicals with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney; Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire; Shirley Temple. I did not attend stage productions when I was younger.
What is your most memorable production and why?
My most memorable production was when I joined Casa 0101, a bilingual theater of Spanish and English persuasion. Our production was in 2015. I think and talk in bilingual terms as does my family and friends. The group called Chicanas, Cholas, y Chisme writing group from Casa 0101 we had our works presented on stage for our Bilingual community and we were a hit. The reason we were a hit was because the stories told were stories the audience could relate to, the Spanish and English languages used in the stories the audience could relate to, the actors were actors that looked like the audience and they could connect with the characters as well as the actors. Plus Women’s plays are more honest and direct. My family and friends were so “PROUD” and it made them very happy. My family and friends had a wonderful experience.
What is your least memorable production and why?
I was writing a play about being a massage therapist and how the police department considers massage therapy illegitimate and a front for illegal sexual activity. I am a massage therapist and have very high ethical standards and really resent the implication that my healing skills are construed this way. We have been fighting long and hard to get a state license and regulations that would fit our organization that would work for the police department only to find the police department resistant to our ideas. So I wrote a play about it and wanted it to be a musical but the reading did not go well. I need to rewrite it.
What’s your funniest theatre story?
My funniest theatre story was when I was the assistant stage manager for Chicanas, Cholas, y Chisme and I was moving the props on stage ( a very small stage) and as I was placing a prop at the front of the stage as I looked up my youngest sister was sitting right in the front row and we made eye contact. She was surprised to see her playwright sister doing the heavy lifting and not being the proper playwright she imagined.
What are your writing habits like?
To write I need two days-one day is to do all the running around I need to do, gathering the groceries I will need for the weekend and taking care of things so I do not need to go out the door and taking care of things I need to do around the house. The next day I can stay in my pajamas and write all day and not be interrupted.
What advice do you have for new playwrights?
I would advise new playwrights to join a group of writers or a theater or attend a school that has a strong theatrical community so that you can create your network and help and get help along the artistic journey.
Who are some other writers you feel should get more attention?
I think all writers should get attention, but presently women have great stories that need to be told from their perspective. Culture is very important and needs to be taken into consideration therefore; people of different cultures need to have their stories told.
What are common themes in your work?
I write from experience of what I have learned and know to be true for myself. I write about life situations and characters in my life. There is as lot of material there.
What is one thing you wished you knew now, that you didn’t know starting out?
Yolanda: I started out writing as an older person and I would say to the young writers to go to school to learn the craft of writing. All writers should write from the heart not to write because you are going to sell a screenplay or play to make lots of money. A playwright’s journey is different from a screenwriter’s journey. Both are fulfilling in their own way but it is a journey and not a quick get rich scheme.
Can you please tell us about the development of Blanca Nieves’ Christmas and how it came to have a reading at Breath of Fire?
Blanca Nieves’ Christmas play came to me back in 2009 which is a remembrance of mine and my family’s. My father died when I was 11 years old and my mother was a widow and had us seven (7) children to raise on her own. She was receiving very little money from the government (Widow’s pension) and she cooked, washed and ironed, and babysat other people’s children to bring in more income. Money was worth a lot back in the 50’s, a penny was worth something and you could buy a penny candy unlike in today’s economy. In the 50’s money was hard earned as well and the money coming in had to pay for the basics so there was little to no money for extras. This was the same for our neighbors as we all struggled but because it was the same for everyone we made the most of what we did have as did our friends and neighbors.
I had written the story and in 2010 I had a reading and then it got left on a shelf, then in 2015 I presented it again but because I have so many characters in it- it was rejected. I think and write for large casts- I think I do this because I come from a large family and a very large extended family and my community is very large. So it is hard for me to write a two person play or a four person play.
I joined Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble three years ago and have been writing with them when last year we needed to raise $15,000 for the 2019 year to keep our organization going. We had a fundraiser and only raided $8,222.00 dollars and so I suggested we put on my Christmas Play to raise more money and that is how we had a reading of my play on December 9th 2018.
Your writing seems very autobiographical and personal. What have been some of the reactions of your family and friends when they see these stories up on the stage?
My family and friends have been elated to see my plays. It has brought pride to them and something positive to see and talk about. As opposed to all the negative things that are said about my culture and the people who look like me.
I loved the Popocatepetl and Iztacchihuatl love story. At what point in the writing/preparation did you decide that it must be in the play?
I have mentioned earlier that culture has a lot to do with my writing and the picture of Popocatepetl and Iztacchihuatl were on a calendar that hung in our dining room. It is a classic picture that most people of Mexican decent know and love and have in their home. It was a natural outcome to put that story in the Christmas play. Plus I wanted to remind people that we have a rich cultural heritage and rich ancestry and should be proud of it.
Two part question. What obstacles have you seen in getting bilingual plays produced in America and how can we get more bilingual plays on American (and possible world) stages?
The general American society is very lazy to learn another language although I do know many people who love the language and culture who are not of Mexican descent. When I was taking writing classes and a teacher or student would say to me about my script, “I stopped reading it when I got to the Spanish because I didn’t know what it said and it took me out of the story.” Just one word or a sentence would stop the person from reading further and I would stop going to the class.
I have attended workshops, town hall meetings about plays and they say about Bilingual or Spanish language themed plays, “But our subscribers (who are older Anglo Saxons) do not or would not pay to see a Bilingual or Spanish play. Or that I had too many characters and the costs would be so huge just to pay the actors.”
Here in California the stage is overshadowed by the film industry and that is another issue. Since theater is lower on the entertainment list of entertainment goers, Latina Theater is even lower on the theater list of lists.
The need and the cultural changes that the US. Is undergoing within time Latina theater and theater in general will also change and become more accessible.
What’s a question you’d like to be asked? Go ahead and answer that question.
I’d like to be asked, “How much money do you need Yolanda to put on your production of Blanca Nieves’ Christmas with the number of cast you require to fully tell this story?”
Thank you Bryan very much for this opportunity.
I sincerely wish you continued success in your endeavors.
I told you she was positive. Wow – Thank you, Yolanda.
Here’s all our other playwrights.
Here are some links related to Ms. Mendiveles and her work:
Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble (you should support them)