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'They Shoot Mexicans, Don't They?' leads a monthlong look at Latino representation

Culture & Community By Vera Castaneda601 views
'They Shoot Mexicans, Don't They?' leads a monthlong look at Latino representation
Pictured: Rose Portillo, left, Gilbert Saldivar, Melinna Bobadilla, Annaliese Chavez Tusken, Stephani Candelaria and Mike Naydoe Pinedo rehearse "They Shoot Mexicans, Don't They?" at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)


Just a couple of months after costarring in the hit L.A. revival of “Zoot Suit,” Rose Portillo is reprising the role of another matriarch — leader of the Ramirez family in “They Shoot Mexicans, Don’t They?”

Portillo plays a dance school teacher whose family members are forced to confront their cultural identity in the early 20th century California. One nephew is trying to build a dance career that mixes tradition with his own new creative vision, while a niece dreams of becoming a silent film star like Dolores del Río.

The stage production sits at the center of “The Latin Wave: Exploring Myth, Illusion and Cultural Appropriation,” a monthlong series of events at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse focusing on Latino representation and exploitation in Hollywood and beyond.

“I’m really aware of the importance and power of art to humanize us and connect us to each other and inhabit each other’s universes,” [says John Salisbury of the playhouse's Engage Program.]

Pictured: Salisbury and playwright Chavez

[Playwright] Chavez blends autobiographical elements of her family history into the set-up of the play.

Her uncle owned the Ramirez Dance Studio across the street from the playhouse and was involved in “The Mission Play,” a three-act drama romanticizing the Spanish colonial and Mexican periods of Southern California.

"[It was] the Disneyland of its time. Everyone came to see it over and over,” Chavez said. “If you came from out of town, you went to see ‘The Mission Play.’ Two and a half million people had seen it by the end of the 1920s. It was a phenomenon.”

It frames California’s first wave of Spanish colonizers (especially the mission friars) as the heroes who saved Gabrielino Indians from an uncivilized life.

The play ran for more than a decade before the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse was built to house the show. The original tapestries and lanterns still hang from the walls and ceiling. Many of the red velvet seats are from the 1920s and 1940s.

Audience members will move through the playhouse for every scene, and Portillo expects they will see the building in a new way. The Grammy-winning band Quetzal will perform live music composed for the play’s 2005 premiere, with choreography by Francisco Martinez.