Chavez Ravine and the Cultural Divide

L.A. Times reviewer reveals historical ignorance in review of Culture Clash play

By Rudolfo Acu?a
Published on LatinoLA: June 8, 2003

Chavez Ravine and the Cultural Divide

The culture divide in La Ciudad de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles is growing despite the hoopla of diversity. It is a frustrating experience; ever present is a subtle pressure to change you. Sometimes it is the small things such as with my wife, Lupe, who is constantly annoyed by people?s insistence on calling her ?Lupi.? But, it goes beyond changing the pronunciation of your name. It spills over into how you look at things: Anglos always seem to expect Chicanos and other Latinos to
crossover while they give little thought to crossing over, other than perhaps maybe eating at Taco Bell.

Just when you think that you have made it, the bubble bursts. The other night I went to see Culture Clash?s new play ?Chavez Ravine? at the Mark Taper. Despite some liberties with history I thoroughly enjoyed the play, and I may add so did the audience.

Much to my dismay, on June 2, 2003 a negative review appeared in the Los Angeles Times by Don Shirley titled, ?No runs, a few hits, no real errors: a sketchy 'Ravine'.? Upon reading the review, I wondered if Shirley and I had seen the same play. The article epitomized the cultural arrogance of most theater critics. Trained on the East Coast, most expect theater in Los Angeles to stick to their notions of what is good and bad. They expect Mexicans and other Latinos to behave like
Anglos and cross over. Although these critics live in Los Angeles, earn their living here, and yes, even breathe its air, they do not know much about the city or its history. They expect that a play will cure their historical ignorance, and if it does not, it is a flaw of the play, not their own historical ignorance

Gratuitously Shirley writes that the ?saga is a fascinating urban chronicle.? It always seems that white critics have to say something pleasant before sticking it to you. Then the critic deduces that Culture Clash ?wanted to make the material as breezily ingratiating as possible,? which anyone knowing the history of the group would find as amusing as a gringo eating tamales without removing the wrapper. The review continues that ?The show's cartoonish surface never subsides long enough for an emotional center to emerge.? My God, hasn?t this erudite man ever seen farces, or know anything about the history of Spanish language teatros and carpas that date back to the early days of L.A.?

He complains that he is confused by the multiple characters; that the playwrights did not develop the characters. He feels uncomfortable. Obviously he is prime candidate to sign initiative petition for an English Only law. The critic feels as if he is losing control because the play does not conform to his norms. Things seem out of place: My God, the narrator of the play does not appear until well into the play: "It's a little late to introduce a narrator.? Darn it, Culture Clash loses an opportunity to use the family as protaganists. Therefore, the play has no spine.

Then comes the ethnocentricism: the play ?assumes a familiarity with Los Angeles names that will probably make this production impossible to export.? It matters little that New York plays are continuously ?imported? into L.A. What?s tragic is that the critics often have too much power, and making these types of assumptions becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. They intimidate Chicanos to compromise their creativity.

This cultural divide in L.A. reminds me of my childhood; most gringos then did not know what a taco was. Mexican restaurants catered to a white clientele and would water down the chili; restaurants such as El Cholo had big signs in front of their establishments, advertising ?Spanish food.? It took Taco Bell to make the taco acceptable for ?export.?

Critics feel comfortable with what they know: Shirley, for instance, thought that the ?script's funniest in-joke occurs during a sequence depicting the shattered feelings of Brooklynites upon hearing that their beloved Dodgers would move to L.A.? This statement goes a long way in explaining the comfort zone in the culture divide. Basically, the critic feels like an American in Paris in search of a MacDonald?s. His
frustration drives him to nitpick: ?Many profanities and other choices of slang also sound gratuitous or anachronistic?. He asks ?Would Maria, in 1946, have told her priest that becoming a nun is "for squares?? Please, this is a play. It exaggerates! it is L.A., not New York where I guess they never use profanity.

The cultural divide is nowhere more evident than in the reviewer?s off- the-wall comment that the play "Living Out" is much deeper than Culture Clash. Why and how is it deeper? If I were to nitpick, I would ask what is ?Living Out? about? The reviewer did not explain why it was deeper or what the play was about. I?ll concede, ?Living Out? is a good play, and I would not criticize it to authenticate ?Chavez Ravine.? However, I do criticize Shirley. If he were honest with himself, he would admit that he liked it because it had more white characters, and he felt like an insider. (?Living Out? was about a Salvadoran nanny working for a West Side white couple).

As a child I went with friends to Yiddish plays, and later to other plays where I was an outsider. I did not know a lot of the expressions or even the background, but I learned. Hopefully, Shirley will learn to eat tamales without the wrapper, and that in the rush to be accepted, Chicanos and Latinos do not make L.A. into a giant Taco Bell.

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