The Theaters of Memory

It's a never-ending play, and it's the story of the continent

By Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez
Published on LatinoLA: November 21, 2004

The Theaters of Memory


Fourth-graders at Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee prepare to put Christopher Columbus on trial in October 2003. The descendants of Taino Indians, Spaniards and slaves study Columbus' diary, the role of the queen and king of Spain ... and whether the Tainos were to blame for not defending themselves better. A young Caucasian boy plays Fray Bartolme de las Casas, "protector of the Indians." He wears a brown robe and tells the conquistadores to repent, or "You will all go to the devil!" There is no script. The students have studied the story of the Columbus "discovery" and, based on their reports, ad lib this mock trial.

But there is a verdict rendered for all parties involved. In short, every perspective on the Columbus story is on trial as part of a curriculum designed by teacher Bob Peterson, who conducts the annual play. Peterson is a member of the teacher-led nonprofit Rethinking Schools, which designs social justice curriculum. The trial is part of an effort to expand the critical thinking of children and offer alternative curriculum because, says Peterson, "the traditional story, the traditional Columbus myth is damaging." He adds: "The Columbus story is really the first time that children learn about the encounter between white Europeans and 'the other' -- people of color. How that's presented and defined can shape their perspective on race and power and world events."


Elsewhere in Wisconsin, a high-school class in Viroqua, prepares to stage a play known as "Little Mary Sunshine," an off-Broadway play that ran a generation ago. It is one of the country's most protested plays depicting Native Americans and has been canceled numerous times since its creation. The play implies a sexual assault of a white woman by an Indian. She is saved by a white man, who upon adoption into a native family, says "I feel like an Indian already." The script calls for his character to begin "assuming an Indian pose" and to perform the song and dance "Me, a Heap Big Injun." Following numerous actions by various Native American groups, the school decides to cancel the play. However, the teacher and the students stage it offsite and, argue native critics, use school resources to prepare for the production.

The director did make some adjustments to the play following feedback from opponents. However, the original play is so egregious, with its mock ceremony, pidgin Indian talk and general story line, that nothing could redeem it. Viroqua also has a stereotypical native mascot -- "Black Hawk." The school reversed its decision to change the mascot following complaints from Viroqua residents. Ojibwe Matt Stewart, who was part of the native challenge to the "comedy" play, notes that the play was inappropriate in a school already using public monies to promote stereotypes to its youth. "Native kids have four times the suicide rate of any other youths. Yet school and sport teams and corporations ... continue to promote and use stereotypical images to tell America who Indians are," said Stewart.


In August 2004, another play, "This Miserable Kingdom," rekindles a battle that began in New Mexico in 1680. That year is a momentous date in history because the native peoples of what is today the U.S. Southwest drove out Spanish colonizers. This conflict is periodically rekindled by a faction of New Mexicans who view themselves as Spanish (please don't call them or confuse them for Mexican) and who refuse to acknowledge the acts of genocide against native peoples that were common throughout the Americas during that era. Any attempt to point out that brutal history is bizarrely categorized as "racist." Just a few years ago, another attempt to honor Spanish colonization of New Mexico was met by fierce resistance by Native peoples, Mexicans, Chicanos, Hispanos and other allies. This drama will soon move south as a gigantic statue of Juan de Onate is scheduled to soon go up in El Paso, Texas.


What is it about these passion plays, these morality plays, that rankle the hearts of peoples -- hundreds of years after the initial conflicts? Indeed, they are but historic re-enactments ... that play out every time people attempt to whitewash history. Perhaps it's all about conforming to the master narrative of civilization "brought" by Europeans. Civilization was already here. And the people are still here.


Theaters of Memory: It's a never-ending play, and it's the story of the continent.

(c) Universal Press Syndicate 2004

About Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez:
The writers can be reached at

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