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Exploring How Chicano Theatre limits the Participation of Women

Updated on February 26, 2014

The day of the Swallows...in Chicano Theatre

A Look at Portillo-Trambley’s attempt to challenge the hegemony of the Mechicano belief system in ‘The Day of The Swallows’.

Chicano Theatre is a term used to describe Mexican-American theatre groups which organize bilingual productions for the Chicano community. The term Chicano describes people of Mexican descent who live in America. Most of the productions were improvised using the Commedia Dell’arte style (a type of improvised comedy first recorded in 1545[1]). The movement began in 1965 when El Teatro Campesino or the ‘Fieldworkers Theatre’ was founded by Luis Valdez in California. A group of vineyard workers (including Luis Valdez) on strike toured with two short productions in an attempt to recruit other workers for the strike. Within two years they had stretched their productions to the whole of the USA. They broke the connection with the union (Farm workers union), began using issues that affected the Chicano community, they took part in the Seventh World Theatre Festival and in 1970 they organized their first Annual Chicano Film festival.

It was between 1966 and 1977 that members of the Mexican-American community took part in prevalent political activism because they were politically and economically exploited by dominant societies. The consequence of this activism caused the beginning of the Chicano Movement. This rise in political activism was the direct result of discrimination and exploitation towards the Mexican-American community. Although they slowly began working in the industrial market they remained underprivileged due to their educational and social possibilities being repressed by social hegemony. Anti-Mexican discrimination withdrew somewhat in education and housing but largely it remained unchanged. Mexicans held the worst jobs available in the economy and although some women graduated college and began owning businesses, for the most part, Mexican women continued to be subjugated in the area of work. Chicano women were oppressed on various levels by neighbours, men and the state. It was these numerous repressions that limited opportunities for Mexican women.

The El Teatro Campesino dealt with these pressing problems such as education, drug abuse, unemployment and racial intolerance because of the historical treatment of Chicanos being economic exploitation, social discrimination and racial prejudice. These propaganda performances were presentational, educational and comical plays. As women in Chicano theatre however, they would bear the additional prejudice of being female and feel the weight of gender inequality, with their Mexican heritage embellishing male dominance. Andrea Lewis said “Latino and Chicano theatres have been notoriously sexist and homophobic and have not shown a great interest in doing women’s work.”[2](Feb 1991)

The Day of the Swallows is a Chicano play by Estella-Portillo-Trambley that represents this oppression of women and challenges the hegemony of Chicano beliefs. It was written in 1971 and tells the story of a lesbian woman, Josefa, having a relationship with a young girl, Alysea, to whom she rescued from a brothel, and rebels against the anticipation of heterosexual marriage. The story unravels the secret of her relationship with Alysea through men and she resort s to violent behaviour but when her sexuality is exposed and she feels she has no control, she drowns herself as a way of escaping the criticism. Chicana’s are perceived as virginal, saintly and motherly, and while Josefa is portrayed as a strong female character she is also quite motherly and peaceful which is Trambley’s way of challenging those fixed conceptions of Chicano women.

The play portrays many examples of gender and sexual discrimination (the derogatory treatment of women and the glorification of men) that is common in the Mexican community. Lesbianism is a taboo in Chicano culture, where it rejects their ideals and role in the family. It is prohibited for a woman to be a lesbian and participate in religious activities in the Mexican community. Josefa is the tough female protagonist who rebels against this male dominated society (like marriage which she views as slavery calling it an “empty sacrifice”[3]) and makes every effort to retain independence and sexual identity under cultural and religious pressures. It is particularly important that the lead character is a lesbian because lesbianism gives Josefa strength and control outside of the typical female Mexican role as wife or girlfriend.

When Josefa’s relationship is discovered by a young boy, David, she resorts to violence in order to keep her secret from the community. She is a significant figure in the public and is widely respected and afraid of what people will say about her so she uses all necessary means to make sure they never find out. Although Josefa resorted to violence in order to keep her secret it is because of her need to assert herself in the male dominated society. She eventually kills herself because she feels like she has no control over whether her secret comes out without harming Tomás. Her suicide however can be viewed by the heterosexual community as homosexual shame and humiliation. Alfonzo Rodriguez writes that Josefa is “haunted by fear of disapproval from others, obsessed by her distain for men and dominated by her lesbian passion for Alysea”.[4] However, I believe she did it more out of not wanting to be loathed and ridiculed by the public.

Another important aspect of the play is Josefa’s beautiful ‘Haven’ and lace. Her haven is a room filled with light and decorated with lace, a “dream of gentleness…peace; it is not a man’s room... but it is beautiful.”[5] When Alysea talks to Josefa about her relationship with Eduardo, Josefa refutes “There are beautiful things to love”. Here she is explaining perfectly the purpose of her beautiful and peaceful room. This picturesque room is her way of showing Alysea and more importantly, Trambley’s way of showing Chicano women, that there are more beautiful, peaceful ways of loving in the world and things more worthy of that love. She dedicates her time to creating beautiful lace and a peaceful home, helping Alysea and even other members of society like Tomás who asked numerous times for money. Her room is a sanctuary from the malicious men that dominate society.

The swallows themselves and the story behind them have particular importance to the story as it is gives insight into Josefa’s disgust of men. Alfonzo Rodriguez points out “This act was a traumatic experience which conditions her whole outlook on life and leads her to regard the opposite sex as the incarnation of evil on the earth”[6]. She tells a story of when she was a little girl, there were young boys catching and torturing swallows and when she tried to stop them, the boys pinned her down and cut open a swallow over her, letting the blood drip onto her face and in her mouth. Being a traumatic experience in itself, the fact that it was a group of boys that attacked her has caused much debate. Tomas Vallejo’s says “Josefa is driven to lesbianism by a male-dominated society”[7]. Although in my opinion, it would take a man to think that men are at fault for lesbianism rather than women just being born that way which reinforces the perception of sexism and homophobia in Chicano theatre.

Men are portrayed as sinful, vile and cogent creatures. Eduardo proposes quite unromantically to Alysea, but when she starts to think about the situation rationally, Eduardo becomes aggressive and stubborn calling her a “shameless Hussy”. He has also had a relationship to Clara (a good friend of Josefa’s) and left her when he found Alysea which exposes the egotism of Chicano men. When Tomás enters he is aggressive and toys with Josefa with comments like “Doňa Perfecta is not perfecta...eh?”[8] Another male character portrayed as being inconsiderate and selfish is Clara husband Don Esquinas. Clara has obviously been having some emotional difficulties in her marriage and the treatment from Eduardo sent her over the edge. Her husband, instead of emotionally supporting his hurting wife and helping her through it, is ready to dump and leave her in an asylum. Even when Josefa questions him about his other women he simply replies with “That is a man’s way”[9] which suggests a double standard between husband and wife but also depicts what the man believes to be almost as his right. Josefa’s airs her feeling about men with Eduardo saying “The way you men justify...the word ‘Love’ doesn’t it really mean...take?..destroy?”[10]

Another symbolic aspect of the short play is the village and the lake. The lake was a place that young virgins would go to bathe and wish for future husbands. This tradition demonstrates the thoughts of young chicana’s as they believe they will have an unhappy and unbalanced life, it shows the dependency these young women have for men at a young age. Josefa says to Father Prado when she is giving confession “I knew all the hope...all the dreams of those girls would turn to jagged violence. It was a lie...the whole ritual was a lie!”[11]

Trambley’s protagonist resists and rebels against this male dominated society that is prevalent among the Mexican-American community. She fights against marriage and the oppression of separate beliefs. The Chicana is regarded as the virginal, gracious and respectful girl that obeys the Mechicano beliefs but Trambley’s Josefa is the polar opposite of this perception. She is strong willed, assertive and opinionated and although in the end it seems like she is giving in to the male dominance by killing herself, she is also asserting dominance over her own life as a last way of proving to men that she is not dependant on them. Not only does Trambley challenge the hegemony of the Mechicano belief system, she exposes it.


Bibliography

Arrizón. Alicia, Latina Performance: Traversing the stage, Indiana University Press, 1999

Case. Sue-Ellen, Performing feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, Chapter 2, Centering Class and ethnicity, Yvonne John Hopkins University press, 1990,

Huerta. Jorge, Chicano Drama: Performance, Society and Myth, Cambridge University press, 2000, Chapter 4

Rojas. Maythee, Violent acts of a feminist nature: Estela Portillo Trambleys’s Striking Short Fiction, Vol 33, No. 3, 2008, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20343491, 03/05/11

Taylor. Diana & Morales. Juan V, Negotiating performance: Gender, sexuality and theatricality in Latino/America, Duke University Press, 1994


Terry. Shelley R, Five Female Characters Driven to Suicide in Plays by 20th-Century Female Playwrights as a Result of Domestic Violence in a Patriarchal Society, University of Toledo, 2010

Yarbro-Bejerano. Yvonne, The Female Subject in Chicano Theatre: Sexuality, ‘Race’ and class, Vol. 38, No. 4, 1986, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3208283, 01/05/11


[1] Italy, 16th century, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commedia_dell%27arte

[2] Hart. Lynda & Phelan. Peggy, Acting out: Feminist Performances, Michigan, 1993, pg. 88

[3] Trambley. Estella-Portilla, Day of the Swallows, Josefa, Act 2

[4]odriguez. Alfonso, Tragic Vision in Estela Portillo’s Day of the Swallow, pg 156

[5] Trambley. Portilla, Day of the Swallows, Eduardo, Act 2

[6] Rodriguez. Alfonso, Tragic Vision in Estela Portillo’s Day of the Swallow, pg 156

1. [7] Vallejos. Tomas, etd.ohiolink.edu/send-pdf.cgi/Terry%20Shelley.pdf?toledo1279146596

[8] Trambley. Portilla, Day of the swallows, 1971, Tomas, Act 2

[9] Trambley. Portilla, Day of the swallows, 1971, Don Esquinas, Act 2

[10] Trambley. Portilla, Day of the swallows, 1971, Josefa, Act 2

[11] Trambley. Portilla, Day of the swallows, 1971, Josefa, Act 3

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