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⇒ Related: Hearing a Play, with Carla Della Gatta
I was living in Hialeah, Florida, when I was in the fourth grade. Nestled somewhat uncomfortably in a Cuban American and immigrant Cuban neighbourhood while studying at a Catholic elementary school, I reached for a copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on my school library’s shelf because both the title and the cover looked inviting and seemed like an ‘escape’ from the everyday concerns of being a multicultural, bilingual (English–Spanish) Northeasterner transplanted to the American South.
It may seem odd to signify the Cuban American enclave of Hialeah in the 1970s as part of the American South. In the collective consciousness of the United States, the South usually evokes complex, necessarily troubled images of the American Civil War, the history of slave trade and labour, dust bowl era displacement, civil rights era protests, signifiers of ‘redneck’ country’s deep poverty and racism, and Black communities steeped in the legacy and sound of the diasporic Delta blues. But the South is also Indigenous, Spanish, Creole, Cajun, Asian, Mexican, Haitian, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban, among many other ethnic markers. It’s interesting how convenient it is for the Spanish colonial, immigrant and native Latinx cultures of the South, especially, to be ‘erased’ in discussions of its history. But the suburb of Miami named Hialeah is most definitely in the South, and in the 1970s, it was predominantly a working-class city populated by immigrant Cubans and first-generation Cuban Americans.
I landed there, direct from living in both Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Paterson, New Jersey, when my Cuban Spanish and Argentine Croatian parents moved to pursue a new job opportunity. In the neighbourhoods in which I had lived before, we were usually the only Latinx family on the block. Spanish was spoken at home, and English ‘outside’. I grew up, thus, with a clear separation between the language of home and the language of the ‘world’. But in Hialeah at that time, there was no separation. Spanish was everywhere: on storefront window signs, on the street, in the music that blared from radios, and in the chisme heard at school, where about 80 per cent of my classmates were first-generation Latinx-ers.
To say that landing in Hialeah was a culture shock for me is to put it mildly. As a young person starting to shape their identity, I felt almost betrayed by the sudden lack of separation between home and world, as I had previously perceived it, especially from a linguistic perspective. If there was no separation, then how could I navigate the boundaries of my existence? If what had felt ‘private’ before was no longer so, where could I find a semblance of privacy?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream held the key. With its ornate cover, the Folger Library edition of the play sat on a shelf in the school library alongside single editions of Hamlet and Othello, and larger volumes that grouped Shakespeare’s history plays, comedies and tragedies. Somehow the romances were relegated to the much bigger collected works tome, which seemed far too heavy to carry in my plaid bookbag. Opening the pages of Midsummer, I fell into a very strange world indeed. And it is important to consider how strange this play that we take for granted these days truly is. Here we have a fairy king and queen, a set of restless and reckless young mortals caught in the wild entanglements of mimetic desire, a shape-shifting sprite hell-bent on making mischief, a company of travelling community actors that are rehearsing a play for the mortal king and queen (not to be confused with the fairy king and queen), a band of fairies and creatures, a man who turns into an ass and makes love to the fairy queen, and more. If the plot of this play were to be synopsised to a theatre these days, I am sure they would think it made little sense and demand it be made accessible at once! But thankfully, this strange play exists in all its queer charm and dark magic. My initiation into Shakespeare could not have been more prescient: its spell is all over my own playwriting to this day, even in the plays that have very little visible marking of Shakespeare’s influence.
In Midsummer, I found not only intoxicating poetry and images meant to be performed but also, for the first time (though I was already a voracious reader), a door into another world. If I was wrestling indeed with being a Yankee in the South, then Elizabethan England– or should I say, Shakespeare’s rendering of a British ‘Attica’ where an Amazonian Greek Queen (Hippolyta) and a Greek king (Theseus) preside and where a figure from medieval English literature like Oberon meets a newly coined fairy queen Titania– was a deliriously exciting portal through which to allow my imaginary to enter.
Soon I was reading more Shakespeare on my own, not quite understanding it, but nonetheless struck by the beauty and wildness of the language and the dramatic situations. Part of my day I was eating rice and beans and listening to boleros, rumbas and salsa, and in the other part of my day I was spirited headlong into writing that felt neither Yankee nor Latinx, but maybe, perhaps, an odd fusion of both.
I joke with some of my colleagues that I consider Shakespeare as Latinx as Euripides, Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard and Ntozake Shange (all significant, early influences). Although they come from disparate theatre traditions, ethnicities and upbringings, the radical positioning of these writers’ works as they contemplate human existence feels like kin to me. I mean here to challenge what may already be essentialised identity-based readings of Latinx writing. Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Roberto Bolaño and Clarice Lispector, for example, all drew from writing influences outside their countries of birth. Cortázar was enamored of Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe’s works. Bolaño loved the Beat generation writers. Borges was inspired by Schopenhauer, Marinetti, Apollinaire and Oscar Wilde. Lispector contested Kafka.
In Shakespeare, before he was a writer on my syllabus in high school and, therefore, part of the colonial violence of the canon that I was told I must rebel against, I started to find a sense of home. In this othered language– poetic, daring and inventive, mixing in what we may call a syncretic manner high and low registers, philosophical thought, and fearless commitment to the possibilities of the stage– I began to connect the different ways I experienced and used Spanish and English daily, and to understand how this so-called Yankee, whose early identity was forged in the industrial landscape of the Northeast, was a Southern writer.
Published with permission from chapter author Caridad Svich, editors Trevor Boffone and Carla Della Gatta, and publisher Edinburgh University Press.