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Simply Josefina Lopez : Her ‘Simply Maria,’ sharing a Los Angeles bill with a Valdez play, has become a steppingstone to a new life

Four years ago, when she was 17, Josefina Lopez felt misunderstood by her parents.

They had moved from Cerritos, in the state of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, to Los Angeles, when she was 6, hoping to give her and their other children--now eight in all--a better life. They imagined that someday she might earn a good living as a secretary, marry a nice man and have children.

Instead, she wanted to go to college, become an actress or writer and have adventures. She had just seen Luis Valdez’s “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and was inspired by his telling of the Mexican-American experience from a young man’s point of view.

She decided she wanted to tell that story from a young woman’s point of view--her own. So Lopez wrote her first play--100 pages, all in one act.

She sent “Simply Maria, or the American Dream” to the Young Playwrights Festival in New York and to San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter Theatre California Young Playwrights Project in the spring of 1987. She was a semifinalist in New York and a winner in San Diego, and the Gaslamp produced her play in January, 1988.

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A television adaptation of the play by the San Diego PBS station--with an introduction by Edward Albee--won the 1990 Public Television Local Program Award for Excellence in the children’s category.

Lopez’s parents may not understand her any better, but the play has turned out to be her ticket to college (she is hoping to transfer from UC San Diego to UCLA or USC) and a steppingstone toward the life she dreamed of.

And most incredible of all is that in the scant four years after she was inspired by Valdez’s show, Teatro Campesino is presenting “Simply Maria” in a double bill with Valdez’s Vietnam-era piece, “Soldado Razo,” Wednesday through Aug. 12 at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.

Valdez said he finds the two pieces of work make excellent companion pieces.

“They both center on the idea of young people making choices. They are both small, but very deep. Youth in general are trying to find their bearings. We want to be able to reach a wider and wider audience with these plays.”

He called Lopez “one of the most brilliant young voices writing for the theater in this country today” and said that he is flattered that she got her start after seeing one of his plays.

“I think one of the deep satisfactions of my work is that youths get inspired,” he said. “It’s the right thing to happen. We need Josefina to develop into the finest writer she can so she can inspire other people.”

As for Lopez, it has been a whirlwind journey since she saw Valdez’s “Badges.”

“It touched me and I cried,” she recalled, describing how she was moved by Valdez’s story about a Mexican-American who wants to be an actor, but can’t get any parts.

“I thought, ‘Who is going to write these parts?’ And I thought I could write, and I would write, these parts,” she said on the phone from her parents’ home in Los Angeles.

“Even though I’m talking to you casually, I think when (“Maria”) opens and they’re presenting both of us, I’ll say, ‘Oh my God, here I am!’ ”

But before she registers the fulfillment of one dream, another seems to be on its way.

Just last week, she had a call from a producer at Warner Bros. who wants to option her first full-length play, “Real Women Have Curves.”

The play is about a 24-year-old girl who owns a factory and is anxious to finish sewing 100 dresses so that she can hire a lawyer to obtain a green card for her. Teatro de la Esperanza opened the show in May and it ran through June at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco. She is set to write the screenplay.

But if “Real Women Have Curves” becomes her Hollywood ticket, “Simply Maria” will always be her breakthrough play, the script in which she proved to herself and others that she has something to say.

And what was it about a Latina’s journey through the mine fields of adolescence that has proved so compelling? Was it, as playwright Albee puts it in the TV adaptation, that it “tells the truth with irony and humor and no holds barred?”

Is it the way Lopez interweaves dream sequences with past and present reality in a story that evokes the struggle of someone caught between loyalties to her heritage and the alluring sense of freedom that is part of America’s promise?

Lopez, now 21, just shakes her head, saying she never expected the impact her play would make.

“I wrote ‘Maria’ because I had to,” she said softly during an earlier interview in the Gaslamp Quarter Theater where her play was first produced. “I didn’t think it would amount to this. I just poured out my guts.

“In the beginning, I would write about white girls named Marcie from Massachusetts. Now I write about myself, and people are interested. This has been my ticket out of the barrio, out of the house and out of old ideas. I had the feeling when I got out of high school there would be a fairy godmother that would come to take me away. Now a lot of hard work is paying off.”

For Deborah Salzer, director of the playwrights project, who received Lopez’s 100-page manuscript in the mail, it was those “wild and wonderful passages” that made her realize she had “something really exciting” in her hands.

“It was our longest script ever,” Salzer said. “The reading went on for an hour, and people had mixed feelings. But I felt there was so much imagination, and this was such a powerful voice that we would find a way to do this on our stage.”

Before the first production, Lopez pared the script to 36 pages. She continued to revise it even after the productions at the Gaslamp, KPBS and South Coast Repertory, and even after she started new projects. At Teatro Campesino, where she did yet another pre-production workshop, she pared the play down to 50 pages and fleshed out the parts for the parents, she said.

In her new work, Lopez continues to write about herself and her family.

In “Food for the Dead,” she imagines a docile woman like her mother, torn by the demands of her dead husband (Lopez’s own father is still alive), who comes back as a devil (with a tail of red chilies) and tells her to reject their son for being homosexual. She describes the issue of homosexuality as symbolic of the intolerance that the macho culture she grew up in has for aspects of the American culture she lives in now.

“Real Women Have Curves” delves into the fear of living in America without a green card, which Lopez just received herself last Thanksgiving.

Lopez still cries when she talks about growing up without a green card--the fear every time she saw a police car or when an employer asked for a Social Security number, which she faked. Her parents sneaked her over the border by using the birth certificate of her younger sister, who was born in this country. They had obtained cards for themselves years before--her father, with the help of a friend, after nearly 20 years of illegal residency. Her mother got her card because of her husband and the fact that she gave birth to two children in this country.

Although Lopez said that her family is proud of her and the recognition she has received, she also acknowledged that outsiders seem to understand her message more than her parents do.

A stranger came up to her after “Simply Maria” and said tearfully: “You wrote the story of my life. That happened to me 20 years ago. I can’t believe it’s still going on.”

But when Lopez brought her parents to see “Simply Maria,” she recalls thinking: “Now you’re going to get it. Now you’re going to understand why I didn’t want to do housework.”

But in the first scene they started crying, and at the end they were in a hurry to leave. Later, Lopez’s father told her: “Anglos think we’re so macho and lazy and angry and abusive, and now you’ve just proved it to them. I was very offended.”

Her mother just said, more timidly, “Now, don’t write about us anymore, OK?”

It hurt, because despite her ambivalence about the messages her parents send her, Lopez very much admires and loves them.

“I like that my dad is very proud and very hard-working. He keeps his promises, he keeps his word. And we were never on welfare.

“My father came to the U.S. and kept being thrown back, and every time he was thrown back, he landed on his feet like a cat.”

She believes, too, even if her mother won’t admit it, that she is living her mother’s dreams. She has even thought about changing her last name to her mother’s maiden name, Perales, so “Fina Perales will live the life she could never live.”

What Lopez wants most for herself is not to reject her Mexican heritage, but to create a hybrid life from the best on both sides of the border.

“Maria wants to combine both worlds into one that she can live in,” Lopez said. “That’s what I’m trying to do with my life. I don’t like machismo. But I’ve taken what’s good. I’ve taken our beautiful hot and fiery colors of Mexico and mixed them with American feminism and freedom of speech. I feel like a pioneer, and it’s scary.”


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