'August 29' Review: More Cultural Imperialism

Acuna is professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge

What sets off a prairie fire is unknown. In the '60s, the contradiction of the Vietnam War surely polarized tensions. For Chicanos, it was an awful lot of small incidents that led up to the explosion of Aug. 29, 1970--not the least of which was the frustration over how they saw life vis-a-vis how the dominant society said it was. It is this latter incongruity that in all probability will be a major irritant of this decade.

Take Times theater writer Sylvie Drake's Aug. 30 review of the Latino Theatre Lab's, "August 29." For most Angelenos, it is just another innocuous review--Drake was lukewarm about the production, so what? But for Chicanos, the review is just one more example of cultural imperialism--the dominant society's attempt to impose its standards on them.

According to Chicanos, the Drake review is in step with the hoopla of the current L.A. Festival that extols the virtues of multiculturalism, celebrating the city's so-called cultural diversity while in fact there are two cities in the L.A. Basin. Both Drake and the multiculturalist pretend to be culturally neutral but in reality they promote their cultural biases. The truth be told, aside from eating Mexican food, white Angelenos rarely support Latino art, music or cultural events.

Indeed, the most successful Chicano play of this century was Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit" that opened at the Mark Taper on July 30, 1978. The first version exuded Chicanismo--perhaps the purest expression of its Los Angeles run, and by the time it opened on Broadway, the play adhered to the standards of the "American" theater.

Drake, an important figure in local theater, was pleased by the transition since it fit her standards of good theater. On March 27, 1979, she wrote that this was the best version, "neatly (fitting) into the stage of the Winter Garden, with the assurance and focus refined well beyond all three of the previous L.A. versions." Without its Chicano base, the New York run ended in just four weeks.

"August 29" is in the tradition of the unadulterated version of "Zoot Suit." Heavy in its social commentary, Jose Luis Valenzuela's play (written with other members of the Latino Lab) pokes fun at Chicanos in a plot revolving around a dialogue between Lucero (Evelina Fernandez), a fictional Chicana Ph.D., and the ghost of newsman Ruben Salazar (E. J. Castillo), who was killed by sheriff's deputies at the Chicano Moratorium of Aug. 29.

The play is not a biography of Salazar. Its obvious intent is to challenge Angelenos to make a commitment through the perspective of history. Heavy sex scenes and Anglo neuroses are refreshingly absent from the action.

What irks Chicanos is that Drake, like the multiculturalist, ignores what Chicanos think. Evidently the reaction of the largely Chicano audience was overwhelmingly supportive. So, why didn't she point out that "Chicanos will love 'August 29' while Anglos won't. . . ." Maybe it hasn't even occurred to her that instead of a multicultural society she is unwittingly perpetuating a "cultural clash."

An example of this clash is Drake's typecasting of "August 29's" characters. She calls the roles of militant young Lucero (Vanesa Marquez) and her boyfriend, Benny (Sal Lopez) too soft and sweet to be credible. I was very much involved with student militants in the '60s: Young Lucy could have fit in perfectly. As for Benny, he reminds me of an L.A.P.D. undercover officer who infiltrated my Chicano History class--I found him so believable that I gave him an A.

As for Drake's criticism that the play did not go after the material "with bared fangs." This betrays a cultural obsession of Anglos who believe that Latino militants should all look like Che Guevarra and talk like gang members. On the other hand, it seems to us Chicanos that for something to be "penetrating," Anglos always want people to be hopping in and out of bed or hate their mothers. We appreciate the respectful treatment of Ruben Salazar; he is a Chicano martyr. Why should we follow the Anglo example of always trying to dissect "Third World" leaders?

When all is said and done, Chicanos will forget about the Drake article; Anglos can feel safe that it won't start that prairie fire and probably not even a picket line. In the interim, Chicanos will continue to get upset by the patronizing attitude of white liberals when they talk about the fictional growing tolerance of American society toward cultural diversity.

The bottom line for Latinos is that if "August 29" is a success, it will be so because of Latino attendance, and it really doesn't matter what Anglos think. I personally haven't been as moved since the first time I saw "Zoot Suit." I guess it's like the word Chicano or that Mexican grito that comes from the soul when a Chicano hears mariachi music, I can't explain the feeling. But, until my white liberal friends at least try to feel it--forget multiculturalism.

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