Memories of Christmas from our formative years that persist throughout our lives emerge in the stories, films and plays of countless writers, from Truman Capote (“A Christmas Memory”) to Jean Shepherd (the handful of stories that formed the basis of the movie “A Christmas Story”).
For Yolanda Mendiveles, the holiday season of 1955 is seared into her memory. Her dad had just died, unexpectedly, leaving her mother to press on and support her and her four siblings in their meager East Los Angeles home.
“My father died when I was 11 years old, and my mother was pregnant with my youngest brother,” she said. “It was a very sad and rough time for all of us.”
Mendiveles said her memories came flooding out eight years ago in the form of a play.
Recently revised and reworked, “Blanca Nieves’ Christmas” received a staged reading Dec. 9 at the Grand Central Arts Center in downtown Santa Ana courtesy of the Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble.
Sara Guerrero, who founded Breath of Fire 15 years ago, calls the episodic, slice-of-life account of one family’s trials “A Chicana Christmas tale for all.”
Mendiveles, a Laguna Hills resident, mom, grandmother and professional massage therapist, said she has always expressed herself creatively through writing. She began writing a story about herself and her childhood as a play in 2010 that received a staged reading in 2012 in a playwriting class at South Coast Repertory and a second reading at her church in 2015.
That year she joined and became an ensemble member of Breath of Fire and kept working on the script — not her first full-length play, but the first in completed form conducive to a full production.
Troupe literary director and resident artist Diana Burbano directed the reading and said that in preparation for it, Mendiveles rewrote, reworked and polished the script, delivering “three different drafts in two weeks.”
“In the Mexican American community where I grew up, I knew many families who were poor like us and who had similar experiences, facing many challenges trying to make ends meet,” Mendiveles said.
Two weeks before Christmas, Blanca Nieves, a mother of five, is bereft, grieving the sudden loss of her husband and wondering how she’ll provide for their children, let alone celebrate the holidays.
On top of what’s looking more and more like a dismal Christmas, the landlord hounds Blanca for rent and insists on charging her a fee for plumbing repairs.
In the second act, during a heavy downpour, Blanca tells her kids a story, the tale of two battling sisters in ancient Aztlān who invoke the presence of the Aztec gods.
Mendiveles said she included this extended segment because “we come from the rich and advanced Aztec civilization. We carry that heritage in us, so I wanted it to be honored.”
Written mostly in English, the script’s authenticity is boosted by frequent passages in Spanish, as well as Chicano colloquialisms.
In depicting “a Chicano family’s struggle upon the loss of the patriarch,” director Burbano said the play “is about loss, family and using your heritage to see you through adversity.”
Mendiveles said the name Blanca Nieves, which means “Snow White,” reflects the purity and kindheartedness of her main character. Burbano said that character represents “the quiet maternal strength of the Chicano woman,” while daughters Marta and Luz “are feisty American kids, kicking at old traditions.”
“It’s 1955, and the girls don’t want to be stuck as housewives,” she said.
The reading featured Moises Vázquez and Tom Shelton on guitar, piano and drums, and it drew to a close with the cast happily singing “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Feliz Navidad.”
Ameliorating the family’s sadness are close friends and neighbors who fulfill their roles as members of Blanca’s extended family, offering love, laughter and even some material gifts to lighten her load.
Mendiveles said these aspects reflected her own life, as others outside the immediate family “created magic so that we all could celebrate on Christmas Day.”
She and her siblings still look back upon those days with warmth.
“The love we have for one another still fills the story, then and now,” she said.