Yo soy la curandera y hoy te voy a sanar …
Vuelo hacia el futuro, el pasado y el presente
Me voy balanceando entre la vida y la muerte
I am the witchdoctor and today I will heal you …
I fly towards the future, the past, and the present.
I go, balancing between life and death
I am enjoying the murmur that takes over a foyer just before a theatre show. People are chatting and laughing as they meet their dates. This evening’s murmur in Brixton House contains more Spanish than usual as we make our way to our seats. As I enter the theatre, the voice of iLe, Puerto Rican singer-songwriter, hits my ears with her fast-paced ode to the healers of old – those women who balanced between life and death solving family ailments, tragedies, and secrets. The song, part of a playlist to welcome the audience, seems fitting as I prepare to watch a play about four young Latina Londoners and their quest to expose a multinational bank, taking justice into their own hands. My Uncle is not Pablo Escobar (2023) is a fun exploration of the identity of first- and second-generation Latinos in London. Their unreserved celebration of being Latinx makes me reflect on our growing presence in this country’s theatre scene. What is our place in the magical and elusive place that is the theatre? A place that, like our identity, shifts and moves between past and present, looking at where we are and where we have come from.
It is a surprisingly hard question to answer. Research into the Latinx population in the UK is limited and not much has been undertaken around the arts. We are a population that is hard to measure for many reasons, including the fact that the Latinx box is rarely used in surveys study groups of people. Only very recently has there even been a category for us to tick that isn’t ‘Other’. An expert in the field introduced me to Trust for London’s 2016 study No Longer Invisible, a comprehensive survey of the Latin American population in the capital. A few facts stuck with me. Latin Americans are a fast-growing and well-educated population; their number quadrupled between 2001 and 2016. Many migrate to the UK to pursue job opportunities, yet more than half are unable to utilise all their professional skills, working in lower paid jobs due to language barriers or visa status. A high proportion have experienced discrimination and exploitation in the workplace. The study’s findings confirmed my impression that Latinxs have been here, establishing themselves quietly through connections with friends and family, studying and working without making their presence known. However, No Longer Invisible sheds no light on our impact on theatre; for that I have only my own experience.
My first experience of Latinx theatre in the UK was making my own show Hurricane Diaries (2019) at the Blue Elephant Theatre in south London. It told the history of Puerto Rico, interlacing events in the main character’s life with lived experiences during hurricanes that have hit the island. As well as it being an artistic challenge, it introduced me to an exercise many immigrant artists engage in – the recreation of home in a foreign land. We look at the place we have left from afar, reflect and try to re-enact it to understand ourselves and the place we now inhabit. Our identity as immigrants is morphing, moving between past and present, here and there.
Creating that show was life changing for me. I faced the fear of losing my past self and moved towards truly integrating into Latino life in London. The Blue Elephant’s interest and support was humbling – it was a recognition that the community they served had a growing Latin American presence. After the show ended, London began to reveal those groups and individuals to me who invest time and effort into making us visible within the arts.
One of these revelations was Barrio at Southwark Playhouse in 2019. This was a variety night that celebrated the arts of Latin America. The organizer Mary Ann Vargas and the Playhouse wanted to include the business owners and community of the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, a gathering point for Latinos in London, since demolished. It showcased many elements of who we are through music, food, theatre, and performance – while presenting Latinos living in the UK and engaging with their newfound identity – and was a night to remember.
Performances like these have been born of the hard work of advocates for the community and of brave artists who have made shows with minimal funding, fighting to preserve Latinx spaces and forming groups to support each other. This work finally seems to be bearing fruit. In 2021, the Royal Court’s A Fight Against (Una Lucha Contra) by Chilean playwright Pablo Manzi featured a Latinx cast. Out of the Wings hosts readings of Latinx plays in translation. LatinX Actors UK is the first database for Latin American actors based here, aiming to increase visibility and representation. Brixton House hosts a Latinx Youth Theatre, and both their 2023 Latinx and Housemates Festivals featured artists of the community making work about varied subjects and in many styles. There are so many amazing Latinx artists working in theatre that I am genuinely excited to watch and to be a part of what comes next.
About a week before my trip to Brixton to see My Uncle is not Pablo Escobar, I had another experience waiting in a foyer – this time at Theatre Peckham – to see Súper Chefs (2013) by Betsy Picart, a children’s show about a Colombian and Mexican family living in London. The play included music, a Spanish speaking grandmother and a class on making guacamole, with a very catchy song. The interactive show, directed by Suzanne Gorman and produced by María Cuervo, began its tour in Peckham before making its way to Sheffield and Croydon. What I saw was English speaking children and their families singing about making arepas, guacamole and brigadeiros. I was struck by a British audience’s complete acceptance of this family at home in their culture in the UK. It showed me a new identity, one of individuals living here, shaped by where they are now while honouring where they’ve come from. It was a joyous and hopeful sight. Shows like this make me feel a part of something that is evolving and getting better. We, in the Latinx community, are a group to watch out for as we become louder and stronger, making work on our own terms.
Photo by Hector Manchego