Rejecting Local and National Borders in La Carpa De La Frontera

“Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge.”

― Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

As Chicana poet and scholar, Gloria Anzaldua so clearly asserts, borders are both fictive and impactful. We create arbitrary lines that then sit upon real people, a dividing line that creates the categories of “us” and “them.” The borderlands are a central icon of Latinx theatre. This was made evident at the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) 2022 Comedy Carnaval where Samuel Valdez’s La Carpa De La Frontera was presented and produced by the Culture Association Representing Performing Artists (CARPA San Diego). This show exemplified the dual tension and overlap between local and national impulses in Latinx theatre. The tension between local and national artistic creation could reflect the Anzalduan division of us and them, but in the frame of the LTC, the tension melts into overlap and collaboration.

The LTC Comedy Carnaval is a national convening of Latinx artists; a joyful and intentional space that centers on and celebrates Latinx artists, and shares in this push and pull between local and national artistry. This year’s Comedy Carnaval was hosted by Su Teatro, a Chicano and Latino performing arts company based in Denver, Colorado that is highly focused on creating work for and with their local community. Excitingly, Su Teatro’s artistic director Tony Garcia announced in the opening ceremonies that Su Teatro is about to pay off their mortgage and own their building. Su Teatro operates in a building that houses their theatre, rehearsal rooms, offices, and meeting spaces. Most recently, teams of volunteers have installed the theatre’s comfortable seating. With the support of local community members and artists, they literally built their theatre.

Simultaneously, the ethos of a national landscape was also deeply present. In the field of Latinx theatre, there is a strikingly small number of companies with permanent homes and among them, Su Teatro will be even rarer by owning their building. Many Latinx theatre companies are small and itinerant. They rent or borrow spaces on an as-needed basis, and even those who have a stable space are not building equity within that space. Despite historical patterns of low foundational investment, and despite the chaos that the pandemic created for arts institutions, Su Teatro will be around for the long run to serve its local community. Su Teatro’s achievement is thereby a major feat and celebrated by leaders and artists from across the United States.

In this energy of using a national platform to celebrate local work, La Carpa De La Frontera brought an ethos of the borderlands to the Mountain West. La Carpa De La Frontera uses national immigration politics and humor to speak to the impact of the United States’ policies on the people of the border community. In this way, the experience of the performance was a contestation, sliding between macro and micro lenses and rejecting the us/them dichotomy of the borderlands.

Carpa theatre was a collection of diverse cultural performances, popular with the poorest segments of the population and it was a launchpad for the populist Mexican comedian Cantinflas.

La Carpa De La Frontera is a forty-five-minute touring vaudeville show created and directed by Samuel Valdez with his company to be taken into communities most in need of healing from the impacts and traumas of the pandemic. In a series of four sketches modeled on the carpa performance traditions, five performers decry current immigration policies, hawk fictional weight loss solutions, offer a trip to the moon, and stir up some good trouble. Unlike the traditional traveling show performed under large carpas (English: tents) with rough stages and cheaply sourced seating, La Carpa De La Frontera is flexible and can be performed both outdoors and in theatre spaces.

The legacy of carpa is well displayed in La Carpa De La Frontera. The piece’s integration of carpa and Chicano theatre traditions demonstrate the development of Chicano theatre directly from carpa traditions. The origin of carpa has received modest academic study and record but determined contemporary artists like Emilio Carballido date the practice to at least the eighteenth century. Popular scholarship often looks to the 1960s as the start of Latinx theatre in the United States. Yet, this moment is more accurately defined as the beginning of English language performance by Latinx artists. Before this period and continuing after, there was a rich history of Spanish language performance in the lands that would become the United States, dating back to 1598.

Between the eighteenth century and the 1960s, the popularity of carpa grew in tandem with periods of social upheaval and tension. Yaqui-Chicana scholar Yolanda Broyles-Gonzalez says of the genre: “The Mexican carpa and, more broadly speaking, the Mexican popular performance tradition have throughout history served as a counterhegemonic tool of the disenfranchised and oppressed.” Carpa theatre was a collection of diverse cultural performances, popular with the poorest segments of the population and it was a launchpad for the populist Mexican comedian Cantinflas.

Scholars like Jon Rossini and Yolanda Broyles-Gonzales argue the direct link between carpa and El Teatro Campesino, the progenitor of Chicano theatre. Humor is the reason why Cesar Chavez decided to create a teatro for the United Farm Workers union. Chavez’s memories of the carpa performances of his childhood inspired the creation of El Teatro Campesino: “I had seen carpas a lot in Mexicali, Tijuana, and Nogales. I wanted a carpa in the union for communication. With a carpa, we could say the difficult things to people without offending them. We could talk about people being cowards, for example. Instead of being offensive, it would be funny.” El Teatro Campesino, and later Chicano theatre at large, took up the style of carpa as a tool for the disenfranchised and oppressed. The development of the actor—short-form theatre that presents a social problem and gives a clear solution—used the humor of the carpa to communicate with audiences.

La Carpa De La Frontera is an intentionally political take on the carpa genre. It uses both the carpa emcee and skits, and the Chicano theatre actor. The four skits of the piece, “Opener,” “Comercial,” “Fast Food Worker,” and “The Coyote and the Rocket,” all use the simple sketch format of the traveling tent show as a means of approaching national politics through humor. The sketches speak to the impact of United States policies on the people of the borderlands. In this way, the piece stands both in the national and the local.