Hilary Bettis on THE GHOSTS OF LOTE BRAVO
Katie: We had the pleasure of meeting three years ago in Omaha at the Great Plains Theater Conference, where I had had the opportunity to see a reading of your excellent play Alligator. It’s always exciting to see how a writer’s work and voice evolves, so I want to start by saying how exited I was to be paired with you for this interview and have the chance to read The Ghosts of Lote Bravo.
I attended graduate school at Arizona State University where border issues and stories were very much at the forefront of the both the political and the artistic discourse. For me this made Ghosts a particularly exciting read because I had some previous experience studying the disappearances of women in Juarez. However, despite the fact that immigration and border issues in general are becoming increasingly prevalent in the national news, had I not gone to ASU, I would have known nothing about Juarez itself. I was struck by how deeply this play felt rooted in a sense of place, and I’d like to know what brought you to Juarez as the setting, and how you came by what felt like a deeply personal connection to it. In the writing and development of this piece have you been able to find collaborators that are familiar with Juarez?
Hilary: I think a lot of different things brought me to this play simultaneously. Years ago I was listening to an interview with photojournalist Julian Cardona, who had been photographing Juarez since the early 90s. He talked very openly about the violence he’d witnessed on a daily basis, but refused to talk about the violence he’d seen against women and children. He said the only way he could think of to preserve their dignity was to give them that respect. And I guess that sparked this obsessive desire to understand the circumstances these people were living in. I started researching and volunteering and talking to everyone I could who had crossed the border, and through that journey I was also brought back to my own family.
My grandfather was Mexican, and his family came to El Paso, Texas as immigrants. This was something that was never talked about growing up, but was always the elephant in the room. My grandfather refused to speak Spanish, and believed that, in order to be a good American, you had to work twice as hard, speak perfect English and embrace everything American. As I got older, I had more and more questions that went unanswered, then my grandfather passed away and took that part of us to his grave. And so, in writing this play, I felt like I was also discovering something about my own roots and blood and identity.
But more than anything, I really believe that what is happening on our own border is one of the greatest human rights atrocities of this generation. Many of the people crossing the Mexican/American border are coming from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, etc. (which are all very different countries that have very different cultures). They are fleeing unimaginable violence and poverty, and should, in my humblest opinion, be treated like refugees instead of “invaders.” Building a wall, rounding up “illegals,” putting children in detention centers, and turning a blind eye to the horrific slaughter of an entire group of people - it’s easy to go about our lives and try not to think about these things. And it’s even easier to look back at the past, be on the right side of history, and point a “morally superior” finger at other generations. But what about the people suffering now, today, as I type these words and you read these words? What will they say about us in two generations? And what can we do about it?
And to your last point, there is a rich and diverse community of Latino artists in this city. Finding amazing actors and directors to work with has never been an issue. If anything, the larger theaters should be embracing this community because as the demographics in America shift, Latinos will become a much larger and vocal segment of theater audiences.
K: I was extremely intrigued by the use of ritual in the play, and your use of repetition to create what felt like personal rituals for many of the characters. Was constructing rituals conscious on your part? If so why? And what importance do you feel rituals have in the world of this play, for its characters, and for the tone of this piece?
H: Ritual is in everything. It’s one of the first questions I ask about each character in every play I write. Ritual is, I think, fundamental to being human. The way a musician handles his guitar, or the way an actor prepares before going on stage, or the way a cowboy saddles his horse, or a the way a chef prepares her kitchen. I think it’s a way for us to feel like we have a little control in a chaotic and unpredictable world. And the more chaotic and unpredictable, like in Juarez, the more sacred ritual becomes. Especially if ritual can be attached to a God or a religion. For Juanda, her ritual with La Santa Muerte becomes the last great hope in connecting to her child, confronting her own complacency and, ultimately, finding hope and courage.
K: I loved the song. Did you write it? If so was it something that came to you early in the writing, or did it come to you after you’d already established the idea of the relationship between The Clock and The Bull. If it’s a real song was it one of your original inspirations for Ghosts, or did you come across it in researching your story?
H: I did not write the song. “El Reloj” is a very famous song written by Roberto Cantoral in the 1950s, and has been recorded by many different Mexican artists since then. It’s one of those songs that carries a certain romance and nostalgia. It’s the equivalent of “My Girl” or “In the Still of the Night”. It’s one of those songs that everyone knows and has a memory wrapped up in, often about a time in the world that was much “simpler.” I wanted to juxtapose that with these two children, Raquel and “El Reloj,” coming-of-age in a world that is messy and violent and morally ambiguous, but still, underneath it all, there is beauty and innocence.
My grandfather would sometimes listen to “El Reloj” while working on cars in the garage, and so it felt right to find a place for it in this play.