Inside the Process: The Spanglish Translation of LA PRIETTY GUOMAN
The Lark’s 2019 México/U.S. Playwright Exchange was a comeback festival. After two years of being on hiatus, we celebrated the return of one of our longest running programs last season with a line-up of four stunning new plays from Mexico, at a time when cultural exchange between our countries was (and is) as crucial as its ever been. One of those plays was La Prietty Guoman by César Enríquez, which tells the story of an exuberant transwoman from Veracruz, whose life - and the soundtrack to it - we follow, until she finally meets the Richard Gere she's been waiting for. During the course of the program, César and his team, which included translator Enrique Urueta, playwright advisor Kitty Campbell, director Manny Rivera, musician Nik Anderson, and actor Mizz June in the role of La Prietty, created an English version of the script that spoke directly to the Queer community in the U.S.
“That was one of the best things that could happen,” said César. “Because that made the story, even though it’s still happening in México, belong to the U.S.A., with the queer references, with the LGBTQ jokes. That was one of the best parts of the work.”
But when César first brought his script in for this translation workshop, his original intention was to create a Spanglish version of the play, a version that could live more dualistically within and between both worlds as César, who had previously always performed the role of La Prietty in México himself, does. So when the opportunity came to continue working on the play through the Magic Theatre’s Virgin Play Festival in San Francisco, César and his team, including Lark Artistic Coordinator Nissy Aya, used the time to develop this new version of the play.
Now, to give you an inside look at the resulting process, Lark Communications Apprentice Wenxuan Xue interviewed César and Nissy about what it was like to work internationally and in multiple languages, how different audiences received the play, and why this was the story César felt was the one that needed to be shared with these varied communities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Content Warning: This piece includes reference to homophobic and transphobic slurs.
Wenxuan Xue: How did you start creating the piece, and why did you want to develop it through The Lark’s Exchange?
César Enríquez: Okay, to begin I started here, in México, wondering about topics of discrimination, and resistance. And I found that one of the most discriminated against communities in the world, but even more in México City, was transgender women, specifically more women than men. In that moment, at the same time, the Pulse nightclub shooting happened in Orlando. And everybody in my country started to pray for Orlando. It was so painful for everybody, but at the same time, two days before the event, three women were killed in Veracruz, a town four hours from México City, near the sea. And everybody was joking. Even the newspaper was making jokes, about the "faggots." They used that word. And “men dressed as women who were killed.” So, I was in between two ideas. Why do we pray for Orlando, but the transgender people in México are considered “faggots” and men in drag? In that moment it was so painful for me. And in my mind I tried to think, what can be the story of one of those girls? Those transwomen? Nobody knew their names, they were not important for my country. So, I wanted to create a story to make them live. That's the first impulse that made me write my play.
I started working with transgender women. I started to work with them on the words, the specific things that they needed to say. And I found a lot of connections to things that I have been suffering as well, as a brown-skinned gay man. So, I tried to put a lot of these stories in this one big story and, then, I shared it with these transgender women.
And the women told me. "This is good" or, "Well, no, this is so gay, I don't feel the same, I would not have this reaction. This is more homosexual, this is so gay. This is not trans." So I said, well, how would you do that? What do you do? What, in that situation, how would answer those things? So, I had been working with two transwomen, one does sex work, and the other one is a lodger. And, at the end, when I gave the play to more transgender friends, they felt so moved and said, "that's me." Or, "that could be my story or the story of one of my friends." So in that moment I knew that the story was done.
So, that play started to be recognized in México, in important festivals. And one of the first parts of doing it was reaching out to a lot of the trans community, a lot of people who did street work, sexual work, who had no money. I, with friends, I arrived to the streets and I said to the girls who were in the street, “You want to come to see a play? Come. You will not pay. Nothing. Just come. And see.” So, the theater, it started to be full of transwomen, who work in sexual work, having fun. Enjoying that play. And sometimes they arrive again, and again, and again, and again. And that makes a beautiful, beautiful place for them to have fun in a story that represents them in a good way. It was one of the first plays, they said, they really felt they were really represented in a good way, and they felt brave. And a lot of the girls that I mention at the end of the play were friends of theirs. So at the end, I had a lot of performances where, at the end they’d stand up and pray to the heaven, and open their hands. So, I was so moved.
And, when I got to The Lark, my first idea when I decided to do this residency, was that, this topic doesn’t belong just to México. Even though in México it happens more, it happens in all the world. For example, in Spain. One week or two weeks ago it happened here in the States. But you want to close your eyes to that. It's not only in México, it's just in México it happens more. But I think, in all the countries, it continues to happen that people are killed by hate.
WX: How has the piece changed since The Lark's first reading? How was the play different in San Francisco?
CE: One of the first ideas, when I arrived to Lark, was to do a Spanglish version. Because in México, I'm the actor, the actress, who does the play, so I really wanted to have a Spanglish version. In the first translation for Lark it was not possible because the first idea was, do the complete translation. I went to Lark more as a playwright, not as an actor. They told me, "in this first step, take distance. Go just as the playwright. Enjoy that process. Share all the things you need to share through the text." And I think it was a good decision, because my mind would be blowing doing everything, because that happens.
CE: In San Francisco, when Lloyd (Director of Artistic Programs, The Lark) and Sonya (Associate Artistic Director, Magic Theatre) at first proposed the idea, to do the reading myself, I was so nervous. And, you know, my accent is like Sofia Vergara. And I was like, I don’t know if the people are going to understand. So, it was a challenge. But we started to read with Sean, who was our director, the musician, Nissy, and Hunter, our producer. And I think we found a really good way to do this version that is exploring. The process became exploring.
Nissy Aya: It was really exciting. It was a lot of work. César did so much work but it was so exciting because that first day it was like, oh, we’re actually creating a whole new script. It was! Cause we were sitting there and reading through, and César was piecing different parts from the English version and the Spanish version together, and we’re working through all the cultural context, but it was really like a master class watching someone create their performance art. It was exciting.
CE: Yes, for me as well. Because it's different to act in English, and it's different to act in Spanish. And sometimes we start to find some beautiful things, like, when I was reading, I said something in English, and then Sean says, “okay yes, but.” And I checked my conscious and I said, oh. This thing which is written here in this paragraph, is not what the character really wants to say. This is written like the character feels hurt or feels pain about this. The character is not feeling pain. The character is having fun. The audience has to feel pain, but the character is having fun. So how can we change the word, so the character can have fun about it? Maybe it's a word, maybe it’s just the intention. So we tried to do that with Sean and all the team. And someone said, this has to be in Spanish, because it's so beautiful to even hear. The audience doesn’t need to understand the words. They just need to hear the rhythm. The rhythm of the play. The rhythm of the bad words. Sometimes there are a lot of bad words in the play.
CE: And when you change them into English, it’s like… The Spanish language sometimes is more rich, and that's what's so difficult. Because for one word, you’d have twenty words in Spanish, but in English, you'd have five. So sometimes it's more different to use [a Spanish word].
WX: It's okay to not understand Spanish in that room. It's okay to put yourself in the space of not knowing. I'm happy that you created the space for some to encounter cultures that are different from their own and for others to connect to those that are similar to theirs.
CE: I really wanted to create this Spanglish version for this community. One of the best things that I felt with the communities in San Francisco, at the end when they shared their comments: a lot of people spoke both idioms. They were so happy. And they were so fun. And they told me at the end, “we don't have things like this here. I feel it because I speak like you. This is a play that I can share with my cousin, I can share with my mom, I can share with all of my family. Some part of my family is from México, and my son was born here in San Francisco. They would enjoy it a lot." I think the play is done for that. In my mind, I really prefer this version that belongs to the people who are like me.
NA: And I think that was one of the most beautiful parts of the presentation, was hearing the audience afterwards. And those moments where we saw that the weight of some of these cultural references were so big and so heartwarming. And that was my favorite part of the process, was with César going through and saying “actually this is really Mexican. I really want to make sure that that stays in the script, and that I can perform it this way." And the way that it landed on the audience was like, amazing.
CE: Yes and, Nissy maybe remembers, we had just two people who said, “Well I don't understand nothing, why do you speak Spanish, whatever whatever whatever.” Almost all the audiences say, “I love it, I like it, I cry, I feel so moved.” But at the end, a lot of people who came to talk to me at the end said, "I really wanted to tell these Americans, who said that—"
NA: “To shut up.”
CE: Well, you're in San Francisco.
CE: And here, 80% of the people speak both idioms! So, better you work, and try to learn Spanish. Because 85% will enjoy this play. Maybe not you. But I think it's good. I take, for me, the moment when the man who works with Loretta (Artistic Director, Magic Theatre), the man who drives the car, said, “I loved your story.” And he told me in Spanish. “I loved your story. I understand everything. Why will it not perform more here? I really want my cousin and my wife, all my family have to see this, because we are reflected there.”
WX: Amazing. It's so beautiful to hear how this play can break so many language barriers, and national barriers, and how this play can go on not only in México, but also in the U.S. and all across the world because, it is cultural exchange happening—
WX: Happening in the theater space.
CE: Yes! One of the best things is that, it happens a lot in México, is that when people see the play they send me texts and say, "César, thanks to La Prietty, I changed my point of view about the trans community. I understand that I discriminate. I said that I'm open, but I don't have trans friends. I don't have friends who say, come to my home, have a beer with me, have a cake, celebrate your birthday. I don't do that with trans friends. So I will start to do that, since I saw your play. Your play changed me." That is a beautiful thing. I hope that can happen with the U.S.A. community too, but at the same time, I think [in the U.S.] it's touching another level. When I do the Spanglish version, people say, “I don't understand Spanish, and I really want to know what you're saying, it sounds so beautiful. Now, born in me is the idea that maybe I need to learn Spanish.” And I say that's so good, and it's not only about the gender. It's about the culture, it's about the idioms. And our identities. I think it's going forward and that's so beautiful.
WX: How is it like for you to be working in México, and also outside of México at the same time? How is it like to work internationally?
CE: I think in México the play is really known. The play has a lot of recognition. Even still, it’s not a commercial play. It's not in a theater that I can have, every day its open. What I do is sometimes in a month, I will have one or two presentations. I really want to continue going. In almost all of Mexico, Prietty Guoman has been done, we have performed in all the states. The idea to continue this international expansion is, it’s important. It's a play that has to be known and it's a play that can touch hearts. And change views. Change political views. I think in my work as an artist, I don't believe in theater as just entertainment. I think theater has the possibility to change lives, has the possibility to shake people, has the possibility to make a better community and make a better society. I think that this kind of theater, and the cabaret that I do, wants to be like a knife for people who discriminate, for people who kill because of hate. I want to do that with my work. At the same time…
It’s really beautiful that this play is being done, that I can spread this work. But at the same time, it's difficult to say, this is México, too. This is México because I'm Mexican. This is my identity. This is a play I created here. But at the same time, and I tell you this with my hand on my heart, I really want the day that… That one day I can say, this play is no longer necessary in the world. There are not people who are killing because of hate. Anybody. That, I have friends so near, who are trans people, and I don't imagine in my mind that they can be killed by hate.
So, in that way. This play? I really want it, one day, that I can say oh, that happened a long time ago, a lot a lot of time before. This kind of murder does not happen anymore. But until then, it's still happening so I have to spread the word. And I have to say that this is still happening in México. And it happens a lot. And it happens every day.
And obviously as a creator, I really want to continue going forward. I hope this year or next year, I can continue working. I really want it to go more cities. Not only in the U.S.A. but in all the world. I am fighting to do that.