Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Applauding the Golden Age at Chamizal

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Applauding the Golden Age at Chamizal

Article excerpt

Night after night troupes from all over the Spanish-speaking world and the United States perform Calderon and Cervantes, Lope de Vega and Moreto, at the annual Siglo de Oro Drama Festival in El Paso, Texas. Sometimes the productions are elaborate and traditional; sometimes they are sparse and avant-garde. Occasionally, they are electrifying. After each performance, participants meet to share ideas.

Every April hundreds of theater people, academics and general spectators participate in the two-week-long festival at the Chamizal National Memorial, which is sponsored by the U.S. National Park Service. Just as in Lope de Vega's day, the plays are popular events that attract spectators from every walk of life. Laborers in their work clothes, grandmothers and infants, students and secretaries sit side by side with business professionals and artists, often chatting about the plays in English and Spanish.

This year's gathering featured spectacles as diverse as a three-and-a-half-hour production by Mexico's Compania de Teatro Corral of Lope de Vega's Los locos de Valencia; Repertorio Espanol's minimalist interpretation of Calderon's El alcalde de Zalamea; a series of highlights from Golden Age plays presented by two actors from the Compania Francisco Portes, of Madrid; and an adaptation by Mexico City's Grupo Tarumba of the prologue to Sor Juana's El divino narcisco, which included some colorful Aztec-inspired dances. The most controversial production was an adaptation of San Juan de la Cruz's Canticos espirituales, by Tiempo Comun of Venezuela, which incorporated Indian, Afro-Hispanic, and Brazilian music. The piece raised eyebrows not only because of the unconventional nature of the material (after all, San Juan was a mystic poet, not a playwright), but also because of the playful manner in which director Hugo Marquez approached the work, the giraphic eroticism of some segments, and the very Latin American tone Marquez gave to the verse.

The Spanish Golden Age, which lasted roughly from the beginning of the sixteenth century until the end of the seventeenth, may seem an unusual theme for an annual event on the U.S.-Mexican border, but, according to Walker Reid, Director of Cultural Affairs for the memorial, it was a perfect choice in view of the history of the Chamizal. Reid explains that the Chamizal Memorial was formed as part of a 1963 agreement between the United States and Mexico. The Rio Grande had been established as the border between the two countries more than a century before, but the river kept meandering, leaving communities sometimes on the Mexican side, sometimes on the U.S. side. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Adolfo Lopez Mateos resolved to cement the bottom of the river - thereby preventing it from changing course - and to divide the land. Three-fourths of the area went to Mexico, while the rest went to the Unites States.

Both nations made commemorative parks out of the land. The Park Service took over the U.S. portion and Congress established that the Chamizal Memorial would become a monument to culture and the arts. In 1967 President Lyndon Johnson finalized the settlement and in 1971 Franklin G. Smith was appointed superintendent of the Chamizal. Thanks to Smith's vision and sensitivity, the Park became an agent of good will between Mexico and the United States. The Chamizal opened in 1973 with a Border Folk Festival that celebrated Mexican popular arts. Other cultural activities followed, including a jazz festival and a variety of historical projects, but the jewel in the Chamizal crown was the Siglo de Oro Theater Festival.

Smith hit on the idea of a celebration of Spanish Golden Age drama when he began to look around for a theme that would be rich in possibilities and appealing to the population of El Paso, which is about 70 percent Hispanic. "It was a natural," explains Walker Reid. "Here was a juicy piece of literature - that is, a literary period that included hundreds of writers. …

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