By: Catherine Lima and Paris Barraza
Latinx students within the Department of Theatre Arts at Long Beach State discuss experiences with racism and lack of opportunities in the department and in the industry amid recent nationwide conversations about social justice.
Henry Alexander Meza, a fifth-year general theater arts major, attended a high school in South Central Los Angeles that was focused on STEM and had no arts programs.
It wasn’t until Meza enrolled in a general education class, Theatre 113, in the second semester of his first year at CSULB that he realized he had a passion for theater.
But Meza said that as a Latino and as a student who came from a STEM-focused high school, he had been told all of his life that a job in arts won’t make any money or go anywhere in life.
“And it really was a conflict inside of me, because I wanted to make my family proud,” Meza said. “I wanted to make my community proud because I didn’t want to be this statistic of dropping out of high school or dropping out of university and not finding a good job or not finding something stable, and I wanted to prove that I was better than what the statistics say.”
It was a difficult decision for Meza to make, but it was more difficult on his mental health to not be involved in theater. In his fourth-year, Meza switched to the theater arts department.
And while Meza said that the department has helped him find himself and that he personally has not had any negative experiences, he saw how students had problems with casting choices and the selection of plays.
“I try to find any acting jobs outside of the theater department and a lot of them are white male, white male, white male,” Meza said. “The western story arc, or the western film or the western theater, it’s all a white male protagonist.”
Meza said that he is tired of the lack of stories on minorities, so when he writes, he creates protagonists of color or women.
Joanna Padilla, a fourth-year theater major with a focus in lighting design, said that one of the biggest challenges that Latinx theater arts students face is the lack of representation in the plays that they read and are put on by the department.
“They’re very geared towards one group of people and it’s definitely not towards us,” Padilla said.
Padilla is familiar with not letting fear get in the way of achieving her goals within the world of technical theater, which can be intimidating because it’s heavily dominated by men.
“The best things that have happened to me come from taking a chance,” Padilla said.
Andrea Felix-Cervantes, a fourth-year technical theater major with a focus in stage management and film minor, has noticed that it is harder for Latinx students to join the department if there aren’t professors who truly understand what it means to be Latinx.
Anthony Byrnes, chair of the Department of Theatre Arts, said that the department’s all-white tenure and tenure-track faculty was not okay nor a sustainable way for the university or the department to move forward as a field.
And while introducing new faculty is subject to a budget, Byrnes said that on a department level, curriculums, work that is performed on stage and department policies can all be changed.
Over the summer, Byrnes said that students have been discussing department and industry failures on different platforms, including Facebook.
“You’ll see a group of students who don’t feel as if their work or their stories or their communities have been represented fully on our stages,” Byrnes said. “They haven’t been represented in our curriculum, and that’s a problem.”
With the support of the College of the Arts, Byrnes said that the theater department will bring in the California Conference for Equality and Justice, a Long Beach based human relations organization “dedicated to eliminating bias, bigotry and racism through education, conflict resolution and advocacy,” according to their website.
Byrnes said that the CCEJ will start working with the department this semester and possibly into the spring 2021 semester to help address the department’s lack of representation on a deeper level and understand the harms that have been done to the community.
This measure, Byrnes said, will help the department go beyond examining the work that has been performed on stage and the texts assigned in the curriculum.
As a stage manager, it has been difficult for Felix-Cervantes to find Latinx voices to cast into plays. She said that it makes a difference to have Latinx actors in productions created by other Latinx folks because there is a sense of cultural understanding.
“There are a lot of students who are Latinx and are still trying to find their voices,” Felix-Cervantes said. “I know that it can be really hard to find that voice, especially in an area where theater has had predominantly westernized context.”
Latinx students face being typecast into plays or not being casted at all by some directors because of euro-centric values that they are looking for in an actor to play a part.
Eric Morales, a third-year general theater major, said that some plays in the department do feature non-white stories which provides opportunities for a diverse cast, but that it sometimes feels like it’s the only opportunity students of a certain community can get.
While these stories need to be told, Morales said, students may want to get involved in other plays.
“I wouldn’t want to do a story about, you know, women in the Mexican cartel, not because it’s not what I believe in or I’m not for the story,” Morales said. “I’ve always been more of a comedic actor myself.”
Morales explained how even localized opportunities thinned out for Latinx actors who are not white-passing.
Morales used the Netflix show “Stranger Things” as an example and said that because of it’s predominantly white cast, which he clarified that it was reasonable given the show’s setting in a fictional town in Indiana in the 1980s, he would not be casted to play one of the characters in a haunted maze, like Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights which did a “Stranger Things” themed maze twice.
“When it comes to things outside of that show like these haunted mazes, the people who look like Steve, the Nancy, you know, they’re gonna be white people because those roles are white,” Morales said. “We can’t really make it non-white, and just the fact that because of this one popular show, it makes more opportunities for people who are white.”
Morales said that a problem within the department is that students have to make these opportunities for themselves.
It’s what Miguel A. Lopez did by creating the three-day virtual workshop “Amplifying Latinx Theatre” in September.
Lopez, a fourth-year double majoring in Chicano/Latino studies and theater arts, hosted the Zoom series to create a safe space for theater arts students of Latino backgrounds.
“Within the theater department at Long Beach, they primarily focus on plays written by white men,” Lopez said. “Sure, some of them might be a part of the LGBTQ+ community, but we have to be critical about the fact that they are still white men.”
More than 80 participants attended the final Zoom meeting of the series, including CSULB alumni and guest speakers Evelina Fernandez, a playwright and actress, and Jose Luis Valenzuela, a theater film director and a professor at the University of California Los Angeles School of Theater, Film and Television.
“Although, yes, we can say we have progressed as a theater community from being just Shakespeare and Greek tragedies, but there are still other people’s narratives that we are leaving out,” Lopez said. “Such as disabled folks, Asian folks and indigenous folks, especially.”
Lopez first began to organize this type of workshop during the spring 2020 semester, with the first one hosted back in February at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I just hope [attendees] take inspiration to create their own work, however that may be,” Lopez said. “Whether it be at school, within their own communities, or even share the information to other folks.”
Morales and Meza created their own improvisation club last year. Meza also wrote the play “The Stranger,” which is a six-episode miniseries that started airing last month.
And Felix-Cervantes had her own advice.
“If you can’t find your own community, create one,” Felix-Cervantes said. “Find other like-minded people who are interested in telling the same stories yo