The inevitability of death

For the past 13 years, Latino theater group Milagro Theatre has been creating an original production to celebrate the Day of the Dead, or el Día de los Muertos.

For the past 13 years, Latino theater group Milagro Theatre has been creating an original production to celebrate the Day of the Dead, or el Día de los Muertos. The Vanguard spoke with artistic director Olga Sanchez about their 2009 production, Canta y no llores, a show set during the Great Depression that tells a series of interwoven stories. Sanchez developed the production along with the show’s cast and crew, and provided original translations of songs used in the play.

Daily Vanguard: How did you develop this play?

Olga Sanchez: We generally start thinking about [the Day of the Dead show] in the spring. This time we started talking about it right after last year’s show…we knew this time we wanted to bring some traditional elements into the show. And in the springtime, we started talking about fitting it in the Depression era, and setting it in Oregon, because Oregon is in the 150th anniversary of its statehood, and from there, it was just a question of “how do we weave the story?” So I started picking out some songs, and I got some different recommendations of songs from the 1930s. Traditional Mexican tunes, then some Woody Guthrie songs and some Hollywood standards as well.
As I was doing that, we were doing a lot of research about what was going on in the Latino community and just the nation in general. We read a lot about the Dust Bowl, and repatriation, just, where the troubles were and how people coped with them.

DV: Does the play deal with the Latin American experience in Oregon during the 1930s?

OS: Well, yes, but there’s very little information about the Latin American experience in Oregon during the 1930s! We knew that there was a growing community in the ’20s, and an even bigger one in the ’40s, but for some reason, there’s just not a whole lot of information on the ’30s. So we kind of thought about what might have brought Latin Americans here, and then we came up with stories about individuals that we thought might be representative about what might have happened. In other words, they reflect what was happening around the region and around the country. It’s basically the story of immigrants—so they’re being pushed, for various reasons, from other parts of the country, or they’re here because they’re looking for work. And Timberline Lodge was being built at the time, so it becomes a draw for people looking for work, especially if they’re skilled artisans, which is what the people in this play are.

DV: How does this play fit into the rest of your season? Do you have any themes that you’re exploring this year, either in this play, or in others that you’re staging?

OS: I think what we realized going into the season, we knew that people were feeling relatively bummed about the economy. There’s a lot of negativity and things pointing downward, and we want to do works that—not so much cheered people up, necessarily, but that pointed a light to the resilience of the human spirit. How people find within themselves the strength, and where they find the strength, to keep going, to have hope, even when the situation looks hopeless. So in the case of [Day of the Dead], it’s about tradition, songs, music in a way that lifts us, so that, “OK, I can get through the day,” which is kind of how people got through the Great Depression. Obviously they had to get out there and work, but the music—and the Hollywood movies that came out of that era, are just fanciful and full of music—there were lots of musicals at that time, so we’re tapping into that expression as a form of inspiration. In other cases, later on in the season, we have a play called How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, and we’re looking at how self-reflection, how processing your history, gives you the strength to look forward. It’s basically a woman who’s working on an autobiographical sort of journal, and it’s through reliving her experiences and recounting them that she finds the inspiration to go forward. And the final play of the season is El Quixote, where basically imagination, the ability to sort of deny your reality, and create your own, give you the strength to move forward.

DV: What is the connection between this play and the Day of the Dead itself?

OS: It takes place right around the Day of the Dead. And it’s through the celebration of the traditions of the holiday that people are restored. It’s through remembering the dead, and those traditions—everybody’s suffered some kind of death in their lives in this play, so everybody’s coming in with some kind of experience in how they deal with it. And it’s kind of a parallel to them having lost everything. If you’ve lost everything, what do you hold on to? What do you still have? That’s the question.

DV: Why do you think Portland has such a large number of Day of the Dead activities?

OS: One, I think it’s a terrific celebration. I think people need it. Society needs it. Portland’s a progressive town, well-read, it’s interested in things that are happening around the world. It doesn’t just see itself as its own self-enclosed society: It sees itself as part of the world. You could ask the same question about the Milagro Theatre: why does it exist in Portland? We are the premier Latino culture organization in the Northwest, and the only one that’s really thrived. In Washington, Oregon, Idaho—there’s nothing like Milagro. And I think part of that success is because Portland is the kind of town that supports a diverse experience, is curious about what’s going on in the world, and that’s what Milagro offers. The Latino community is growing here as well, and Portland, instead of saying, “get these people out of here,” is interested in other cultures, wants to learn about them! And that’s the personality of Portland: it welcomes diversity, or tries to, anyway.