Reevaluating Representation on and off the Stage
For centuries, the stage has provided a place to explore, praise, and criticize the social movements and current events of the time. PhD student David Melendez spent last summer studying how indigenous history is interpreted and displayed through California’s missions, and the impact on surrounding communities.
What sparked your interest in using theater to tell the stories of indigenous people in Latin America?
After serving for six years in the Navy as a submarine mechanic and going all over the world, I began to question the role that US Imperialism was playing in policing and destabilizing governments. As a student of theatre, I became fascinated with how instability and imperialism shape representations of Latinx in performance. From there, my interest grew broader into how we portray any individual on stage based on how history is told and shared.
How did you decide to focus your work on the California missions?
In 2015, I began to explore the history of indigenous people in California and how they are portrayed in mission history. I began by visiting several mission sites across the state with each one being unique in its history and current relationship to the surrounding communities. Mission San Miguel Arcángel, for example, has a dynamic history, including the only remaining original fresco paintings in the US, which was painted by Salinan people, as well as a wall dedicated to the US military service of descendants of Mission Indians. Through community gatherings, educational programming, and parish outreach events, it maintains a close relationship to the town of San Miguel.
Studying the missions has also allowed me to think about the controversy over the recent Sainthood of Fr. Junipero Serra, the Franciscan missionary often regarded as "the founding father" of the California Missions. While some were happy at the news, others protested the church for commemorating the genocide and ongoing displacement/disenfranchisement of indigenous California people. The museum director at Mission San Carlos discussed the issue with me and assured me that there is no "right" way to feel about it. He suggested that the importance lies within the controversy of people talking about a part of California history that is often overlooked or avoided, and it does shape realities for Mission Indians to this day. Today, Mission San Carlos goes by the name Carmel Mission and is one of the most well preserved missions while serving as an active parish, museum, and community gathering place.
Despite all of the differences over the years, the missions have something important in common: their original purpose was to convert the indigenous people to Christianity. In the 1760s, the Spanish crown ordered the native populations to be round up and converted to Christianity much like the Mayans, Aztecs and Incans had been. Considered to be "children" by the priests, nearby indigenous people were forced to either leave their homes or help to build missions and supply the mission population. This continued until a decade after Mexico gained its independence from Spain, when the missions were officially secularized. Due to bias in reports, not much is known about the general welfare of the native population during the mission period, but today it is considered a forgotten, dark period of Californian history.
What impact do you hope to have through your research?
My research provides an opportunity to think about how we might represent history in ways that provoke curiosity, urgency, and desire to look a little deeper into what we see on the surface and think we know. I find that theatre can be a helpful place to call others to contemplate social issues and current events with complexity, nuance, and through the act of making something together. Part of my work is to figure out how to connect theater, as a practice, to my research questions, to our Twin Cities community.
This past Fall, I worked as a dramaturg for Marisol, a play about an angelic revolution against a senile God, centered in the Bronx in 1992, and written by Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera. Marisol was a powerful production, not just because it called for a Latina lead character (though seeing a strong woman of color centered onstage does matter, especially in these times). The power, I think, comes not from merely representing the "under-represented," but in taking the audience through such a violent and disorienting world of the play from the perspective of one whose body (as an actor) makes them more vulnerable than others to the violence of this world. Marisol allowed me the space to think about how we might develop programming that helps audiences to pose more useful and nuanced questions.
This coming spring, I am working alongside Catherine Squires on a seven week seminar featuring the participatory action play, Saplings, and hosted by four departments: communications studies, theatre arts and dance, social work, and public health. In 2014, the playwright, Anton Jones, collaborated with students, teaching artists and professors to showcase a play about the impact of school discipline with racial stressors on not only students but their families. After successful performances last year, we hope to open a productive dialogue on school discipline policies, confronting racial bias, and gaining community trust.
The big question for me is how to better use theater as a space to acknowledge, support and advocate for communities outside the university that make the Twin Cities better all by themselves. Right now at the University of Minnesota, "diversity" seems to be often discussed as a numbers game of whose bodies look like what, and while that matters, I'm more concerned about how those bodies are surveilled, policed and expected to conform to an institutional “culture” that normalizes white supremacy, settler colonialism, xenophobia, gendered violence, outrageous student debt, and inadequate mental health services. This "culture" is not entirely unlike that of the missions I study, and this relationship between cultures is a major force guiding my thoughts and ideas about theatre research and practice.