Whenever I see a movie or go to a play and see a Spanish last name flash across the screen or printed on a program, I let out a little, “Yay.”
That’s because for much of my life growing up Puerto Rican in NYC, Latinos were too often far from the mainstream media’s consciousness.
In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Latinos in NYC — for the most part Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans — were struggling to get a foothold in every part of city life. The need for decent and affordable housing, good schools, safe streets, and freedom from racism and bigotry continues today in the city — and country — not just for people who share a common language, but for anyone labeled as “the other” in the mainstream.
But, at least in the arts, Latinos can beam with pride at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway triumphs, applaud Junot Diaz’s literary accomplishments and cheer for Gina Rodriguez’s success as TV’s “Jane the Virgin.” It helps to have social media, because we no longer have to wait for the mainstream to tell our stories. We can do that in a plethora of ways and share them.
That wasn’t so in 1967, when Miriam Colon founded the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre. Colon helped tell the stories of Latinos in performances throughout NYC. Housed since 1981 in its permanent home, a 19th century converted firehouse in Hell’s Kitchen, the company is merging with Pregones Theater, a Bronx ensemble founded in 1979.
Colon’s pioneering efforts panned out. Recently, Latino theaters put on Teatro Fest NYC, a month of presentations by nine bilingual NYC theater companies, said Rosalba Rolon, Pregones’ artistic director.
But on stage or screen, for Colon, some things in the mainstream don’t change: Scripts with substantive roles for Latinos are still hard to come by. “What you get in scripts is so boring and so superficial and is so lacking in reality with what Latinos are doing and what Latinos are trying to accomplish,” she said.
Colon performed in two movies with Marlon Brando, but perhaps her most famous big-screen role was as Mama Montana in Brian De Palma’s “Scarface.” Colon is proud to have played the character — perhaps the most realistic one in the movie. She’s on screen for about five minutes. Mama Montana throws a wad of bills at her drug-dealing son (played by Al Pacino), and tosses him out of her house, yelling, “You suddenly show up here and throw some money around and think you can get my respect. You think you can buy me with jewelry? . . . I don’t need your money, gracias. I work for my living.”
Colon recently found herself with Oscar winner and former co-star Sally Field and horror writer Stephen King in the East Room of the White House with President Barack Obama. The three were among the awardees of the National Medal of Arts.
“This is like a never-ending endeavor,” she said. “This is what we do every day. We want to continue doing theater, bilingual theater, in the city. I think we have a moral obligation to reflect what is happening and what is upsetting us. And what is making us cry and also what is making us laugh.”
Yolanda Rodriguez is the assistant director of career services at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.