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Greek Tragedies Get A Mexican-American Rewrite That Hits Close To Home

Luis Alfaro follows successful 'Oedipus el Rey' with 'Mojada,' his Chicano adaptation of 'Medea' and the latest update on Greek tragedies.

A woman abandons her family, home, and culture, and makes a perilous journey into a foreign land only to find herself in a community that does not embrace her, does not welcome her, and does not want her. She is later disposed of when she is no longer useful, and sentenced to exile by powerful men.

The above story lately hits close to home for fairly obvious reasons, but it’s also, broadly speaking, the 2,500-year-old plot of Euripides’s Medea. You would think that, by now, it would have aged, wouldn’t you? And yet, here we are with an adaptation of the play by Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro showing now at The Public Theater in New York City.  

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His Medea is the play that brings his Greek-Mexican trilogy a close, but the previous installments are equally fascinating. Many of the papers covering his story recall how, by spending time with Latino communities, Alfaro came across a 13-year-old girl, the daughter of a drug dealer who had been killed by his wife. The girl then avenged her father by killing her mother. Theater buffs will find parallels to the plot of Sophocles’s Electra. So did Alfaro, actually, thus kicking off his trilogy.

In Oedipus Rex, the title character believes he can confront fate. In Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey, this translates to how minorities in the United States are sometimes trapped in a vicious circle of criminalization and poverty. As much as “Patas Malas” pursues self-determination, his upbringing as a Chicano orphan and a life within prison systems ultimately sets a trap for him. It doesn’t exactly end well.

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@wonwayposibulEventually, Alfaro tackled Medea back in 2012, but has since refashioned it as Mojada, an adaptation that immediately re-appropriates a slur for Mexican immigrants ("mojada" literally translates to wet, as in wetback, a reference to clandestine border crossings in the Rio Grande). Alfaro began with a simple question: how to make classic works from the Western literary canon, pertinent to the here and now? Arguably, this is how all adaptation processes begin.

Euripides’s play is itself a retelling of an old Greek myth: having betrayed her own father, brother and country for Jason, Medea’s wrath is unleashed when years later he announces plans to marry Glauce, a royal princess. Facing exile and unable to return to her original “barbaric” land, Medea resolves to poison the would-be bride and kill her own children in order to get back at Jason. 

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Medea has naturally been debated for centuries, especially regarding the themes of misogyny, proto-feminism, repentance, and tragedy. Alfaro, however, chooses to bring out a key element particular to the Mexican-American experience: xenophobia. “They say, ‘She’s soiling our land,’”, Alfaro told The New York Times, “and I thought: ‘Ah, this is an immigrant story about a woman in a country where she’s not wanted.’”@sfstatelcaThus, Mojada follows Medea’s plot and characters closely, while telling a contemporary story of immigration: a young indigenous seamstress from Michoacán lives in the Latino community within the United States, having followed her beloved Hasón. She spends all day sewing in her home, while her husband works long hours, eager to adapt to their new home. When Pilar, an immigrant who has succeeded in her own business, intends to seduce Hasón, he falls for the temptation, associating Pilar with upward mobility in in America.

Mojada has been staged in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, with each performance adapting the setting to the local Latino community: Pilsen, Boyle Heights, and Queens, respectively, the latter being particularly interesting. Not only is Queens home to the fastest-growing Mexican immigrant population in the US, but also, the show playing here has chosen to portray Queen’s diverse Latino community. In LA, Pilar was from the same town as Medea, but in New York, she is a Cuban immigrant fully adapted to her adoptive country; Luisa, a churro vendor from Puerto Rico, tells the story of her arrival following Hurricane Maria.@akilaworksongsMedea and Hasón’s reasons for migrating differ greatly, which is why Mojada doesn’t shy away from the horror of its source material. In fact, it expands on it, while simultaneously gaining relevance in contemporary discussion. Alfaro has created a backstory for her main character, recounted on stage, about violence and sexual assault on her journey to Mexico. This is a reality for many Mexican and Central American immigrants, but the specifics come from the story of a real-life immigrant and her odyssey towards the United States.@meredithanneart“Traumatized and undocumented in the United States,” describes the NYT, Alfaro’s Medea “clings to Nahuatl ritual, sewing from home while Jason ventures out for work.” Mojada is therefore a story of assimilation, or lack thereof.

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American values, which champion individualism, make a sharp contrast to Mexico’s glorified sense of fellowship (curiously explored in Netflix documentary A Tale of Two Restaurants), and Alfaro delves right into what immigrants must do in in order to succeed in a country that seems to thrive in a cut-throat culture. For him, Mojada is about “the price we pay when we come to a new country and how does it really work?”

Cover by: @latinxplat

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