Education Class Uses Teatro to Capture Underrepresented Voices
July 26, 2012 - Students in Professor David G. Garcia’s course, “Theater as Pedagogy in Education,” had the opportunity this spring to present a very special kind of project, using oral history methods and performance to tell educational stories. Under the guidance of Garcia and Ric Salinas, co-founder of the groundbreaking theatre group, Culture Clash, the students interviewed a diverse range of individuals on their personal experiences, writing monologues based on these interviews. The results were performed at the final class meeting in June for an audience that included faculty from the Department of Education and some of the interviewees.
“When I created this course, I sought to engage students in an exploration of the educational experiences of communities of color through scholarly texts alongside oral history interviews,” said Garcia. “In addition to conducting oral history research, I challenged students to present their findings through creative monologues, similar to the work of Culture Clash.
“As I expected, the students' interviewees shared rich stories about their schooling experiences that gave us layered insights on issues, including race, gender, class, discrimination, and sexuality. Our discussion about these educational histories helped make the weekly readings more real; it put a face to the scholarship.”
In her monologue, Selenni Cisneros presented the story of a Latino male who became a father at a young age, dropped out of college, and constantly battled the stereotypes placed on him by his family and society. She emphasized the value of the interviews as a rare examination of groups that have been previously underrepresented.
“These are the stories that have historically been excluded from textbooks and silenced within society,” she wrote in a reflection essay.
Salinas says that meeting the interview subjects through the students’ perspective was a pleasant surprise, particularly as done by students who had no previous acting experience.
“It was like doubling the class because they each brought a new person into our lives,” he noted. “Projects like this not only enrich the [audience], but the students themselves. It’s been a good process.”
Many of the students chose to portray a person who was not only of a different ethnicity but often a different gender.
“It’s really weird to try and be the complete opposite of yourself,” Cisneros remarked. “It was really hard to [play] that.”
Melissa van Gelder shared the story of a close friend who is Black, Japanese, and Chinese, who felt that she needed to “choose” an ethnic identity.
“Interviewing her was really interesting,” stated Van Gelder. “But I was scared, because I’m white. To portray her experiences, because they are so complex, was a lot of responsibility. I hope I gave it some sort of justice here.”
The students were also surprised by what they learned from longtime friends and acquaintances that were witnesses to history. Mark Chambers interviewed a friend whose father was a participant in the Bracero Program, which enticed Mexican workers to temporary agricultural employment in the United States from the late 1940s to the 1960s.
“I’ve known the person I interviewed for 20-plus years,” said Chambers. “I didn’t know about his father or his part in the Bracero Project.
“Most of the Latinos I’ve dealt with have been in service professions. [Dr. Garcia] is my first Latino professor. I wrote in my last paper that I’ve had to address my own [misconceptions].”
Alma Flores, the only graduate student in the course, was initially most interested in Garcia’s pedagogical approach. She says that she learned a lot about how she could incorporate teatro methods to enhance her own teaching.
“As someone who is very passionate about learning how to engage students, it challenged me in very different ways rather than just having written a paper,” she said of the assignment. “It gives students the opportunity to go through… interviewing someone, then historicizing the experience, and portraying it as theatre rather than as PowerPoint, or a paper – that’s a very creative process.”
Lloyd R. Robinson, III presented his monologue titled, “Invisible,” about a female immigrant from Taiwan who came to the United States as a child and attended college as an undocumented AB540 student. He commended Professor Garcia for challenging his students to use their personal history and connections as valuable and credible sources of information for research.
“Professor Garcia insists that we critically analyze our own personal experiences in education to examine cultural deficit thinking and cultural wealth in order to inform our research projects,” Robinson wrote in a reflection essay.
Salinas and his partners Richard Montoya and Herbert Siguenza formed Culture Clash in 1984, bursting upon the comedy scene with irreverent, poignant, and hilarious observations on being Latino in the United States. After nearly 10 years of success with plays like “A Bowl of Beings” and “The Mission,” they came up with the idea of capturing stories through the interview process when the troupe was invited to write a play about Miami. The result was “Radio Mambo,” a “docu-theatre” experience, which was written by the trio from interviews of Miamians from all walks of life -from a Haitian community activist, to second generation Cubans, to inmates from the Dade County Jail.
“It was very honest,” Salinas recalled. “We asked them basic questions and we found that Americans, non-Americans, immigrants, and the undocumented – they want to talk. They want to say something. They want to tell what their life is, how they feel about their neighbor.”
“Radio Mambo” became a huge success for Culture Clash, and the troupe took the concept to other cities including San Diego, Berkeley, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles, where “Chavez Ravine” became the troupe’s most requested play in local venues such as the Mark Taper Forum.
Salinas, who was born in El Salvador, shared the irony of disappointed college audiences – who expected him to be of Chicano origins because of the troupe’s focus on Chicana/o experiences. He also discussed the misconceptions of mainstream audiences, who misunderstand the dichotomy of Latino life in 21st century America. He emphasized the importance of using historical fact to illustrate injustice, rather than merely creating laughter through discomfort or shock.
“We always base our comedy on fact [and] plant the historical foundation,” he said. “Who was here before us? What was the situation? If you start doing jokes or satire just to be funny… it’s going to be superficial. You’ve got to dig deep and be a good storyteller and a good writer to bring it out.”
Eloise Lopez Metcalfe is an adjunct professor in the UCLA Department of Education and former director of the UCLA Teacher Education Program. She was interviewed by her former student, Laura Colosimo, who emphasized Metcalfe’s upbringing in a Mexican American family that favored assimilation to mainstream culture over recognizing its cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Among Metcalfe’s discoveries later in life were learning that her heritage was an asset when she taught in East Los Angeles, and the challenge of teaching her half-Anglo children the value of their mother’s Mexican roots.
“I was very nervous because I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone’s going to hear my story,’” said Metcalfe. “But I knew Laura from a previous class, so I had confidence that she would do a really good job. It’s interesting to hear your story repeated through someone else - what you think is your life, how someone else sees it. And it’s very rare that someone will tell you that.
“When Laura presented my story I realized how important and difficult it had been to reclaim my heritage and not allow the fear of discrimination to prevent me from being who I am. I am fortunate that being in GSE&IS has affirmed me in many ways. My work with beginning teachers has allowed me to work with students who are first-generation college students in their families and to support them as they work as teachers in communities that face discrimination and have been locked out of opportunities.”
Although many of the students knew their interview subjects fairly well, their conversations centered on their educational experiences and included issues that even the longest friendship might never address. Van Gelder discovered that although she was aware of her friend’s personal background, it was a bonding experience to actually discuss it.
“I could tell that she appreciated the fact that I was asking these questions,” she said. “And I appreciated how honest she was with me about it, so that made it all the more exciting as well.”
Garcia, a UCLA alumnus, earned his Ph.D. in U.S. history and wrote his dissertation on the evolution of Culture Clash. The troupe’s unique theatrical approach to portraying the experiences of underrepresented populations inspired him to challenge students with the opportunity to create stories in the same way.
“This class has been for me a way to put my research into practice and I can’t thank these students enough for allowing me to do that,” he said.
After watching the students’ monologues, Salinas gave the class high marks.
“You guys did it,” he grinned. “You [each] gave that person respect and their stories had rhythm to them.”
Kathy Mariscal, an undergraduate who double majors in Chicana/o studies and political science, interviewed a doctoral candidate who has served as her mentor. She says that learning what her role model had gone through to get to where she is and what education means to her, “blew me away.”
“I almost didn’t want to [portray] her anymore, because I felt that I couldn’t say things as powerfully as she did,” said Mariscal with emotion. “But I learned so much. I wish to one day be able to say to someone else what she told me, and make [them] feel like she made me feel that day. I felt so empowered.
“This class wasn’t just about reading a theory on education. We were living it. This is real life.”
- Joanie Harmon
Pictured, L-R: Laura Colosimo, Amy Franklin, Kristen Harkey, Kathy Mariscal, Mitzi Millener, Melissa van Gelder, Luz Sanchez, Lloyd R. Robinson, III, Alma Flores, Rosalinda Ruiz, Selenni Cisneros, Mark Chambers, and Esther Flores. Kneeling in front: Professor David G. Garcia (at left) and Ric Salinas. Not pictured: Yannan Shi
Photo by Carlos San Miguel