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Spectacular citizenships: staging Latina resistance through urban performances of pain.

Not just a legal category, a stamp, or a government-issued document, citizenship in the age of twenty-first-century globalization is increasingly being thought of and studied as an embodied act, a dynamic set of behaviors, and a category of live (and lived) performance. Because of its role in transnational life, the modern city serves as the most obvious staging ground for performed citizenships. Distinct from traditional definitions of legal and political citizenship that entail obeying laws and helping to craft them, these new brands of embodied and engaged citizenship promote the broader values of critical reflection and, when necessary, active and spectacular expressions of dissent. Variously termed cultural citizenship, moral citizenship, and a citizenship of engagement, emergent streams of visibly resistant civic participation have been theorized by a small subset of scholars across a broad range of disciplines. (1)

Critics of the modern city have suggested that these new models of engaged citizenship are constituted primarily by the volatile and efficacious social interactions that have come to define city life. From protests, strikes, and picket lines to public performances and street art, popular urban modes of political and self-expression have helped to solidify a Western conception of cities as places where collective action comes to a head and incites social change. Gyan Prakash argues that "modern urban life ... has produced new subjects, solidarities and meanings. The cityscape-its streets and sidewalks, its public space, the ebb and flow of its crowd, its infrastructure of transportation-has served as the setting for dynamic encounters and experiences." (2) For feminist scholars one point of entry within this new area of research is to articulate how revolutionary urban models of female participatory citizenship reframe and expand the practices and rituals that have traditionally been associated with women in the public sphere.

This essay takes up two examples of this phenomenon: the now canonical Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and the less widely known Chicago-based Teatro Luna. The Madres are a group of mothers whose children were the victims of state-sponsored violence during the Dirty War. Their weekly protest events have become increasingly performative in the decades since they began their public marches around the Plaza de Mayo. Teatro Luna, a pan-Latina performance collective, stages innovative theatrical workshops and productions that aim to represent and advocate for the rights of Latina and Hispana women. These all-female urban collectives have each used established Latino/a performance traditions like the escrache and the carpa, as well as cultural archetypes like the mater dolorosa, to invert and politicize stereotypical Latina modes of citizenship for the purpose of refraining loss and trauma to incite social change. I argue that by using urban spaces as their staging ground for politically resistant performances of pain, Teatro Luna and the Madres creatively adapt traditional Latino/a performance practices to attract and mobilize new audiences.

Key to these spectacularly performative inversions is the addition of the disruptive, raucous spirit that Yolanda Broyles-Gonzalez identifies as relajo (3) Even when performing stories of pain, the Madres and Teatro Luna both employ the resistant, mocking mood of relajo, which was first defined by Mexican philosopher Jorge Portilla as a negation of required conduct" that "constitutes a subjective positioning of dissent vis-a-vis the dominant values of the social whole." (4) This mode of boisterous and sometimes ironic critique allows Teatro Luna and activist groups affiliated with the Madres to question and subvert the status quo while still relaying their own traumatic stories as evidence of the need for structural change. While these two groups use entirely different performative modalities to reach their audiences-the street protest and the improvised short sketch-they both see relajo as a flexible but culturally specific way to attract engaged spectators and build community spirit. Operating from positions outside of the political mainstream, both of these groups use their cultural knowledge of various oral and embodied performance practices with roots in Central and South America to speak to a transnational Latino/a audience. Publicly sharing their personal stories of suffering within a framework of boisterous resistance is not just a way to disrupt formal conventions of Western performances-it is also a way to strengthen community by calling on audiences' shared cultural knowledge.

In addition to exploring the groups' multivalent use of relajo, this article also takes up the question of how performances of pain serve to inspire social activism. Scholars informed by the last decade's developments in trauma studies have theorized a significant link between performance and trauma. (5) Because performances, like events that lead to psychic trauma, are ephemeral, they share the potential to change witnesses into activists motivated by the haunting effects of traumatic memory. Cathy Caruth's definition of Freudian psychic trauma as an initial "collapse of witnessing" during an event, followed by "repeated suffering of the event," emphasizes how the impactful effects of performance and trauma are both based on an object that disappears but is repeatedly remembered. (6) The Madres and Teatro Luna both put this trauma-performance connection to work by first taking up, embodying, and then disruptively exceeding the boundaries of normative ideals of urban citizenship for Latina women in Argentina, the United States, and the Americas in general. (7) Whether publicly enacting and then rupturing the role of the silent, grieving mother, the promiscuous siren, or the immigrant laborer, these activists demand that their audiences bear witness to the painful consequences of these restrictive models of urban Latina identity.

Crucially, these two activist collectives both draw on established and emerging Latino performance traditions to interrogate and disrupt notions of gender and womanhood within their respective cities and communities. By refusing to work within the limited scope of ideologically established forms of Latina citizenship, Teatro Luna and the Madres bring the work of reimagining participatory women's citizenship into the public sphere. William Flores and Rina Benmayor see this work as a way of creating new spaces for civic and cultural engagement:
  Cultural citizenship allows for the potential of opposition, of
  restructuring and reordering society. Cultural citizenship can be
  thought of as a broad range of activities of everyday life through
  which Latinos and other groups claim space in society and eventually
  claim rights. Although it involves difference, it is not as if
  Latinos seek out such difference. Rather, the motivation is simply to
  create space where the people feel "safe" and "at home," where they
  feel a sense of belonging and membership. ... Space is a physical
  location, a piece of real estate, and simultaneously an existential
  freedom and a mental expression. (8)

In performing their resistant identities in public, in Buenos Aires and Chicago, the Madres and Teatro Luna create an urban space of belonging in which their citizenship, though oppositional to dominant cultural representations, is legitimated and protected. Furthermore, not only do these performers give their audiences the chance to become witnesses to what Diana Taylor calls "performances of trauma," but they also sidestep the pitfalls of enacting victimhood by narrating through relajo the empowering effects of their activism and demanding that audiences interrogate their own roles within public civic life. (9)



The story of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo begins with a moment of political upheaval in Argentina's recent history. Starting in the early 1970s an underground military junta began a program of systematic violence in Argentina that targeted both individual citizens and members of the Peronist government. After staging a successful coup that ousted Isabel Martinez de Peron from power and inserted Jorge Rafael Videla into the position of Argentina's forty-third president, the junta began an aggressive campaign of state-sponsored kidnappings to eliminate any public opposition to their regime. Under Vidcla's ensuing military dictatorship, from 1976 through 1981, an estimated ten thousand to thirty thousand Argentineans were systematically abducted, tortured, and killed by the government. This counterinsurgency campaign known as "Plan Condor" was conducted as part of the Dirty War and lasted for a total of seven years, from 1976 to 1983. The kidnappings and murders, or "disappearances," as they are popularly known, were organized and committed by members of the government in secret locations. Warehouses, apartment buildings, and storefronts sometimes doubled as undercover sites for detaining and torturing abducted hostages. Most of the victims were left-leaning college students, trade unionists, and public activists. Despite the fact that Videla's corrupt regime has been out of power for more than twenty-five years, most of the politicians and government employees involved in Plan Condor have never been prosecuted and have never publicly admitted responsibility for the murders. In fact, many of the former kidnappers and murderers still live in Buenos Aires under assumed identities.

The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo have been invested in exposing the crimes and criminals of Plan Condor for more than thirty years. This women's collective is made up of mothers whose children were among the thousands of young people, college students, laborers, and activists who were "disappeared" during the Argentinean Dirty War. The Madres have been staging performative protests and silent marches on Thursday afternoons in Buenos Aires since April 1977. (10) Cofounded by a small group of grieving mothers, the organization is often credited to the leadership of Hebe de Bonafini, who has been president of the Mothers Association since 1979. When de Bonafini and her collaborators began their marches around the city plaza, the Madres were a group of just fourteen mothers trying to get information and raise public awareness about their missing children. Wearing white headscarves embroidered with the names of their disappeared children and carrying their enlarged photographs and ID cards, the Madres have creatively embodied and literally made spectacles of their grieving motherhood. Through their quiet but consistent public mourning, they have woven themselves into the fabric of normal city lire in Buenos Aires. Despite the governments long-term refusal throughout the 1980s and 1990s to acknowledge the disappearances or actively investigate the Madres' claims, the women have continued their tradition of marching on the plaza and staging what have become known as escraches, or public acts of shaming, as ways of refusing to deal with their loss in the private domestic sphere as good mothers are expected to do. (11) While Rina Arditti and other researchers have viewed the Madres' work as an active reification of traditional women's roles and as a motherly movement "based on the values of love and caring," the Madres' spectacularly public assertion of their rights to full citizenship can be more productively understood as a kind of relajo-a creative social disordering and a reformulation of an outdated cultural archetype. (12)

The Madres have taken a traditional and accepted mode of public participation for women-that of the silent, mourning mother, the mater dolorosa, or mother of sorrows-and they have reframed it for the purpose of urban, collective action. The concept of relajo helps to explain the kinds of cultural resistance that the Madres' work enacts. Relajo is a flexible Spanish slang term that has been variously defined as bawdy humor, or "goofing off," and as "creating disorder, a commotion, a ruckus." (13) This latter definition is the one that is most exemplified by the Madres. As a term relajo also signifies the kind of relaxation of social rules that is often deemed necessary to build group morale. Like Bakhtin's concept of the carnivalesque, relajo loosens the reins of social order and allows spectators to step back from the normal rules and structures of daily life. Thus, the Madres' staged repetitions of suffering and resistance function to turn a dense population of onlookers into fellow activists. Passersby also risk becoming fellow witnesses to loss.

This transformation is enacted quite literally in the renaming of the young people who have gathered around the Madres in support during their Thursday protests. By referring to these young supporters as their own children, the Madres imply "that like their disappeared children, these young people had become linked to them through their passion for political reform. ... [The Madres] describe themselves as 'permanently pregnant' heralding a new generation of political leaders." (14) Social order is turned on its head as strangers, united in their shared activism, become related as mothers and children. The space of the city helps to make this adoption-via-activism possible as new symbolic families are created through the handing down of an urban spectacle.

Significantly, this pattern of generational trauma transmission repeats itself in a number of ways via the Madres' practices. Like the many echoes of the initial suffering that define Freudian trauma, the Madres' work creates a ripple effect of observable repetitions. First, the Madres use repeated visual images to give onlookers a sense of the sheer number of lives that have been affected by the atrocities of Flan Condor. The enlarged photographs and identification cards of their children that the Madres carry on their marches, as well as the white head coverings that they wear, all have the visual effect of creating a kind of statistical magnitude. The violation of the very rights of citizenship becomes part of the spectacle as government-issued forms of identification are reproduced in larger-than-life formats and are used to visually mark the absence of the citizens they represent. After years of city protests the image of the white headscarf has come to be a recognized symbol of radical maternal citizenship in South America.


As a second form of repetition we can consider the way the Madres rewrite history by imprinting themselves again and again on the streets of Buenos Aires. Repetition of their Thursday marches allows them to become part of the regular landscape of the city, a weekly reminder of the temporal and spatial proximity of state violence. As Prakash and Kevin Kruse suggest, the Madres remind us to "consider the history of the city as a physical and social space--not as an inert container for social, political, and economic processes, but as a historically produced space that shapes, and is shaped by power, economy culture and society." (15) The Madres' work resists old constructions of the bustling modern city as a bounded space offering inhabitants not only physical proximity to centers of power but also a kind of psychic access to them. Rather, the Madres remind spectators of the inherent contradictions in such glorified views of urban life. Idealized notions of Habermasian civic engagement reflexively shaped and were shaped by this common twentieth-century view of the city.

In fact, a common critique of both the romanticized city and its real-world counterparts has been their exclusion of women's civic participation. As feminist theorist Jane Darke claims,
  Many of the problems of city life are not dissimilar to those
  experienced by people in rural communities but the surprise is that
  those who are closest to seats of power should have such little
  access to it. Women in cities often feel as distant from decision
  making as any country dweller." (16)

Recent scholarship has suggested that while cities are not the havens of democratic access and engagement they were once envisaged to be, they have recently become staging grounds for a variety of new participatory citizenships, like those enacted by the Madres, which have impacted women's and men's lives in today's transnational metropolises. (17)

The escrache is a unique urban-spatial protest form that comments on the ironies and contradictions of city life. As it announces the women's distance from power, it also claims its own authority by marking popular city locales as citizen-designated spaces for shared public remembering. The escrache has come to be associated with the Madres and their offshoot organizations, the Abuelas, or grandmothers, and the HIJOS, an acronym standing for Hijos porla Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio, or "Children for Identity and Justice, against Forgetting and Silence." As Diana Taylor notes, not only are escraches regularly scheduled and advertised, held in the same plazas on a weekly basis, but they are also open to public participation. Anyone can participate in the unobtrusive commotion and disorienting relajo of the Madres' Thursday marches. Just the paradoxical facts of their silent anger and their private mourning performed in public enact the "topsy-turvy spirit of relajo," which "magically cuts through or subverts the existing order ... and opens up new vistas of freedom." (18)

The Madres' temporal regularity and inclusive openness also stands in the public eye as a recurrent refusal to forget, functioning in the same repeated way that psychoanalytic trauma functions-as an initial loss, followed by a repeated reexperiencing. Despite the dangerous consequences of gathering in public during the military rule that was in place during the early years of their protests, the Madres have always intentionally made their events easy to find and easy to participate in. In this way the marches' openness represents for the Madres everything that city and state government is not.

Third, and finally, in the genealogical namings of the offshoot groups the Abuelas and the HIJOS, we can find evidence of generational repetition through Joseph Roach's concept of surrogation. For Roach repetition and doubleness are inevitable parts of the experience of performed civic remembering. Surrogates are always imperfect substitutes, performing roles that they've inherited from the cultural actors who came before them. Cities of the Dead, Roach's study of performing memory in New Orleans and London, examines the way civic tradition institutionalizes both memory and loss. In many ways the "permanent pregnancies" of the Madres and their "children"--supporters or HIJOS--function as surrogates as they enter into both a literal and a figurative genealogy of resistant urban citizenship.

Yet surrogation is not just a process of replacement. The surrogate performer remembers the individuals who preceded him or her, but the performer also builds on the memory, changing it, abstracting it, mythologizing it, and building on it: "The surrogate becomes familiar enough to stand in for his hosts but at the same time remains sufficiently strange to stand apart from them." (19) The surrogate is both a replacement for and a reminder of the impossibility of perfect replacement at the same time. Thus, not only does the next generation of protesters take up and extend the work of the Madres by establishing active, public grieving as a responsibility of all citizens who inherit this trauma, but they also stand in as constant reminders of their imperfect ability to replace the Madres' real disappeared children. As they repeat the stories of disappearances as told by the mothers, the next generation of protesters repeats for witnesses both the Madres' live performances of trauma and their live performances of engaged cultural resistance.


Like the Madres, Teatro Luna also deals in the urban staging of trauma, loss, and repetition. This all-woman, Chicago-based theater company was founded in 2000, made up of eight Latina actresses who work collaboratively to write and workshop personal, nonfiction vignettes based on their own life experiences. Their work aims to expose "the stories and experiences of Latina/Hispana women that have been undervalued and underrepresented on the Chicago stage and beyond." Staged in urban theaters and city streets, Teatro Luna's work is geared toward inciting audience involvement and engaging with community issues. Their touring performance of S-E-X-Oh! in 2005 explored the ways audiences become both "therapeutic listeners" and witnesses to trauma as they participated in active dialogues with the performers while those performers staged stories from their own lives. (20) The narratives ranged in topic, from bad dating experiences to infertility to sexual abuse. Working in community theaters, on college campuses, at city festivals, and on street corners, Teatro Luna uses humorous and disruptive modes of relajo, improvisation, open workshopping processes, and audience participation to narrate stories that come directly from the lives of the cast members.

Teatro Luna's work, like the protests of the Madres, examines the iconicity of the Latina body and its potentialities for visibility and invisibility in urban spaces. Performing in simple costumes of blue jeans and black shirts, the ensemble cast of S-E-X-Oh! uses physicality and posture to distinguish between characters, rather than relying on costumes or props. With the start of each new vignette the audience witnesses a physical transformation take place on the bodies of the starring actors, as the ensemble members not performing in the scene remain on stage, free to watch and comment on the scene's main action as it unfolds. This staging choice allows audiences to participate in a layered experience of spectatorship, witnessing both the events of each short scene and the scripted and spontaneous interjections of the ensemble members on stage. In this way audience participation is both welcomed and preemptively modeled by the cast.

Many versions of the show also incorporate various modes of spatial marking. Using chalkboards and life-size body silhouettes as their backdrops, the actors write on the walls and color in two-dimensional bodies as they perform. Sometimes this writing serves as an introductory device, noting the title of a new vignette or highlighting an image that will be central to the piece. But with each actor's repeated return to an increasingly scrawl-filled wall, the stage's backdrop takes on the appearance of urban graffiti. The walls become a crowded archive of labels and stereotypes hastily assigned to the show's characters. Bodily outlines reminiscent of both a crime scene and a kindergarten classroom become overwritten with tagged chalk commentary. Through this device Latina bodies are visually represented as contested sites, written and rewritten by society and Latina women themselves.

As a locus of the characters' consensus and disagreement, this process of spatial and corporeal marking turns the stage into a distinctively urban space of deliberation and debate. The innocence of children's sidewalk games drawn in chalk is visually and metaphorically imbricated alongside the violence of crime scene outlines and the resistant hubris of graffiti artists. This swirl of colorful and dangerous city life emerges as Teatro Luna's work unfolds. Critics often point to the group's rootedness in Chicago city life as one of the primary influences on their unique brand of urban, transnational activism:

  Teatro Luna's location is testament to the unique position Chicago
  holds as having both the second largest
  Mexican/Mexican-American/Chicano/a population in the country, as well
  as the second largest Puerto Rican/Boricua population in the country.
  Chicago has seen a literal explosion of people immigrating [sic] from
  Latin America, with the US Census reporting a 58 percent increase in
  population in the short time between 1990 and 2000. ... Teatro Luna
  serves as a witness to and a participant in this building and
  growth. (21)

Just as the Madres mark the space of a Buenos Aires city plaza with their presence, the Teatro Luna ensemble marks Chicago and each of its performance spaces as urban sites of activism and exchange.

Despite the fundamentally different performative modes of the Madres and Teatro Luna, the two groups are linked by their common political goals and their rootedness in Latin American performance traditions. For example, it is possible to note similarities between the ways the Madres and Teatro Luna performatively invert traditional Latina/o citizenships for new resistant purposes. The Madres developed the tradition of the escrache to interpolate citizens moving within a specific public space by refraining the Latin American tradition of the mater dolorosa, the public figure of the mourning mother. Likewise, Teatro Luna's interactive workshopping process, which relies on what the troop's members call a probadita format (a little taste, or sample), draws on a number of elements related to the Mexican carpa tradition in order to produce the same hailing and transmission effects. The probadita is Teatro Luna's method of public script development. It relies on the feedback of audience members, which can be given spontaneously throughout a scene, as well as after the show. Cofounders Paz and Saracho explain:
  We always show our work in progress to get that feedback because if
  we're creating work about Latina lives, we need to make sure that
  it's work that means something to Latina women. ... We're held
  accountable to our community. They say, "but you're not saying these
  things ... you forgot to mention this ... or ladies, your language,
  you're cussing too much, senioritas!" (22)

Like the traditional form of the carpa, probaditas start out as roughly scripted skits, but because they are regularly performed in new settings before new audiences, they are always subject to change.

Similarly, Yolanda Broylez-Gonzales describes the carpa as a kind of popular oral performance, rooted in "the blood, sweat, and tears of the disenfranchised masses," that uses parody and archetype as social commentary. (23) Conceived not just as a performance tradition, but as a tool of social organizing, the periodic revival of the two-hundred-year-old carpa tradition, according to Broylez-Gonzales, is a phenomenon that coincides with moments of Mexican or Chicano/a social upheaval. (24) Because of their inherent potential as organizing tools, carpas have been adopted throughout history at times when marginalized or disenfranchised populations needed to be mobilized. With a format that Anglo audiences might associate with the traveling vaudeville revue, Mexican carpas were grounded in counterhegemonic oral practices that made use of a loose system of scrappy, do-it-yourself, working-class production values, which have been dubbed the "rasquachi aesthetic." This "underdog" performance mode has been described as an itinerant proletarian theater of collapsible canvas tents set up in the middle of streets and on open plots of land. The carpa's informality allowed it to produce satirical commentary that was at once crass and silly, but also warmly inclusive of audience members' feedback and representative of their daily lives. In effect the carpa and the probadita (as well as the Madres' escrache) encourage the kind of participatory engagement that scholars of community-based organizing see as crucial to grassroots citizen-led efforts for social change: "Citizen activism has afforded relatively powerless communities, such as the poor, an opportunity to develop their political voices on issues of meaning in their communities." (25) As an informal forum for humorous expressions of community concerns, Teatro Luna's probadita format reimagincs the formal tradition of the traveling carpa to meet the needs of a modern urban audience.

The probadita's foundations in carpa-style liveness and audience participation came across in a curtain speech by Coya Paz, when she announced before the 2005 S-E-X-Oh! show started, "We want your feedback. So if you really like something we do or you really dislike something we do, talk back to us, shout, laugh, let us know. Get up on stage with us." (26) Moreover, many of the vignettes position the actors in a confessional/testimonial mode as they direct their monologues toward a listening audience of witnesses. Tanya Saracho's phone-sex-operator character addresses the audience directly throughout the show. As a college theater student who takes up this after-hours job to pay for her tuition, the character reveals secrets of her profession. She tells the audience that she has become a top earner in her company by taking on the role of "Carla," the textbook example of a sexy, generically exotic Latina. "Brown is hot right now," she confides to the audience. "It's in with perverts. ... We play out our colonized histories over and over again for $2.99 a minute." Despite the daily humiliation and sometimes brutally racist and misogynistic talk she endures at the hand of the popular character she has created, she defends her choice to stay at her job, noting not only the benefits of flexible hours and a reliable income, but also the performative nature of her work. In a smartly ironic metatheatrical moment, Saracho's character complains about the unconvincing performances of phone-sex colleagues with whom she has collaborated in party line three-ways. "They need to read An Actor Prepares" she admonishes, invoking the famous acting handbook by Stanislavski and reminding the audience of the layers of restored behavior that go into the performance of autobiographical narratives.

Another scene plays as a therapeutic game show in which cast members try to instruct women in the audience on how to deal with the urban psychic trauma of daily catcalling. The game show host, played by Coya Paz, repeatedly winks, points, and croons the ridiculously protracted catchphrase of the product she's pitching: "Just try 10 easy steps for warding off too-much-breast-milk-from-their-mothers-macho-hecklers if heckling is making you crazy." As one of the contestants Belinda Cervantes expresses frustration at the way heckling enacts a kind of erasure by denying difference and turning all women into "baby" and "mamacita": "It gets real old. Call out my real name, Belinda!" Cervantes shouts at her assailants. Here, as fellow contestants and game show viewers, the audience members are incorporated into the performance and assumed to understand and regularly experience the same painful events that the members of the cast want to share and make visible.

Of course, given the use of the semi-improvisational comic carpa form, there is an obvious link between Teatro Luna's brand of politicized Latina sketch theater and the groundbreaking work of El Teatro Campesino. Originally popularized in the United States by this famous theatrical branch of the United Farm Workers movement in the 1960s, the carpa tradition formally links Teatro Luna to El Campesino in the same way that the resistant use of Latina stereotypes links the group to the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. While Teatro Luna shares with Teatro Campesino the use of humor and comic stock characters, the two groups may be said to represent divergent narrative commitments. Whereas Teatro Campesino's most canonical performances of the late 1960s and early 1970s used fictional myth structures and physical clowning techniques to figuratively represent the struggles and demands of the United Farm Workers movement, Teatro Luna uses performances of autobiographical traumas, both serious and comic, to incite social change and "galvanize" audiences. (27) Moreover, critics of El Teatro Campesino's early work have argued that the group's roster rarely included more than one actress at any given time, and consequently, its members wrote actos that were mostly absent female characters and unrepresentative of women's struggles. (28) While the role of women in El Teatro Campesino's rich production history has been hotly debated in recent years, Teatro Luna's work clearly focuses on issues pertaining to women and gender. (29) This company's resistant feminist use of the carpa form to present women's autobiographical narratives places them in a complicated relationship of both lineage and rupture with El Teatro Campesino's performance practices. Like the Madres the investment of the members of Teatro Luna focuses primarily on adapting Latino/a performance forms for the purpose of telling women's stories.


Broadly speaking, Teatro Luna has a number of formal and thematic similarities with Las Madres. Despite the performative differences between the Madres' spectacularly mournful protest forms and Teatro Luna's bawdy autobiographical vignettes, the two groups have in common their public displays of culturally embedded gender stereotypes as embodied events that turn audiences into traumatized witnesses. They also share a discursive focus on participatory openness, making room in their processes for watchers to become collaborators. Teatro Luna is made up of Latina actresses struggling to change public and political constructions of the Latina citizen, and their efforts in many ways resemble those of the Madres, who aim to reshape South American conceptions of mothers as citizens. Through their shared interests in reshaping women's roles, transmitting trauma, and engaging spectators, these groups use different performative modes to embody related sociopolitical goals.

As a first point of connection the institutional discourses of the Madres and Teatro Luna both give voice to a desire for archetypal revisioning. Both groups express concern in their mission statements and organizational literature for staging autobiographical stories of grief and trauma as a mode of refusing political erasure and representational homogenization. Although Hispanics or Latino/as are currently the largest ethnic minority in the United States, Teatro Luna founders Coya Paz and Tanya Saracho cite the results of the 2000 Census as being at odds with a crisis of representation of Latina women in the American media. In their interview with the cofounders, Sobeira Latorre and Joanna L. Mitchell note how Teatro Luna's first production, Generic Latina, addressed this contradiction. The performance "moved beyond the two-dimensional characters [the women] were repeatedly asked to play for other shows by emphasizing differences among Latinas and complicating the notion of a homogenous Latina identity." (30) Similarly, Madres founders Hebe de Bonafini and Maria del Rosario de Cerruti often point to Latin America's rigid gender roles as products of a cultural system that institutionalizes the silencing of mothers. Cerruti explains the need to change popular ideas about acceptable forms of female self-expression in the public sphere:
  One of the things that I simply will not do now is shut up. The women
  of my generation in Latin America have been taught that the man is
  always in charge and the woman is silent even in the face of
  injustice. Outside of the house she couldn't speak of this. Now I
  know that we have to speak out about the injustices publicly. If not,
  we are accomplices. I am going to denounce them publicly without
  fear. This is what I learned. This is the form the struggle
  takes." (31)

Cerruti and the Madres share Teatro Luna's commitment to exploding silenced and stereotyped gender ideals of Latina behavior in the public sphere.

Moreover, both groups seem to place trauma and social change at the heart of their work. In the S-E-X-Oh! program Teatro Luna offers the audience "A Note from the Company":
  We're all women and "sex" (in some form or another) affects us every
  day of our lives. There are images of Sexy Latinas all over movies,
  advertisements, and MTV. ... Some of us have been sexually violated,
  all of us have felt the fear of being sexually violated. ... We're all
  Latina women who have to work out where we fit into a culture
  obsessed with sex, a culture that doesn't always love women,
  immigrant women, or women of color, unless of course we're wearing
  tight pants and being "spicy." (32)

For members of Teatro Luna physical trauma obviously exists in their experiences with sexual violation, and some degree of psychic trauma is also evident in their discussion of "fitting in." Both these messages are elaborated in the S-E-X-Oh! performance. While the Madres perform their trauma via the city spectacles of grief and mourning, and Teatro Luna performs its trauma in a variety of settings, including theaters and public spaces, both groups see issues of identity, public citizenship, and remembering trauma as central to their work.

Another point of connection between these two groups is the way they depend on formal performance traditions that demand not only spectator-ship but also the engaged, participatory witnessing of a live audience. In the Boalian terms mentioned above we might say that this audience engagement model rehearses the kind of active citizenship for which their work advocates. As Prakash suggests, this kind of citizen engagement is a feature of civic life that merges aesthetic imagining with social agency: "As urban residents confront the experiences of the everyday, especially through the construction and consumption of popular culture, such as cinema, media reports, and artistic expressions and popular music, they remake the city and their world in countless ways." (33) The Madres and Teatro Luna give audiences access to a shared process of civic and national "remaking" by asking them to participate in spectacles that resist prior acts of cultural erasure. Performance theorist Lynne Conner sees this kind of audience engagement as the very thing that citizen-audiences crave today: "They want the opportunity to participate--in an intelligent and responsible way--in telling the meaning of [a performance] event." (34) Watchers of the Madres participate in meaning-making either by gathering to watch the protest and helping to physically mark city spaces as places where grief and trauma will not be silenced or by actually joining a march. Likewise, watchers of Teatro Luna are asked to contribute to the action on stage by responding to actors' questions and calling out their own comments both during shows and at postshow "talk backs."

Through the act of witnessing, audience members are also hailed by these performances to acknowledge their own responsibility and perhaps inadvertent participation in reproducing the status quo. By becoming a "child" of the Madres in Buenos Aires or a participant in a Teatro Luna sketch in Chicago, audience members can also become newly engaged civic supporters of an activist cause. As trauma theorist Cathy Caruth explains, audience members who attend performances that transmit trauma are "in danger" of the trauma's "contagion. ... To listen to the crisis of a trauma, that is, is not only to listen for the event, but to hear in the testimony the survivor's departure from it; the challenge of the therapeutic listener, in other words, is how to listen to departure" (35) Hence, witnesses to Teatro Luna and the Madres witness not only grief and suffering but also the departure from victimhood that allowed the performers to turn their pain into activist participation. Shared remembering of a trauma thereby leads to shared ownership and shared survival. Without being exposed to traumatic events in such an engaging way, audiences may not experience the need for social change on a personal level. Yet by becoming traumatized through the viewing of performed traumas, audiences become part of the revised civic history that is being rewritten as the performers publicly relive their experiences.


By moving stereotypically passive and domestically bound Latina icons of citizenship into the urban public sphere, Teatro Luna and the Madres both demand that their audiences witness and imagine new ways for Latinas to engage in civic life. The result of these enactments is threefold. First, they show how formal performance traditions can be reimagined and instrumentalized for sociopolitical change. Second, they allow diverse metropolitan audiences to interrogate established notions of how Latina women have historically participated in the public sphere. Third, they suggest that as performances of loss and painful life events are staged and repeated, a cycle of traumatic witnessing emerges as a catalyst for new deliberation about how public Latina citizenships might be enacted.

It is this third point that I find most urgent and compelling, especially in the light of works by Elaine Scarry and Lauren Berlant that explore the relationship between personal loss and citizenship in the Americas. Berlant discusses two emergent icons of citizenship in Western politics today: the child citizen and the nostalgic victim. She borrows language from the world of advertising to describe the way the "right wing national culture industry" has advanced a notion of citizenship that holds at its core the popular sentiment of "feeling irrelevant to practices of hegemony." (36) For Berlant this sentimentalizing of the political arena renarrates citizenship as either an intimate experience of private loss and alienation or a naively nostalgic kind of patriotism grounded in "infantilized, passive, overdependent" fantasies of being protected by the parental state. (37) But the Madres and Teatro Luna productively defy these categories. Framing loss as neither private nor passive, their performances of resistance and relajo suggest new grassroots urban models for relating to hegemonic power systems.

Aligning themselves more closely with a kind of theory-based practice espoused by Elaine Scarry, these activist groups use performance to make both their personal pain and their mode of resistant citizenship visible to the structures of power that have refused to see them. As Scarry says, the ability to injure others comes from the inability to see them: "For if they stood visible to us, the infliction of that injury would be impossible." (38) These performance groups ground their activism in personal pain, and just like the stages of clinically diagnosable psychic trauma, they move through acts of public repetition and remembering in order to gain catharsis and also to create new witnesses to their pain. Within this approach making injury more visible leads to both personal and political healing.

In thinking about the kinds of victimhood and trauma deeply connected to grieving motherhood, sexual harassment, and abuse that the Madres and Teatro Luna address, we must consider how these groups both perpetuate and gain political purchase from the contradistinctive ways that they operate within existing discourses of women's victim-citizenship. Cynthia Bejarano, for example, has noted in her studies of the Madres that by taking up the archetypal ideal of Latina motherhood, the Madres have leveraged the power of a prominent gender role already circulating in the Western imaginary:
  Utilizing the roles of motherhood as forms of resistance was
  extremely important to [the Madres'] success. These images of
  motherhood questioned the place of mothers as gendered citizens.
  Traditionally good mothers were protectors of their children, but
  only so far as the parameters of playgrounds and the streets of their
  neighborhoods--never against the ubiquitous state and its
  assassins. (39)

The Madres successfully embody an interrogation of the concept of good motherhood. Their urban presence implicitly asks: if a fundamental role of the Latina woman is to protect her children, is she not required to be vigilant in the face of institutionalized state violence? Often welcomed as "silent citizens," Judith Stiehm explains, "women and the poor of every country are invited to participate in the role of ratifiers," but not to engage as full and active participants. (40) As activist mothers, however, the Madres act and engage their citizenship in the public sphere.

Political science professor David M. Ricci suggests that this innovative and highly visible use of traditional cultural roles and forms is one way of actively engaging in the maintenance and upkeep of a democratic society. He formulates a theory of citizenship that "obliges citizens to use their political resources and skills to participate well, that is, to maintain not just effective laws, but also a decent state." (41) For Ricci a good citizen is one who feels morally obligated to challenge the laws of the state if such an expression of dissent serves the public good. To enact this kind of citizenship is "to reflect on the public interest and to act on behalf of that end." (42) While Ricci's method of analysis is largely historiographic, other scholars develop comparable definitions of citizenship by way of ethnography and performance theory.

The Latino Cultural Studies Working Group of the Inter-University Program (IUP) for Latino Research, for example, takes a distinctly Turnerian approach to conceptualizing citizenship. In the course of this group's work with Renato Rosaldo's concept of cultural citizenship, its members conceptualized this form of civic participation as a "broad continuum of social practices ranging from everyday life activities to broad social drama." (43) By framing civic engagement in Victor Turner's language of aesthetic and ritual practice, Rosaldo and his IUP colleagues emphasize both the repetitive and the stylized nature of this new kind of practical participation. Citizenship becomes, like other modes of performance, a socially structured, historically rooted, embodied act that is repeated and changed by practitioners over time.

The Madres and Teatro Luna seem to integrate the approaches of Ricci and Rosaldo by performing a kind of relajo-infused resistance that uses available forms of historically structured Latina identity. As these embodied roles are instrumentalized, reenacted, ritualized, and changed, they also change the audiences that witness and react to them. Significantly, in this role as active public citizens, the Madres take up the place of the victim-citizen that Lauren Berlant sees as a popular tool of the Reaganite right, but they also explode their victim status by refusing its corollary passivity and infantile dependence on the state. Taylor writes that "the role of the mother was attractive, not because it was natural, but because it was viable and practical. ... It offered the women a certain legitimacy and authority in a society that values mothers almost to the exclusion of all other women." (44) Yet conversely, for Maria del Carmen Feijoo and other feminist critics, the mother as citizen is a fraught icon that "locks women into a traditional, marginalized and passive role. ... Analytically a defense of human rights based on women's reproductive roles reinforces the sexual division of labor." (45) Berlant similarly argues that the mother-activist "links women's private activity to national history and the future." While her potential as a "productive citizen" is valuable in terms of her procreation, "her capacity for other kinds of creative agency has become an obstacle to national reproduction." (46) I would suggest that it is precisely this other kind of creative agency that the reimagined mother-citizenship of the Madres seeks out by using the stereotypical icons of the victim-citizen and the mater dolorosa and then inverting those passive images via the public enactments of escraches.

Similarly, Tetra Luna's use of the carpal turned probated instrumentalizes a traditional Chicano performance form for the purpose of staging and rupturing homogenous media representations of Latinas as either exoticized hypersexual vixens or illegal immigrant maids, neither of whom have much agency in their own status as participatory citizens. One especially salient point of ideological disruption occurs in the production The Maria Chronicles, in which Teatro Luna stages a debate over the company's "official position on Jennifer Lopez." Amber Day writes that at the mention of the star's name
  the stage erupts in a rowdy debate, as some of the performers express
  pride over such a successful woman representing Latinas, others brand
  her a sellout, and one huffily scribbles "J-I Io" in chalk on the
  back wall--Coya Paz explains, "if our whole mission is to fracture
  this idea of the generic Latina, then ... we also have to do that
  ourselves--really actively embrace dissent. ... We are all aware that
  to speak as Latina women is political" (47)

This sentiment is echoed in Elaine Scarry's article "The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons." She offers support for Teatro Luna's insistence on disrupting the myth of generic Latina citizenship by drawing a connection between the individual act of causing another person bodily harm and the larger governmental practice of injuring whole groups of people through sanctioned physical torture or laws that deny access to safety and well-being. According to Scarry, our willingness to cause harm to other persons, whether on the individual or the national level, is predicated on our inability to perceive them as fully human. Therefore Scarry suggests that the first step toward eradicating injurious policy and practices is knowing the people in question as we know our family and friends. She writes, "Our injuring of others results from our failure to know them; and conversely, our injuring of persons, even persons within arm's reach, itself demonstrates their unknowability." (48) For Scarry hearing people's painful stories and imagining ourselves in their lives is the first step toward this kind of specific and intimate knowing. However, Berlant still reminds us that in American political life "there is no opposite to the generic" as a category of powerful ideological influence. (49) If iconic ethnic stereotypes and generic placeholders have been useful in promoting a kind of ahistoricity and a neutralized though "politically useful empathy," which has been integrated into our ideological constructions of homogenized American citizenhood, merely pointing them out and naming them does not undo these functions. "It does not follow that naming secures historicity and human justice" in equal measure to the ways that generalizing blots them out. Instead Berlant sees female citizenship as defined by
  a condition of pilgrimage--through public spheres where identity
  forms are undergoing rapid and uneven transformation of scale and
  value--that makes the woman, despite all appearances, both a citizen
  manque and "our" expert witness to the crisis in conceiving, not just
  of children but of democratic political agency in contemporary

It is this tension between the manque (the missing) and the witness (the refusal to miss) that is so crucially played out in the works of the Madres and Teatro Luna.

By staging absence, repeating the ephemeral, and marking the erased, these activist groups bring the contradictions of Latina citizenship into the city's public sphere, where audiences are forced to grapple with them. As Prakash and Kruse note, the space of the city functions as an ideal stage for all this critical exchange:
  Common to diverse experiences of urban modernity has been their
  functioning as spaces for generating new forms of society. ... The
  city [is] a space of urban encounters to produce new experiences, to
  establish complex and transparent relations with the world. (50)

The women of Teatro Luna and the Madres use urban performances of pain and relajo to make apparent the "uneven transformations" of identity and agency that have quietly taken place in metropolitan centers of power for decades. By staging voicelessness and instrumentalizing both traditional gender roles and performance forms, these groups turn trauma into a kind of open-access participatory civic engagement. As Taylor explains, "Bearing witness is a live process, a doing, an event that takes place in real time, in the presence of a listener who 'comes to be a participant and a co-owner of the traumatic event.'" (51) Thus, Teatro Luna and the Madres summon from their spectators a kind of participatory labor that results not only in the contagious ownership of reenacted traumas, but also in the ownership of spectacularly complicated and reimagined notions of contemporary Latina citizenship and urban democratic engagement.


(1.) Theories of embodied and participatory citizenships have been extensively discussed in the following works, among others: William V. Flores and Rina Benmayor, eds., Latino Cultural Citizenship: Claiming Identity, Space and Rights (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997); Craig A. Rimmerman, The New Citizenship: Unconventional Politics, Activism, and Service (Colorado: Westview Press, 1997); Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997); David M. Ricci, Good Citizenship in America (New York: Cambridge University Press,2004).

(2.) Gyan Prakash and Kevin M. Kruse, eds., The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics, and Everyday Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 1.

(3.) Yolanda Broyles-Gonzalez, El Teatro Campesino: Theatre in the Chicano Movement (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), 28.

(4.) Broyles-Gonzalez, Teatro Campesino, 28-29.

(5.) Peggy Phelan, Shoshana Felman, Diana Taylor, Tiffany Ana Lopez, and Stephanie Batiste are among the scholars making crucial contributions to the study of trauma in performance. Works of theirs that influenced this article include Phelan, Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories (New York: Routledge, 1997); Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Routledge, 1992); Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 2003); Lopez, "Violent Inscriptions: Writing the Body and Making Community in Four Plays by Migdalia Cruz," 'Theatre Journal 52, no. 1 (2000): 51-66; and Batiste, Stacks of Obits, a performance piece, Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 15, no. 29 (2005): 105-25.

(6.) Cathy Caruth, ed., 'Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 10.

(7.) I hope to suggest that in our age of hybrid, global citizenships, notions of traditional and resistant Latina identities must be studied not just within the imagined framework of national cultures, but also according to a hemispherically flexible definition of "the Americas" that includes both South and North America.

(8.) Flores and Benmayor, Latino Cultural Citizenship, 15.

(9.) Diana Taylor, "You Are Here," Drama Review 46, no. 1 (2002): 149-69.

(10.) See Cynthia L. Bejarano,"Las Super Madres de Latino America," Frontiers 23, no. 1 (2002): 126-50; Diana Taylor and Juan Villegas, eds., Negotiating Performance: Gender, Sexuality, and Theatricality in Latin/o America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994-)

(11.) See Bejarano, "Super Madres"; Taylor, "You Are Here."

(12.) Rita Arditti, Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 80.

(13.) Marcia Farr, "1994 Echando Relajo: Verbal Art and Gender among Mexicanas in Chicago" in Cultural Performances: Proceedings of the Third Berkeley Women and Language Conference, ed. Mary Bucholtz, A. C. Liang, Laurel A. Sulton, and Caitlin Hines (Berkeley: Berkeley Women and Language Conference, 1994): 168-88.

(14.) Marguerite Guzman Bouvard, Revolutionizing Motherhood: The. Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Wilmington: SR Books, 2002), 15.

(15.) Prakash and Kruse, Spaces of the Modern City, ix.

(16.) Jane Darke, et al., eds., Women and the City (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave, 2000), ix.

(17.) See Rimmerman, New Citizenship.

(18.) Broyles-Gonzalez, Teatro Campesino, 29.

(19.) Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 148.

(20.) Caruth, Trauma, 10.

(21.) Stephanie Gentry-Fernandez, "Teatro Luna: Exploring the Experiences and Cultures of Latina Women," Left Turn: Notes from the Global Intifada (Dec. 2008):

(22.) Teatro Luna, Promo DVD, Apr. 26, 2007,

(23.) Broyles-Gonzalez, Teatro Campesino, 247.

(24.) One of the key moments of carpa revival that Broylez-Gonzalez notes is that of El Teatro Campesino's famous activist performances in support of i96os-era California farm workers.

(25.) Rimmerman, New Citizenship, 79.

(26.) Teatro Luna, S-E-X-Oh!, performed at McConomy Auditorium, Carnegie Mellon University, Sept. 29, 2005.

(27.) Teatro Luna, Promo DVD, 2007.

(28.) See Broyles-Gonzalez, Teatro Campesino; Beth Bagby, "El Teatro Campesino: Interview with Luis Valde," Tulane Drama Review u, no. 4 (1967): 70-80.

(29.) This focus on issues pertaining to women and gender was exemplified by one of Teatro Luna's recent productions, Machos. The show took on the idea of gender as performance by researching and staging Latino men's concepts of masculinity. All the male characters in this production were played by female ensemble members in drag.

(30.) Sobeira Latorre and Joanna L. Mitchell, "Performing the 'Generic Latina': A Conversation with Teatro Luna," Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 7, no. 1 (2006): 20.

(31.) Bouvard, Revolutionizing Motherhood, 129.

(32.) Teatro Luna, S-E-X-Oh!, "A Note from the Company," performance program.

(33.) Prakash and Kruse, Spaces of the Modern City, 12.

(34.) Lynne Conner, "In and Out of the Dark: A Theory about Audience Behavior from Sophocles to Spoken Word," in Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America's Cultural Life, cd. Steven). Tepper and Bill lvey (New York: Routledge, 2008), 115.

(35.) Caruth, Trauma, 10,

(36.) Berlant, Queen of America, 11.

(37.) Berlant, Queen of America, 27.

(38.) Elaine Scarry, "The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons," in Human Rights in Political Transitions: Gettysburg to Bosnia, ed. Carla Hesse and Robert Post (New York: Zone Books, 1999), 282.

(39.) Bejarano, "Super Madres," 131.

(40.) Bejarano, "Super Madres," 131.

(41.) Ricci, Good Citizenship in America, 8.

(42.) Ricci, Good Citizenship in America, 12.

(43.) Flores and Benmayor, Latino Cultural Citizenship, 13.

(44.) Bejarano, "Super Madres," 131.

(45.) Bouvard, Revolutionizing Motherhood, 184.

(46.) Lauren Berlant, "America,'Fat,' the Fetus," boundary! 21, no. 3 (1994): 153.

(47.) Amber Day, "The Maria Chronicles" Theatre. Journal^, no. 3 (2005): 484.

(48.) Scarry, "Difficulty of Imagining," 282.

(49.) Berlant, "America,'Fat,' the Fetus," 194.

(50.) Prakash and Kruse, Spaces of the Modern City, 15.

(51.) Taylor, "You Are Here," 153.
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Author:Klein, Emily
Publication:Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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