May 2014

Smoke and Mirrors: Theater as Healing Art


Rosalía Triana


I have struggled all my life with the kinds of problems that are all too familiar here in El Norte. But I don’t want to talk about the problems; I want to discuss solutions, although I don’t know “the” solution. All I know is that I do one thing well, and it’s a useful thing. It has helped me heal and changed my life for the better. So I want to share it with my community. That’s why we have created Española’s MainStreet Theatre, as a tool for bringing community together, for sharing stories and developing skills, for finding ways to heal, and most of all, for having fun.

It’s opening night. The actors are backstage, Angélica is finishing her makeup, José Elías is pacing, the props are set, and Adam and Elizabeth are pushing sliders on the boards in the light booth, making sure the sound and lights are ready. The sets have been built with sweat and love, and the costumes gathered from everywhere and made to fit. The audience is restless, talking and laughing, visiting with each other. Then the house lights go down, the audience hushes, and the magic begins…

I have often said that theater saved my life. I first saw a play in a “real” theater with a group of other kids from the projects in Cleveland; we were being given a glimpse of “culture,” a chance to see how people who lived in real houses behaved. It didn’t matter; when that curtain opened, my life completely changed. Most of the kids I knew then did not live to be adults, but I had theater.


Tonight, the setting is a hootch in Vietnam. These young people are not college students in Española; they are young soldiers in another time, wet, hot, stifling. They are alternately macho and frightened, bragging or confessing. They take us with them to that other time and place.


The author of that play is a Native American playwright, a veteran of the Vietnam War. On opening night, after seeing young people who had not even been born during that war rehearse his story for months, sharing his experiences with them, creating that world, the writer/survivor finds his life has changed, too. After the show, the actors, visibly shaken and moved, hug each other and become family. They have experienced both war and healing.


My love of theater is intertwined with my belief that communication, the need to understand and to be understood, is the central element in human existence, the thing that makes us human. For many years, working in theater-arts programs in barrios, in inner-city areas and in small rural towns, I saw firsthand the power of theater in the lives of young people. The students were the disenfranchised, the left-out, often extremely bright and just as often perceived as illiterate, sometimes in two languages. They told me stories, which I typed and gave back to them. By seeing their words translated into writing, they learned to read. Then, when these stories became plays performed by the students who had written them, their sense of self-esteem blossomed; they experienced the accomplishment of seeing a project through and being recognized by an audience for that work. And I learned from them the power of storytelling as literacy.

Tonight, the setting is a magnificent Aztec temple, made out of cheesecloth and painted flats. In front of it stands Sonya, transformed into Malinche, offering incense, magically burning in her bare hands. Suddenly, the lights shift and Mikey becomes the mighty Moctezuma in all his glory, visible behind the scrim, a solid wall just a moment ago. He lifts his majestic feathered headdress and bestows his blessing upon her, La Madre de La Raza.

When I was living in New York City, I discovered that there was something called Latino Theater. Why didn’t I know that already? Smoke and mirrors. So I got a master’s degree in Teatro Chicana/o at the University of New Mexico. In the process of discovering my own culture and our history, while reading the great writers of Chicana/o literature, I wrote a play called Malcriada, the story of my own dark secret. Young women who saw it came to me and cried. And, within my heart, a wound I had carried for over 30 years opened and drained and healed. I was liberated. I could come home at last to El Norte, my ancestral home, ready to hear and learn and tell the stories of our amazing people, to share the strength that our abuelas/os carry within them, to uncover the true history of this magical place—and, perhaps, to find some healing within our community.

The lights go down again. We are on the stage again, this time as ourselves and our people, telling our stories. The audience is us, and we are the audience.


New Mexico-born Rosalía Triana co-directs (with Wendy Hassemer) Española’s MainStreet Theatre. She has a master’s degree in Teatro Chicana/o Studies and has worked extensively in both stage and film.


Española’s Mainstreet Theatre (500 Paseo de Onate) is offering a variety of classes this summer, including Creating Theater from the History of Española, Creative Drama (for children), Acting (for tweens and teens), Acting (for adults), Poetry Performance, Comic Book Production and more. 505.753.0877,




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