by SOPHIE KERMAN
For those of you with Mexican heritage – or for those of you who, like me, are ashamed of knowing so little about the Twin Cities’ sizable Mexican population – the Mixed Blood Theatre has brought an expanded production of Joe Minjares‘s Minnecanos to the Parkway Theater in South Minneapolis. Minnecanos has, in fact, existed as a touring play since 1994, and in its original 45-minute form, its aim was to educate students about the history of Chicanos in Minnesota (in case the title’s meaning wasn’t clear). Through the stories told by 103-year-old Diego (Pedro Bayón) to his great-grandson Jimmy (Ricardo Vázquez), audiences are given the outline of how many Mexicans arrived in the Upper Midwest (as beet farmers) and how their social and economic status has changed through the wars and social movements of the 20th century.
The new 70-minute bilingual version makes two additional important changes to the original: first, director, translator and actor Raúl Ramos has created Spanish and English supertitles so that characters can speak in whichever language would be most natural to them. This linguistic diversity serves as a great asset to a play which is such a strong advocate for remaining true to one’s cultural heritage. The play also spends some more time on contemporary issues faced by young Jimmy, who, as a non-Spanish-speaker with a Scandinavian father, is struggling to locate his own identity and heritage.
Although Minnecanos is not dramatically complicated, there are several factors which prevent it from being a dry history play. One is the cast’s clear enthusiasm for the material, even when it borders on the cheesy. (Some of the songs and choreography are just goofy, and the cast performs it all with the absolute commitment required by a school touring company.) The other is the playwright’s own deep connection to Diego’s stories and Jimmy’s identity crisis – as Minjares mentioned in a post-play talk-back, much of the play draws from Minjares’s own life and family history.
For those already familiar with Mexican-American history, Minnecanos might be a bit rudimentary. The story it tells is condensed and simplified, but for many of us – who knew nothing at all about it before walking into the theater – the play provides the basic background we need and whets our appetites to find more nuanced information after we leave the theater.
The same is true for the social issues raised in the characters of Jimmy and his mother, Linda (Anna DeLuna, who makes admirable use of a mask to quickly transition into the role of the ghostly great-grandmother Herlinda). While the play stages difficult questions about assimilation, invisibility (whether strategic or enforced), and the feeling of false equality between Chicanos and their white classmates, these questions are wrapped up neatly by Jimmy’s new-found sense of pride in his cultural heritage. Depending on your perspective, this simple conclusion could be unsatisfying, but it could also provide needed validation of the experiences of many Chicano audience members.
As a non-Mexican viewer, I learned a surprising amount of history from Minnecanos, and I became even more aware of just how much I have yet to learn. But I was also aware that the play was not really meant for me. Behind me in the audience was a family with a very young child. After the play was over, when her mother asked her if she liked the play, the little girl replied, “It’s about me.” Given the current lack of Mexican-Americans on the stage, that’s exactly the response Minnecanos was hoping for.
Minnecanos by Joe Minjares. Presented by the Mixed Blood Theatre. March 15-24, 2012, at the Parkway Theater, 4814 Chicago Ave., Minneapolis. First Come, First Served No-Cost Admission – $0. Guaranteed admission – $15: (612) 338-6131 or www.mixedblood.com.