Jane Fonda workout tapes, Madonna and fish nets were all the rage in 1980s Hollywood, but the scene was very different in the predominantly Latino East Los Angeles. Migrant workers were barely scraping by and President Reagan had just signed the Simpson Mazzoli Act, which granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants willing to come out and start the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.
But, government distrust among undocumented immigrants had many people afraid to come out. This L.A. is the setting of Chicana playwright Josefina Lopez’s Real Women Have Curves.
The play is a multigenerational ensemble comedy about five Mexican women working in a sweatshop in East Los Angeles. The play is set in 1986 in the intense heat of the L.A. summer. The women try to churn out a huge dress order for their gringa boss Ms. Glitz, who is paying them less than minimum wage. Tensions build among the women as they face personal troubles with domestic violence, eating disorders and poverty, all while trying to hide from La Migra, or Immigration Police.
Aurora Theatre’s Teatro del Sol presents Real Women Have Curves, April 10-26. On Thursday, April 9, Aurora will host a community conversation from 6:30 – 7:15 p.m. with a panel of experts discussing the “Economic Impact of Immigration: Do Facts Matter?” Admission to the event is free.
The production’s director Luis Hernandez has been involved with Teatro del Sol as an actor since the series began in 2000. This is his directorial debut.
“The play is about the relationships between the women, but there’s also this overwhelming political situation,” Hernandez said. “In the eighties, the Simpson Mazzoli Act granted amnesty to some immigrants but for a lot of immigrants, there was confusion about whether you should come out and admit to being an illegal alien, or whether you should stay hidden.”
He says the Dream Act has created the same kind of confusion. “Should we come out and say that we’re illegal and that we’ve done something wrong?” Hernandez said. “We’ve talked about this a lot in rehearsal — the language around being undocumented verses illegal.”
Aurora’s Teatro del Sol initiative presents one play performed in Spanish with English supertitles each year. Last year’s production, Mariela in the Desert by Karen Zacarias, went on to El Encuentro in Los Angeles — the country’s first Latino theatre convening at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
It was at that production that Aurora’s artistic director Anthony Rodriguez met Lopez and talked about doing a full Spanish production of Real Women Have Curves. The play, which was adapted into a film starring America Ferrera in 2002, is typically performed in English or Spanglish. Teatro del Sol’s production will be the first full Spanish professional production.
Blanca Aguero, who is playing the hard-working character Estela, has acted in Teatro del Sol productions for the past three years. Estela is caught in the crossfire between her younger sister Ana, who has just been accepted to Columbia University, and her mother Carmen, who is afraid of her daughters assimilating into a culture she does not understand. Tensions build between the women as the temperature rises outside and old and new beliefs about femininity and feminism collide.
“Even though I’m Latina, playing Estela has made me more empathetic to people who are from Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela — places in South and Central America — who have to suffer through being undocumented,” Aguero said. “I’m Puerto Rican. I was never used to being around people who are in constant fear of going to the corner store.”
Aguero, whose day job is working as a technical curator for CNN Espanol, said that “for people like my character Estela, who came here as a young teenager, in Mexico she would be a complete stranger. It’s terrifying.”
Garcia, who plays the character Rosali, knows exactly what it is like to come to America to escape political upheaval. Garcia was born in Atlanta, but raised in her father’s native Caracas, Venezuela, until she was 15 years old. The family moved back to Atlanta because of political challenges in Venezuela, and she graduated from Meadow Creek High School.
Working on Real Women Have Curves aligns with Garcia’s work as an activist and teaching artist. When she was in grad school at the University of Kentucky, she started a theatre company called Teatro Nuestro, where she interviewed migrant workers in Lexington and derived scripts from their stories.
Garcia is also a teaching artist at the Alliance Theatre, and works with students who speak English as a second language and she trains teachers in Atlanta Public Schools on how to integrate the arts into academics.
“To be working on a play that is in Spanish is revolutionary,” Garcia said. “It’s by a Latina playwright with Latina actresses. It is so rare. The Latin community is so isolated here, and I see this as a movement to connect more minority groups together.”
In addition to fear of deportation, Garcia’s character Rosali struggles with an eating disorder. Garcia believes that the pressure to be thin in the United States is very aggressive, and hopes that this play will help women become advocates in uplifting each other around body image issues.
“The weight division makes women turn against each other,” Garcia said. “Women are still afraid to stand up for each other, and women need to support each other more.”
Hernandez echoes this sentiment, and believes that mainstream American culture in the 1980s amplified this conflict.
“In the eighties, the standard of beauty was to be rail thin. You had the Jane Fonda workout videos. But, it has always been more accepted [in Latin America] for Latinas to be curvier.”
Hernandez said this production is meant to be empowering. “We want to show Latinas that they have power within them,” Hernandez said. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re young or old. They can come together and find the power within themselves.”