Guided by voces

Mario Bósquez’s bio reads like a screenplay: The playwright of Los Duendes grew up Tejano in tiny Alice, Texas. He reported on-air for KSAT in San Antonio, and co-hosted our chapter of P.M. Magazine for seven-and-a-half years. Next, the smart, handsome joven headed for la Gran Manzana, where he worked as an on-camera reporter for Fox 5 News, and anchored both Fox’s Good Day New York and News This Morning for CBS, making him the first Mexican-American anchor on an English-speaking network in NYC history. Bósquez is also the author of autobiographical-satirical-folklorical guidebook The Chalupa Rules: A Latino Guide to Gringolandia, and is now installed in the mighty Martha Stewart pantheon as host of Living Today for Martha Stewart Living Radio. But 26 years after heading to the 212, Mario’s back in the 210, overseeing the TeatroFEST 2009 production of his original play, Los Duendes, about a Westside family who confront a ghostly visitor to their grandmother’s home, at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. That’s where I cornered him, and chatted him up about Nueva York, poltergeists, and the brain. 

I grew up watching you here in San Antonio, and it was awesome to move to New York and see you on TV there. What is it like to come back to San Antonio to do this production?

Well, it’s full circle, and an exciting full circle. I still consider San Antonio my home. I like to divide my time between the two, and did for many years. If you consider the banks of the San Antonio River a coast, then I’m bi-coastal (laughs).

You were `in New York` during 9/11, working on television. That must have been exhausting and difficult.

You know, as a reporter, and having been a reporter for 28 years, I’ve always thought that anyone’s tragedy was their personal 9/11. But this was so many tragedies all crunched together, so many tragedies compounded together in one stroke … so, yes, I covered it as a reporter, but as a human being, I thought, What is wrong with this picture, that I’m running toward falling buildings? And that’s when I started realizing that I needed to express myself through other fields that I enjoy, that are meaningful to me. Actually, 9/11 was a real watershed moment, because it marked my transition out of TV news.

I knew a lot of people in New York `for whom` 9/11 almost forced them to be more creative, me included, to perform or make films or paint or do comedy, to re-commit themselves, in a way. Especially comics, weirdly.

Oh, yeah. It was a serious reassessment. Did you do stand-up?


I do stand-up, too. At Stand Up New York, a lot of open mics, Don’t Tell Mama, Ron Poole’s “Pool Party” — I love doing that show — and I did a couple of shows in Chicago …

What was your material like?

Observational … the predicament of being a Chicano news anchor in New York City of all places, of growing up Chicano in Texas, and just general observations.

Isn’t it funny how New Yorkers are fascinated by Texas?

Well, there is a huge New York-Texas connection, a cross-pollination and a huge appreciation there of all things Mexican, all things Texan, and San Antonio in particular. Jennifer Ortega, who was the producer and director for the production `of Los Duendes` for the Downtown Urban Theater Festival in New York, she’s from San Antonio, so it was great for us to work together. She’s on the board of the New York Parks Division, and recently asked me to emcee an awards ceremony for which Bette Midler was the honoree. And one of the other honorees was from San Antonio. So, see, `San Antonians` are everywhere in New York; even at this one event, the San Antonio-New York connection is alive!

And in New York, too, there’s beginning to be more of a Mexicano community, often first generation. Mostly from Puebla, it seems.

True! A huge representation from Puebla.

`Gustavo Arrellano, of “Ask a Mexican” fame` calls it “Puebla York.”

Or “Manhatitlan.” I like “Puebla York,” too (laughs). I read an article, I think it was in the Village Voice, that there’s a pathway, so that Poblanos often emigrate to New York, while people from Guerrero tend to emigrate to Chicago. So it’s who `immigrants` know, who’s part of a seed population, and subsequent immigrants follow.

Right. Like any pattern of immigration, like the Irish settling in Boston because other Irish people were there.

Exactly. Which reminds me of an old joke regarding Canada and Mexicans. The reason that there aren’t many Mexicans there is because, you know, somebody got there and saw “Canada,” — acá, Nada! (“over there, there’s nothing”).

(laughs) So why bother?

Right! You know, I nearly fell to my knees and kissed the ground —nearly kissed the dirt — when the first Mexican food stand showed up at a food fair in New York. I thought, We have arrived (laughs)! And a Mexican street-food stand in Soho won New York’s annual street-food award, so, we’re there.

I remember a Norteño band got onto the L train once, and I burst into tears.

Oh, me too! I get so emotional. I’m their best tipper. But I think I make them uncomfortable. Because I’m sitting there making eye contact, like “Oh, I get it, I know you guys, I feel you.” And you don’t make eye contact on the subway. They sort of edge away from me. Like “Move away from the weirdo in the corner.” They move the accordion to the other side (laughs).

So let’s talk about Los Duendes. Duendes are kind of like these elfin, goblin, mischievous —

Noisy poltergeists. I grew up with the concept of los duendes, and the grownups would say, “Be careful!” They’re very mischievous, they like to cause trouble. They’ll burn tortillas on the stove, or they’ll poop on the stove, and break things, in the kitchen, mainly. And I found `it` terrifying that these imps, these beings, were out of my control. And in a way, this play is a way of taking control … of these feelings, family memories, traumas, experiences, of all the beings in our head that have their own energy source, we feel. Until you realize, “I have to face it. And it’s going to be really ugly. And I’ll come out on the other side OK but I have to face the burning tortillas, I have to face the noisiness, and get ahold of that before I get ahold of myself.”

How does that play reflect that, either in structure or in characterization? How did you attack it as a dramatist?

Initially I had the concept of what duendes were, and I researched the word, duendes. I found out that in Spain, when you dance flamenco, you dance with duende, meaning this inner fire, so I thought, OK, inner fire, passion. That goes into a range of human emotions. And I thought, what are los duendes to me? And I learned that as a writer, the more specific you are, the more universal is your story. So that the way `duendes` populate this play is in two ways: I take the folktale and turn it into the individual reality of each character; they each have these noisy beings in their consciousness that they want to silence, to lay to rest. The only way they can do it, physically, is to come to their grandmother’s house two weeks after she dies and face los duendes. `The characters` are misfits of the family, almost invisible, though living beings, and they don’t know that the others are going to be there. So that’s noisy. Second, we conjure los duendes with music, with dancing, with recollection, and then the collision of everybody’s intentions creates noise, so to speak, but it’s an internal sound.

It sounds very … Eliot/Modernist, the resurrection of the folkloric into the psychological —

Interesting you should mention that, because the set, the house, is a shotgun-style house, or a railroad house, as they call it in New York — three rooms on one side, three rooms on the other, and the side where the curandera lives, the grandmother, we never see it. And I envisioned it as the two hemispheres of the brain, right brain and left brain. Logic versus the abstract, and one side of the brain trying to communicate with the other. Parallel with `the living` trying to communicate with the Other Side.

In neurology, there’s the study of the corpus callosum, the anatomical structure in the brain between the two hemispheres, `which` helps them to communicate with each other. … It’s the area of the brain which mediates between these `two halves`.

That totally fills in a blank about my play, because it’s about the communication between the spiritual and the cerebral. `The play` is trying to negotiate the two sides.

Seems to me that `in your play` there’s also a nod to the sacred.

To what the sacred means to you, yes. What you interpret to be sacred. For example, I wear these `he shows me a necklace made with tiles based on Lotería cards`, which are based on Mexican bingo cards, the Lotería, and here when people see el Diablo they (gasps, draws back), and they make the Sign of the Cross, but I say thank God for the Devil, or else religion would not exist (laughs)! Who would we be fighting?

So you’ve got to acknowledge all of it.

You’ve got to know what the history is, and this image is part of the game, but it also asks you, what is sacred to you? What do you hold sacred? And that is then correct. As long as nobody gets hurt. And the being who appears `in the play`, Juan el Loco, being of the Mexican spirit world, is like a pachuco-slash-lowrider, sort of a Mexican Beetlejuice. And he’s a duende. And he’s sacred to people in that you ask him for something at midnight, and he’ll give it to you, but you have to thank him, somehow, or he’ll torment you for the rest of your life. In the play he says, “Any little thing will do. An enchilada, a piece of ass” (laughs). A little gesture … but you have to bow to his sacredness. Like my aunt says, he exists. It’s like Catholics have St. Anthony, and they ask him for things, but then you have to thank him. Juan el Loco is his analog. There’s a lot of that between folk belief and Catholicism.

`Juan el Loco` sounds like the devil character in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Well, it’s that the devil is part of what’s sacred, too. And any exorcism shouldn’t exorcize demons, it should exorcize fear.

That’s an interesting distinction.

And that I respect what I consider sacred, you hold sacred the things you do, and it’s about respecting each other’s sanctity. For example, the character in the play, Epifania `“epiphany”`, surrounds herself with a wall of `statues of` the Virgin Mary. And that’s not necessarily so much about sanctity as it is a wall she `erects` for protection between herself and the outside world. We may perceive it as sacred, untouchable, infallible, but to her, it’s a fence.

Which brings up the theme in the play of the body, the metaphor of the body, its vulnerability, house as body, walls.

And how you use your body, how you perceive your body. What is sacred, what is profane, how differently each of us interprets this. One of the first things Juan el Loco does, when he inhabits the body of `the character` Jesse Jr., who channels him, is to say, “God, I’ve got a big verga!” (laughs). And that’s OK! It’s part of the human body, and that’s how `Juan el Loco` gets in touch with the character’s physicality. Whereas `the character` Carlos is very reserved, you know, “Don’t touch me. My bubble is very big.” And Epifania is cloaked in these memories, and this thwarted future that was stunted by the family, so she has this stunted body. Also, the character of Jesse Jr., who channels the duende spirit, he’s a Grateful Dead wannabe — he’s not even good at being a wannabe, he’s a loser, a wanderer. He’s a frustrated shaman, a frustrated curandero, who through drugs is saying, “Make me heal!” And he’s epileptic. So he’s got issues expressed through the body, but he’s a brilliant man. He’s explored and experienced things in his body in all dimensions that makes it easier for Juan el Loco to enter him, physically, because he is a shaman.

He’s a conduit.

Yeah, he’s 60-percent body and 40-percent spirit or energy. He’s the bridge between the worlds. And I mean, Jesse Jr., “little Jesus.” How obvious can you get (laughs)?

How important is it to you that a production of Los Duendes will now be performed in San

Huge significance. It’s been performed in New York twice, at INTAR 2 and at the Downtown Urban Theater Festival. Houston’s Stages Repertory Theatre had a staged reading, it’s been a finalist in the Paul Green Playwrights Competition, and Stages Rep Latino Playwright’s Division finalist. But this is my Tony Award! This is how I feel, in that the play unfolds, takes place, begins and ends on the West Side of San Antonio. So you’ll hear references to Jalisco Mexican Bakery, or the Virgin appearing on a tortilla in Kingsville. It’s a woven tapestry of the West Side, of the folklore and belief. So the impact to me personally for it to be here is breathtaking. And I thank the Guadalupe for the great honor of bringing Los Duendes to TeatroFEST. •

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