Saturday, February 25, 2006

Rosita's Jalapeno Kitchen

I want to urge everyone I know to see a play here in Austin titled, Rosita's Jalapeno Kitchen, playing at the Doughterty Arts Theater on Barton Springs Road. This play, written by Rodrigo Duarte Clark and directed by Rupert Reyes, captures the life-altering ruptures in culture, identity, as well as kinship and friendship networks that accompany gentrification of old neighborhoods. Mirroring East Austin politics, here is what it is about:

Rosita is a restaurant owner who is experiencing the effects of gentrification as a small business owner in a barrio known as Sal si Puedes ('Get out if you can.')

It was very significant that this play was performed in Austin for the past three weeks because there is currently a deep and divisive battle over the much-coveted land that Mexican American east Austinites have possessed. This is land, incidentally, to which the Mexican community was relegated during the early 1900s as part of the city's strategy of containment, keeping the community away from the richer and whiter parts of the city. They did this through restrictive covenants, urban housing, and building Interstate-35 that serves as a border, separating the community of east Austin from the central areas of the city that includes downtown, the Texas state capitol and the University of Texas.

Developers are encroaching on Rosita's land and they are pressuring her to sell. They treat this as if it were a pure business arrangement yet because they are in cahoots with the city officials, they will rely on imminent domain if they have to in order to force her off of her land. Many feel that the fight is lost and they sell. This saddens and troubles Rosita deeply.

A lot of mythmaking unfolds in the community. She is told that she can sell at three times the value of her property and she can make good in a condo in the white suburbs. The lure of white, middle-class, suburban life tempts her just as it has so many other business owners who took the bait and left for a distant, culture-erasing dream.

Rosita is very intuitive though and she questions whether living with the gavachos (white people) is really all that it's cut out to be. She goes to bed very worried and she has a dream.

She dreams that she goes to heaven and everything's white. She's really concerned about what the kitchen looks like and so she enters the kitchen and finds out that the everything is white, including the stove which is also electric. On earth, she despised electric stoves because they turned tortillas into Frisbees.

Anyway, Rosita checks out the refrigerator and she sees infinite bottles of milk on one shelf. On another shelf is mayonnaise. On the third shelf is cauliflower. She has a panic attack because cannot find the chile jalapeño, mole or any ingredients to make her classic enchiladas. She's distressed and she shares her concerns with St. Peter who basically tells her that such things don't exist in Heaven and that she really shouldn’t mind because heaven's really nice anyway. Rosita wonders how she ever got into such a place. St. Peter tells her because of affirmative action and the admission of a few token Mexicans (in so many words).

This turns out to be a total nightmare because Rosita realizes that there are no jalapenos in heaven. How could this have been over-looked? In a similar way, she comes to the realization that the glimmering lights of the suburb and someone else's definition of what the good life means is not her view of heaven at all. To leave Sal Si Puedes would come at incredible psychic cost. She would lose her contact with her community; she would no longer have a community to cook for; and she would enter the alienating world of the Anglo that is devoid of jalapenos, mole, and menudo. She concludes that if this is heaven, she prefers to live in her Sal Si Puedes.

She ends up confronting the developer who comes a final time to her business with a magnificent deal-to buy her land at four times its cost. Rosita shreds his contract and gives it to him. Rosita decides to stay and fight for her land and for a way of life that can neither be purchased nor sold.

The power of this play is that it extends understanding and empathy to the notion of gentrification. Through narrative (theatre) it reveals that which cannot be commodified-one's soul and one's culture. It also provides an edifying view of poor communities that live lives filled with struggle and hope. I urge others in Austin to see this play. The acting was excellent and the narrative and humor were awesome.

They're performing through the weekend. Tickets are $15.00 and students get a discount at $12.00. Call 474-8497.


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