IN SEARCH OF TOSTONES: Finding my authentic, Dominican voice in a Latino market that promotes anything but!

by Marco Antonio Rodriguez

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive| Thrive} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

My talent agents can’t be bothered: “It’s Spanish! It all sounds the same!” My family cares even less: “Ya cállate con todo ese thee-ate-her artist crap and pass the adobo for the pernil!” Rejection is routine in this crazy business we call show but as a Dominican-American actor and writer, finding the formula to break through a current market that primarily caters only to a specific Hispanic demographic extends the limits of my patience.

For every Latino actor or writer on television shows like The Bridge, Modern Family or the always reliable, Law & Order: SVU, there are dozens of productions without. Up and coming Latino networks such as El Rey and NUVOtv show promise in regards to showcasing a diversity of Latino programming but struggle in viewership.  In the now rapidly growing U.S. Hispanic market, bi-lingual talent depends on Spanish speaking television and radio commercial production almost as much as English.  And yet…  tune into any of the highly-rated Spanish speaking national networks, and you’ll come across programming that is geared mainly towards the Mexican community.  The majority of recent immigrants are primarily Mexican, and as such, they have become the primary consumer.  Networks and mass media bombard us with what they feel is “familiar,” but Mexico is not the only country that represents or defines our Latino heritage in the United States.

I spent over fifteen years in Texas and many a time found myself praying to find a Caribbean restaurant that made tostones or a good mofongo! As much as I love Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine, I would have given my kingdom for a nice, flat toston fried to perfection and ready to dip in a side of garlic sauce.  Sure, I could have bought the platanos, cut and fried them myself…  but I also wanted to live another day.  No Dominicans in Texas, you say?  Not the case. It was definitely finding a needle in a haystack, but with tenacity and persistence, I discovered a small community of Dominicans who mostly remained to themselves. Perhaps this is the challenge.  If we isolate and insulate our communities, how are we to be heard?  Supply and demand does affect what is being given, but supply can also be influenced by our unified and persistent demand for diverse programming.

Once I broke into the business of television and radio commercials in Texas, I was repeatedly asked to tweak my Caribbean sounding Spanish in order to sound more “neutral.”  I quickly discovered that “neutral” really meant Mexican.  The way advertising companies look at it, markets like Texas and California are primarily Mexican or Mexican-American; therefore the person representing the product being sold should sound like it.  Tune into primetime and it’s either a Mexican Telenovela and/or show.  If it’s not Mexican it’s certainly made to sound as such.  Where do I, as a Dominican-American, fit in? Must I stray from my authentic, Dominican voice in order to book more work in Spanish?

Growing up in the New York City of the 80’s, my mother and I were exposed to programs from all over Latin America: Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico… Through the years we got less diverse programming and more of a homogenized vision. The current, number one primetime program on Spanish television is a Mexican Telenovela. It even beats out English speaking programs. Keep watching those telenovelas and you will even notice actors from all over the world speaking in the same, Mexican dialect.

Because I lived in Texas for so many years, I geared my early work as a Latino actor and writer towards the Mexican. This was the primary audience therefore the primary consumer.  However, it got to a point where it just didn’t feel authentic.  I was able to make a living and explored and learned about a culture full of vast history and gorgeous folklore, but my true voice was dormant. Regardless of what market studies showed and what was being presented as mainstream, I decided to go against the norm and write a contemporary, Dominican-American story.  Thus the play, La Luz De Un Cigarrillo (Ashes Of Light) was born.

Dominican is the world familiar to me: a life filled with bistec and tostones.  Characters such as my mother who hoards a collection of Dominican candy in the freezer, carefully wrapped in aluminum foil; the downstairs Dominican neighbor who swears she’s being haunted by the ghost of her “degraciao y aqueroso” dead husband.  The Dominican super who gifts everyone a can of Spam for Christmas… The Dominicans in my world don’t speak polished Spanish. Not all the “S’s” and “R’s” are pronounced correctly.  Fast and furious rhythms in its musicality; poetic and colorful in its Caribbean influences… La Luz De Un Cigarrillo is about a Dominican-American family dealing with issues rarely touched upon in Latino culture: sexuality and the unbreakable, yet often challenged bond between mother and child.  Once the play is written and ready to be sent out, I submit it everywhere I feel appropriate. Not many places in the U.S. to submit plays in Spanish; certainly not Dominican stories.

The Dominican market has rarely been tested in the United States.  When was the last time you saw a Transformer morph into a platano? Yet the rarity and uniqueness of the material is the very thing that attracts me to it.  Perhaps it’s the goat choosing the mountain, as they say.  Meanwhile… bills must be paid.  The market calls for “neutral” Spanish and I shall give it.  As an actor, if you are unable to pull this off you are less likely to book Spanish speaking jobs.  I continue to submit my Dominican play while booking work sounding like a Mexican. A platano and taco rolled into one!

Two years later persistence pays off.  La Luz De Un Cigarrillo (Ashes Of Light) lands a production at a theater in my hometown of New York… a city with a large amount of Dominican and Dominican-Americans.  The play has an extended run, critical raves and a long list of awards. Dominican or not, this is a rare feat in the New York Latino theatre scene. Inspired by its success, I translate the script to English in hopes that regional theaters known for producing Latino works may possibly set me on the path of attracting a broader and more mainstream audience.  Interesting responses follow: “Are you willing to make the family Mexican-American? This would widen your audience!” And my personal favorite: “We LOVE In The Heights and did a production of it last year! Thank you!”

Although the play is well received in New York, some theaters outside of the city hesitate to showcase a Dominican-American family in communities where there may not be many Dominicans to target.  I persist in my submissions thinking both in and outside the box (Dominicans in Kansas, anyone?).  I start to receive calls and emails from folks who take an interest. Universities and theater companies in Chicago, Buffalo, Arizona, Atlanta… To my surprise, most of the places showing interest are linked to bi-lingual communities and/or students that are actually not predominantly Dominican.  Holy Elote man!  When I enquire why this has not been done in the past the answer is unanimous:  “Nobody’s written it. And if so, they’ve certainly never persisted enough.”  They are elated to have a contemporary, Latino product that goes beyond the familiar.  To many who reside in places outside of New York or Boston, the Dominican Republic is only synonymous with all inclusive resort vacations and bachata music.  Once the play receives productions outside of New York, the audiences that flock to it are not just Dominican or even Latino. I receive emails from Mexicans, Argentines… Canadians… Even French and Moroccan!   Yes, the dialect is different (thank you, subtitles!) but the themes and topics within the play are universal and cross all boundaries making it accessible to most if not all that experience it.

Inspired by the success of La Luz, I write yet another Dominican play: Barceló Con Hielo (Barceló On The Rocks): A story of a man coming to terms with the inner demons slowly destroying his body and the relationship with his children.  I submit the play to the MetLife Nuestras Voces national Latino playwright competition.  It wins first place and is currently enjoying an extended run at Off-Broadway’s internationally recognized Repertorio Español. It has even received raves from English-speaking critics!  Interestingly enough, Repertorio Español is a theater company that showcases a diversity of Latino material: Everything from the Mexican play Vagón to the Cuban Aire Frío and over to the Chilean La Casa De Los Espiritus. All of these plays carry their individual cultural token but at the same time universal themes and topics that any Latino, or human being can identify with.  It would be ideal for our mainstream media to head in this direction.

With persistence and push, my plays seem to be finding their own niche; creating a mainstream of their own by reaching to the masses not just with the familiarity of a specific dialect but with stories that open the door to conversations in our communities as a whole.  When I first decided to write La Luz De Un Cigarrillo (Ashes Of Light) I had no idea it would get produced.  I wrote it on faith and need. The need I personally had to hear my dialect and rhythms on stage.  As a bi-lingual artist, I needed to go with what I felt closest to.  Create my own material and break in via a slower but perhaps truer path.  At the same time, it was clear this needed to be a story that everyone could access.

Recently I caught a national laundry detergent commercial airing on a Spanish network. There was a Latino family being showcased. The husband spoke in an Argentine accent and the wife spoke in a Puerto Rican one. Although the accents were different the words were clear and information clearly delivered.  A ray of hope in this melting pot called the United States.

For the most part, the English speaking market continues to view Latinos as just one culture. I’ve gone to many an audition where the casting director automatically assumed I was Mexican. When they are told I’m Dominican they have asked: “What part of Mexico is that?” We must remind the world that we are a diverse culture by providing and supporting work that showcases this very thing.  I’m hungry now. Time for some tripa tacos! Or perhaps a mangú with huevo frito and some migas on the side…  I hear there’s a Cuban-Mexican fusion restaurant opening up on the lower east side of Manhattan… Tostones and chilaquiles under the same roof…  ¡ÓRALE¡ and ¡WEPA!

Born and raised in New York City, with roots from the Dominican Republic, Marco is a graduate of La Guardia High School For the Performing Arts in NYC and holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Southern Methodist University. He has acted, written, produced and/or directed hits such as Pico de Gallo, Heaven Forbid(s)! (named Outstanding New Play by The Dallas/Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum) and the Southwest Premiere of Rick Najera’s Latinologues, which later moved on to Broadway. His short screenplays, SilenceMariscal and Covenant all placed 1st at the NYC Midnight international screenwriting competitions. His play, La Luz De Un Cigarrillo (Ashes Of Light), received an extended by popular demand run at New York’s Off-Broadway LATEA theater, Lehman Stages and Dominican Republic’s Teatro Las Máscaras. It is the recipient of 5 HOLA, 4 ACE and 3 prestigious Soberano awards, including Outstanding Achievement In Playwriting and directing. La Luz De Un Cigarrillo(Ashes Of Light) has been published in both Spanish and English editions by NoPassport Press and has been added for study to the 2013-2014 University Of Puerto Rico Spanish department curriculum as well as the 2013-2014 Spanish and Caribbean Studies Department Curriculum at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Marco Antonio is the recipient of the distinguished Cultural Arts & Entertainment Award given by The New York State Hispanic Court Officer’s Society. His most recent play, Barceló Con Hielo (Barceló On The Rocks), won the MetLife Nuestras Voces Playwriting competition at Repertorio Español in New York City and is the recipient of the 2014 HOLA award for Outsanding Achievement In playwriting. Barceló Con Hielo is currently enjoying an extended run at Repertorio Espanõl.