They Call Me a Hero

by Guillermo Reyes

in National Conference

Post image for They Call Me a Hero

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

“How did you come up with this story?” has become a common question in the audience talk backs that some theaters subject us playwrights to as if to further scrutinize our process.  With this new play, “They Call Me a Hero,” the audience member would most likely know the answer already:  the story made headlines on January 8, 2011.  CNN text-messaged its subscribers like me announcing at first that Congresswoman Gabrielle (Gabby) Giffords had been shot.  A few minutes later, CNN texted again that she was, in fact, dead, killed, assassinated.  A few minutes later, CNN retracted its own statement.  Giffords was alive, but in surgery.  The headline that didn’t get text-messaged by CNN but disseminated internationally by the rest of the media was the one about the Mexican-American young man who helped save her life.  Daniel Hernandez, Jr. turned out to be a twenty-year old University of Arizona student who had recently been asked to become an official intern after volunteering for Giffords’ congressional campaign.  Daniel had dodged bullets to come to Giffords’ rescue, helped stench the flow of her bleeding from a head wound, and then rushed emergency personnel to evacuate her from the parking lot of the Safeway in Tucson where another young man, suspicious of government conspiracies, had opened fire.  Later in the day, a gay publication in Texas also spread the news ….Daniel was a gay hero in addition to his identity as a Mexican-American.  Gays, the immigrants, the brown people of the Southwest aren’t usually the subject of stories with the obligatory mainstream appeal, which our entertainment industry deems so crucial for box office.  One of my actors in Tucson would eventually ask me why I hadn’t written Gabby’s story.  After all, she’s the heroine of the story.  But the narrative constructed in the memoir which Daniel eventually published with Simon & Schuster features Daniel’s actions that day as the central events that needed to be dramatized and scrutinized and examined.  The book describes the unsettling, tragic events that transform him into a “hero,” the media choosing to sing his praises at first, then out his sexuality, then write articles about his alleged “alienation” from his friends and family, and bloggers denouncing him for looking “too fat” or “too brown” or blaming him for mentioning the fact he was gay.  A blogger questions whether his sexuality was at all important in his acts of heroism?  Another tells him he may have been brave that day in helping save Giffords but he was going to hell anyway.

I admit I’m a bit of a scavenger of stories that allow for an intersection of the various personal and political angles that attract me as an immigrant myself, a gay Latino male, and a readily nervous person (that is, nervous about the state of the world, and constantly seeking to make sense of it.)   The story harbors all those intersections of politics, race, sexual identity and the gun control debate which create more conflict than a playwright knows what to do with in one play.  In fact, it was a story that I decided I couldn’t, at first, write without getting lost in the cacophony of competing voices and agendas.

But alas, Daniel Hernandez Jr. published his memoir in 2013, narrating the growing up period in Tucson when his English and Spanish-speaking family had brought him up bilingually, and then the voters of the state of Arizona chose instead to cancel bilingual education programs altogether.  The fear that kids like Hernandez would grow up without an American identity was part of the many fears of some white voters (and a few Latino voters who sought to educate their kids in an English only environment.)  The rich aggravating world of Arizona politics with its unique blend of nativism, ethnic disparities, English only dictates, and, in this case, a young man’s quest to make a difference seemed like the right, richer focus.  The book consolidated the interest I had initially felt, and I was determined to adapt the book instead of creating a broader play about the multiple personalities surrounding the shooting.

This is where knowing the right person helped me in getting in touch with Mr. Hernandez himself.  One of our graduate acting students at Arizona State University, Marcelino Quiñonez, was elected to the school board in the Roosevelt District in Phoenix.  Quinonez had starred in a Spanish-language Romeo and Juliet (translated by Pablo Neruda) which I directed for Teatro Bravo in 2004, and since then I’ve known him as an actor, aspiring writer himself (a one-man show about Che Guevara) and politician. Among his acquaintances was another young man who’d been recently elected to a Tucson school District, Daniel Hernandez, Jr. himself.  Marcelino picked up his cell phone and called up Daniel.  “Do you want Guillermo to adapt your book into a play?”  He asked.  Fortunately, Daniel didn’t say no.  A few weeks later, our would-be state legislator got me together with Mr. Hernandez, and I’ve been working on the play ever since.  Borderlands Theater in Tucson expressed an interest.  The initial version of the play was included in the series of readings Borderlands presented in the spring 2014, and the production of the play will open the season in September 2014 in Tucson itself.

I’ll have more to say when the play is mounted, performed, and evaluated. But for now, I’m at work creating the highly personal tale that dramatizes a story about a young man growing up in Arizona, becoming involved in local politics only to find himself in the whirlwind of political events that lift him to public scrutiny.  Anybody who survives that process and thrives under the pressure is a hero as far as I’m concerned.  But for me, it’s also an opportunity to capture the national trauma of the times in regards to gun violence and, along with it, to put a brown, gay man in the center of the narrative as well.

Guillermo Reyes has produced and published a variety of plays including the comedies, Men on the Verge of a His-Panic Breakdown and Mother Lolita as off-Broadway productions with Urban Stages, Chilean Holiday and Saints at the Rave at the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville, the historical drama, Madison, at Premiere Stages, winner of the New Play Award 2008, among other plays. In 2010, he published a memoir with the University of Wisconsin Press, entitled Madre and I: A Memoir of our Immigrant Lives, chronicling his immigration from Chile and growing up in the D.C. area and in Hollywood, CA. He’s a professor at Arizona State University in the School of Film, Dance and Theater. Recently, in 2013, his play, Deporting the Divas was published in a new Cambria Series anthology, Gay Drama Now edited by John Clum, and another play, We Lost it at the Movies, was published by the Bilingual Review Press in the anthology, Vaqueeros, Calacas and Hollywood.