The United States has always been seen as a pillar of hope and a better life for immigrants from countries all over the world. For Latino families emigrating from Mexico, this experience comes with political and economic struggles, but it also brings forth issues of cultural identity for future generations. Being Mexican-American raises many questions about who we are and what it means to be Mexican-American. For some, the search for cultural discovery and identity becomes a life-long pursuit.
Critically acclaimed play, “The King of the Desert,” recently debuted at Casa0101 Theatre, tells of the Mexican American experience through one man’s quest to discover exactly what that means and who he is. Based on actor Rene Rivera’s life growing up in a barrio of San Antonio, Texas in the 1970’s, the story takes us on a journey of self-exploration as Rivera follows his dreams of acting and comes to experience meaning in marriage and fatherhood. Written by his spouse, Stacey Martino under the direction of Sal Romeo, the play focuses on how our views of our own cultural identity affect our children.
The audience at Casa0101 was immediately drawn to the play when Rivera’s outburst is heard offstage: “ I know exactly who I am!” With hushed whispers and audience leaning in their seats to put a face to the powerful voice, a patron rises from his seat and sneaks a peek through the door. Rivera storms in; repeatedly shouting he knows exactly who he is.
Rivera goes on to beautifully portray his first generation Mexican-American parents, who have reached exhaustion after raising six children. Once a respectful and lively musician, Rivera’s father falls into alcoholism, while his humble mother tries to find strength to raise another child in a problematic world.
Life in 1970’s Texas was alienating for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans alike. With the Chicano Movement escalating across the country, Rivera was aware of a rising discrimination against Mexican-Americans, an outlook he says still sticks to this cultural group.
“Back then it was unknown territory and a lot of Mexican-Americans were segregated, whereas now we’re more integrated,” said Rivera.
Following an occurrence of police harassment in his own home, and a delinquent older brother to look up to, Rivera’s childhood was no stranger to stereotyping and racism, and his escape was his father’s stories of their ancestry and kings of old. In Rivera’s opinion, Mexican-Americans and their cultural identity have undergone several transitions since then.
“Back in the 1970’s it was more political, the Chicanos were about Chicano pride, and now there’s more of us and I think some people, unfortunately, are intimidated by that and they feel the face of America should be a certain kind of face. That’s why I think there’s racism, before it was hatred, but now it’s fear,” Rivera said.
Like any young adult’s taste of the real world, Rivera’s transition to drama school in New York was a difficult and lonely one, spent yearning to hear his mother’s voice and the innocent mischief of his boyhood pal. After going full circle, Rivera rhythmically glides through each character with charm and playfulness. Accompanied by a captivating and culturally rich set design, the audience is mesmerized by a series of video projections encompassing Aztec, Mexican, and American motifs.
Rivera’s growth into marriage and fatherhood led him to ultimately characterize his identity, not by cultural standards, but by those exact terms. Not only is he a Mexican-American, but also a son, a brother, a father, a husband.
“It’s a feeling that a person hopefully gets when they’re able to step away from themselves and be able to take care of another person and love them unconditionally, and it doesn’t matter what culture you’re from,” said Rivera. “It’s about really giving to the people you love, your family with all their faults and people in general. It’s more about being human.”
“King of the Desert” at Casa 0101, 2102 1st Street, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Jan. 27 through February 12, 2012. Tickets $20- $15. Call (323) 263-7684 for reservations or visit www.CASA0101.org