Originally published on PXP
There was a swirl of conversation all around me as I entered the tiny theater. I let the familiar words hit me, taking in a language that I don’t usually hear while I’m waiting for a show to start. I looked around me – mi gente! Everywhere I could see, there were Latinos mingling in Spanish in all of their varied accents. Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, a Cuban couple, a few others I couldn’t place – all of us every color you could imagine, even some that I wouldn’t even pen as Latino at first. But the accents and Spanglish and Spanish mixed together in an undeniable proof of Latinidad. It was incredible. I cozied up in my seat, feeling the most comfortable I’ve ever felt in an audience.
Admittedly, I always carry a bit of imposter syndrome at every performance I go to, especially those at well-established venues. I often have to remind myself that while not every audience looks like me, theater is still meant for me too. But here, I lost every ounce of self-consciousness. I was overcome by the uninhibited laughter of my people, by the occasional dramatic gasps (the kind I only ever hear from my mami while she’s watching a novela), and by that palpable pride in the air – we were all here to witness a play that represented us.
Growing Up Gonzales celebrated my culture in a way that made me fall in love with being Puerto Rican for probably the umpteenth time (we are a very proud people). In this one-man-show, we relive the memories of Johnny Gonzales and his younger brother, Cisco, as the actor switches in and out of both characters. The pair grew up as Nuyoricans in the Bronx during the 1970s, very similar to the way my own parents grew up. So throughout the play, their stories felt incredibly personal. Growing up (as is probably the case with many 2nd or 3rd generation kids), I’ve developed a certain level of cultural identity through memories that aren’t even mine. They’re a sort of inherited memory, claimed through those stories passed down from my parents. So listening to Johnny and Cisco was not only familiar for me; it felt like home.
I can imagine that for many of the audience members there that night, these were their stories too. The play was chock-full of experiences that probably every Latino could relate to. So much so that it made me wonder – is it really possible that Latinos, regardless of where we’re from, do everything the same way?! (I’m only half-joking.) For example, there was the story about being sent to Puerto Rico as a child and witnessing a pig being slaughtered (!!) in your honor. It’s a rite of passage that seemingly every Latino goes through when they’re forced to visit the motherland for the first time – and it always makes for a hilarious story.
Most of these stories told throughout the play were exactly that, causing me to laugh to the point of tears. Though, beyond the hilarious storytelling and relatable (damn near meme-like) Latino experiences, there was a dark reality in this play. We’re hearing all these memories and stories because Cisco, Johnny’s little brother, has died. It’s something we learn at the start of the play, just as Johnny is sent to clean out his brother’s apartment. He finds Cisco’s journal and begins to read. With this, Cisco’s stories are told, and Johnny discovers who his brother really was.
So while this play is filled with laughter and playfulness, there is a bittersweet feeling that lingers in the air throughout. Whenever the storytelling subsides we’re simply left to face Johnny, sitting alone in a dimly lit apartment where his brother once was. It soon became clear to me that we were witnessing the very first steps of a man accepting his brother’s death. As much as this play made me cry of laughter, it also eventually brought me to tears in witnessing Johnny’s grief.
I stayed in my seat a little longer than usual when the play finally ended. I really wished there was more of Johnny and Cisco. I felt like I knew them and it felt unfair to say goodbye so soon.