During afternoons working in the fields with his family, young Jose Cruz González would sometimes wander off. "I would ... go sit under a tree and create a little city out of sticks and stones and just get lost in that world," the Cerritos playwright recalled, floating in a fantasy of his own fertile imagination. "I'm still a little daydreamer."
These days, however, González daydreams of a far grander scale. His latest play, "The San Patricios," tells the astounding yet little known story of the St. Patrick's Battalion -- several hundred immigrants, expatriates and escaped slaves from the United States who fought on the side of Mexico during the Mexican-American War in the 1840s.
The historical drama, which features music by "Zoot Suit" composer and actor Daniel Valdez, will make its world premiere July 31 at PCPA Theaterfest in northern Santa Barbara County.
"Here in the United States, the San Patricios are viewed as deserters. In Mexico, they're seen as heroes because they defended Mexico" and their fellow Catholics, said González, a professor of theater arts at California State University, Los Angeles. "It's just a fascinating part of our history."
Born near the American border with Mexico and raised in the tiny Santa Cruz County town of Freedom, González inherited his knack for storytelling from his maternal grandparents, both farmworkers with a flair for performance. He spent much of his childhood laboring alongside them, his widowed mother, and his three brothers.
"Those were long days, so my grandfather might bust out a song with whistling, and my grandmother would tell some sort of story or joke," González recalled. "Those things really helped pass the time, and they were really wonderful in terms of painting this other picture of the world."
Years later, while majoring in U.S. history and Chicano studies at UC San Diego, he took a performance course. "That really changed my career path, because it tapped into the whole creative energy I had as a child," said González, who credits professor Jorge Huerta with introducing him to the world of Latino theater.
"I had never really seen that before -- my community being represented on stage," the playwright said. He hoped to one day work with Valdez and his brother, "La Bamba" director Luis Valdez, in El Teatro Campesino, the San Juan Baptista theater company founded in 1965 during the United Farmworkers Union's Delano grape strike, but decided to get more schooling first.
After earning a master's degree in theater at Arizona State University, González returned to California to pursue a master of fine arts degree in directing at UC Irvine. While there, he connected with South Coast Repertory, an innovative Costa Mesa theater company that introduced him to "a whole new realm of plays" -- and the opportunity to expand the repertoire even further.
His chance came when he received a National Endowment of the Arts directing fellowship. "I pitched to (South Coast Repertory) the idea of a new play festival for Latino writers from across the United States ... and they said, 'Well, are there Latino writers?' At the time, I could only guess, but I said, 'Yes,'" González recalled with a laugh.
The Hispanic Playwrights Project quickly expanded into a full-fledged theatrical development program -- receiving manuscripts from more than a thousand playwrights, including Luis Alfaro and Octavio Solis, between 1986 and 2004. "It basically got my career started there," said González, who stayed with the company for about 11 seasons.
His tenure coincided with his first foray into playwriting. "I just wasn't hearing the stories that I grew up with and knew, and I wanted to tell those stories," he said, so he penned his first full-length play, the semi-autobiographical "Harvest Moon," about a boy who's able to reconnect with his deceased artist mom via a magical mural.
González said he was inspired by a similar mural, this one painted on the side of a restaurant in Watsonville, that he watched fade into disrepair over years of trips to his hometown. "I started thinking about that mural and thinking, 'What is the responsibility of the present to the past? And the past to the present?'" he said.
The same themes -- memory, family and history -- surface in much of González's work, including his collaborations with PCPA Theaterfest.
He first worked with the company, headquartered on the campus of Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, on a 2008 production of his play "The Heart's Desire." Commissioned by another company, but never produced, "The Heart's Desire" follows a Mexican-American veteran who returns home to California after World War II to start his future -- only to encounter the prejudices of the past.
Next, PCPA Theaterfest commissioned González to write "Invierno," a story of love, obsession and redemption set on the Central Coast during the Mexican Rancho era and inspired by William Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale." The play made its world premiere in 2010.
In February 2012, González, PCPA Theaterfest Artistic Director Mark Booher, and the late Patricia M. Troxel, company director and literary manager, began brainstorming about their next collaboration. They settled on the heroic yet heartbreaking story of the so-called "Batallón de San Patricio," comprised primarily of Catholic Irish and German immigrants who fled famine, poverty and persecution in their native lands to encounter more hardship in the United States.
Recruited to fight in the U.S. Army, the soldiers found they had more in common with their foes than their supposed comrades-in-arms, González said, leading to mass desertion and defection. Irish immigrant and artilleryman John Riley commanded them as a Mexican military battalion.
According to González, the San Patricios -- also known as "Los Colorados" for their ruddy complexions and red hair -- would become one of the fiercest fighting forces in the Mexican-American War, which lasted less than two years and resulted in more than 29,000 casualties. Later captured by the U.S. Army and convicted of desertion in military court, about 30 battalion members were executed in a mass hanging that Booher called "a piece of very cruel street theater."
"To me, it's a story of losers, and stories of losers don't often get told because history is written by the winners," Booher said of "The San Patricios," which touches on themes of manifest destiny, personal conviction and political greed.
U.S. President James Polk (Erik Stein) and Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Leo Cortez), re-envisioned as circus ringmasters, narrate the play. The story centers on two women who eventually take up arms for Mexico: Irish immigrant Mary Casey (Megan C.C. Walker), whose husband Matthew (Paul Henry) joins the American army, and Ofelia (Anna Lamadrid), whose brother Juan (Kevin Rico Angulo) becomes a cadet in the Mexican ranks.
"The San Patricios" also emphasizes the surprising cultural bonds between Mexico and Ireland.
"Music, affinity for story and family and the Catholic faith were four of the big things that bound these Irish immigrants and these Mexican people together," Booher said. "We've really thought about music as being both a conveyor and a reflector of the spirit of the people...It just bypasses the brain and goes right into the heart."
As composer, Daniel Valdez sought out similarities between Mexican and Irish music -- forging connections between 19th-century Mexican composer Manuel Maria Ponce and his European counterparts, for instance, or establishing links between the Irish jig and the son jarocho folk tradition of Veracruz. He also discovered the folk song "Green Grow the Rushes," from which the word "gringo" is thought to be derived.
"One of the tasks I had was to find the musical bridge between the two," explained Valdez, who's worked with González on previous productions including "The Sun Serpent" and "September Shoes." The composer sees other parallels between 19th-century Irish immigrants and modern Mexican migrant workers as well.
"You'll find that all cultures -- especially immigrant cultures -- have tremendous amounts of music that expresses their pains and their loves and their hopes and their dreams," Valdez said. "(Music) really helps in telling the story of who these guys were."
Although González's byline graces "The San Patricios," he, Booher and Valdez agreed that the production has been a collaborative one. They held a total of five workshops with cast and crew members and went through 11 drafts of the script.
"One of Jose's unique characteristics as a playwright is he has this unique ability to listen," Booher said, even when surrounded by 18 artists all expressing differing points of view. "He has this amazing ability to listen to all of that and pull out salient things that respond to his artistic vision and make (them) his own."
These days, González said, he's constantly reminded that "everybody's got a story to tell." In addition to "The San Patricios," he's spent nearly two years working with South Coast Repertory on "Dialogue/Diálogos," a bilingual, community-based theater project to gather and share the stories of Latino residents in the Orange County city of Santa Ana.
After hearing hundreds of oral histories at workshops and story circles, González and his team singled out the most compelling storytellers for in-depth interviews. Those formed the basis of his play "The Long Road Today/El Largo Camino de Hoy," in which the tragic death of a child inspires two families and their community to take action; it premieres in September at the Santa Ana Civic Center.
Both "The Long Road Today" and "The San Patricios" seek to put a human face on a politically charged subject, González said, by celebrating the immigrant experience in all its forms.
As population patterns shift, "'the other' is constantly transforming," said the playwright, an advisory board member with Native Voices at the Autry, a Native American theater company based in Los Angeles. "We have to constantly tell the story of these newcomers and how they add to this mix called America."
Further Reading on El Teatro Campesino and Native Voices at the Autry:
El Teatro Campesino, Collective Creativity, and the Cinco de Mayo Run
A look at the evolution of the Teatro Campesino (Farmworker's Theater) from Chicano guerilla theater to a formal theatrical experience.
About Natives, By Natives: Indian Country Playwrights
Native Voices at the Autry puts the spotlight on American Indian playwrights, helping them transition their culturally-inspired works into full-scale productions.
Top Image: Leo Cortez plays Santa Anna and Erik Stein plays Ringmaster Polk in PCPA Theaterfest's production of "The San Patricios."| Luis Escobar Reflections
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