The Language of Theater: Speaking in Tongues in Chalchihuitán

by multilingualmania on January 17, 2011

in Indigenous Languages, Language Learning

On Mondays and Thursdays, I travel through the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico to the small mountain community of Chalchihuitán, where I lead a theater workshop for indigenous high school students. Las Jades (the Jades), as they call themselves, are a special troupe of the town’s best and the brightest girls, lucky enough to be the first batch of students in the town’s history to study at its newly-formed high school. We don’t have an auditorium or a rehearsal space. Instead, we often gather in the town square or the basement of a teacher’s house. The school itself consists of four bare classrooms and a greenhouse and is at least fifteen minutes away, hiding behind a series of steep mountain curves. But despite the trek, the girls never miss a rehearsal, rain or shine.

Working with las Jades has been full of firsts for all of us. For most of the girls, it is the first time they have participated in a theater program, the first time they have read from a script, and the first time they have performed in front of their peers. For me, it is not only the first time I have taught a high school theater program, but the first time I have facilitated theater entirely in another language, and definitely the first time I have worked so closely with indigenous jóvenes (youth). In this festival of firsts, las Jades and I are patient and forgiving with one another and our rehearsals are often full of red cheeks and bursts of laughter.

We rehearse in Spanish, which is our shared second language; las Jades’ native tongue is Tzotzil, an indigenous language, and many are just beginning to master Spanish for the first time. I am also newly bilingual and working hard to shed my Chicago accent. As a result, despite sharing Spanish, las Jades and I still experience a fair amount of communication challenges as we slowly adapt to each others’ accents, rhythms, tones of voice, and facial expressions. In this process, theater has become our third tongue, building a bridge between las Jades and I that makes communication possible when language doesn’t. I always begin each rehearsal with a series of games and exercises geared toward energizing, focusing, and unifying the group. The games are mostly non-verbal and I have found that parting ways with words minimizes distractions and allows us to interact with greater ease as we learn how to interpret each others’ body language in the process.

Furthermore, theater provides a forum for las Jades to discuss difficult social issues through scene work and text analysis instead of round table dialogue. Las Jades and I are currently rehearsing a play called El Padre (The Father) which depicts an indigenous family struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, and infidelity. Many of the girls are dealing with these same issues in their own families, though it would be culturally taboo to speak openly about it, even among friends. In this way, theater does what language alone cannot: it provides a safe space for las Jades to explore and discuss important issues with their peers without having to reveal intimate details about their private lives.

Finally, theater is my way of communicating to las Jades their value as young women as well as the real opportunities that exist for them to make positive changes in their families and communities: a difficult message to convey in a Spanish or Tzotzil. So I say it with theater. By giving them a script, I am telling these girls they are capable of doing something they have never done before. By spending hours with them in rehearsals each week, I am telling them that they are worth people’s time and attention. By putting them in front of an audience, I am telling las Jades that they have something important to offer the public.

Augusto Boal, the Brazilian theater artist behind the Theatre of the Oppressed, believed that, “Todos somos actores (we are all actors)” and he spent a lifetime proving it. Boal toured the world with his famous methodology, discovering that people all over the globe respond similarly when spoken to in the language of theater. In this way, las Jades are cunning linguists and beautiful illustrations of Boal’s theories, having blossomed into smart, engaging actresses in only a few weeks’ time. My time in Chalchihuitán has taught me that, when it comes to cross-cultural communication, bilingualism is only the beginning. Sometimes, if you truly want to want to connect with someone, you have to be willing to go beyond traditional language, even if it means speaking in tongues.

About the Author: Rachael Kay Albers is a freelance writer, English teacher, and theater facilitator working to educate and empower indigenous women in Central America. In her spare time, she loves to maintain and improve her bilingualism by reading novels and watching movies in Spanish.

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