El Paso Blue

Next Theatre Company/Teatro Vista

at the Next Theatre Company

By Jack Helbig

As Octavio Paz notes at the beginning of his 1961 meditation on Mexican culture and identity, The Labyrinth of Solitude, there comes a time in the lives of individuals and nations when they ask themselves, “What are we, and how can we fulfill our obligations to ourselves as we are?” Paz associates these questions with adolescence and with Mexico’s state of development–that awkward period between childhood and responsible adulthood when we first have “a vision of our existence as something unique, untransferable, and very precious” and then, in the next instant, realize that “we are alone.”

At this point, having seen their reflection in “the river of consciousness,” some fall in love with their own images–and cease growing. Others pause before the “infinite richness of the world” and are paralyzed by its possibilities, unable to decide what, if anything, to do. Still others begin a search that takes a lifetime, posing variations on the question quoted above again and again: “Who am I? What do I do now? How do I live in the world yet remain true to myself?” These questions first began to bedevil Paz when he moved to the United States from Mexico for a two-year stay. “It was enough…simply to cross the border,” he observes, for his identity crisis to begin.

Crises of identity and the concomitant search for meaning are also central to the work of Octavio Solis, the California-based Latino playwright whose work has been championed by Teatro Vista in general and actor-director Henry Godinez in particular. And like Paz before him, Solis finds many of his answers in the fun-house mirror of American culture–by which I mean the WASP-dominated culture of the United States. But unlike Paz, Solis explores the interaction of Mexican and U.S. cultures; coming up with no easy answers, he gives us a world in complete flux.

In Solis’s plays, characters make a conscious (or forced) break with their past–in Santos & Santos a family has moved from Mexico to Texas, and in El Paso Blue a son has stopped speaking to his father after the death of his mother–and then they suffer for it. Almost immediately after these “border crossings” they find themselves swirling helplessly in contemporary life, tugged in several directions at once. In Santos & Santos the Santos brothers create a law firm with a reputation for defending poor, deserving Latinos, but it turns out the firm is also a front for a drug-dealing operation that victimizes the same Latinos they serve. And in El Paso Blue the play’s hero, Al, is a confused Chicano with a taste for blond, blue-eyed Anglos who finds he no longer fits in with the Latino culture of his youth or the more mainstream culture signified by his gringo wife.

In both plays, Solis focuses on protagonists torn apart by their contradictions and a heroic but perhaps doomed need to take a stand and decide who they are, what they believe in, and what they’re going to do. In Santos & Santos he gives us the tragedy of the good son who agonizes and then does the right thing–turns in his drug-dealing brothers to the authorities–and suffers for it. In El Paso Blue the protagonist, like Hamlet, agonizes even more, and ends up taking a morally ambiguous action. On the trail of his beautiful wife–who’s run off with his father–Al doesn’t know what he’s going to do, or even who he’s going to punish, his adulterous wife or the father who betrayed him.

But what makes Solis such a wise and interesting playwright is that even as he explores issues of identity, he never falls prey to the two traps of identity politics, narcissism and nostalgia. He may create characters who’ve fallen for the narcissistic, dangerous lies of ethnic purity, but he takes joy in showing how such simpleminded categories just don’t work. Solis creates a bigoted, white conservative Texan in Santos & Santos, then shows over the course of the play how in some ways he’s more pro-Chicano than the politically active but corrupt Santos brothers.

In El Paso Blue he gives us a radically ethnocentric Latina to follow Al around and argue that his problem is that he’s turned his back on his Mexican roots. But Solis seems to see this as a form of self-destructive ethnic narcissism: a few scenes later, he makes a strong argument for interethnic romance, hinting that the lovesick ideologue Latina has turned down her chance for real love–with an admittedly somewhat dysfunctional gringo–in pursuit of her idealized love for Al, who never gives her the time of day.

As for nostalgia, Solis never falls for the line about how great the old country was. If it was so great, the playwright implies, his characters wouldn’t be Mexican-Americans, they’d be Mexicans. For Solis, the golden past is like heaven–a wonderful place that may not actually exist. This skepticism about the past is especially strong in El Paso Blue, which makes it clear just how untrustworthy old men are, especially when they talk about how wonderful things used to be. Al’s father falls in love with Al’s wife because she reminds him of the wife who passed away, and his misty-eyed recollections of her are contrasted with Al’s memories of how difficult his parents’ marriage was.

Instead of leaning on ethnic pride and sentimentalized memories, Solis provides us with a clear-eyed portrait–especially in Godinez’s clean, intelligent, fast-paced production–of both poor white and poor Mexican-American culture in El Paso circa 1996. The several interlocking lives he creates within that world, like Paz’s discussion of Mexican culture in The Labyrinth of Solitude, tell us more about America, or at least Texas, than they do about Mexico.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): El Paso Blue theater still/ uncredited photo.