Miguel Lopez-Lemus says that Mexican culture deals with death as an everyday part of life. “It’s like eating hotdogs. It’s a part of the culture.”

Working with video artist Kapra Fleming, he’s translated pre-Columbian and modern Mexican poetry on death to create Mexico se escribe con “m” de muerto (Mexico is written with the “M” of death), a new performance work combining poetry and video, for the Latino Experimental Theatre Company.

Images of Mexican archaeological sites and traditional Day of the Dead celebrations, during which people sing and dance in cemeteries, are projected onto a large screen while actors read poems by Octavio Paz, Alfonso Reyes, Carlos Pellicer, and Aztec king Nezahualcoyotl, among others. Whether obscure or straightforward, all the poems reckon with death’s melancholy beauty.

Xavier Villaurrutia’s Tenth Death does this by pairing love with death: “What proof of existence / Can there be stronger than that / Of living without seeing you / And dying

Lopez-Lemus, 39, an actor, sculptor, and poet, has written and performed poetry since he was a child in Mexico. “I always had the strong voice, so I was the one chosen to read poems in school,” he says. He then advanced to writing love poems for his friends’ girlfriends, charging one or two pesos. By the time he was 12 he was performing choral poetry, which he says was very popular in Mexico in the 60s.

In 1974, when Lopez-Lemus was 17, he came to Chicago for what he thought would be a temporary stay. He ended up getting married and enrolling at Elgin Community College, where he started the Latino Experimental Theatre Company in 1984, because, he complains, “there weren’t enough opportunities for Latino cultural and artistic expression.”

In 1987 he moved the company to Chicago, where it would perform everything from A Doll’s House to pieces combining Mexican classical music with dance and poetry. Lopez-Lemus hopes his group will continue expanding the boundaries of Latino theater. “What we’re creating is art, and art should have no boundaries,” he says. “We’re always interested in locating Latino actors. We’re still developing.”

Mexico se escribe con “m” de muerto is offered as part of the Guild Complex’s fourth annual Musicality of Poetry festival this Wednesday at 7:30 PM at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. Admission is $7, $5 for students, $3 for open-mike participants. Call 278-2210 for more info.

–Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ J.B. Spector.