Interview: James Garcia of THE TWO SOULS OF CESAR CHAVEZ at New Carpa Theater Company

Written and Performed by James Garcia

By: Mar. 27, 2023
Enter Your Email to Unlock This Article

Plus, get the best of BroadwayWorld delivered to your inbox, and unlimited access to our editorial content across the globe.

Existing user? Just click login.

Interview: James Garcia of THE TWO SOULS OF CESAR CHAVEZ at New Carpa Theater Company
photo by: Roslynn Amparano

The Two Souls of Cesar Chavez, written and performed by James E. Garcia, is showing at the Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center this weekend. Garcia has written, directed, and produced over 30 plays and founded the New Carpa Theater Company in Phoenix, dedicated to staging Latiné and multicultural works. In this one-man show, he explores the thoughts of the iconic labor leader after a long day of testifying in a weeks-long civil trial about the worker abuses of a large regional agribusiness. In anticipation of the show, he answered questions about New Carpa Theater Co., shifting cultural landscapes and perspectives, and becoming the man known as a symbol of hope and empowerment for the Latiné community and beyond.

How did you approach researching and creating your show about Cesar Chavez?

First, thank you for your interest in this project. It's been a script that's been floating around in my head for several years, ever since I was fortunate enough to visit the property that used to be Chavez's family's homestead near Yuma. Sadly, the adobe house he lived in is crumbling now, but visiting the property, I'm convinced, helped me tap into his story by allowing me to peer into a literal fragment of his past. My research has consisted of reading everything I could get my hands on about his life and ideas, (about a half dozen books and counting) and supplementing that with several recorded speeches that I found on YouTube. The books were about understanding his ideas. Since I only met him once for a very brief news interview, the video and audio recordings were about studying his delivery, tone, and personality.

How do you navigate the complexities of representing a well-known historical figure like Chavez on stage?

My first goal was not to imitate or impersonate him. First, I don't really resemble him so trying to go that route probably would have failed miserably. But from the outset, I've been more interested in using this piece to explore his ideas and philosophies. There's been a few biographies written about him, and there was the film that came out a few years ago, but biographies tend to be more about the events of a person's life than what that person believed. We do get to hear about some of the key turning points in his life, but I was mainly interested in exploring what made him the person he became. He wasn't born Cesar Chavez the iconic civil rights leader. In the same way that we all did throughout our lives, Chavez taught himself to be the man he became through trial and error, and by studying and refining his life's work. We teach ourselves far more than we're taught. He did that his whole life. From an acting standpoint, I've always been the most impressed by actors who in many ways are always themselves, even as they manage to convince you to believe they are the character they're creating.

Can you share any insights or revelations you gained while working on this project?

As a journalist, I've always been fascinated by people who become unlikely heroes. I'm talking about people who make history, and not necessarily on a global level, even if no one else thought they could. Today, the president of Ukraine is one of those people. He's a modern-day Churchill, but five years ago he was an actor and comedian. Now, freedom around the world may depend on his ability to achieve greatness. Chavez was one of those people too. He came from the fields. Dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Served in the Navy but then went right back to the fields. Yet, at some point, his innate intelligence, idealism, and spiritualism are ignited; he proceeds to form the first-ever union for farmworkers, which doesn't just ride the wave of 1960s activism but in many ways drives it, especially among Mexican-Americans and other U.S. progressives. I've crossed paths with people like Chavez before, but none as successful as he was in galvanizing a mass movement. People like Chavez are rare human beings. They're just as human as we are, and yet they seem to possess an almost superhuman quality that drives them sometimes to the brink of death. As an actor, my job isn't to replicate his life but to imagine it, own it, and mirror it as best I can. Achieving that, I suppose, is the closest an actor will ever be to greatness unless you happen to become one of our truly great actors.

How do you think Chavez's legacy and message resonate with contemporary social justice movements?

Your question is one of the questions of our times. Chavez was a product of an era and a system that he concluded was unjust. His goal wasn't just to reverse the injustices faced by farmworkers but to show the world how the movement he was leading was an extension of the wider struggle in American history that insists this country live up to its unrealized promises, namely the idea that we all deserve an equal shot at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those promises have still not been fully realized, of course, and I agree with people who say many of the gains made since the passage of the Civil Rights Act are threatened today by a rise in American-style fascism. If Chavez were alive now, he would be speaking out against President Trump's attempt to overthrow the government and those who claim they're fighting for freedom but supporting wholly anti-democratic actions like the assault on the U.S. Capitol, or voter suppression efforts, or the censorship of multiculturalism, which by definition is an expression of our core democratic principles. There's a point in the play when Chavez describes the assassinations of MLK, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, and then the murder on the picket line of a union member named Juan de la Cruz. At his funeral, he asked, "What is it about the life of Juan, a simple man, that produces such hatred?" The same question could be applied to MLK and Kennedy, the same way that it can be applied to the death of George Floyd (or other recent killings by police of black and brown people), or the mass murder by white supremacists of nearly two dozen Latinos in El Paso, or Jewish parishioners in Pittsburgh, or even the Jews exterminated in the Holocaust. Ultimately, none of these murders make sense, except in the minds of the perpetrators, but they all have one thing in common: to the killers, the oppressors, each of their victims was less than human.

What do you think are the most important lessons we can learn from Chavez's activism?

The lesson I take away is that Chavez's fight, the struggle for equity and justice, is perennial because the forces he was fighting are always present as well. Some might say, "Then what's the point? If you can't quash evil forever then why keep fighting it?" That's a cynic's perspective. Those of us who live in the real world and don't expect to find heaven on earth understand that "the struggle continues" because without the struggle, evil wins without a fight. Hitler and the Japanese Empire were vanquished but now we have Vladimir Putin, who's leading a de facto state-sanctioned terrorist operation. I'm talking about his government, not the Russian people since many, if not most of them, are simply trying to survive his dictatorship as well. So do we let Putin do as he pleases, or should the democratic world do all it can to vanquish him too? I vote for the latter. Likewise, the forces Chavez battled have ebbed and waned ever since. But I agree with Chavez when he says in the play, "Even at this late stage in my life, I believe we're winning because ours is a fight for the hearts and minds and not just for material gain." Said another way, we're living in extremely dark and dangerous times, but we'll win this round as well for the same reasons Chavez cited in his own struggle, but only if enough of us stick together.

What do you hope audiences will take away from this play?

Chavez was human and yet achieved greatness. The goal of this play is to show audiences that greatness and humanity always coexist. Chavez, for instance, recounts having watched a newsreel when he was young in which Mahatma Gandhi is filmed walking up the steps of a "splendid palace" to challenge the entire British Empire. "Here was this poor man armed with nothing but his intellect... It made me think the poor here could do the same." Chavez was recalling how a single human being performed a great act and then wondered if he could do the same. Another of my goals with this and future iterations of this show, since it's still being workshopped, is to honor Chavez's genius without trying to present him as a saint. Saints are working-class gods, neither of which walk among us. Instead, we all live finite, imperfect lives. If we're lucky, we manage to live honorable lives and that's how our families remember us. If we're Cesar Chavez or MLK, or someone else along those lines, our legacy outlives us for a few decades or centuries at best, but not forever. I believe knowing that makes it easier for audiences to identify with him and the movement he led.

As the founder of New Carpa Theater Company, how do you believe this play contributes to the state's cultural landscape, and what impact do you think it has on creating a more inclusive and equitable society for marginalized communities?

New Carpa Theater Co., like my own creative work, is trying to fill a void, trying to help Latinés and other communities of color to be seen. All historically disenfranchised communities have faced the same challenge: to be seen, to be acknowledged, and to be treated with respect and dignity. Until that happens, prejudice goes unchallenged. Are Latinés and other communities of color seen more now than in the past? Yes, of course. Are we now seen as deserving of full citizenship and for our complete humanity? Often, no. The same goes for women and people with disabilities. I'm not trying to change the world with the theater I do, but I am, through every single show I produce, trying to open audiences' eyes to worlds and perspectives they may not have previously considered, or at least get them to see diverse stories on stage, which in itself is still something of a creative coup. I don't think there's ever been a play that's inspired a revolution, but I do think theater can inspire individual audience members to examine their lives and consider revolutionary, even absorb revolutionary views. That's New Carpa's goal, whether we're producing comedy or dramas, and I hope this play lives up to that expectation.

What advice would you give to aspiring artists and activists who want to use their platforms to create change?

I happen to think every artist should have, as at least part of their creative mission, the goal of making change. But I don't expect every artist to be as political or as activist-minded as I am. You should do what you're good at. Personally, I'm not interested in theater or film or any art that exists just to make money. I like art that touches our humanity, and if it makes money, even a lot of money, along the way I also don't think that should diminish its value. Schindler's List made a lot of money, and yet it was a profound story of genocide that was meant to remind us that it could happen again. Art doesn't have to be that grandiose, but it does have to have purpose, even if that purpose is to make one person smile and feel better about themselves. Ultimately, if we want that sort of perspective to always be part of the art we enjoy, we have to be willing to contribute our own voice to the conversation, as authentically and fearlessly as possible. Artists do that through their art. But donors who love art can do that by supporting artists. And audiences do that by appreciating and applauding art. I hope this play is one small example of that kind of art.

As the New Carpa Theater Company reemerges from a pandemic-related hiatus, how has that been, and what can audiences expect to see in terms of new productions, programming, or other initiatives in the coming years?

The pandemic affected every human being on the planet, whether they realize it or not. Millions died around the world. Here in the U.S., we have more than 1 million fewer friends, neighbors, and family members than we did in 2019. That's mind-boggling. That's 300 times the number of people killed on 9-11 and more than have died in every U.S. war combined. How can we not be changed as a society, culture, and people? How will that change New Carpa? I think it just adds to the urgency of creating work that matters, even if it's expressed as the political satires we occasionally do. More specifically, I think there's an urgency to create what business types call a succession plan. I'm not a young man, but I hope that what New Carpa represents lives on long after I'm gone. To do that, New Carpa needs to go from being a laissez-faire, grassroots community theater company to something more professional that maintains its people-first mission. There's a lot of important theater done every day around the world, on Broadway, in big regional theaters, and I appreciate a lot of it. But there's also important theater that needs to happen in our backyards since this is where we live, work, and try to enjoy ourselves. I guess what I'm saying is that I'd like New Carpa to be still around when the next pandemic comes along, and with any luck, we'll survive that one as well.

You can see The Two Souls of Cesar Chavez on March 31 and on April 1-2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center 147 E. Adams St., Phoenix, AZ 85004. Tickets are $10 that you can buy at the door or by calling to reserve them at (623) 252-2772. Groups of four or more and students with an ID are $8.

James E. Garcia is a playwright, journalist, and owner of Creative Vistas Media, a Valley-based media consulting firm. He is the founder of (@VanguardiaArizona). He has taught writing, theater, and ethnic studies courses at Arizona State University. As a journalist, Garcia has worked as a reporter, columnist, foreign correspondent, and television and radio commentator. He was the founding editor of Latino Perspectives Magazine in Phoenix, the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, 91.5, the Phoenix Valley's NPR affiliate, and the first Latino editor of a major alternative weekly in the country, the San Antonio Current and served as the Mexico City Bureau Chief for Cox Newspapers. Garcia earned his undergraduate in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Arizona State University.


To post a comment, you must register and login.

Vote Sponsor