Twenty minutes after shuffling into the Albert L. Jeffers Theatre, the crowd erupted into eye-gleaming laughter, taken in by the cast of “La Gringa.” Two hours later, sniffles could be heard among the 73 audience members and as the lights dimmed for the final time, the room was teeming with excitement and bursts of applause.
The Carmen Rivera comedy was directed by Communication Professor Joel Garza and drew the final curtain for the UTRGV University Productions 2016 Spring season. The play opened on Wednesday and closed Sunday.
UTRGV junior Tiffany Espericueta starred in the lead role as the wholehearted college graduate, Maria, a first-generation Puerto Rican-American who decides to pay a visit to the “homeland” that she has loved all her life but had never seen. She seeks to fulfill her sense of cultural identity and belonging on the island that she had learned about from her mother and in her Puerto Rican Studies classes.
However, upon arrival, Maria finds that she is an “immigrant in America and a gringa in Puerto Rico.”
She makes the trip with the intention of “finding her roots” but she arrives to realize that her idea of the island is very different than the reality.
Mass communication junior Vladimir Odabachian remarked that the play’s wit and the energy of the cast caught him off guard as a first-time University Productions audience member .
“I laughed so hard. Everybody was so good, I was really into it.” Odabachian said. “And the whole message behind the play really moved me. As a Mexican-Armenian, I know half of my family from Mexico sees me differently and it’s so good to see that struggle depicted in a way that’s funny and fun to watch, as well as being really thought-provoking.”.
Maria learns from her dying Uncle Manolo that cultural identity is something that she defines for herself and that by taking risks and staying compassionate she can connect her “divided selves.”
First-time University Productions Director Garza, who is owner of the All Star Theater in McAllen, said the play connects with local audiences due to the themes, particularly in Maria’s acceptance of herself and her place within two cultures.
“This story is all too common in our area. Many will recall the line, ‘We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans, and more American than the Americans,’ from the movie ‘Selena.’ That is the premise of our production,” the UT Austin graduate said. “In the Valley, we are faced with building our identity between Mexico and America. Many of our citizens say it is difficult to identify with one culture or the other, which builds a blend of the two.”
The efforts of the cast did not go unappreciated by the audience. Garza expressed his appreciation of the cast and crew.
“I have had a great experience working with this cast,” Garza said. “I don’t think I could have selected a more professional, hard-working group of people.”
He said the ultimate message of this production is self-acceptance as a means of fulfillment.
“As the audience watches the actors battle for acceptance or integration, I hope they can relate the experience to their lives,” Garza said. “How many times have we shunned someone because they are ‘different?’ I hope this production helps the audience locate those instances in their lives, and helps build a more accepting community.”