Leo Cabranes-Grant: An Interview
Daniel M. Jaffe
Playwright Leo Cabranes-Grant is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he teaches in the Department of Dramatic Art and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. In October of 2005, Leo won the playwriting competition sponsored by Puerto Rico’s Institute of Culture. His prize-winning play, El Arte de la Pintura (The Art of Painting), will be performed in San Juan, Puerto Rico from May 5-13, 2006, and will later be published. Teatro Circulo, a bilingual theater company based in New York, will perform the San Juan premier, and will also perform an English translation of the play in New York next autumn.
I began by asking Cabranes, himself Puerto Rican, to provide some background on this national playwriting competition and on its significance for Puerto Rican culture. He noted that the island was a colony of Spain until 1898, when it was transferred to U.S. ownership. “The playwriting competition started in the late 1950s,” he said. “At that time, the recently established Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was involved in an active campaign of self-fashioning. Although the United States kept the right to define Puerto Rico’s economy and international status, the island developed its own constitution and was allowed to preserve certain ‘national’ cultural expressions, like the Spanish language. This was supposed to be the beginning of a gradual process of de-colonization, but hardly anything has changed during the last forty years. We are still American citizens by birth, but we can’t vote in American elections unless we move to the mainland.”
With an ironic smile he added, “We participate in the Olympic Games as a ‘country’, and we have won the Miss Universe contest as Miss Puerto Rico, not as Miss America. Our cultural identity is Caribbean, but our legal identity is American. Depending on how you look at it, this double-sided situation is either a problem or an opportunity. Probably both. On the one hand, Washington can intervene in our politics at any time; on the other hand, our bi-cultural position enables a rich, complex sense of self. Identity and survival, are fundamental topics in our literature. The government-funded dramatic contest has showcased many of these issues and contradictions, and this award is the most prestigious one given. Once you get it, you belong to the literary canon, so to speak.”
What is his prize-winning play about, and how did he come to write it? “The Art of Painting is based on the life of Jose Campeche (1751- 1809), the first important Puerto Rican painter. He is a founding figure of our identity, a national icon. I have always wanted to write a historical play. The task of a historical play is to re-conceptualize the past, to present it as the memory of the present—to look backwards in order to cope with the here and now. If you don’t approach it that way, a historical play becomes a museum piece, an exercise in useless nostalgia. I wanted to re-visit the 18th century—the least known century of Puerto Rican history—to ask questions. How, for example, did ‘Puerto Ricans’ feel before becoming Puerto Ricans as we understand that label today? What is a nation before being acknowledged as such, before having a literature, an artistic tradition, a name?
“The biographers of Campeche always emphasize that his artistic skills improved after his friendship with Luis Paret, a Spanish painter exiled to Puerto Rico by the King of Spain. After Goya, Paret is today considered as one of the best painters working in Spain at the time. The reason for his exile—a severe punishment; imagine a court painter living overseas in an underdeveloped colony—is not entirely clear, but it seems that he got involved in some kind of scandalous sexual behavior that angered the Church. I saw in that connection—a colonial painter hosting a painter ostracized by the imperial center—an example of what Henry James calls a ‘gift,’ a potential story that is ‘given’ to you by chance.
“I spent a year doing research, absorbing, pondering. I always write the first draft of my plays that way: a long period of simmering, then a few weeks of boiling. After that, I usually put the first draft in a box for a while and then start all over again later. But this time I knew the play was ready to go as it was. I trusted it.”
Given that Cabranes has lived in the U.S. since 1986, I wondered whether his own emigration experience found its way into the play. “The Art of Painting is an exploration of how different cultures intersect and sometimes confuse or erase each other,” he responded. “The legend they teach in schools in Puerto Rico is that Paret offered Campeche a job in Spain but that Campeche decided to stay on the island. So I thought: let’s add a twist here. What if it was the other way around, and the legend is just a flattering fantasy? What if Campeche asked for the job in Spain, but Paret said no? That twist replicates the predicament of Puerto Rico, a colony that has been asking for its freedom or wider political participation over the last two hundred years. As a result, we now get an ironic ‘national’ hero, In my play, Campeche remains on the island by default though his original intention was to leave, to travel.
“In my interpretation, he is the ancestor of the Puerto Rican diaspora, of the Neo-Rican living today in the States. A line in the play summarizes this: ‘Those who leave are as important as those who stay.’ All cultures are the outcome of an exchange between migration and immigration . . . The fact that I have been living in the States since 1986 is directly linked to this effort to re-write both my personal and my national history, to re-draw the map of my Puerto Rican self. That’s why, at the end of my play, snow starts to fall in tropical San Juan: for an instant, the diasporic experience of so many Puerto Ricans now living in New York, Boston, Chicago and elsewhere, is imagined as part of the past, as the ‘memory’ of a future that is happening today.”
El Arte de la Pintura is not his first effort. In the 1990s, Cabranes co-authored Motherlands, a play dealing with the contemporary Puerto Rican diaspora. Commissioned and performed by Boston’s Theatre Offensive, the play won the Boston Women’s Fund “Take a Stand” Award. “Motherlands is not exactly ‘my’ play, but ‘our’ play: it was shaped by a collective. I was the only man among four women. It’s energizing and revealing to be the minority. The play was based on the story of two Puerto Rican women who are childhood friends and then become lovers. The mother of one of them is unable to accept this. The couple moves to the States. The play describes the story of the mother and the story of the couple simultaneously, using masks, puppets, chairs, a rope that doubles as a phone line and umbilical chord and choreography. Everybody contributed to the process and after a while ideas were shared so closely that authorship became irrelevant.”
What was it like to create a play in this collaborative fashion? “Theater is always a collaborative enterprise,” he noted, “in that it takes a village to produce a play. The difference, in this case, is that collaboration starts from the beginning: the play’s vision belongs to a group. Everything is selected through constant negotiation. And you have to learn to place your ego aside, to think democratically. You have to regain that sense of humility that medieval artists knew so well: the will not to sign your work, to remain invisible behind the act, to give freely. I like it as much as writing alone. But the reality is that the playwright is never alone: you are supposed to allow your characters to have their own voices, they are not supposed to be merely your mouthpieces. It’s always a collective, in the end.”
Another play of Cabranes’ plays, The Barda, won Santa Barbara’s Independent Award. “In The Barda I tried to understand Santa Barbara. I moved here in 2001, after living in Boston for 13 years. And I think the best way of understanding a new place is to write a play about it. This forces you to consider all the angles, the voices, the people. It’s great research. In this case, I was particularly interested in exploring the rift between Anglos and Hispanics, the fact that these cultures are living so close yet so far from each other in Southern California. I decided to write a play about illegal immigrants who gather every day at a sidewalk known as the ‘wall’ or barda waiting to be hired. I wanted to explore their point of view, and the love they feel for this place that tends to ignore them most of the time. I was also invested in the realization that being a Puerto Rican is actually very different from being a Mexican or a Central American. All of a sudden I was the ‘other’ in front of people who shared my language and a common history. I was amazed to discover the diversity within my own culture, a diversity we tend to overlook in our zeal to present a united front.”
The production of The Art of Painting will be the second of Cabranes’ plays performed in Puerto Rico. The first was Por el Medio . . . Ii No Hay Más Remedio (Take it Easy...If You Have to Take It), staged by Joseán Ortiz and the Compañía Teatral Areté. This was a musical about the fictional character Jichi Hernández, a Puerto Rican transvestite and cabaret performer. A review in San Juan’s Claridad newspaper observed, “Far from portraying transvestism as apolitical or frivolous, the dominant popular stereotype, Jichi is a transvestite nationalist, graduated from the University of Puerto Rico, committed to leftist thinking . . . The transvestism scenario Jichi presents is truly innovative; it stimulates us to re-think our rigid notions about social and interpersonal differences, and inspires us to place gender or sexual orientation differences on a less distant or sacred plane.” This interesting observation led me to wonder what inspired Cabranes to go beyond stereotype with this character?
“Well, you have to work against stereotypes as much as you can. I use them, I play with them, I deconstruct them. What counts is to detonate them, to show the complexity behind the simplification. Every human being is asking for the same: ‘Please, do not simplify me.’
“My biggest concern is that, in order to be politically effective, we sometimes have to set aside the complexities of human motivation and the network of contradictions that creates our personality. When I write, I look for the liberal trait in the conservative, for the conservative trait in the liberal; the masculine moment in the female, the feminine moment in the male; the American expression in the Puerto Rican and vice-versa. In that sense, the transvestite—like a bisexual person, or a mestizo (person of mixed racial heritage)—is a perfect incarnation of those co-existing tensions. Like the émigré, the body of the transvestite lives in two or more spaces at the same time. We all live that way, but not everybody dares to deal with it.”
Scholarship is what originally brought Leo to the United States. After earning a masters degree in Latin American literature from the University of Puerto Rico, Leo moved to Boston to study at Harvard, where he earned a Ph.D. in Golden Age Spanish literature. How has his academic study and scholarly writing influenced his playwriting? He thought for a few moments. “I don’t see myself as having two careers: one academic, one artistic. As James Dean said, ‘I don’t walk around with one of my hands tied behind my back.’ I grasp the world through my scholarship and through my writing. I teach theater and I do theater. Teaching is art. So is drama. If you can have both, who could ask for anything more?”
Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure. He regularly publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers, has compiled and edited an anthology, and translated a Russian-Israeli novel in addition to teaching fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at
and his web site is: http://danieljaffe.tripod.com