This Spring, UMass Amherst Professor Elisa Gonzales presented her intergenerational play entitled, Olvidados: A Mexican American Corrido.

Based on true-life events, the musical explores the historical and untold stories of the effect that Repatriation had on Mexicans in the United States during the Great Depression era.  

Through corridos, which are traditional Mexican, folkloric ballads, this production takes viewers on a journey of what the immigrant experience was like for Gonzales’ family, who are featured characters in the play.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Gonzales to learn more. 

Read the transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: This spring, UMass professor Elisa Gonzalez presented her intergenerational play entitled “Olvidados: A Mexican American Corrido.”

Through ‘corridos,’ which are traditional Mexican folkloric ballads, the production explores the untold stories of the effect that repatriation had on Mexicans in the United States during the Great Depression.

And I spoke with Gonzales to learn more.

Elisa Gonzales, UMass Professor and Theater Artist: While I’m I’m a third generation Mexican American, I identify as a Chicana. And, you know, as I’ve worked in the theater, I still feel that there is not a lot of visibility of Latinx stories on stage.

I’m also deeply interested in — in my family’s place in American history. And I also feel like in that context, those stories aren’t given as much of a visibility.

And so, I feel like theater gives me the opportunity to to bridge my interest with history and ancestry and creating more places for our stories on stage.

Zydalis Bauer: You mentioned that you identify as a Chicana, and in this area, we don’t always hear that term a lot.

So, can you clarify and just tell us what that means?

Elisa Gonzales: So, it is somebody of Mexican descent. Historically, that was used in the 1970s during the Chicano Rights Movement. And it was used as a term of pride for people that had Mexican American heritage, that had a connection with the Spanish language, and that were fighting for rights for the Mexican-American people in California and in the Southwest. And it’s still used as an identifying term today.

Zydalis Bauer: So, we were just talking about your greatest passion in creating work that involves your ancestry and history. And so your latest project fulfills that exact passion. “Olvidados: A Mexican American Corrido” was recently featured in UMass Amherst.

So, tell me about this musical — specifically, what is a corrido and how it was conceptualized?

Elisa Gonzales: So, I guess I will start with what the show is about. It’s about the repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the Great Depression.

During this time, the American government was looking for a scapegoat to try to take attention off of the financial problems that they were having. And they found that scapegoat in the Mexican and Mexican American community. So, their stance were that this immigrant community was taking jobs away from the American people. And so, in response, they forcibly coerced and deported Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans.

In 1931, my family was repatriated to Mexico. My great grandmother, who was from Jalisco, took her three young American-born children back to Mexico because of this. And this is a part of American history that is not known. It’s been swept under the rug for over 90 years.

And so for me, this was an important story to tell so I could learn more about my family’s story during this really tragic part of American history, and also to shed light on the millions of other stories that happened during this time, because over 1 million people were impacted.

Olvidados Ensemble: I’m tired of living in fear. I’m tired of chasing a dream. I’m tired of living in fear. I’m tired of chasing a dream.

Elisa Gonzales, UMass Professor and Theater Artist: My family has a really strong musical legacy. And so, as a way to honor their stories, I thought that structuring the musical in the form of a ‘corrido’ would be really appropriate for this piece.

The ‘corrido’ is a traditional folk style of Mexican music. It has polka-like rhythms, and very often it’s used as an oral history device, as a way to tell stories. And so, in the early days of the ‘corridos’ they were written on the spot. They often told stories about romances.

Now, they’ve been popularized to tell stories of — of the narcos in Mexico. But I use this as a way to tell the story of my family in the repatriation.

Olvidados Ensemble: What if you were told to pack your bags, you’re the target of someone else’s hate? Would you fight back, would you protest? What would that cost you?

Zydalis Bauer: Speaking how this musical is really your family history, and I know that all of the characters are from your family lineage, how was it for you emotionally having to revisit this time in history, knowing that your family that you love had to go through these tragic and really hard traumatic events?

Elisa Gonzales: It — it was emotional for a lot of reasons. The first is that my grandmother Celia passed away in 2019.

And so, just thinking about…this legacy of resilience that she carried with her. She was so proud to be an American despite this horrible thing that happened to her. And so, just embodying that and remembering who she was, her bright spirit, was very emotional for me.

But then it also allowed me to get to know other people, other stories of my family that I didn’t know so well. I didn’t realize what a force of strength my great grandmother was. She had to really make some really difficult decisions as a woman during that time, as a wife, as a mother, she — she lost her youngest child on the journey back to Mexico when — when they were on the repatriation train.

And so, it really made me aware of…how much strength my family had and how, above all else, the love of their family and the love of their children really, really forced them to make these decisions that they felt were best for them at the time.

Zydalis Bauer: I love that you had the opportunity to kind of explore your ancestry and those stories, I think it’s important that we all get that opportunity to learn about ourselves.

What was the process like for you? How did you find out about these stories? We’re they pass down from generation to generation?

Elisa Gonzales: Well, that’s a really interesting question, because one of the impacts of the repatriation was that if families did find their way back to the United States, which was the case with my family, it was a very hard subject for them to talk about. They wanted to make life for the next generations better. They wanted their children to assimilate and to be a part of American culture. So, for that reason, they kind of just put it behind them and moved on.

And that was the case with my family. It was something that we knew happened, but they didn’t talk about it a lot. Like, my dad said that when he asked my grandmother about it or my great grandmother, their answer was always, “Well, that’s just something that happened.” But they did know bits and pieces of the story.

So, for example, I interviewed my dad to see what he could tell me about what he knew. I interviewed my great aunt and then I did a lot of historical research as well. I read books about the repatriation to try to get a sense of what their journey might — might have been like, what the atmosphere in Los Angeles was like at the time when there were all of these campaigns to get people to leave the country.

And then I did a lot of, you know, digging into my family’s immigration records. So, I actually found evidence that they boarded these repatriation trains.

A really sad part of my research was I found the death certificate for my great uncle. He died right after they arrived in Mexico. He was two years old. And so, I found evidence of his death in Jalisco.

So, that was sort of my process for for the dramaturgical part of my research.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, did revisiting past Mexican American history bring to light any surprising revelations to you, especially when looking at it through a present day lens?

Elisa Gonzales: That’s — that’s a hard question. I don’t think any of it was surprising, I think more than anything, it’s really sad to me the way that anti-Latinx sentiment continues to shape immigration policy at the US border.

I think even though this event happened over 90 years ago, we’re still seeing similar events happening at the US border, with the family separation policies that were happening, with the fact that we’re still not allowing people to claim asylum in the United States. And so, I would say that not a lot has changed in this time period.

And more than anything, I hope this piece brings visibility to those issues and that we still — we can’t continue to allow these stories to be swept under the rug because history keeps repeating itself.