Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas story about Latinos is fun and funny

Old Country and New in a Tale of Tamales
Monica Almeida/The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — The audience chortles when Mister Cormack butchers his Spanish trying to make a connection with his in-laws. Knowing nods and glances follow when Mama explains the Latino tradition of making tamales at Christmastime. Laughter fills the theater as Maria and her cousins consume dozens of them trying to find a lost ring.

If it is Christmas, it is time for “Too Many Tamales,” an annual holiday show in a working-class neighborhood that has developed a dedicated following with its homage to biculturalism in a city where 41 percent of the population was born abroad.

No, New Yorkers, it is not quite “The Radio City Christmas Spectacular” or “The Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center. Back off, Chicago; the song-and-dance extravaganza around the Daley Plaza tree lighting is not threatened.

This is Los Angeles, where the city’s “official” 50-foot tree was lighted last week by Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa with little need for crowd control, and the debut of a more extravagant, multimedia one at a new entertainment complex got scant coverage in the mainstream news media and poor notices on blogs.

“So next year, we better have something that can compete with New York City, or Mayor Villaraigosa can stop calling this a world-class city,” huffed a blogger on, a Web site about the city.

But this is also a place of small dramas among the big, where “the little Christmas show that could,” as one performer calls it, manages to draw hundreds to a former city jail in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood northeast of downtown that is the theater company’s home.

Nothing fancy here — not the simple set made of donated material; not the actors, who, in most cases, are just breaking into stage careers; not the “special effects,” which consist mostly of illuminating colored lights.

But for 12 years, the show, adapted from “Too Many Tamales” by Gary Soto (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993), a children’s book that regularly lands on reading lists in schools across the region and beyond, has routinely sold out its weekend runs of 19 shows, which alternate between English and Spanish.

The book tells the story of the young Maria’s and her cousins’ consuming all of the family’s holiday tamales in a fruitless effort to find her mother’s missing engagement ring, which she believes she misplaced in the dough.

Margarita Galbán, a founder of the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts here, which produces the show, and the playwright Lina Montalvo broadened the story to incorporate the theme of the tug of the old country in the new.

“It’s about the conflict when the Americans want to impose their customs and desires, and the Latinos want to impose theirs,” said Ms. Galbán, who was born in Cuba and came to the United States in the late 1960s. “What we are trying to say is, one has to be open to new experiences, not only in food but in all characteristics of life.”

In the show, a debate breaks out over the relative merits of roast turkey versus tamales.

The drive to succeed in America also comes under scrutiny from relatives accustomed to women staying home and raising children.

An Anglo in-law strives to fit in and debunk stereotypes, showing off his newly learned Spanish and conga dancing along the way.

The children, to the shock of adults holding to the ways of Mexico, are reluctant to celebrate traditions like making tamales or singing Las Posadas, an account of Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to spend the night.

In the end, there is a miracle that inspires soliloquies on the magic of the holiday and a lusty rendition of José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad,” drawing willing audience members to dance on stage.

The shows, with a mix of original and traditional songs, run through December, almost always filling the 99-seat theater.

“I think it’s an attempt to celebrate what is good in the two cultures, especially in a city like L.A.,” said Elisa Fernandez, a Mexican-American who, for the fourth straight year, brought her three children to the show.

Peter Upton, one of what the producers say are a growing number of non-Hispanics coming to the show, said it was not necessary to be Latino to relate to it.

“Every family has some little bit of dysfunction and tension around Christmas and Thanksgiving,” said Mr. Upton, who came to a recent Spanish version with a neighbor who is Salvadoran. “They keep it light and fun in this, but it does say something about fitting in in a different culture, and that’s something anybody can understand.”

José Cruz González, a playwright and theater professor at California State University at Los Angeles, said “Tamales” was one of a recent spate of productions aimed at Latinos that included “a real celebration of family and holiday.”

Another of the company’s three founders, Estela Scarlata, who is also the production designer, said the producers wanted the show to stand out as one of the few in the city to depict the increasing number of middle-class Latino families.

“This puts Hispanics on a different plane,” she said. “It’s very different.”

But, lest the show get too heavy, it does include children singing and dancing to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” sassy puppets who mock adults and, after the show, a vendor selling tamales.

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