New anthology reimagines the works of William Shakespeare in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands

“The Bard in the Borderlands” brings together pieces compiled by the Borderlands Shakespeare Colectiva, a group dedicated to broadening the methods of teaching the English playwright’s works to better serve students.

By Raul AlonzoMarch 24, 2023 1:33 pm, , ,

From “West Side Story” to “Throne of Blood,” the works of William Shakespeare have for centuries been adapted and retold in many different cultural contexts – all adding to the timeless nature of the English playwright’s repertoire.

The cover of “The Bard in the Borderlands” was designed by Texas artist Celeste De Luna. Courtesy of ACMRS Press

But a new collection brings the bard’s work closer to home – namely, to the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. In “The Bard in the Borderlands: An Anthology of Shakespeare Appropriations en La Frontera,” readers are introduced to numerous retellings of Shakespeare’s works by Latino and Indigenous writers that place the stories in settings more familiar to the borderlands.

The project was spearheaded by a trio of Texas-based scholars who co-founded the Borderlands Shakespeare Colectiva, a project that in part aims to change the way Shakespeare is taught and performed using a variety of approaches.

Dr. Kathryn Vomero Santos, assistant professor of English and co-director of the Humanities Collective at Trinity University, and Dr. Adrianna Santos, associate professor in the Department of Language, Literature and Arts at Texas A&M University – San Antonio, are two of the collective’s co-founders and joined the Standard to talk about the new anthology and their work. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: So along with Dr. Katherine Gillen at Texas A&M University – San Antonio, the three of you have founded this collective, the Borderlands Shakespeare Colectiva. How did the idea for this group first come about and can you tell us more about your mission?

Adrianna Santos: Well, it began when we put together a conference on Latinx Shakespeares at Texas A&M University – San Antonio and we invited Dr. (Kathryn Vomero) Santos to come and be a speaker at that conference.

And then what happened? Dr. Santos, did you pick up on this as a wonderful idea right away or what? 

Kathryn Vomero Santos: Absolutely. I was doing similar work when I was a professor at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, and then I promptly moved to San Antonio to begin working at Trinity. So we were thinking about ways we could collaborate. And one of the ways that we responded to a need in our community was to edit these plays that had not been published and were largely unavailable to researchers and students.

I understand this organization was recently awarded a $500,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation. How has that aided your research, Adrianna? 

Adrianna Santos: Well, we’re looking forward to creating culturally responsive pedagogical materials for students, seeing as how we have an interest in Hispanic Serving Institutions and other academic institutions in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands that serve this population. And so we’re wanting to use those funds to not only create educational materials for them, but to also highlight the important work of Latinx playwrights and artists who are doing work to highlight issues on the border. 

Kathryn, I think part of the mission that a lot of listeners are going to pick up on is to change the way Shakespeare is taught. Can you talk about what that looks like in practice? 

Kathryn Vomero Santos: Sure. So Shakespeare has largely been heralded as a universal playwright who is immediately relevant to all communities. But what we’ve found in our teaching in the US-Mexico borderlands is that Shakespeare requires some specificity to be relevant and to resonate with communities. So we want to provide these plays as texts that can be read alongside Shakespeare, where our students can see their communities and their histories reflected, and to honor the art-making practices that borderlands artists have been engaging in for decades now. So we hope that these plays will create new points of access and new ways to understand how Shakespeare can, in fact, be resonant here in our communities.

Leah Newsom

The Borderlands Shakespeare Colectiva hosts a workshop at Arizona State University.

I know it’s sort of hard to tease out some specific examples, but does one come to mind that might illustrate? I’m sure you had cocktail party conversations or something along those lines and you had to explain this to folks. 

Adrianna Santos: I think that a great example of Borderlands Shakespeare is set in the Rio Grande Valley, and it involves a Romeo and Juliet love story, but it’s set around the social context of farmworkers in the Valley. And Juliet’s family are farm workers, and Romeo’s family is the Campbell Irrigation Company. And so we see the history of the Valley being illustrated through this tale of Romeo and Juliet. 

Are these more recent reimaginings? I’m just curious about the timeline for some of these individual pieces. How long has this been going on? 

Kathryn Vomero Santos: The earliest play in our anthology dates back to the early 1990s. It’s a play called “The Language of Flowers” by Edit Villarreal, who is a theater professor at UCLA. And so while we are certain that borderlands communities have been staging and teaching Shakespeare longer than that, we think the 1990s marked this really important moment when they started adapting these plays for borderlands communities interest.

And what has the reception of these works been like so far? How are the students responding to this? 

Kathryn Vomero Santos: Wonderfully. I mean, I’m teaching these plays right now at Trinity, and my favorite story to tell is that oftentimes these playwrights will replace Shakespeare’s chorus figure with a corridista. So we have the Mexican ballad form being performed alongside Shakespeare’s art forms. And I had a Mexican American student say “I never thought that I’d be talking about corridos in an academic context, never mind in a Shakespeare class.”

You know, there’s this idea, especially when it comes to works of classic literature, that some of those works just don’t have a whole lot of relevance in contemporary society – certainly not a more diverse culture that we now, in modern times, are working quite hard to achieve and accomplish. And I’m curious, do you run into that as an obstacle dealing with Shakespeare? Is there something unusual about his work that lends itself, particularly to the cultural contexts found in the borderlands? Kathryn, what do you think? 

Kathryn Vomero Santos : I think that one of the things that really lends itself well to this context is the fact that Shakespeare is first and foremost a performed text. It was written to be performed. It is part of an oral culture. And so I think, again, to bring it back to the corrido, because this is an art form that is sung and that is narrative, I think the resonance with Shakespeare is particular to these contexts. And I also think that some of the themes that Shakespeare’s texts touch on resonate. So many of the adaptations in our anthology engage with an El Día de los Muertos, in thinking about the border between life and death. And that’s something that Shakespeare was certainly thinking about, but from a different perspective. 

Adrianna, what do you think?

Adrianna Santos: I think that because these appropriations are also bilingual and or multilingual, that students can really resonate with the languages that are being presented that reflect their borderlands experiences. 

Well, now, as I mentioned, this is just the first anthology, but where do you envision the work of your collective moving next? Kathryn, what do you think? 

Kathryn Vomero Santos: Well, we have volumes two and three coming soon after volume one, but the biggest thing that we’re looking forward to is a year from now we’re going to host a conference here in San Antonio, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as the Mellon Foundation. And we’re really hoping to bring scholars, artists, teachers, students and other community members together to think about the history of this tradition, but also the future of how we can build on it.

An open access of “The Bard in the Borderlands” can now be read here and a print copy can be pre-ordered here.

A book launch event is slated for Sept. 8 at the Latino Bookstore at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio.

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