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Coatlique Theatre Company 
by steve elm
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Elvira and Hortensia Colorado (Chichimec/Otomi) tell survival stories. As youngsters, they survived performing traditional Mexican dances in Blue Island, Illinois, in curly Toni Home perms with yarn braids plastered to the sides of their heads. Later on, in New York City, they survived the sixties as struggling young actresses in Joan of Arc hairdos. They survived experimental theatre, they survived Broadway. They survived television, they survived street theatre. Finally, the two sisters grew up to become the writers, storytellers and actors known as Coatlicue Theatre Company. Their existence is a testament to the concept of survival.

Known primarily in the New York Native community, Coatlicue Theatre Company has been writing and performing plays for the last ten years . Though both sisters have had separate careers in the arts for many years before, it is their shared experience as performers, sisters, and indigenous women that make for the magic and power their audiences have come to expect. Their plays are often epic in theme yet intensely personal. They tell stories of goddesses, of the women who fought in the Mexican revolution, as well as of women living with AIDS, of undocumented workers exploited on North American farms. Their work tells of the genocide of the indigenous peoples by conquistadores and the church, and it tells the stories of two little girls learning about herbs from their grandmother. Finally, Elvira and Hortensia Colorado tell the story of reclaiming our stolen histories, and of surviving in the face of continued colonization.

Both sisters have long dark hair, often wear traditional clothing, and are usually seen together. They share a strong resemblance to one another, and they always share their french fries- with others, too. It is this sisterhood, coupled with two distinct personalities and two very good senses of humor, that make it easy for them to deal with constantly being mistaken for one another. I admit, when I first got to know them, if I saw one without the other I would panic and just say “hello darling”....Still, this resemblance stems from sharing so much experience together as sisters, and has become the basis of their theatre. Like their sisters-in-theatre and inspiration, Spiderwoman Theatre (Lisa Mayo, Gloria Miguel, Muriel Miguel- also sisters). Elvira and Hortensia trace their journey as theatre artists back to their childhood. And like Spiderwoman, their shared history permeates their work.

Sitting in the rehearsal room at American Indian Community House with the Colorado sisters, I am immediately struck at how in tune they are with one another. They constantly interrupt each other to add a comment here or a correction there. One starts a sentence, the other finishes. One introduces a story that the other tells...It is this rhythm, this music that is the life of the work they do.

Hortensia remembers: ‘We started performing when we were six years old” Elvira adds, laughing “Tapdancing!” Hortensia grabs Elvira’s arm as she recalls “at Mrs Dolan’s Dance Studio” Elvira shouts. “At the Masonic Temple in Blue Island, Illinois!” The two of them fall about laughing. The Masonic Temple? “We did acrobatics, too!” one of them offers, and the two continue laughing and reminiscing. What business did two young Indian girls have tap dancing and tumbling at the Masonic Temple? “We also performed traditional Mexican dances later on with the Chicago Festival Guild” Elvira states. “Mama made all of our costumes, it gave us a real sense of tradition - “ “But,” Hortenisa adds, “we were not Indian”. Both sisters sit very quietly for a moment as the memory returns.

“Growing up with racism...the thing about color and the denial of being Indian. The denial in our family is so imbedded that we didn’t know our father’s side of the family - they were too Indian!” “We had to say we were Spanish and not Mexican...least of all Indian”. For many of the indigenous people of Mexico, the effect of 400 years of colonization has been genocidal in both physical and mental terms. In most urban areas of Mexico, to say one is “Indios” is to invite disdain. On a recent trip to research family roots there, “we were laughed at when we told the border guards we were Indian”, the sisters recall. Growing up, the Colorados were denied their heritage as Chichimec/Otomi. Only through vigorous research and a sense of injustice were they able to discover and reclaim what had been taken from them. Unlike North America, where some of us made treaties with the invaders and were able to protect and uphold our cultures, in Mexico there were no pacts or treaties. The peoples there were mainly forced into assimilation in brutal terms, often resulting in an acceptance stemming from a need to survive. It is this acceptance of “the way things are’ that the Colorados challenge in their plays, and in their lives.

The sisters have been very active in the Mexican and North American Native communities of New York City. They have brought together both for traditional Day of the Dead ceremonies at AICH, and have been very busy organizing and doing benefits in aid of the Zapatista struggle in Chiapas. Hortensia’s son, Shan Finnerty, an extremely talented musician and actor, has been a great help in this work, as well as instrumental in the success of the American Indian Community House Youth Theatre productions.

Currently, Coatlicue Theatre is working on a play about their family history, as well as a project on undocumented migrants and the journey of these people North. Some people have asked them why they are so concerned about Mexicans, especially if they deny that they are Indian. “By working in this community, by performing and educating, we are trying to stop the genocide. We are helping people reclaim their heritage.” As Hortensia says, “colonization stops with you”. Their play 1992; BLOOD SPEAKS deals directly with the pivotal role that religion/Christianity played in the oppression and genocide of native people. This multi-media production uses music, song, and murals painted on scrims to trace the origins of their people and the gradual encroachment of colonization as the play progresses. At once visually powerful and theatrically epic, the action of the play goes from the sublime to the absurd, from farce to reality. In the course of the play they reclaim their voices and begin to rewrite history, in their terms. The play ends with song and dance for the future generations. And throughout the play, the Colorado sisters bring their warmth, their wit, their humor, and their sense of urgency, and their innate sense of justice to the performance.

As Hortensia and Elvira talk with me, I am reminded of the power of their work just by watching and listening to them. While they interweave stories and comments and opinions and memories, I am reminded of the power of theatre. Sitting with them is a theatrical experience, as if they are brainstorming, rehearsing, while they talk...They tell me that Coatlicue is the Aztec deity of the earth/creation. Through their theatre, Coatlicue survives, thrives and is made powerful once again.


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Tlaltilco (The Place Where Things Are Hidden) - 1988
Walks of Indian Women - Aztlan to Anahuac - 1988
La Llorona - the Wailing Woman - 1989
Coyolxauhqui: Women Without Borders - 1990
Huipil - 1992
1992: Blood Speaks - 1992
Open Wounds on Tlateuctli - 1994
A Traditional Kind of Woman - Too Much, Not ‘Nuff - 1995
Chicomoztoc-Mimixcoa - Cloud Serpents - 1996
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