What are you going to do with this piece of history now that you know it?
Do you remember sitting in history class? I do. I’m not certain if all artists feel this way, but I loved history class. There was something about the storytelling, the backtracking of tales and social movements that directly affected how the world operates today that felt almost like a responsibility to know, retell, and learn from as a human moving through on planet. Although I don’t consider myself a history buff by any means, there are those stories that stuck with me—some obscure and random, some retold again and again, sticking to the sides of my brain like Papier-mâché. I can tell you about The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in the Industrial era and how that event sparked momentous conversations about child labor laws; I can tell you about the Atlantic slave trade in detail, not because of history class, but because I would take my history homework to my sister, who told me all about how Columbus first stopped in the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Cuba, where my father’s family was from. Because of yearslong lessons about the American Revolution (and the help of the hit Broadway musical, Hamilton), I can explain in detail what led to the American Revolution, how the British forces lost, and the principles on which this country was “founded.”
Who is there to tell the stories of lost history? And when we learn that lost history of a nearly-forgotten peoples, what do we do with it?
This is the question Sylvia Cervantes Blush, director of Desert Stories for Lost Girls, wants the audience to leave with. In this world-premiere play by Lily Rushing, 18-year-old Carrie is thrown into a world of memories and stories of her ancestors as she learns the history of her people, the Genízaro, a tribeless tribe of Native American slaves who deserve to have their stories told.
I got to sit down with the Lily and Sylvia to get a taste of what we can expect to see in Desert Stories for Lost Girls before its debut.
Carolina Pilar Xique for LAFPI: Having the piece produced through Native Voices at the Autry is huge, especially because the company is the only Actor’s Equity theatre company in the country dedicated to developing Native works. What has the experience been like getting to produce this show with a company that’s committed to that mission? And how has their partnership with Latino Theater Company affected that experience?
Lily Rushing: Everything with them [Native Voices] is so Native-centered in an incredible way that, as a native playwright telling a native story, it’s such a relief, you know? You don’t have to educate anyone, you don’t have to explain anything to anyone, or feel like you’re entering weird, emotional territory because everyone in the room is like, “Good, got it. Let’s do the work.” It feels like a step forward.
Sylvia Cervantes Blush: I’m not Native. Soy Latina. And when they [Native Voices] reached out to me, I did an interview and some of my first questions and concerns were, “Am I the right person to help bring this story to life?” Because I don’t have that lived experience. The most in-tune person can still make some really poor choices or not know how to help the process, so that was at the forefront of my mind. But they were so incredibly inviting and immediately transparent. To know that this collaboration between Native Voices and Latino Theater Company was happening, it felt like a way to open audiences to the work that they are both doing, together and separately. Latino Theater Company are such a mighty engine of a small army of people that get stuff done and I’ve yet to hear a “no”—I’ve just seen solutions. We started rehearsals on the actual set, in the theater. Not only in the space, but with a built set. That’s not your typical experience. It speaks to the level of support Latino Theater Company has for this story and lifting up the work Native Voices is doing. This is the first time in 30+ years that the Native Voices is performing in a full theater space. They’ve made magic at their location [at the Autry Museum’s auditorium], but now, coming out of a pandemic, doing it in a theater and at a space like LATC, it’s really special. When the actors walked into rehearsals, it was like, “Wow. We have space.” And I get to be a part of that. It’s really special.
Lily: I think it’s so beautiful that getting that space and working in there comes from two brown companies helping each other out! That’s the icing on the cake—two brown theatre companies supporting each other and lifting each other up. We love to see it.
Sylvia: And it speaks to the uniqueness of this story—it evolves from the Southwest and our cultures in this story mix. It’s the perfect project for this marriage between these two companies to happen right now.
Carolina: You touched on the process of being in the room with Indigenous artists. What has it been like and what measures are being taken to care for their ancestral trauma while also displaying it on the stage?
Lily: Native Voices hires a trauma consultant to make sure we have that extra level of care if we need it which is really important. We had eyes from a lot of Indigenous people but also from Sylvia about where we need to have a little extra caution, a little extra care. That made me feel prepared before going into the process. One thing I love about working with Indigenous actors is the lack of need to educate. Because when you are in the room with artists who don’t have that heritage of being colonized or stolen, they might have questions or not understand something, and you feel like you have to defend it. Native Voices has set up this system of interacting with the storyteller or playwright so that actors can ask their questions, but I don’t have to answer or defend anything. So that takes care of both of our needs. In that way, it allows actors to interact with the emotion of trauma—the expression of it—rather than having to interact with the truth of it. When I got into the room with the actors, I felt like we were all protected.
Syliva: You get to just exist and understand that you are not all trauma—that you carry joy and other parts of you into the room, and that, as we explore the trauma in the play that the characters are exploring, even if there is a similarity, you have the permission to create space and just exist as a character. By being able to have a room of People of Color, and specifically with this play, having Native people telling a story about Native people, it allows us to really explore the complexities that are beyond and within the trauma, and find the joys in these character’s lives. When it’s performed, the audience experiences those complexities and can have a different lens from the ones that we hear on the news. They don’t have to explain anything, we just get to have the conversations about them.
Carolina: Sylvia, you said in a quote that, “The play challenges us to let go of a safe narrative.” Would you like to expand on that?
Sylvia: It’s so funny because when you catch me at different phases in the process, and I’ll have a different response. (* Laughs*) Because I grow with the process of it. I feel like what Lily has done is she’s combined different parts of the human brain on stage. We have memory, the existence of the present time, the existence of a disappearing memory—the grandmother is grappling with these phases of dementia, and at the same time, desperately trying to connect the memories to help her granddaughter understand her own legacy. There are fascinating moments in the play where multiple generations are on stage, or the same character in two different phases in their life are on stage and are conversing with each other. I’ve been leaning into that and challenging myself to not make the choices arbitrary in this illogical world, but there still must be something that allows an outsider without the history and breadth of knowledge that we have to experience and feel moved. That’s the journey we’re on now in the space. I think what Lily has offered us is the dangerous nature of the topic of this play. Things are unsettling and they should feel that way. It’s okay for an audience member to feel a little discombobulated at the end of the experience. We’re taking them on a ride.
Carolina: Lily, this play is almost autobiographical because you had a similar experience to the main character, Carrie. Can you walk us through what that was like for you?
Lily: We always knew that we had Indigenous heritage, but my dad has this joke where he calls us and his family, “mocos,” which in Spanish literally means boogers, but also means “Mexican Or Chicano Or Something.” It’s his way of saying that, in the time he grew up, we weren’t having conversations about identity or heritage that we’re having now. I talked to my cousin Larry; he wrote this beautiful story for us called “Stories from Ojo,” where he wrote his memories. He kept using this word, “Genízaros.” My mom dug up the Census and found that there were multiple documents that read, “Indian,” “White,” or “Genízaros,” that were part of our family history. The same people had different races and different ways of being categorized as the years went on. After they were baptized, this zealous priest somehow convinced whoever to write down that, because of their baptism, these Indian people were no longer Indian and were now white. I was in college when we found the story of Placida, who is a character in the play but also my real-life great-great grandmother—she was a Genízaro, which is a native slave in northern New Mexico—who was 13 or 11 years old when she bore my great-grandfather. She was removed from the settlement and would walk 20 miles every day to see her son in extremely rugged, mountainous territory. In the family legend, it was said that her feet were stained black. We knew immediately why we didn’t have a concrete answer [in terms of heritage]—because that is the goal of forcefully separating tribes, the goal of colonization. When you try to find the people in your community, you can’t find them; they’ve taken away all the answers from you. Something the play deals with is why the women in this family needed to know that history. They need it not only to keep them safe in a literal sense—when you know your history, you can be prepared for it—but also, women have a need to know our mothers, grandmothers, and family. For me, I needed that connection for myself. I feel like it made me understand so much more about where the legacies of confusion, shame, and Catholic guilt all stemmed from. I feel Placida’s story and carry her with me all the time. Her incredible resilience is the lesson I take with me everywhere.
Carolina: That’s amazing! That sounds like an enormous undertaking, both physically and emotionally, but I’m so happy you found them. The tagline of this play reads, “Do you believe your ancestors walk with you?” I wanted to pose the same question to you both.
Sylvia: That belief is something I’ve adopted in the last few years. My friend had a conversation with me one time. We were at the park, talking, and she was talking about how, sometimes, to convince herself to walk out that door, she’s adopted this way of closing her eyes and imagining that with each step she takes, her ancestors are walking with her. I’ve taken that to heart. I think about the people I know in my lifetime who have passed on—my sister, Tina, who passed away seven years ago. I carry her with me all the time. She’s always part of me and I have her as someone of strength that I can come back to, even if I’m not feeling strong in that moment, because I know that she’s the makeup of my grandmother—my mom’s mom, who also had a strong presence—and then my great-grandmother. Even my husband’s mom, who passed away a year or two after my sister did. It’s the carrying of all those generations with me when I walk into a room that allows me to lean on the strengths of who they were and use that to shape myself. I came from that stock of strong women, even the ones I didn’t get to meet. I feel a connection to them with this piece.
Lily: That reminds me of what we talked about in that first week of rehearsals, about spinning tops, that time isn’t a line or this flat thing. When we go about living our day, that’s one top spinning on the table. And those stories that live in us are another top spinning, too. All these events that my ancestors went through, like Placida, or even things that I’m going through, it helps me to think of them all sort of happening at the same time, on this same plane of existence. I feel like my relationship with my ancestors is active. When I live my day with courage, when I choose to thrive, I’m feeding them, just as their choices and sacrifices feed me. There are things being talked about now—ancestral healing, inner healing. I think the first step to do all of that is to look and open yourself up to looking at those stories, even if they’re really hard, and then you can start the process of walking with your ancestors. But first you have to look at them and see them for who they really are.
Carolina: What message or feeling do you hope audiences leave with after seeing the show?
Sylvia: I hope that this play can break open for someone the things that they think they know about the Southwest, and the inception of when the continent was being explored and then commandeered. I hope that this play will break open that curiosity and ask, “What are you going to do with that piece of history now that you know it? Are you going to put it in a book and put it on the shelf to collect dust? Or are you going to actively find a way to share that story?” That’s the space where we can heal—when you can name the history and acknowledge that it happened. It happened many moons ago, but our country was built on it. How do we fix the systems in place that continue to inflict violence on Black and brown bodies? I hope more than anything that people can recognize the responsibility that comes with witnessing this story unfold.
Lily: I hope Californians learn about Genízaros—learn about who we were and are—because we are a tribeless tribe. We have found and made a tribe out of that horrible history. I hope they learn something new about the country’s history that they never knew before that inspires them to start their own journey of learning and unlearning, to challenge their own narrative about labor, ownership, land, and belonging. And I hope people leave the theater and go straight to calling their grandmother. (*Laughs*) Something any grandchild can do is acknowledge that it was a hard world out there for our ancestors, and was only made harder by these constant, oppressive systems. All we can do is continue telling these stories and thank each other.
“Desert Stories for Lost Girls” opens on Friday, Sept. 30 at the Los Angeles Theater Center and runs through October 16. For tickets and information, visit latinotheaterco.org.