As Chicago’s Destinos wrapped up over the weekend — the city’s third annual International Latino Theater Festival — there was a glaring absence of one of its more highly-anticipated plays. “La Tía Mariela,” written by award-winning Mexican playwright Conchi León, was supposed to be performed on Saturday evening at the National Museum of Mexican Art as part of the citywide festival, but the show was canceled after federal authorities informed the cast and crew last week that they would not be getting visas after all.
Alejandra Ley, one of the show’s cast members, told a local news station last week, “We wanted to go to Chicago to show our work for the Latino community […] We are all kind of mad because we don’t understand.”
The Chicago Latino Theater Alliance added that they had petitioned for the production’s visas with ample documentation. “We submitted over 100 pages of documents, press releases, letters of testimonials talking about how there’s Mayan mythology (in the play), traditional folkloric dance,” explained a spokesperson for the alliance.
Yet, the cast and crew were denied their visas — a specific type of temporary visa awarded to artists who are bringing unique culture to the US — on the basis that the production was apparently not culturally unique enough to merit approval from the US Department of Citizenship Immigration Services. “I think the argument is absurd and out of place because my work of 20 years is precisely known for its cultural footprint,” León recently told NBC News. “As a ‘yucateca’ myself, I made sure to include a well curated selection of ‘yucateco’ songs, including some from world-renowned singer and composer Armando Manzanero. We include Mayan words and go deep into the cultural roots of Yucatán which are deeply Mayan and mestizo.” The play covered topics such as human trafficking, violence, and LGBTQ discrimination.
León’s award-winning work typically integrates issues of human rights and is viewed through a lens of indigenous and yucateco culture. In 2016, as part of PEN World Voices, she brought to the stage her play “Mestiza Power” in New York City, which was a dramatic culmination of real life interviews she had held with women on the streets of Yucatán’s capital Mérida. The play was informed by “mystical practice, domestic violence, and the life of street vendors.” Currently, it is being adapted for film.
Federal officials are not commenting on what, exactly, wasn’t culturally unique enough about the play, bringing to mind whether someone didn’t find it to be “Mexican” enough or if perhaps the subject matter was too suggestive of the very real dangers and conditions under which some Central American communities live and are expected to thrive.