A Paper by Lorenzo Garcia, University of North Texas (USA)
Presented at the Conference of the International Theatre for Young Audiences Research Network (ITYARN), part of the ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering 2019 in Kristiansand, Norway.
Patricia Limerick, a historian of the American West, notes in The Legacy of Conquest:
The cast of characters who inhabit the [American] West’s complex past is as diverse as ever. As Western dilemmas recur, we wish we knew more not only about the place but also about each other. It is a disturbing element of continuity in [American] Western history that we have not ceased to be strangers. (349)
What I resonate with in Limerick’s observation is the urgent need for an alternative poetics of place that offers the possibility of ceasing to be strangers. In Texas, my place of residence, media spectacles trade on ethnocentricities multiply entangled in the prickly thickets of race, class, gender, and nation. Projected in these spectacles is a specific cultural image of the US-Mexico border as the symbolic line between us—those who belong (i.e., citizens)—and them—the strangers/others (i.e., illegal aliens). No doubt, contradictions and tensions abound when taking on the challenge of ceasing to be strangers, which implies a commitment to assuage what legal scholar Patricia Williams calls “the trauma of gratuitous generalizations” (82).
In this essay, I turn to The Highest Heaven, written by the prolific José Cruz González, on the belief that it does serious work as a cultural intervention examining what it means for a Latinx child to live as the stigmatised stranger/other, to exist way beyond the border of belonging in places of concealment and hiding. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the young protagonist Huracán, though a US citizen, is deported to Mexico. Huracán must then embark on a special journey, albeit the well-known migration from north to south. It is nearly impossible to discuss the thematic content in Highest Heaven without raising the discourses and practices that position Huracán, however uncomfortably, within the locus of otherness. But if the often misunderstood term intervention is to be applied to plays like Highest Heaven that extend virtue and heroism to Latinx youth, they must first be prized not so much because of an elaboration of the intrinsic qualities of strangers/others, but due to the injunction to unlearning the biases against the position strangers/others occupy. With an understanding of unlearning as a displacement of learning, the discussion of Highest Heaven here draws attention to the willingness to deconstruct depictions of menace, incoherence, and deformation, while simultaneously constructing the possibility of transcendence elsewhere, always immanent.