Signs — and Signing — Create Tamales De Puerco

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Olin Tonatiuh and Cristal Gonzalez in "Tamales De Puerco." Photo by Ed Krieger.
Olin Tonatiuh and Cristal Gonzalez in “Tamales De Puerco.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

I wrote Tamales De Puerco (Pork Tamales), a trilingual story that includes Deaf characters and three languages — English, Spanish and American Sign Language (ASL) — because I saw a need for Deaf role models for my son.  “Deaf” is not a typo. Deaf is an identity, as in the group of people who communicate primarily using ASL — as opposed to “deaf,” a medical condition.  How I wrote it was easy after I learned signs.

Tamales De Puerco (Pork Tamales) gives voice to unique characters who must navigate through Deaf and hearing cultures.  It is a world where cultural borders disappear.  It is the result of my willingness to read the signs, as in The Signs.  For this story to come to life on stage, a long series of Signs occurred before I even learned how to sign.

Mercedes Floresislas.
Mercedes Floresislas.

Tamales De Puerco (Pork Tamales) began when I was in high school.  My brother — annoyingly pushy but well-intentioned — called me after having read an article about a talented young woman from Boyle Heights, Josefina López.  He said, “Why can’t you be more like her?”Â  I didn’t even know her, but I disliked her just as much as I disliked thinking that my brother, who raised me, thought I should be doing more with my life.  For 20 years her name was seared on my mind.

Years later, I was trapped in an abusive relationship and a world of self-limiting beliefs. I was convinced that I was the reason my baby was not thriving.  “What was God thinking, giving him such a lousy mother?” I thought.

But having my son diagnosed as profoundly deaf pushed me away from the edge that I was ready to jump from and into a world that I had never known existed. I went, unwillingly, on a journey. I fought for my son to develop speech; I refused to accept my son would not have a voice; I even got him the most cutting edge technology — a cochlear implant.  Nothing helped.

By the time he was six years old, it was clear that he would not develop speech.  One night, while still longing to hear his voice, I had a dream that I was a refugee. The other refugee families each had a beautiful, healthy plant with them.  I looked for mine but it was dried, wilting, dying.  At that moment I realized my son was missing. I panicked, I had to find him.  I woke up knowing that I was depriving my son of a vital nutrient and we started learning ASL.

Arturo Aranda and Cristal Gonzalez.
Arturo Aranda and Cristal Gonzalez.

It wasn’t easy. ASL is a beautiful language, and for people grounded on a sound-based society, it is also hypnotic — it catches everyone’s attention.  So, there I was, barely able to speak on the phone due to a severe anxiety disorder, and I had to communicate with my son using ASL.  Once again, I questioned God’s thinking.  Several years passed before I understood that my son’s inability to develop speech gave me a voice.  I found healing through the voice my son gave me.

When my son was eight years old, I learned that he believed it was impossible for a Deaf Mexican to become an actor.  As much as I hoped to expand his world, I didn’t think of writing to attempt to influence the stereotypes represented both in the media and his young mind.

Twenty years after having heard Josefina López’s name for the first time, I was attending an ASL class when I came across a small, crumpled piece of paper in the hallway (this is pathetic, but I picked it up simply because it was pink).  I had been plagued by the heartbreaking stories shared by my Deaf students and Deaf drug-addicted clients, for some time.  I recognized the name immediately, but I also recognized the ad for a writing workshop as a Sign.  I thought, “Josefina López?  Seriously, God?”

I kept the ad in my wallet for months before I attended her Casa 0101 workshop in January 2007.  Nine months later I wrote the first draft of Tamales De Puerco (Pork Tamales) and I had a table read.  The story gives voice to Deaf and hearing Latino characters.  Josefina’s unwavering support gave me the conviction not only to write Tamales De Puerco (Pork Tamales) but also to carry its growth (and mine) through a public workshop at Casa 0101 in late 2008, three performances at Cal State Northridge in early 2009 and now this official premiere with a four-weekend run.

Lynn Moran and Scott McMaster.
Lynn Moran and Scott McMaster.

My son will be 18 soon, and he has the opportunity to share the stage with a sensitive and talented cast of hearing and Deaf actors.  Tamales De Puerco (Pork Tamales) is a rare experience where cultural borders disappear.  For me, it is an opportunity to see temporal borders disappear and see the script laid out without long spaces or unnecessary question marks.

Tamales De Puerco (Pork Tamales), Casa 0101 Theater, 2102 East First Street (at St. Louis Street), Boyle Heights, CA  90033.  Opens April 5. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 5 pm. Through April 28. Tickets: $20. Supertitles in English and Spanish will be projected on a screen. 323-263-7684.

**All Tamales De Puerco production photos by Ed Krieger. 

Mercedes Floresislas was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, but nurtured in Boyle Heights, CA.  She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA and her master’s degree in social work from California State Los Angeles.  Floresislas became involved with Casa 0101 when she realized that her Latino Deaf students and her Deaf son never had the opportunity to see Deaf Latinos and their stories represented in the media.

Mercedes Floresislas

Mercedes Floresislas