Spanish play inspires audience to ponder disparity between ethnic identity, ancestry

Comedic play “La Gringa,” written by playwright Carmen Rivera, explores the journey of a woman facing the meaning of her cultural background for the first time.

Off-Broadway Hispanic Theater Company visited Geneseo and hosted two performances of the play “La Gringa” on April 11 in the Wadsworth Auditorium. These performances were different from your typical Geneseo theater group, as the entire play was performed in Spanish. Subtitles were provided for those who did not speak the language, but the performance seemed to transcend words at the same time.

The play takes place in Puerto Rico, the homeland of the protagonist Maria. Though Maria knows little about her native island, she feels drawn to it and hopes to explore this connection when visiting family there for the first time.

Maria soon realizes that Puerto Rico isn’t as accepting as she expected it to be. Her own family doesn’t even acknowledge her as Puerto Rican. Maria starts to question if she can sincerely love the land, despite the fact that she has never lived there before.

“La Gringa” raises several controversial questions, which ought to be asked, but may not be easily answered. Audience members wonder whether a person can identify with an entire community and culture if they are not actively involved in it, or if a person can disregard the historic culture that is inherent in their ancestry.

While watching this play, English literature and Spanish double major junior Mary Rutigliano asked herself these questions for the first time. 

“[‘La Gringa’] really opened my eyes to something that I really didn’t know was an issue,” she said. “But I thought it was really interesting to think about place and being and how we choose to invest into those things; who gets access to them and who we keep out.” 

With DNA testing taking the first world —particularly the United States— by storm in the last decade, “La Gringa” could not have come at a better time. People have been changing their entire way of life and how they perceive themselves and the world just by discovering that they are made up of a small percentage of some underrepresented group. 

It is interesting that, by receiving test results designed to inform a person of their ancestry, they may feel entitled to identify as a part of a culture which they were previously not engaged in. “La Gringa” delves into the topic of cultural identity and how a culture, community and land can accept an individual as their own. 

By the end of the play, Maria has her entire world pulled out from under her. She is constantly told she isn’t Puerto Rican by the group that she identifies with, and she is simultaneously put down by American society for having this identity. Maria is at a loss for who she is and starts to believe herself to be neither Puerto Rican nor American. 

The audience has sympathy for Maria as she struggles to discover who she is, but it is significantly more painful when she finally believes she has found her true self. This is a feeling all too real for those of mixed races or ethnicities—even for those simply trying to discover who they are.

At the finale of the performance, Maria finally connects with the island and her roots. She understands the struggles that come with cultural identity and the beauty and responsibility that is attached to being Puerto Rican American. 

“If we want to create a positive white identity, we have to work against that prejudice that encourages us to really forcibly adopt the ‘American-Whiteness,’” Rutigliano said. “That white American-ness that keeps us from looking at culture and wellbeing.”