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A Trip Through American History With Culture Clash

February 2, 2012 1:31 p.m.

René Millán is an actor and plays the role of Juan José in "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José."

Richard Montoya is a founding member of Culture Clash. He wrote "American Night: The Ballad of Juan José."

Herbert Siguenza is a founding member of Culture Clash, and an actor performing in the play

Related Story: A Trip Through American History With Culture Clash


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Becoming an American is still a dream for people around the world and the hope of many immigrants in this country. But US citizenship is not just a commitment to the promise of America but also to the nation's sometimes checkered past. A few play by culture clash explores those layers of history through the eyes of one new citizen with both profound and hysterical results. My guests, Richard Montoya is a founding member of culture clash. He wrote American night: The ballad of Juan Jose. Welcome to the show.

MONTOYA: Thanks so much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Herb Siguenza is also a member of culture clash.

SIGUENZA: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Rene Millan plays the read role of Juan Jose. Hello.

MILLAN: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Richard, there are so many ways that you could have written a play about immigration. Why did you choose the story of a man taking a citizenship test?

MONTOYA: Well, we'd watched in the last couple years as the newspaper headlines were screaming with the immigration headlines fervor, anti and for, and what's been going on in Arizona. We just thought at first we mapped out a kind of a journey through the eyes of 1 man who, believe it or not, is interested in the legal path to citizenship. And this idea of a fever dream, he wants to become an American so badly that it kicks him into a fever dream the night before he takes his test. And while we're doing our research and writing the piece, Arizona pops up, and then it becomes, well, how are we going to do this issue with the culture clash signature of both humor and satire and paths on? And we've grownup a lot bit too through the years. So hopefully we're looking at things not more adult, but with a little bit more reflection. So it just seemed that given the fervor and the headlines, nobody was bringing humor to the situation. And what if a man named Juan Jose, played by RenÈ, what if he had a fever dream the night before he takes his test and met most of the people he'd been studying? Lewis and Clark? Sacagawea. But more importantly, he meets people in the margins of American history. Jackie Robinson who we all know, but also the Emma tills, and there's the folks in west Texas and people that he meets in the margins of American history, harry bridges and so forth.

CAVANAUGH: A fascinating list of people. I think a lot of people have never heard of some of the characters in American night. And they are a deep part of American history. I'm just thinking though about the fever dream. Herb, in the La Jolla Playhouse playbill, there's a section where you can take part of an American citizenship test.


CAVANAUGH: And I don't think a lot of people who are native born would be able to pass it.

SIGUENZA: I think it's safe to say that the majority of Americans be not pass that test. People who were born here wouldn't pass that test. It's ironic that an immigrant like Juan Jose would know these questions more than, let's say, an American-born citizen.

CAVANAUGH: And it certainly would keep you up at night trying to cram that all into your head.

SIGUENZA: And it's ironic because the questions ask about the colonist, why did they leave England? Well, for the pursuit of happiness and freedom, which are the same exact themes that wan Jose wants, they're the same exact things that he wants. So we've forgotten, as a nation, our value system.

CAVANAUGH: There are a lot of serious things in this play, a lot of serious topics. How do you make this funny?

SIGUENZA: Well, that's been a culture clash trademark since the beginning. We've always examined history and looked at history and have always found the silver lining of history. Our history is always violent, but underneath there's always a human and a humor underneath it if you look for it.

MONTOYA: If Juan Jose dreams he's one of the signers and framers of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, he's basically signing a document that makes him an outlaw 100 years later. That's not ha ha funny, but we find the situation full of humor and possibilities. We found that Christian charities were doing a lot of work with immigrants. So he finds himself in the basements of the latter day saints with the Catholics with the unitarians, but scared off by the Scientologists. We find humor in that sort of stuff. And here's San Diego and La Jolla, front and center, in the topic. I was listening before we came on, the San Onofre situation, every time we're in a town that happens to take a nation spotlight for just a few moments. And I love that La Jolla and San Diego is a border region. So that brings a lot of humor when they're signing the treaty of Guadalupe, the Mexicans don't want to give up Oregon, but they give up San Ysidro and San Bernardino.

SIGUENZA: And 15 generations ago, there was no border miles from here. We're not that far away from this change.

MONTOYA: Yeah, this Orange County border is relatively new.

CAVANAUGH: I want to make the point, Richard you did actually rewrite large chunks of this play to reflect San Diego. Soy do we hear about La Jolla? What kind of communities in San Diego do we hear about in American night?

MONTOYA: Well, let's just look at the surfing madonna mosaic. If you're a surfer, you're glad it's there. If you're a homeowner in the area, you might be protesting it. But if you're one of those shadowy figures crossing the freeway, and suddenly one day you see it, you might get on your knees and pray to that thing. And I just love that that sort of complexity, just as an example, is here. And all the nameless of the towns, Rancho Bernardo, La Jolla, California, San Diego. You know, it's the more elite, the more gated the community, the more Mexican it sounds.

CAVANAUGH: I don't think I've heard them that way!

MONTOYA: And people have been traversing the transcontinental border for years. We've known of housekeepers, and people that work at the La Jolla center of art that come and go every day from Tijuana to San Diego, and we try to give it credit, and we don't look down on that. It's a great source of inspiration, and a great deal of humor.

CAVANAUGH: RenÈ, has it been hard getting a word in edge wise?

SIGUENZA: No! They have been really good.

CAVANAUGH: Now you play Juan Jose, the star in American night

MILLAN: Oh, God!

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about Juan Jose.

MILLAN: Well, I think Juan Jose is a decent human being. More than anything else, he's a really good guy. He's highly principled, he is highly moral, and he's trying to do his best. And that's why he's struggling so much with his test. I think like anybody that -- if anything, he's probably overprepared to take this test. But he is so neurotic and nervous about it that it completely consumes him. It's like anybody before they take any sort of big test. Even the driving test. We'll be dreaming about it for days and days before it actually happens. But in the end, he's just an unbelievably generous and good person.

CAVANAUGH: Who are some of the people who meets on this fever dream journey that he takes before the test?

MILLAN: Well, we mentioned Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea, and he one of the great scenes, he gets to go to Manzanar, to the Japanese relocation center there. And that's a topic that people don't really touch, you know? And Richard has gone there. You don't see it in pieces of theatre or even in film. You don't see this particular dark point of American history.

CAVANAUGH: The Japanese internment camps.

MILLAN: Being talked about or acted out, so he gets to meet people this.

CAVANAUGH: You found, Richard, the story of Ralph Lazo. I think that's fascinating.

MONTOYA: Herbert actually was really the first one on that bit of research. But the more we uncovered, this Chicano kid from east LA follows his Japanese friends. East LA was a Jewish enclave before the diaspora to the Fairfax in west Los Angeles area. It was a Japanese enclave. Before it became a Chicano enclave. And we're fascinated by that urban excavation. So this Chicano get in the '40s, gets on the bus, doesn't tell his parents, and follows his japanese friends up at Manzanar. He decides to stay there out of a moral obligation. If his Japanese friends are going to be interned, he is too. And he becomes an American war hero as men of the Japanese men did become. One thing about RenÈ, he's a native and sings songs that will rip your heart out, and he's got 3% body fat, and he's really lovely to look at. And this idea he's a good guy, we're not letting Mexico off the hook here. There's a culture of death and cartel violence in Mexico that is pushing people also into the situation along the border regions. And that also makes San Diego, Tijuana, La Jolla, a fascinating -- and in the national spotlight, also the world is looking all along the border suddenly again. And more boots on the border as the president says, and the complications of -- we find people interned along the border also. So Ralph Lazo and Manzanar is a strange reverberation of what we see going on now in America.

CAVANAUGH: And I don't want to fail to mention that you grew up in Logan Heights, right?

MILLAN: I did. I grew up in Logan Heights before it was known as Barrio Logan.

MONTOYA: That's right.

SIGUENZA: And Richard was born in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: So-so this is a homecoming.

MILLAN: This is my professional debut in my home town.

MONTOYA: I took my son to San Diego zoo, and we saw a wildebeest being born. And I thought we have something in common, we're both born in Balboa Park. And I was listening to my favorite jazz singer, Castellano, and my point is, we've done a lot of research in the area, going back to Carrie Kahn, on the border, San Diego rep and border town, and I felt then something I feel differently now. I don't think San Diego and the region is looking to Los Angeles anymore. There's enough going on here. Upon you have jazz clubs on Wednesday that we don't even have in Los Angeles. You have a bar scene. I'm not talking about the Gaslamp district, even off that. There's so much interesting things going on that I really feel that you're not under the shadow or looking toward Los Angeles. And I think we try to honor that idea in the show.

CAVANAUGH: That's a great observation. And I tend to agree with you. I just want to mention to everyone, Carrie Kahn used to work here as a reporter, and used to work the border region. And she's now up in LA and working very hard up there. Herb, when it comes to satire on immigration, you must get some inspiration from the things that are actually being proposed by politicians.

SIGUENZA: Oh, boy. You couldn't even write what they want. Our culture clash books, our trilogy of plays, are banned in Arizona. They're officially banned under the ethnic studies proposal, which is just ridiculous. We couldn't write fiction or comedy. It's not comedy, it's tragedy, really what's happening in Arizona. And we just -- the comedy writes itself most of the time because it's just outrageous what they're doing.

CAVANAUGH: I'm interested to get your reaction to this idea that's praying out in the Republican presidential primary about self-deportation. You have heard about that?

MONTOYA: Oh, yeah.

SIGUENZA: That's a friend of our. That's a friend of ours that came up with that, Lalo Alcaraz.

MONTOYA: It's based on the idea, coming out of the Romney camp that good folks would self-deport themselves. Beam me up, Scotty!

SIGUENZA: I love that idea because no ONE'S going to do it.

MONTOYA: It just -- this morning, the governor of Arizona has made every Latino a kind of a suspect. So I would deport myself where? To the naval hospital where my dad served time in Korea, took his GI bill and went to art school. I find it terribly offense. . I would self deport just like an abdication to Cancun.

CAVANAUGH: What's your reaction, RenÈ? When you watch the immigration debate taking place?

MILLAN: It's interesting, growing up in Logan Heights, when I was growing up in the late '70s and early '80s there, primarily immigrants from Latin America, and so I -- you know, Juan Jose, and a lot -- in dealing in trying to prepare for Juan Jose, I went and I just remembered back to my own childhood. And I remember having to take -- I went to university of San Diego high school, Uni high before they knocked it down, and I remember being on the bus, and back in the mid-80s, and being -- having the border patrol get up on the bus and check us all, you will of our aid on IDs. And it got to the point where they used to take us off the bus, anybody that was suspend, anybody that had the brown skin color or whatever. And this actually happened. And this happened to me a few times while I was in high school. I was able to really dig into those particular experiences. And so looking at it now, it's one of those things that I look at it, and I say, well, are things in many ways haven't really changed. We've always been kind of suspected of not being from here. Or, you know, we can't be here, we can't be there: Where do we belong? We've always lived in this gray area of the border. What is the border? The border is this imaginary line that you look from space, it doesn't even exist.

MONTOYA: It's in your mind, ese.

CAVANAUGH: I think, too, a large part of what this place is about it seems to me is that people who are marginalized by the mainstream society still with this desire and this passion for America.


CAVANAUGH: Which is why Juan Jose goes through all of these people in the past and meets people that perhaps we don't even remember in our mainstream history like viola. Tell us about viola.

MONTOYA: I found out about viola through a great recontour gentleman from west Texas, and I travelled there with my wife and son, and we found the grave site in Texas of this self-taught African American nurse, 1918, at the height of the influenza epidemic that's killing millions of people worldwide. Viola petis is treating anyone that will venture into her camp. And she's armed with only her castor oil and her faith. And her and her husband, Ben petis, a black cowboy, are treating establishment -- children of the establishment, clansmen, people who are coming over from the Mexican border. And there was a great rural myth that she saved many families. And it turns out that she saves the family of Juan Jose in years prior. So he holds his own great grandfather in his arms as an infant. So that sort of magic is there. And Juan Jose finds himself at the center of a town hall. So we kind of culture clash, we take back the town hall. And I think that audience members are really listening because we're all a generation or two away from the Juan Jose story, whether your family came in through Ellis island or through a small brown creek in the Rio grande. What's the difference in the juxtaposition of that? And I think Anglo audience members, because RenÈ is humanizing the immigrant man, they're recognizing the isolation that he must keep moving. Who held a lantern in the night? In their own family stories, whoever kept moving in the night survived, lived.

CAVANAUGH: We are out of time. American night, the ballad of Juan Jose, is currently on stage at the La Jolla Playhouse, and runs through February 26th. Thank you all.

MONTOYA: Thank you Maureen, you're a stone-cold fox! And smart.