Siglo de Oro Drama Festival at the Chamizal National Monument
“At a time when Shakespeare’s plays are being televised to millions thanks to the British Broadcasting System and P.B.S., it is gratifying to know that the dramas of his Spanish contemporaries also have some opportunity where their theatrical expression before the public is welcomed and realized.” So wrote Donald Dietz, a professor of Spanish at Texas Tech University in 1979, after his visit to the 4th annual Siglo de Oro Drama Festival at the Chamizal National Monument (El Paso, Texas). Considering Shakespeare’s remarkable popularity in any number of cultural contexts — from high school classrooms to international festivals, and films as well as television — Professor Dietz’s observation still holds today: there are precious few venues in the U.S. where one can take in a play by Félix Lope de Vega or Pedro Calderón de la Barca.
Every year since 1976, theater companies, theater lovers, and scholars from around the world have gathered in El Paso to celebrate Spain’s Golden Age of theater, which spanned the 16th and 17th centuries and included not only Lope and Calderón, but Miguel de Cervantes and Tirso de Molina, the first to put Don Juan on stage. According to Susan Paun García, professor of Spanish at Denison University and president of the Association for Hispanic Classical Theater (AHCT), in the United States Chamizal is “the first festival of its kind – and [the] longest-running” to pay homage to Spain’s “enormous wealth” of classical theater, which was produced at the same time as Shakespeare’s, and predates France’s greatest era of theater (including Molière, Pierre Corneille, and Jean Racine), serving as inspiration for some of France’s best works, such as Corneille’s The Liar – based on Juan Ruiz de Alarcón’s The Suspicious Truth.
The festival was conceived by Franklin Smith, the first superintendent of the Chamizal National Memorial, as a way of commemorating the U.S.’s bicentennial (1976) and, in the words of Walker Reid (a retired director of cultural affairs at Chamizal) “of fostering a positive relationship” between the U.S. and Mexico, particularly following the resolution, in the 1960s, of a century-old international border dispute over some 600 acres along the Rio Grande, called the Chamizal. Since its inception, the festival has become a mainstay in the area, and an annual recognition of the region’s Hispanic heritage. Always popular with people from near and far, it is now, for park ranger Gina Hernandez, “its own establishment,” with many locals who grew up with it attending with their own kids. And it has been an international affair from the start, with actors from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Spain, and with more recent contributions from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and the United States.
What has changed over the years? Today, the festival is truly bi-national, with parallel events in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso. It has also added an educational outreach program, which takes the plays into community schools. Pablo Jasso, a theater teacher at Bel Air High School (El Paso) has his students perform a Golden Age play every year and attends Chamizal’s performances with them. So, although Donald Dietz’s observation of Shakespeare’s predominance still rings true, for more than 40 years the Chamizal National Monument has done its part to diversify theater-goers’ options, with, as Professor Dietz put it, most gratifying results.