La Gringa: A story of cultural identity

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Local News

By: Ashmar Mandou

Cultural identity will be explored as UrbanTheater Company kicks off its 11th season this weekend when the long-running, Off-Broadway Spanish play, La Gringa premieres. La Gringa, written by Carmen Rivera, is about a Puerto Rican-American woman’s search for her identity. UrbanTheater Company, alongside Miranda Gonzalez of Teatro Luna and Mike Oquendo of Mikey O Productions, worked effortlessly to bring this poignant tale to life, here in Chicago. Lawndale Bilingual Newpsaper UrbanTheater Company’s Executive Director Ivan Vega about La Gringa’s debut and what he hopes the takeaway will be.

Lawndale Bilingual News: UrbanTheater Company is set to open its 11th season with the long-running play, La Gringa, written by Carmen Rivera. What inspired your decision to kick-off the season with that particular play?

Ivan Vega: The choice to produce La Gringa was quite easy and there are many reasons why we did so. First of all, the play has been running for twenty years Off-Broadway and yet, it’s never been produced in Chicago. Secondly, it was important to produce La Gringa at UrbanTheater in Humboldt Park, Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. Thirdly, UTC is known for producing heavy and aggressive themed plays so going with a comedy was a good change up, especially, since it takes place during the Christmas holiday. Lastly, it was an opportunity to work with Mikey O and Carmen Rivera again, both of whom we love and respect.

What vital aspect of the stories told in the play resonated with you the most?

The sense of identity and belonging. It’s a universal theme we can all relate to.

UrbanTheater Company teamed up with Miranda Gonzalez of Teatro Luna and Mike Oquendo of Mikey O Comedy Productions to work on La Gringa; how was the collaboration process?

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Local News

The process has been very smooth and rewarding with both Mikey and Miranda. Mikey and I go way back. He’s a friend and advisor and I respect and admire what he’s created as a producer and his advocacy and investment in anything Latinx. He’s always been there for me and UTC. He’s someone I enjoy learning from and working with. Our partnership together has been seamless. I’ve known Miranda for about fifteen years. We’ve worked together on stage but never in this capacity. She’s been interested in working with us and as it turned out, La Gringa was the perfect play for her to direct—she identifies as Blaxican but grew up knowing a lot of Puerto Rican people and having a lot of Puerto Rican friends. She has a great background in comedy performance and direction through her decade of experience with Teatro Luna and beyond, and she brings that sense of ensemble work to this production. I’m so glad the way it worked out. I’ve never doubted Miranda for one moment and appreciate her ensemble approach and working from a place of love and honesty. This experience has been a rewarding one.

La Gringa delves into discovering one’s cultural identity and spiritual connectivity. Given the harmful dialogue surrounding the immigrant community, how important is a play like La Gringa for our community?

There’s a reason why La Gringa has been running for twenty-years Off-Broadway. It’s still very much relatable. Even though Carmen Rivera captured the Puerto Rican experience in La Gringa, it speaks to anyone who is a first generation born in America. I love reading about how everyone’s excited toward La Gringa and them saying, “This is my life. This is my story. I’m La Gringa. That’s me!” It’s my story, too.

I’m a first generation Puerto Rican who was born and raised in La Villita (Chicago’s Mexican community). My parents owned and operated a neighborhood grocery store called El Mexicano with a photo of Vicente Fernández on the front sign. For a moment, I grew up thinking I was Mexican. My grandparents, on the other hand, lived in the heart of Humboldt Park, so I had the best of both worlds growing up. When I was a kid I would travel to Puerto Rico with my family during summer breaks and Christmas holidays. Even though my parents were born on the island and I was born in the US, to my family in PR, I was always from ‘over there/de allá.’ I was different. Just like María in La Gringa and many others, even though I grew up with a sense of pride being Puerto Rican, this made me educate myself more about Puerto Rico and its history because no one has the right to tell me I’m not Puerto Rican enough (or wherever you’re from). So that sense of belonging as I mentioned before is something we all look for. No one has the right of determining that for us. That comes from within.

What do you hope is the takeaway?

A sense of pride. A sense of community. A place for laugher and nostalgia. An escape from the world we live in, to place (our theater and the world we’ve created) where everyone is accepted and loved equally. To understand: Who I am is enough. To just be.

The Midwest premiere of La Gringa opens November 11th and 12th at UrbanTheater Company, 2620 W. Division St., and runs Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30p.m., and Sundays at 3p.m., through December 11th. For more information, visit

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