Margarita Espada: the art of social change

A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Hofstra University’s Pulse Magazine.

Though it may look like a common weed, the yerba bruja, a leafy green plant that grows in the Puerto Rican countryside, is said to contain magical powers—powers to heal, to flourish, to thrive even in the harshest and most unwelcoming of conditions.

When Margarita Espada, then a young undergrad studying theater, education, and union organization at Puerto Rico University, was searching for a name for her fledgling theater company, she wanted something that would represent not only her homeland, but also the unique challenges of working with theater for social change. One symbol came to mind: the unrelenting yerba bruja.

Over a decade later, when Espada would move her company, Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja, to her new home on Long Island, she couldn’t have predicted how deeply that symbol of persistence, assimilation, and survival would pervade her work and life—as an activist, a teacher, a mother, a community organizer, and most importantly, an artist.

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LIR Photo Credit: Gillie Houston

Margarita Espada’s home, situated on a quiet street in Central Islip, New York, is bright and open, filled with cool fall air and mid-afternoon light drifting in through the cracked windows.

Espada herself, offering an open smile and a kiss on the cheeks hello, is as warm as her living room walls, painted in shades of yellow and orange and covered in relics of her travels—masks, artwork, and memorabilia that reflect a life well-traveled and a deep appreciation for the culture that lies far beyond this corner of Long Island.

Born in Aibonito, a small mountain town in the Cayey mountain range of Puerto Rico, Espada discovered early on her passion for the arts. “In Puerto Rico, art and culture is very important. We are always dancing, everything is very colorful, everything is about expression.”

Spending most of her life in Villa Palmeras, a sector of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, Espada grew up the middle child of five siblings, and found her unique identity through the theater.

“I grew up in a neighborhood that was really struggling, and for some reason I always had this art inside of me.”

She went on to get her Bachelor’s in Theater and Education at Puerto Rico University in 1990, though also drawn to idea of becoming a lawyer for social justice. She considered studying law, but “the call for the art was stronger.”

After earning her degree, Espada began to seek new ways to grow her knowledge and appreciation of the theatrical arts.

She formed Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja, opening a theater space in San Juan that thrived for 10 years, while simultaneously traveling around the world to follow and learn first-hand from masters of the form.

Selected to go to Cuba in the 90s to meet all of the masters of Latin American theater, Espada’s desire to travel and learn from her influencers grew from there, taking her from Denmark to study under Theater Anthropology’s Eugenio Barba, to international festivals and events in Europe, Columbia, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and beyond.

However, when Espada began to look into Masters programs to further develop her craft, her sights turned to New York, the theatrical center of the universe.

“I had no idea what Long Island was,” she says, smiling wryly. But, after being offered a full scholarship to the State University of New York at Stony Brook to study Dramaturgy, Espada packed her bags. Later, after thriving in her graduate studies, Espada was offered a position at Stony Brook teaching theater and Latin American studies.

LIR Photo Credit: Gillie Houston

LIR Photo Credit: Gillie Houston

Following her graduation, Espada returned to Puerto Rico for a time, but returned to Long Island in 2000 for good. Having now married and had her first child, she sought a place to raise her family, settling on the hamlet of Central Islip.

“I decided I wanted to raise my kids in a community that was more diverse. I’m a city person. I grew up in the city, and for some reason Central Islip had this diversity,” she says.

Though some questioned Espada’s decision to move to a town that had a reputation for gang violence and racial tensions, Espada says, “We have a lot of social issues, but I wanted the diversity. You walk around and have people of different shapes and colors. And for me, as a Latina coming from Puerto Rico where we are very diverse, this was very important.”

Now divorced and a single mother to her two children, Mariana Lima, 23, who is currently studying at University of Puerto Rico, and Malcom Bunce, 15, Espada recalls her shock at arriving in Central Islip years ago to discover there was no art center and virtually no artistic outlets in the town.

But perhaps most troubling were the issues within the political system, including the insufficient allocation of public funds to social and artistic efforts. “As a person with a lot of social understanding of how the system works, I felt there was a lot of neglect through the history of this community.”

Espada decided then and there that she would make it her mission to revive the artistic spirit within the community.

“I thought, everything is for a reason. I’m here, this is my call: to organize the art,” she says. “[Central Islip] is always portrayed with negativity. But there’s a lot of richness in this community and a lot of positivity here that they don’t get a chance to showcase.”

Armed with a keen knowledge of public policy, Espada began reaching out to every elected official she could get a hold of, demanding to know where the arts funding was. “I understand budget, I understand how money’s allocated, and asked, what percent of budget is allocated to the arts?”

Gaining little ground by way of political aid, Espada decided to take matters into her own hands, reviving Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja in a new form and new location, making it their mission to “advance cultural understanding within the diverse Long Island communities… by using the theatrical and other performing and visual arts as tools to promote constructive social change; and to provide opportunities for emerging and established artists.”

However, adapting her creative work to the American environment wasn’t always easy. Though technically a United States citizen, Espada says, “I’m Puerto Rican from Puerto Rico, so I really consider myself an immigrant. Because of my cultural experience, I

I see things through the filter of my Puerto Rican experience,” Espada says.

“But after 20 years here, you become in between. You start to grow roots here, you understand the system, you understand the culture, and you start to assimilate. Half of you is in one place, and half of you is in another; it’s a very difficult experience to try to stay balanced, to embrace who you are in a new way.”

All around her, Espada found other artists and community members struggling with this notion of dual cultural identities. She also began to witness first hand the struggles of immigrants on Long Island and the segregation that has so heavily plagued the area for so many years.

“Being from Puerto Rico, because we’re so mixed, there was not a strong presence of segregation in my life,” she says. “Coming here, suddenly I’ve become Latina, and I need to behave a certain way and have these expectations placed on me to fill this category. So it was very hard for me to understand that; why do I have to be a category?

I’m Puerto Rican; I’m Latina; I’m whatever. I’m a human being.”

Though tensions were already high over racial segregation on Long Island, they came to a climax in November of 2008, with the murder of Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant and victim of a mob beating and fatal stabbing at the hands of a white 17-year-old Patchogue high school student with a history of targeting immigrants and Hispanics in particular with threats of violence.

The murder ignited a wave of debate across the communities of Long Island, who began to confront the deeply rooted segregation issues that had for so long been swept under the rug. The political and social conversation that had for years been spoken only in whispers was now being shouted about from all sides, revealing the dormant hostilities and conflict over Long Island’s historically segregational culture.

An already active voice for the immigrant and artistic communities of Long Island, and a member of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, Espada will never forget that time.

“When the hate crime happened, I was paralyzed,” she says. “I was in shock, I felt angry, and I thought, you know what? I need to respond.”

Seeing the opportunity to merge her art and activism, Espada immediately thought, “Let’s put this on stage. We need to talk about this. This is insane—no one is talking, everyone is screaming, one side at the other. We had this opportunity to talk about the issue, to do something to really create change. So I said, okay, let’s do a play.”

Espada didn’t know going into the project what kind of play she was crafting. A student and teacher of experimental theater, she knew right away that she wanted to craft an unconventional production with a bilingual cast of non-actors from around the community, in order to “give a voice to the community, a voice to the people who don’t have the opportunity to talk.”

She set out researching and talking to community members, gathering stories of struggle and immigration, and listening to first-hand accounts of hate crimes and racial harassment.

“I had the opportunity, and big responsibility, to work with these people. I’m not undocumented, so hearing their stories opened a whole new door for me,” Espada says. “Yes, I’ve experienced racism, but still I can open my mouth, go to every place, have a license. Their experience was different, and they really educated me about that.”

The narrative of the play was formed around the idea of two communities, one Latino and Spanish-speaking, and the other non-Latino and English-speaking.

There was a language barrier among many of her cast members, creating a unique challenge for Espada as a playwright and director. “I did a lot of work to put the cast together and to get them to understand each other,” she says. “We all changed through the process. It was hard, and we’re totally different people because of the way the play was created.”

Yerbabruja partnered with a half-dozen community organizations from around Long Island, including the Immigrant Alliance, in order to create an authentic and thought provoking project that would inform, inspire, and foster a significant discussion across audiences.

The play, “What Killed Marcello Lucero?” put on productions all over Long Island and New York City, inviting audiences to participate in an impromptu discussion about immigration and social change.

“I made a distinction between Marcello, the personal story, and the social issue—which is power, which is structure and institutionalized racism,” Espada says. “I wanted to explore how we stereotype communities.”

At the height of the action of the play, following the graphic portrait of Lucero’s murder, and the riots and protests that followed, Espada would stop the play and turn the attention to the audience. “As a director I said, ‘stop. I don’t have an ending. I don’t have a solution either.’ And I asked the audience to give us a solution. Theater does not just exist to show you life, but to create a possibility to rehearse a new reality.”

With this approach, Espada opened up a poignant and important line of dialogue about immigration and segregation across a diverse range of communities.

“As an artist, working with this kind of theater, you have a big responsibility. You can’t just go into a community and agitate or give a big speech,” she says. By partnering with panels of experts and inviting audiences to speak up, Espada created a work of art that asked, what is the next step towards creating a more equal, open society?

Written about in publications from “Newsday” to the “New York Times,” “What Killed Marcelo Lucero?” was a huge social success for Espada and Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja, which has, in recent years, taken on a greater roll in the Long Island arts community.

The company, in addition to currently working on a new social theater production focusing on women’s issues, has done work in schools, through their Art in Education Program, working with educators to emphasize the essential roll of the arts in school.

They have also collaborated for many years to put on the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Day Parade, and will soon open Downtown Islip’s first arts center, a longtime dream and passion project Espada is thrilled is finally coming to life.

The arts center will have a gallery, a performance space, and an outside museum and community garden, where they will be able to hold workshops, classes, performances, presentations and exhibitions.

“It is in Central Islip, but the idea is to engage this dialogue through the whole island and beyond,” Espada says. “It’s a place where everyone is welcome. It’s not a Latino center; it’s an arts center—that’s very important to me.”

Currently renovating their location at 63 Carlton Ave. in Islip in preparation for their grandopening and 10 year anniversary celebration on December 12—which is open to the public—Yerbabruja is currently looking for grants and donations from the community. “To support us is really to create art for social change,” Espada says.

“I want to give everyone the opportunity to celebrate art,” Espada says, who aims to make Yerbabruja the heart of the Long Island artistic community, and a place “not only to represent art, but also to administrate art and to professionalize art.”

In response to her admirable work in the artistic and immigrant communities across Long Island, Espada has been recognized with over two dozen service awards from public officials, offices, and organizations, including the Long Island Progressive Coalition (Long Islander Who Has Made A Difference, 2014), the Working Families Party (Community Advocate of the Year, 2010), and the Latin American Chamber of Commerce of New York (Woman of the Year, 2006).

However, though grateful for the recognition, Espada doesn’t like to dwell long on the awards and accolades; she’d much rather talk about the art.

“Art is my religion. It’s where I get my spirituality—doing art in so many places, and having the opportunity to get to work with so many artists from different backgrounds.”

In addition to her continued work with Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja, Espada wears many other hats around the community. On top of being an community organizer and mother, Espada recently directed Stony Brook’s Theater Arts Department projection of “Life is a Dream,” getting the chance to infuse a classic work with her experimental, visceral style.

Incorporating multimedia and digital technology, the production was able to merge modern influences with the classic art of theater—a marriage Espada eagerly explores in her work.

Additionally, Espada and her mentor, Stony Brook Theater Chair, John Lutterbie, have also partnered together on research to advance the knowledge of how theater can be partnered with physical therapy, particularly in regards to aiding those with Parkinson’s and Autism.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for me,” Espada says, “because now I’m working with neurologists, psychiatrists, and because we have so much technology now, we can really see how the brain is working according to theater. It’s a privilege for me to be in a place with all this curiosity about how the actor brain works, and how the theater can benefit people from within.”

And above all, Espada enjoys her work as a professor, enabling her to pass on her passion for theater to a new generation.

“I like to teach, I like to share, and was blessed to have good mentors in my life,” she says. “You receive and you give, it’s a social responsibility. That’s my philosophy in life and in my studies and my work. Sometimes community members say, ‘Thank you. How can I repay you?’ And I say, ‘you don’t have to do anything for me. The next person that needs something, do something for them, and it’s a chain of change.’”

LIR Photo Credit: Gillie Houston

LIR Photo Credit: Gillie Houston

For Margarita Espada, art is not merely a form of expression, but a vehicle for significant dialogue and lasting change.

“When you have an opportunity to express yourself through art, not only do you get to work with others, but you start to understand yourself also. You have this conversation with yourself, and are in balance and contact with yourself.

“When people do art, they are connected. That’s why people use art to organize.” And organize, she has.

Like the yerba bruja plant freckling the hillsides of Puerto Rico, withstanding intense heat and almost unlivable conditions, adapting to whatever challenges threaten to harm it, Margarita Espada, too, has learned to adapt, to survive, to thrive.

A voice for the immigrant community and a champion of artistic expression and education, Espada has withstood it all—a community in strife, a lasting history of segregation, an unimaginable hate crime, and a challenge to bring a voice to the voiceless.

Through this and more, Espada has risen above and prevailed, using art and the passion that flourished within her from her earliest moments of childhood, to bring a clear and resounding sense of hope, life, lasting dialogue, and mutual understanding to her community.

“Art is language. It dips into your soul and crosses cultures, across everything. When we experience art, there’s something in our souls, in our brains that connect us to something bigger,” Espada says, smiling. “I like to change people through art, and to help them understand that art is not a privilege; everyone should have access to it.”

Sitting in her living room, surrounded by relics of her life and lit up with the glow of sunlight and proud reflection, she pauses, letting her final words ring out. Eyes bright, she laughs at the sentiment—knowing it to be corny, but undeniably true:

“I think through art, you can change the world.”

For more information about the work of Margarita Espada and Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja, or to donate, go to http://www.teatroyerbabruja.org/.

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