This interview was conducted at the “Performing Gender and Violence in Contemporary National and Transnational Contexts Conference” for World Theatre Day, that took place on March 27-28 2014 in Rome, Italy. Raquel Almazan was one of five female playwrights selected to participate and was paired with the Italian Theatre Scholar Alessandro Clericuzio who analyzed the play LA PALOMA PRISONER.
An excerpt from La Paloma Prisoner play, analysis and interview with Alessandro Clericuzio in Performing Gender and Violence in National and Transnational Contexts; Edited by Maria Anita Stefanelli; published early 2017 by L.E.D. Edizioni universitarie di Letterature Economia Diritto, Milano. Purchase link: https://www.lededizioni.com/catalogo.html?/catalogo/795-performing-gender-violence.html
TITLE OF ESSAY: SERIAL KILLERS, SERIAL LOVERS: “And through Almazan’s plays, through her beautifully crafted scenes, her love stories that are moving in spite of the sad and violent backgrounds, through her undeniable mastery of dramatic language in all its aspects, made up of hetereglossic texts that prove culturally disturbing, these shells do speak to mesmerized readers and audiences.” Alessandro Clericuzio
CLERICUZIO- “Paloma is a very strong character, a ‘superheroine’. Where and how does she get her supernatural powers?”
ALMAZAN- “Those who are open to a variety of ways of spiritual guidance can have animals that guide them and or embody their spirits. Those that can access their spiritual powers can have the ability to transform and use those abilities in other dimensions. The dove Paloma bird is often a symbol of peace and the animal has the ability to spiritually release the dead. Paloma birds honor the dead by leading spirits to their place in the after life. Paloma in the play leads men to their afterlife as a vigilante figure.
The crimes committed against women, murder- rape, verbal and physical abuse leaves a lasting mark (that Paloma can recognize) not only on the men who committed these acts but on the world energetically. This physical act of abuse can manifest negative and positive metaphysical forces. Paloma is able to harness these forces, she embodies them, they run through her, transforming her into her animal guide. She both then carries light and dark energies, she is a conduit for all the forces, she opens herself for them to enter her.
She also transforms the harm done against her and manifests it into a power. Instead of letting the abuse done against her destroy her, she wields a force to help others, and to end the cycle of violence against women by committing her own violence directly against the abusers. This is a revolutionary concept for women to defend themselves against their abusers in their home, work place and societies at large. She can be seen as an anti- hero because of her use of violence- but that is a question I leave for the audience. The supernatural aspects of her power is also a question for how we view our physical reality. Those who can enter the metaphysical world can have the power to travel in and out of supernatural worlds.
I also believe that the dead spirits of women fuel Paloma and aid her power to break barriers out of the jail. Celestial forces transcend the physical world.”
CLERICUZIO- “How is love intertwined with violence, in your play and in society at large?”
ALMAZAN- “The love between mother and daughter, Oro and Diana who are outside of society create their own personal society of righteous crime. To remove themselves from helplessness and poverty they create their own code of violence- of thievery to survive, their code is what serves them. What has been taken from them returns to them by the opportunities of gaining what they need.
The FARC Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia is a anti-governmental group that has operated since the 1960’s in the name of Marxist love for their country, formed a violent community. This group takes hostages, enlists children for the group, makes death threats, has been known to threaten citizens and government officials, while offering an alternative, opposition to imperialistic capitalism.
Paloma commits the violence in the name of peace and love. In the name of love for Oro, Paloma kills the guard who raped Oro. But it is that same love finally that moves Paloma to recognize that eternal killing can not create the world in which she and Oro can live in peacefully. Does female vengeance create a balance in the universe? To counterbalance all the violence and hate created by men? This is a question Paloma battles with.
It is the love of Paloma’s mother, that haunts Paloma that leads her to possible forgiveness. Many of the characters enact love that is violence, an act of violence as an act of love. Marilynn the doctor heals the wounds of those caught in the cross fire in the FARC, she stitches up, she cuts open and stitches again to create healing.
Soliar’s violence in the FARC when she is caught putting a bomb underneath the President’s car, gets her incarcerated. When her dead son visits her in the jail, her love for her son brings a realization that she has served only the deaths of her three sons and not their lives.
Loba’s dead son who writes to her through a mystical letter in the jail, that she can finally let go of the violence her husband committed against them. The love she has for her son enables her to let her son’s spirit rest and stop reliving the violence of the past.
CLERICUZIO- “Which power do you most believe in, tradition or innovation? And could you elaborate on this topic in theatrical and in sociological (or gender-related) terms?”
ALMAZAN- “In theatre I believe in the traditional forms of ritual. That the actions on the stage physical and text, visuals are forms of rituals that are traditional to a specific culture, way of life, ethnic group, religious, spiritual or communion with nature.
The power of innovation – the evolution of women gaining equal standing in society is challenged in this play. Is innovation moving the rights of women forward? In Bogota, Colombia the crime rate for women is on the rise, that woman are taking on the roles of “men” in society. Is this a role reversal for women? Or women harnessing the power that has always been present but suppressed?
This brings to question if innovation is the light of truth or that the deeper traditional ways of indigenous cultures that worshipped women is what we should return to. The Latino culture like many cultures around the world, is a society of patriarchy, I grew up in this culture; where the needs of men are fulfilled first and women take a secondary role in every role of society.
Every female character in the play attempts to break through the traditional roles of women that still make up modern society- women only as silent mothers, or one sided prostitutes, stuck in the Virgin Mary role of morals. That the suffering of women creates a higher moral order in society, that we bare all the sins of the world, that woman were created as cleansing tools.
This play is also a response to the misogynistic work of popular male playwrights like Simon Stephens, David Mamet and Martin Mcdonagh, and Neil Le Bute, who create a world of violence and suffering without giving women agency in the world and no spiritual acknowledgement. Male writers whose work includes violence and politics have much more production opportunities versus us women playwrights who bring the female voice in violence center stage without apology. We are not given the same standing in society to express our stories and narratives.
Paloma and Oro share a loving, passionate and dangerous relationship. A relationship where the presence and identity of men is not necessary but is still beholden to men because of the prison system. Paloma states that she will become the father of Oro’s unborn child, exposing the new family dynamic that includes woman and woman and child.”
CLERICUZIO- “The whole play is set in a jail. How does FREEDOM affect, or restrict our perceptions, our feelings, our powers?”
ALMAZAN- “I sought to create a world where the women could live in their full selves beyond the constriction of their societies. When you are in forced incarceration, you are challenged spiritually to endure, to question your perception of the world and how you continue to create and live no matter what constricts you.
There are rules of sacrifice in the world of the play, rules of the ancient world and the roles the modern characters play out in the play- a new cycling. Whether you live in small tribal communities, small towns or large metropolis, we are all playing roles that make that society function.
Incarceration amplifies your memories, your awareness of your place in society – the new prison system and the world outside. Incarceration also amplifies your understanding of institutional power – the use of guns, laws, the justice system, physical bars, restrictive rules. This power is also working in our every day lives of the new industrialized complexes of prison systems throughout the world.
Our false freedoms in our societies can make us perceive the world through economic, racial and status privilege. It becomes difficult for us to understand how entire populations are breed to be incarcerated. The women in Bogota are allowed to have children in the jail until their baby is three years of age. Children are born in jails, are nursed in jails.
Many youth I worked with in New York City were 14, 15 years old and incarcerated, unable to break away from the pre-destined path that their families and under resourced environment offered them.
The world of La Paloma Prisoner, the play offers a spiritual communication with those who have died. The play has a series of celestial meetings between the women and their loved ones. The wall that closes the women in also creates a need for us to break into this world, when Paloma becomes a celebrity of vengeance for women around the world, physical walls begin to tumble down. A portal opens.
My hope is that the play evokes feelings of empathy and longing and execution of actions as new citizens of the world. That we can begin to redefine what governments and military powers globally create to imprison us in economic, surveillance, censored and stifled ways of life.
My focus is not only on physical imprisonment but the imprisonment of the spirit, the mind and the exchange of information and knowledge cross culturally. And that ultimately like Paloma at the end of the play, that we ourselves can manifest our own liberations.
Even in the spiritual dimension there is entrapment and jails with cycles of violence. When we break cycles of violence we change our spiritual makeup towards cleansing and healing.”
CLERICUZIO- “Do you address beauty only sarcastically or do you believe in its healing force?”
ALMAZAN- “The strong perception that beauty gains you power (social status- value- tied to Latino cultural values) in Latin American and in many cultures around the world was a strong draw for me to address the subject of obsession with beauty. While working in a maximum security prison in Broward, Florida- I facilitated an arts program that involved a dance performance at the end of our six month process together.
The women who wore blue loose uniforms- some had worn those uniforms for 15 to 20 years. That outward generic appearance makes you lose your identity; this separates you from your cultural history. The women wanted to feel glamorous and dance a can-can dance with elaborate colors. They wanted to feel like women again, they said. We didn’t have the colorful costumes with feathers of the can-can dance but we had our spirits that created a celebration of womanhood.
What could seem as superficial, the beauty of fabric, colors and style was an uplifting celebration of life for the women in Bogota. This was definitely a healing ritual for the women who were adorned in large feather headdresses and glittery sequence dresses. This was their moment to be fully recognized at last, if even for a moment. If we are still using beauty as a draw to bring attention to those that have been abandoned, it is a beginning place to raise awareness.
Woman as warriors is an ancient concept that is being revisited in the jail of Bogota. The parade of prisoners – the day before the pageant is an event where the women adorn themselves in a variety of wardrobes, costumes and personas. Some include ancient indigenous dress of the people who inhabited the Colombian region before colonialization.
The worshipping of the Guativita Lagoon Goddess by the indigenous Muisca people to the Gods involved the beautification of the body, the ritualization of the body, that involves painting the body gold and adorning the body with colorful dress and jewelry.
The beautification of the body is also a symbol of health and fertility. I endowed the characters with the agency of honoring their fertility, power and sexual potency that does not need the dependency of men. The ability to call on the spirits with this worship often calls on altering the body and preparing the body for this type of spiritual exchange. Which we now use fashion, style and makeup to engage in this exchange today.
The modern use of makeup in the pageant as a mask to call on the Patron Saint of Prisoners, The Virgin of Mercedes on Sept. 24 every year in the Buen Pastor Jail.
CLERICUZIO- “The unavoidable issue is that of the virtual absence of male figures from the play, other than the son Antonio. La Paloma promises she will father the child that Oro is expecting from one more rape, but this does not mean that she’s a male figure. She’s a powerful, gender-bending, polymorphous -and extremely feminine- creature involved in a loving relationship with Oro which will sadly end up in death. Male figures appear from the dead: sons of the convicted women, or former husbands who were violent or even rapists, like Paloma’s stepfather, who was her first victim.
But we have male figures also among the jail wardens, thus giving an idea of control and limitation of freedom connected to the male gender, and the nation. There is a sentence spoken by all the women together, which has struck me: “Colombia, mi Colombia, I listened to my mother and you fathered me like a dictator.” Could you explain your treatment of the male element in the play?”
ALMAZAN- Paloma’s gender bending –polymorphous persona challenges our notion of traditional womanhood, where a woman seemingly takes on male actions without giving up her feminine nature. I sought to create a mythical theatrical, God like figure, who is not limited by her sex, to give Paloma full ability explore her humanity without judgment on her gender. So much of our notions of gender are pre-destined by our cultures, our education and conditioning. Paloma’s challenges towards the male characters in the play forces them to re examine the male’s notions of power in creating a male identity. If their power is displaced, what could men gain from expressing humility, vulnerability and a respect for the feminine? Men’s need to Face their fear of women’s ability to give birth. Life outweighs death, that physical death leads to a continuing spiritual life.
Oro’s unwanted pregnancy takes on a complex layering, where the responsibility towards life is laid to question by both men and women.
Women’s connection with the earth is a motherly relationship. It harkens back to a matriarchal society where women had agency in the raising of their children. “Fathered me like a dictator” references to not only the dictator like relationship the women have with their country- where access to democratic rights and processing has so much to do with societal status and wealth. But also to the notion that women are sent from their Father’s house to their husband’s house but ultimately they always belong to the “Fatherland” of the country. Our household fathers become kings, or dictators in their own homes, displacing the power of women. This power structure is what divides Paloma from her mother, and it is in the celestial world of the play that the mother can return with her daughter and reconstruct a new power, forgiveness, acknowledgement of the crime committed against Paloma.
Being in an all woman’s jail- Paloma referrers to it as a kind of freedom where she is surrounding by the worship of the feminine dynamics and re- building of women’s community. But the jailers, reporters, solider, father, and men of the past for the woman break in and out the play- that represents the constant forces that play against women around the world.
The opening song of the pageant – the women celebrated 200 years of Colombia’s independence by singing the national anthem.
CLERICUZIO- “Oro and her mother Diana are in jail for robbery and shoplifting. They take what they believe is already theirs. The rapists take what they believe belongs to them. Says Paloma: “This damn raping that everyone believes is supposed to happen. Like a privilege they’re born with.” Now… Is their mutual behavior based on the same approach to life or one justifies the other or what?”
ALMAZAN – “The men rape on assumption of ownership and agency in society. My mother Flor, and her sisters in Costa Rica and in many Latin American countries, also globally grow up in a rape culture. This is about entitlement. What we believe already belongs to us. If we can treat the act of violence as property- a right, it becomes unspoken law, it becomes our subconscious self worth and our value systems.
Oro and Diana out of their own necessity reverse that entitlement and rob what is already theirs. Their survival in this culture takes precedent over the old male laws. It is their visceral gut response to their circumstance and if they are to enact change in society- at times we can not go by the current laws or rules of that society. We must often criminalize our selves to create a new way of life. To challenge and bring attention to the needs of those that are marginalized in poverty and class.
Every woman in the play has their own justifications for their crime that is deeply interlinked with their life experience. So when we create a justice system that does not take into account the societal conditions under which people are tried, this will create an environment of retaliation.”
CLERICUZIO- “The obsession with beauty that is at the core of the women’s experience in the jail has deep roots. It has to do with a wider, further reaching obsession with, but we could name it a focusing, on the body. Your focus as an artist seems to be -among other issues- the body. It is the bodies that Marilynn, the doctor who worked for the FARCAS, opens and heals and stitches and opens again. It is the bodies that rapists illegally appropriate, the bodies that La Paloma gushes open, the bodies that are displayed in the beauty pageant. What dimensions do you see in the body?”
ALMAZAN- “The bodies of women in the play are in a constant struggle with the spirit. It still seems in our societies that women battle against their bodies, the condemnation of aging, the natural process of what the body becomes after childbirth. Billion dollar beauty industries attack us with the ideal image of the feminine beauty that does not acknowledge our spirits.
Paloma struggles with her spirit that transforms her body from animal powers to human. With this pageant they reclaim their bodies in their own way, self confidence, celebration of the sensual-the sexual, the bawdy, the mystical, the ancient and the absurd.
Witnessing the hundreds of cell block members cheer on their beauty pageant queen was a transcendent experience, those women were indeed representing an unseen population to the world.
The violence against the body (men and women) is a large part in my play, where in detail I account the damage against the female body, slicing, bullets, rape, the entrapment of the female figure as ownership. With the FARC and other para-military groups we find that the actual living breathing body of Colombia is also under attack.
The play also has many extended dance/ritual sequences that counter balance this violence with healing. Based on Butoh and cultural rituals we take back the body as an anonymous figure that is being processed for a jail sentence in the beginning of the play to the journey of the end of the play- where the woman explore the bodily identities and take form. The body is the conduit of the holy spirit. We need not be separated but to honor the body in space is to join our heart, mind and spirit.
In my practice of theatre I seek to create always an alchemy of the body, the space and spirit. This includes the audiences participation in this experience. To transform ourselves we must actually change the molecules in the space and this is a conscious effort of how as writers and directors we approach the process and staging techniques of theatre.”
CLERICUZIO- “One more issue I have detected is that of representation. Not only and not simply the idea of celebrity – the women are fascinated by the heroes of their favorite soap opera, and La Paloma is likewise adored by her fans, but also that of the media representing history in the making and a comment by a character who asks La Paloma if she thinks “they’re going to make a movie” about her. And the play “is” this product of the imagination centered on La Paloma. Are these threads connected?”
ALMAZAN- “My grandmother Rosa ritually watches soap operas every day. When I call to speak to her, I can always tell when she is distracted by the novellas on TV. She very politely asks me to call her back when they are done.
These soap opera narratives hold strong weight in the Latin American culture. There is an obsession with appearance of beauty, wealth and status on those soap operas. The value put on fame is enormous. In a culture where human life can be dispensable or overlooked, fame is a major acknowledgement that you actually exist, that you matter. That you lived and had an impact on the world.
In Bogota – real life soap opera stars and pop singers attend and judge the beauty pageant at the Buen Pastor Jail. Witnessing the excitement and joy, and communal sharing in singing all the songs that everyone knew was electrifying. Soap operas and pop songs are legitimate culture.
When Paloma thinks there will be a film made about her, it leaves a mark on immortality when she very well knows she could be murdered at any minute. The Greek Gods and myths were scripted, the Kings and Queens of Shakespeare, the historical figures that were wealthy always got their stories recorded and dramatized.
But why not the average person who struggles, the ones that are seen too small and insignificant? Paloma makes herself into a figure that can not be ignored, made historical, given value to, made into a God, so that no one could claim that she suffered and acted in vain.
Fame as the ultimate recording of history. When you don’t have access to high level education – how do you make the world value your experiences? Does the media only respond to ridiculous freak shows? They often do, how far do we go to get attention? – to be noticed in a sea of millions suffering.
Do we exist without a Facebook account? Does Paloma exploit herself and her relationship to the public? Or is she gaining leverage in a world that wants her ultimately to disappear? We ourselves use this technology of fame- to be make sure on a daily basis that we are not disappearing.”
ALMAZAN- I would like to meditate on Liu Xia wife of Noble Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, has been under house arrest since October 2013 in China, while her husband is in a Chinese prison. She is continuing to write poems and is releasing her writing through the Independent Chinese PEN Center. I would like to read a poem that captures the resiliency of the spirit when the body is imprisoned.
– after a minute meditation for Liu Xia and all prisoners.
Is it a tree?
It’s me, alone.
Is it a winter tree?
It’s always like this, all year round.
Where are the leaves?
The leaves are beyond.
Why draw a tree?
I like how it stands.
Aren’t you tired of being a tree your whole life?
Even when exhausted, I want to stand.
Is there anyone with you?
There are birds.
I don’t see any.
Listen to the sound of fluttering wings.
Wouldn’t it be nice to draw birds on the tree?
I’m too old to see, blind.
Perhaps you don’t know how to draw a bird at all?
You’re right. I don’t know how.
You’re an old stubborn tree.
(May all our spirits be free- thank you for your time)