There have been times in the life of Paloma Díaz-Minshew ’24 when she’s felt like the only Mexican American “theater kid” in the world.
After all, the theater stage, especially in English-speaking countries, has historically been a space dominated by English-speaking voices and Anglo-centric perspectives and politics. And the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, has perhaps spent more time at center stage in this world than any other playwright.
But at Trinity, as part of English professor Kathryn Vomero Santos’ “The Bard in the Borderlands” project and the Mellon Initiative for Undergraduate Research, Díaz-Minshew is working to amplify the voices of playwrights who’ve transformed Shakespeare’s stories into depictions of life along an area commonly referred to as La Frontera, or the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.
“This is my dream,” says Díaz-Minshew, a global Latinx studies and English double major who hails from Dallas, but has family with roots in Mexico and San Antonio. “When Dr. Santos invited me to join the project, I said, ‘Wait: you mean I get to talk about borderland politics, immigration, and also theater and Shakespeare? Yes, please!’ If you were to put all of my interests into one little nutshell, it's basically this research project.”
The culmination of this research project—launched by Santos, Ph.D., back in 2019—is a soon-to-be released publication called The Bard in the Borderlands: An Anthology of Shakespeare Appropriations en La Frontera. This collaboration with Texas A&M University-San Antonio professors Katherine Gillen, Ph.D., and Adrianna Santos, Ph.D., will be published by ACMRS Press (Arizona State University) as an open-access book that contains 12 previously unpublished plays, each re-envisioning Shakespeare in the context of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. It’s a project that’s already earned the team a prestigious Collaborative Research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“In our research, we started coming across examples of plays by Chicanx and Indigenous playwrights that were radically adapting Shakespeare’s works to meet the needs and tell the histories of the Borderlands,” says Santos, who eventually wants to see these plays taught in border-region classrooms the same way traditional Shakespeare has. “We're hoping that this anthology not only transforms Shakespeare research, but especially impacts teaching.”
And this research is all happening inside Trinity’s new Dicke Hall, a unique facility dedicated specifically for the Humanities (one of only a handful of its kind in Texas). This transformative new space represents a renovation, rejuvenation, and reaffirmation of the Humanities fields as a bedrock of Trinity’s versatile, liberal arts curriculum. The Bard in the Borderlands project being conducted at Dicke Hall is perhaps the perfect example of the timelessness of the humanities themselves: a tradition of answering questions—and questioning answers—all in a physical space that invites the type of collaboration and interdisciplinarity that has become synonymous with Trinity’s brand in the modern era.
The plays that Santos, her collaborators, and her students are exploring go beyond merely revamping Shakespeare: Each represents a transformative storytelling process. Imagine Romeo and Juliet, set in Los Angeles during Día de los Muertos with Juliet coming from an upwardly-mobile Mexican American family seeking to assimilate into Anglo culture, and Romeo as an undocumented immmigrant. Or another version of the famous play set in the Rio Grande Valley in which the central couple meets at a farm workers’ protest, not a party.
There’s Macbeth, now with cartels. The Winter’s Tale now depicts conflicts between the Indigenous Peoples and the early settlers of California. The Merchant of Santa Fe transports the play from Venice to seventeenth-century New Mexico and considers the dynamics of race, religion, and class in that colonial context. And other notables, such as Henry IV, Part 1, Measure for Measure, and The Comedy of Errors, each get similar treatment. These plays are multilingual, with frequent code-switching, where the exchange of languages becomes, well, kind of the entire point.
“Shakespeare himself was obsessed with multilingualism and the boundaries of the English language. But some of these playwrights insert moments of linguistic contact and conflict in significant places in the plays,” Santos says. “The multilingualism we find in Borderlands appropriations of Shakespeare reflects the complex language politics in this region. In Edit Villarreal’s The Language of Flowers, for example, Juliet has been told not to speak Spanish as part of her family's emphasis on assimilation. So, Romeo becomes a way of connecting to her heritage and connecting to her language. In Bernardo Mazón Daher’s bilingual Measure for Measure | Medida por medida, which is set in the border city of San Diego, language is used as a weapon of political power.”
To glean this type of insight, Santos has set students like Díaz-Minshew—and fellow researcher Eva Buergler, an impending December ’22 grad from New Jersey—to work on reading the type scripts of each play. Many of these have been preserved in the ancient digital form of a PDF or (gasp) typed out on a practically prehistoric typewriter. The students have then transcribed these plays, identified moments in the text that they thought required more annotation and more historical research, and helped frame the types of discussion questions that future school teachers might use to teach these adaptations to their own students.
Buergler, a former biology student turned English major, was excited to trade in her “wet lab” (gloves and chemicals) for a “dry” one (done on paper). As someone who wants to pursue her MFA and become a writer herself, Buergler was ecstatic to get the chance to join Santos’ project.
“At Trinity, there's a lot of really great professors because all of them are there to teach,” Buergler says. “And Santos is my favorite. She's amazing. She's wholeheartedly in this (Borderlands) project, she believes in it, and she's passionate. It's really exciting, getting to see how a culture can take old things and remix them, essentially.”
That passion is the name of the game for undergraduate research at Trinity, which supports rigorous scholarship and discovery in the fields of the humanities with the same fervor that it does the social sciences and STEM fields. Santos and her team have capitalized on numerous sources of funding, such as from the Mellon Initiative, which is specifically aimed at arts and humanities subjects and provides housing and summer stipends for students as well as additional resources for faculty.
Santos, in addition to her research and teaching, also co-leads a special Trinity resource known as the Humanities Collective, which fosters humanistic learning and enables meaningful action through programming, support for research, and beyond. This initiative actually provided the initial funding for the project through the Public Humanities Faculty Fellowship.
“Our Bard in the Borderlands project really started to get going because of this [Humanities Collective] initiative,” Santos says. “At Trinity, we are invested in exploring what humanistic inquiry can do to enact social justice. We’re seeing that Shakespeare has become part of a vibrant tradition in which Borderlands artists use canonical texts to reflect the hybrid cultures that emerged from colonialism and Indigenous resistance and to engage directly with the lived realities of Borderlands residents.”
Santos says that this goal, like so many other humanities-related projects at Trinity, has required an interdisciplinary approach.
“As humanists, we often have to bring many different forms of knowing together in our research,” Santos says. “When we study these plays, we’re studying literature. But understanding these plays also requires knowledge about the longstanding performance traditions, regional politics, and varying belief systems upon which these plays are drawing.”
And, as Santos’ team has discovered, these plays also draw on the talents of visual artists and musicians. “There's often original music composed for these plays,” says Santos, who points out that the music for The Language of Flowers was written by Germaine Franco, who scored the recent Disney hits Coco and Encanto. Santos also mentions that her team has been lucky enough to have a local San Antonio artist, Celeste De Luna, design a cover image for the Bard and the Borderlands anthology that combines the iconic woodcut style associated with the early printed books of Shakespeare’s time with images from Borderlands-area mythology and iconography.
For Díaz-Minshew, these interdisciplinary glimpses into Borderlands culture have been invaluable, especially in the context of her global Latinx studies major. A relatively recent addition to Trinity’s academic offerings, this major offers Tigers an analysis of the Latinx experience that spans languages, the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences.
“One of the reasons I actually came to Trinity in the first place was because I was going to get to learn about my identity, my community, and also get credit for it through my global Latinx studies major. That's super cool,” Díaz-Minshew says. “But getting the chance to put that together in conjunction with my English major for this project has been an incredible opportunity, especially since I do want to go into academia and get a Ph.D. in Chicano studies, this definitely helped to put me on that path.”
This type of interdisciplinarity is a hallmark of scholarship at Trinity, and it’s also one of the reasons students like Buergler believe this type of humanities research is worth doing:
“I believe all art humanizes, because it’s an expression of humanity,” Buergler says. “I think that one of the easiest ways to get someone to understand something, or to relate to something, is story, right? Our brains are wired for story. And you can tell someone 10 facts about how hard it is to be an immigrant, but a person is going to hold onto a story much, much more.”
This is what’s at stake for Santos: finding a way to bring more attention to these stories, many of which are being told by artists, musicians, and creative minds who have been marginalized. And in turn, this is also why Santos wants her team’s work to be open access, in order to help bring it to as many classrooms as possible.
“We’re hoping to be able to identify teachers in San Antonio schools or schools in the [Rio Grande] Valley who would like to work on incorporating these texts into their classrooms,” Santos says. “I've had some conversations with Texas teachers during the workshops I have run for Humanities Texas, and they are hungry for this kind of material.”
The importance of this research, Díaz-Minshew continues, is not just about the existence of any one of these plays individually.
“Building a Shakespeare anthology that is Mexican American like this for the first time means being able to bring these plays together, not just as individual works that exist alone, but as a legacy of works that exist in the same place,” Díaz-Minshew says. “In the Borderlands, we are creating our own space, and now, in this anthology, we're letting the world know about that space.”
Ultimately, one of these plays might end up in the hands of the next Díaz-Minshew.
“As a Mexican American, there were a lot of times during this research that I would be reading things and just start crying because seeing yourself accurately represented, that’s something that doesn't happen often,” she says. “Getting into this research, getting into this world, and realizing, ‘Of course there are other Mexican American theater kids!’ I was never exposed to that.”