14 April 2016

Twenty Mexicans in Shakespeare

Posted by the Bookshop

'Lunatics, Lovers and Poets' brings us 12 original stories inspired by Cervantes and Shakespeare, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the two writers’ deaths. (We’re marking both at the shop, with Shakespeare as our Author of the Month and a special Cervantes-themed LRB Screen event with A.S. Byatt on 18 April.)

Here’s a taster of ‘Shakespeare, New Mexico’ from Valeria Luiselli, whose latest novel ‘The Story of My Teeth’ won the Los Angeles Times Book Award in April 2016. (Both the short story and the novel are translated by translated by Christina MacSweeney.) The story follows a family of would-be actors from the US Mid-West to Shakespeare, New Mexico, to join the Southwestern Re-enactment Company. In this extract, they've just arrived, and things are not looking promising...

Between 1870 and 1890 – when the real-life events we would re-enact had occurred – there were around twenty Mexicans in Shakespeare, all miners, labourers or domestic servants. We, as a family, would represent the Bacas: Juan Baca (35), Juana Baca (28), Teresio Baca (6) and Victor Baca (4). As there were more male roles in the town than available actors, my husband Juan Baca would also play, as required, Mexican Outlaw, Mexican Smuggler and Mexican Bandit, just so long as those parts didn’t coincide with his scenes as Juan Baca, a peon with more duties and a higher status than any other Mexican in town.

Shakespeare had been founded in 1856, and was later re-founded several times with equal lack of success. In 1879, there was a small mining boom, but the town never expanded enough to warrant the construction of either a school or a church. When the railroad that entwined the country in a single, powerful commercial route was finally built, the nearest station ended up being three whole miles away, in Lordsburg, and this fact buried the town of Shakespeare in the dust. The last of its residents left in about 1893.

Years later, in 1935, Frank and Rita Hill bought the abandoned town, or what remained of it. They set up a ranch, and when that went bust, they transformed it into the rickety site of historical re-enactments we were now driving into. With the passing of the last generation of the Hill family, which had – again, with no great success – carried on the traditions of the town and its re-enactments, the company in Tucson that had held the auditions purchased the concession, with the intention of making maximum profit at minimum cost.

That was the story of Shakespeare, at least in the version delivered to us by a lame and taciturn Doc Holliday, whom we met at the entrance to Shakespeare upon our arrival. Very soon, he was comparing his misfortune with ours. As he was showing us to our cabin, at one end of town, he confessed that he, too, would have preferred to be Tombstone’s Doc Holliday rather than Shakespeare’s.

He’d worked in the latter for two seasons now, and the wages weren’t even enough to give his family – in California – a decent life. He was making arrangements to go back to them, and for some time now had been secretly preparing for an audition as Mickey Mouse in Disney – three times his salary as Doc Holliday. He could hardly wait to get out of Shakespeare.

  • ‘Lunatics, Lovers and Poets’ is published by And Other Stories. Reserve your copy to pick up from the Bookshop.