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LOS ANGELES — Though she has delivered almost every baby in the border town of Milagros, served as a mediator between quarreling spouses, and communicated with the dead, no one wants to believe Magdalena Del Rio (Zilah Mendoza), a curandera — a traditional Mexican healer — when a vision tells her that the town’s natural springs have been contaminated. The magical water of Milagros (Spanish for miracles) promised to bring a steady flow of gringo tourists, with the potential to turn this ghost town into a prosperous vacation destination. But only Magdalena knows that this potential will never come to pass. She finds her truth in the middle of the night, swept out of her hammock and into her dreams, where the trembling of the ground as it breaks into an earthquake tells of a different fate. But who would believe this woman — part midwife, bruja, and fortune teller — and trust her intuition over scientific fact?
Such is one of many questions that endures throughout Josefina López’s An Enemy of the Pueblo, a Latinx-focused adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People, which caused a stir when it premiered in Norway in 1882. Lopez’s modern interpretation debuted last month at Boyle Heights’s CASA 0101 Theater, where it continues through November 12.
Unlike Ibsen’s protagonist, Dr. Stockmann, Magdalena faces two-fold condemnation as a traditional healer and as a woman. Not only do her neighbors turn on her, later coming after her on a witch hunt, but so do the various institutions of power, which demonize Magdalena’s way of thinking — informed by ghosts and premonitions — and ignore the precarious situation of Milagros itself. When Magdalena tries to persuade her brother Pedro, Milagros’s mayor, of the threat to the spring, he accuses her of being a “crazy woman” better suited to wielding herbs and tequila, and this turns into a frustrating refrain throughout the play. As Magdalena becomes louder and more panicked in her efforts to warn the public of her brother’s dirty deal with a US fracking company, she begins to resemble more closely the caricature her brother has constructed of her. Though to the townspeople she may seem like a madwoman, we in the audience know better, sensing the truth in her premonitions, her piercing eyes, and her unwavering, sermonic voice. She is a woman determined.
But in Milagros, what is true is always in question. It is a magically real place, where the sorrows of the people are never far away. An ominous guitarist, “the Man in Black,” forever strums a reflective ballad from the village graveyard, left of the stage. His two classical arrangements, “El Corrido de ‘El Sapo’” and “Sweet Miraculous Water,” tell stories of families torn apart by lawless narcos, seasonal migration, and their last hope in the springs. The townspeople, donning handmade fabrics and the garb of farmer cowboys, wear weariness on their faces and articulate it in their desperate, sometimes melodramatic tones. Above all, their plights symbolize the grating tension between the harsh realities of modernity and traditional knowledge and ways of life.
Before the promise of the springs, the people of Milagros relied heavily on the talents of Magdalena, whose home is the main setting of the play. It is here where magic and folklore take shape as blue-horned ghouls dance through Magdalena’s visions and the white-faced ghosts of her husband and the drug lord El Sapo (who raped her daughter) follow her around like flies. Outside of her modest home stands a large tree that guards a garden replete with mint, sage, and chamomile, all herbs used in Magdalena’s home remedies. An altar of candles and other religious items further into her home pay reverence to god. Even as the set changes to become the town hall, the local newspaper office, or when white shapes spiral down through a projector as the ghost of Magdalena’s mother speaks through her granddaughter, the garden, altar, and graveyard all are still visible — reminding the audience of Milagros’s deep connection to superstition, religion, and nature.
Though the setting of López’s play is a fictional town on the cusp of extinction, much like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, it is a familiar and convincing setting for abuse of power and neglect. Though López wrote the play back in 2015, she notes in the playbill that it’s become impossible to discuss contaminated springs without evoking the battles in Flint and Standing Rock, just as one cannot contemplate the rape of Magdalena’s daughter without thinking about the current conversations and revelations about sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Though at times the play spells out its political messages a little too clearly, with characters addressing the audience directly, it is a convincing work with the potential to inspire direct action. That is very much in keeping with spirit of the community of Boyle Heights at this moment. Before the show, as I walked along Boyle Avenue, the community’s level of political engagement was evident as activists at the Boyle Heights Farmers’ Market passed out food and shared information about DACA and the neighborhood’s ongoing battle with gentrification.
In An Enemy of the Pueblo’s final scene, Magdalena stands alone under a tree that spews water from its branches. Her tenacity and conviction remain striking, even as she faces another fight, having been branded an enemy by her fellow citizens. Is this how it ends for all women of conviction? During the Q&A that followed the performance I attended, director Corky Dominguez noted that there is “something symbolic about when trees weep. The tree is a woman with her arms out.” I wondered how things would be different if we all saw our threatened ecosystem this way, with the trees, the water, and the women all linked — all tarnished, forgotten, voiceless and still yearning to care and be cared for.
An Enemy of the Pueblo continues at CASA 0101 Theater (2102 East First Street, Boyle Heights, Los Angeles) through November 12. Josefina López will give a Q&A after the final performance on November 12.