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The Colors of America Photo credit: Boston University today

La Miguelito (Daniela Cervantes) steps forth in front of the rest of the Coro Crewe. Photo by Ben Dillon

Abstract

How does Who Shot La Miguelito use colors to symbolize racial diversity, inclusivity, and whiteness, and how does this symbolism reflect on America as a whole?

I will watch and read the play Who Shot La Miguelito, and then I will analyze how colors are shown in the play, especially in relation to race. Since this research question hinges on symbolic elements of the play, I believe that an analysis of the play is the best way to examine how these symbols are expressed and what they mean. This analysis will involve textual and rhetorical elements of the script, such as word choice, speaker, and audience. On top of that, I would like to analyze colors based on their physical properties. Because Who Shot La Miguelito is heavily tied to themes of graffiti art and tagging, paint colors, and the color composition of a piece, are integral to interpreting the symbolism. Color in the play is given importance beyond just graffiti paint colors, and I aim to tie that into the play's perspective on race as well. However, since the symbols in the play also have relevance concerning race and American culture, I will supplement this analysis with passages on structural racism and racial history from the course reader. This may include the works of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Anna Deavere Smith, Chinaka Hodge, and others. Such articles and plays will range from purely technical and nonfiction to pieces of art that have similar themes or storytelling techniques to Who Shot La Miguelito. These articles and other works of performance in the course reader provide the background and reference to fully understand the symbolism, and thereby message, of Who Shot La Miguelito. With my analysis of the symbolism at work within this play, I hope to uncover what Who Shot La Miguelito has to say about racial relations, diversity, whiteness, assimilation, and colorblindness for America on a large, societal scale.

Who Shot La Miguelito is a play performed on a stage on the ground level with no curtains. On the left and right of the stage are two rows of seats, and in front of the stage is another row. The layout of the stage allows the actors to get very close to the audience members, which they often do. The stage also has a balcony area in the upper left that characters will sometimes appear in, and the backdrop to the stage serves as a canvas to several projectors, which display images and videos on the background to supplement the acting. The play's biggest emphasis on color is in the context of graffiti art. However, none of the graffiti pieces are ever shown visually, leaving them up to the imagination of the audience. The "whiting out" of the image of La Virgen by La Miguelito's mother is also never shown visually, and is again only told through sound. That's not to say that colors aren't present visually though—colors are clearly on visual display in the costumes of the characters. As street artists, the Coro Crewe wear dark colors, such as black, dark gray, and dark brown. This also reflects their darker skin tones, as people of color. Meanwhile, the real estate agents wear lightly toned professional clothing, and La Virgen's costume is vibrantly colorful. Color plays a symbolic role in all aspects of the play, whether they are shown visually or only spoken about.

Essay

La Virgen de Guadalupe, a Hispanic Catholic image of the Virgin Mary, is a prominent character in Who Shot La Miguelito. In the play, she is portrayed wearing colorful flowers with golden leaves on her headdress, along with blue silk draped over a bright red robe. Her costume combines many vibrant primary colors, which stands in stark contrast to the more muted and urban browns, blacks, and greys worn by the rest of the cast. The many different colors of La Virgen represent the different groups that live in America, casting her as a spiritual personification of diversity. When she first appears to the Coro Crewe, she asks them to bring her flowers:

La Virgen (Janette Keola) embraces Noktolonel (Anna Sharpe). Photo by Ben Dillon
"Red Roses, CHECK. Pink Dahlias, CHECK. Black Lillies, CHECK. Golden Poppies, CHECK." (San Jose 11)

These flowers, similar to the flowers on her clothes, have extremely different colors, yet La Virgen requests and accepts them all. Her gesture of accepting the flowers is indicative of how a diverse America must also be inclusive; one cannot exist without the other. La Virgen receiving these flowers from the Coro Crewe symbolizes how the idealized vision of a pluralistic America accepts all the different groups given to her.

La Virgen (Janette Keola) monologues in front of a video projection. Photo by Ben Dillon

These flowers, similar to the flowers on her clothes, have extremely different colors, yet La Virgen requests and accepts them all. Her gesture of accepting the flowers is indicative of how a diverse America must also be inclusive; one cannot exist without the other. La Virgen receiving these flowers from the Coro Crewe symbolizes how the idealized vision of a pluralistic America accepts all the different groups given to her.

Eklectik (Rose Escolano) stands apart from the rest of the group. Photo by Ben Dillon

La Miguelito's main group of friends is a diverse group of young San Francisco graffiti that call themselves the Coro Crewe. Similar to La Virgen, this is a group that expresses their differences through color, both in their graffiti art and in their ethnicities. Most notably, the Coro Crewe is centered around one color: brown, the color of the Hispanic, Asian, and Black members of the Coro Crewe. La Miguelito, the group's figurehead, illustrates this best in her monologue, in which she says:

"Looking like: nicaragüense/ trucha/ chapin/ catracha/ fronteriza/ mojada/ india/ imigrante/ beaner/ brown/ brown/ blackblackblack/ bilingue/ bisexuela/ trilingue/ tranny/ jota/ culera/ all this outing enough to break open the earth like an earthquake era: italiano/ mick/ kraut/ judea" (San Jose 8)
Sapphire Blue (Crystal Haryanto), Lolito (Abner Lozano), Noktolonel (Anna Sharpe), Coco Cocoa (Geovany Calderon), members of the graffiti art group Coro Crewe pose in front of a memorial to La Miguelito. Photo by Ben Dillon

Note that in this list, La Miguelito does not only embrace the diversity of races, but also the diversity of nationalities, languages, gender orientations, and skin colors. In a sense, even the contents of this list are diverse. The colors brown and black, their skin colors, is given particular emphasis through repetition. This is done to show that although their skin tones only come in certain tones of brown and black, the diversity of the group runs far beyond their skin color. Even though diversity is symbolically represented through displays of different colors in this play, the play makes sure to acknowledge that issues of inclusion and gentrification impact all groups of minority identities in America.

Promotional cover for Who Shot La Miguelito, depicting street art of La Virgen and Miguelito's face at her memorial. Credit to Berkeley TDPS

The color brown is also repeated when the Coro Crewe is portrayed akin to a group of Native Americans:

"Soil, CHECK. Creek, CHECK. Foliage, CHECK. Wetlands, CHECK . Brown Brown Brown, CHECK CHECK CHECK. Rusted gold, CHECK. Goldmine, CHECK. Cemetery, CHECK. Coastanoan, CHECK. Miwok, CHECK. Ohlone, CHECK." (San Jose 10)
Noktolonel (Anna Sharpe) during a rehearsal. Photo from UC Berkeley TDPS Facebook

In the same manner as how La Miguelito illustrates that diversity goes beyond skin tone, the Native American reimagining of the Coro Crewe lists out the various Native American tribes that lived in the Pacific Northwest. This draws a clear parallel between the Coro Crewe and the Ohlone, Coastanoan, and Miwok tribes: both brown, but still diverse in their own ways. The chant of the Coro Crewe also contains thematic elements concerning the relationship between Native Americans and nature; their list consists both of brown people (the tribes) and brown features of nature (soil, wetlands, rusted gold, etc). Nature is the epitome of diverse, and brown is the color that links natural variety to the Native American tribes and the Coro Crewe.

This mirroring between the Coro Crewe and the Native Americans alludes to how they are both rebelling against white supremacy and western conquest through performance. Both the Coro Crewe and Native Americans are threatened with being removed from their lands by gentrification and manifest destiny respectively. Additionally, both the Coro Crewe and Native Americans show rebellion against this conquest through performance. For the Coro Crewe, this comes through their performance of graffiti art, and for the Native Americans, traditions like the areito linked resistance and performance together (Scolieri, 28). However, it is important to not misconstrue the show's simile between the Coro Crewe and the Native Americans; in no way should the story of non-Native people of color in modern day American be used as a replacement or appropriation for the stories of real, living Native Americans, who still feel the harsh systemic and economic effects of racism moreso than any other ethnic group in America today. For example, Native Americans experience the highest rate of child poverty out of any ethnic group in the United States (Jones).

Vuong (Khoi Vo) and Lili Ana (Raina Williams), Nina's grandparents. Photo from UC Berkeley TDPS Facebook

Who Shot La Miguelito's most prominent symbolism for whiteness comes from Margarita, La Miguelito's mother, "whiting out" her mural of La Virgen in the building where La Miguelito was shot. She takes white paint and washes over the old, faded mural that used to watch over la Miguelito and the Coro Crewe, slowly erasing it. Just as La Virgen's vivid array of colors represents diversity, the white washing of the faded mural represents a return to whiteness, the homogenous racial status quo of America. This symbolism is a very direct nod to the myth of a homogenized, fully "assimilated" America such as the one described in Israel Zangwill's The Melting Pot (Zangwill). In such an America, ethnic and cultural differences are not to be celebrated or even acknowledged; there must be only one type of American, and that one type just so happens to be a white American. If an immigrant does not assimilate into this idea of whiteness and make America all one metaphorical color rather than a rainbow of different colors, then a proponent of the melting pot myth would have considered that group of immigrants a failure. One such example of this would be Samuel Huntington, who wrote in his article "The Hispanic Challenge" that immigrants from Latin America were not falling into this frame of "whiteness" (Huntington). It is this belief of one assimilated American peoples—a belief steeped in racial erasure— that causes Margarita to hope that the whitening out of La Virgen will somehow bring back La Miguelito or avenge her death:

"White wash her- to uncover my child" (San Jose 14).
Margarita (Brenda Cisneros), La Miguelito's mother, during her monologue. Photo by Ben Dillon

La Miguelito—a nonbinary, Hispanic, graffiti artist—was the true, human embodiment of the colors and diversity played so prominently by the figure of La Virgen. In a manner similar to internalized racism, Margarita blames the diversity of La Miguelito and the Coro Crewe for not doing enough to protect La Miguelito from death. Before the murder, the prospect of a diverse, colorful America was a dream; now, Margarita views that same dream as a goal too lofty and too risky to achieve. The loss of La Miguelito causes her to unknowingly be complicit in the symbolic erasure of diversity in her community. However, towards the end of the play, Margarita shows a change of heart during an interaction with Eklectik regarding the whiting out of the mural. While Eklectik is mulling over where to put her first piece, Margarita calmly tells her:

"Here- this will make it easier for you" (San Jose 58)

while whiting out her mural of La Virgen. Margarita's first attempt of whiting out the mural was representative of her desire to forget or erase the pain that La Miguelito's death caused her. This subsequent attempt is done with a completely different motive: to replenish and rebuild. Margarita's old hope for an inclusive, accepting America faded alongside the death of La Miguelito; it was as faded as her old mural of La Virgen. Yet, when she sees the strength and drive of Coro Crewe, Eklectik, and the rest of San Francisco's youth of color, she whites out her mural so that the next generation may start anew. The first whiting out was a regression to the past, and this whiting out provides a canvas for a bright future.

The entire company of Who Shot La Miguelito. Photo from UC Berkeley TDPS Facebook

Who Shot La Miguelito's themes of color and diversity play into each other, interspersing real life elements of racism and oppression with symbolic representations using the colors of costumes, graffiti, and skin. Central to this metaphor of color as diversity are the brilliantly colorful rainbow tones that appear around La Virgen, as well as the opposite blank white color that Margarita uses to erase her mural from the wall. Thematically, these colors tell a story of an America that must either homogenize and therefore erase, or diversify and embrace differences between all the different groups of people living in our nation. Who Shot La Miguelito exhibits how true harmony comes from the acceptance of all different colors, whether it be skin colors or graffiti paint.

Bibliography

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Hispanic Challenge.” Foreign Policy, 28 Oct. 2009, foreignpolicy.com/2009/10/28/the-hispanic-challenge/.

Jones, Janelle. “One-Third of Native American and African American Children Are (Still) in Poverty.” Economic Policy Institute, 20 Sept. 2017, www.epi.org/publication/one-third-of-native-american-and-african-american-children-are-still-in-poverty/.

“On the Areito.” Dancing the New World: Aztecs, Spaniards, and the Choreography of Conquest, by Paul A. Scolieri, University of Texas Press, 2013.

San Jose, Sean. “Who Shot La Miguelito.” 18 Oct. 2019, Berkeley, California.

Zangwill, Israel. The Melting Pot. Macmillan, 1926.

Reflection

https://docs.google.com/document/d/18Nmm8VKq34g7Tmsm85S6u2zYljNb47hFlpQlQnaBsYI/edit?usp=sharing