Cora Cardona: “I got to like ugliness and found it beautiful” — An Interview with Frank Garrett

The Cardona family has contributed generations of writers and artists to the cultural heritage of Latin America. Alfredo Cardona Peña was born in Costa Rica in 1917. In 1938 he moved to Mexico, where he established himself first as a journalist and then also as an award-winning poet, academic, and writer of fantasy and science fiction short stories filled with humor and irony. He has been referred to as the Latin American Ray Bradbury, and Pablo Neruda called his poetry “desbordante y solar” [boundless and radiant]. He died in Mexico City in 1995.

In 2018 New Village Press published an English translation of his Conversations with Diego Rivera: The Monster in His Labyrinth. It was translated by his half-brother Alvaro Cardona-Hine and consisted of a year of weekly interviews with the Mexican painter.

Cardona’s daughter, pioneering actor and director Cora Cardona, continues to have an impressive career in Mexico as well as in the United States. In 1985 she co-founded Teatro Dallas with husband and lighting designer Jeff Hurst. As the first professional Latinx theater in the area, Teatro Dallas also became known throughout the region for its biennial International Theatre Festival and its annual Days of the Dead production. She retired in 2018 from her role as artistic director.

Frank Garrett: In your father’s interviews with Diego Rivera, he begins with the most fundamental questions: What is a painter? What is a picture? In that spirit, I’d like to ask you, what is a writer?

Cora Cardona: A writer is someone who tells stories, often using imagery, describing, like a painting, characters, environments, and dreams. A writer’s purpose is to engage us in a journey of unimaginable levels that range from beauty to horror, sometimes with humor, joy or pain, while stimulating our five senses. 

Their writings, often, will remain in our hearts and minds, and can even affect our attitude and make readers change their political views and behavior.

A writer’s purpose is to engage us in a journey of unimaginable levels that range from beauty to horror, sometimes with humor, joy or pain, while stimulating our five senses.

FG: Alfredo Cardona Peña’s writing career spanned everything from poetry and science fiction to journalism and academic essays. What did you learn from your father about what it means to be a writer?

CC: To allow your imagination to be free, without judgment or prejudices. To be a child, naively expressing your life experiences. To let go. Always with methodical research, whatever may be needed for one’s writing, whether nature, mythology, history, science, etc.

FG: Can you give us a sense of what a writer’s life consisted of for your father while you were growing up?

CC: My father loved children. He thought the laughter of a child was the most beautiful thing in the world, “bursting like a fountain!” He read out loud children’s stories, making sound effects with his voice: the wind, the knocking at the door, etc. He read, according to our age, different kinds of literature that included his poetry, and horror and science fiction stories, as well as that of other authors. He read to my brother and me “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs and many Edgar Allan Poe classics. On the walls of my house there were wonderful scary masks. He’d hide candy behind the ugliest ones, and on Sundays a “bird” brought the candy for us and we were allowed to retrieve it. I got to like ugliness and found it beautiful. 

I met many famous and not so famous people, especially artists, growing up. He was a family man but also a bohemian person. He explored everything, without caring about what’s considered normal. He took my brother and me to the theatre and especially to the circus. I was always surrounded by photos of many important Latin American poets and writers from different parts of the world; among them, Walt Whitman and Federico García Lorca took center stage.

My father had a bohemian life from Friday night to Sunday afternoon, and then back to work Monday morning at the Editorial Novaro, where he directed the publication of comic books that were distributed throughout Latin America. He wrote many comic book stories about Fantômas, the French character [by writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. In Spanish, the character is known as Fantomas, La Amenaza Elegante].

FG: It’s easy, I think, to trace the influence of your father’s writing and creativity to your own work in theater. What role did your mother play in the development of your creative life?

CC: My mother died at age 42, when I was twelve years old, almost thirteen, but she left a huge influence on the way I think. She encouraged me to write and always showed her family and friends my writings. I would write “to a friend”—a piece of paper—and to this paper I would talk about my dreams and feelings at a very early age. It wasn’t really my diary, simply a piece of paper that became many pieces of paper.

Thanks to my mother I speak Zapotec, from Juchitán, Oaxaca. I learned it from listening to her speak it to my grandmother and relatives. The people of this town are very open minded. Homosexuality is accepted as a normal part of life. In Mexico City I often found myself defending the many muxes that helped my grandmother run a boarding house. [Muxes, also spelled muxhes, denotes someone who was assigned male at birth but whose behavior, dress, or identity is seemingly otherwise. The term is thought to derive from the Spanish mujer, woman.]

My mother, whose name was Alba Chacón Pineda, was a school teacher. At our home, my mother held fundraisers for Othón Salazar, a teachers’ leader who fought for increasing teachers’ salaries, benefits, and other needs. Under his leadership, the teachers took over the National Palace of Mexico for months. My mother would take me and my brother there, where we lived for weeks on end, going home every day to bathe and bring food to share with the teachers. This was an important movement that, in spite of all obstacles, brought great changes for the teachers.

I still remember when the government sent the army to the National Palace to kick the teachers out. We managed to escape unhurt. I have many memories of the terrible sensation of tear gas, people hiding in my home, and many agents searching the house.

My father, too, welcomed and helped many artists escaping Guatemala, offering freelance work at the Editorial Novaro, where he worked. These artists were escaping the dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas, who after a coup d’état backed by the USA, ousted the great president Jacobo Árbenz.

Watching my mother’s activism—she would go to the poorest neighborhoods of Mexico City teaching people how to read and write, for example—helped me understand the lack of justice for many and realize that we continuously have to challenge the status quo. My mother’s love for others helped my creativity, watching how inventive she was organizing and coming up with political slogans. My mom is always present in my life whenever I have to speak up for justice.

I still remember when the government sent the army to the National Palace to kick the teachers out.

FG: When did you first decide to make a life in the theater? What inspired that decision?

CC: When I was six years old I would direct the kids who lived nearby. They would come looking for me to play. They loved how I made up stories that we acted out. I scared them too. I liked to be the witch and create terrible stories; the sadder and scarier, the more they wanted to play. I also staged singing and dancing, truly physical theatre, and made costumes with our parents’ old clothes. I guess since I was a child I knew, without knowing, what I wanted to be in my adult life.

FG: The Chilean-born director Alejandro Jodorowsky was one of your mentors. Was he someone you sought out? What impact did he have on your own work? Is there anyone else you would also credit for your professional development or sensibilities?

CC: Alejandro Jodorowsky was my teacher in drama school. Later I became part of a small group of students he handpicked. Along with this group, I took private theatre classes at his house in Mexico City, where he lived for many years. He came with Marcel Marceau to Mexico on tour and decided to stay.

Jodorowsky taught me to break many theatre rules. He would find many alternative readings in the plays he directed, bringing striking imagery not found in the script. He often altered the writing, something that angered many playwrights, but at the end of the day these writers somehow would come to terms with it.

He created, along with Fernando Arrabal [and Roland Topor in Paris in 1962], “the theatre of panic” [or, Mouvement panique, Panic Movement], a theatre that presented sadistically the horrors of our societies, often with humor. Again, imagery was the strength of his work. Jodorowsky staged many classic absurdist playwrights from around the world, like Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Arrabal, and his own work—something new in Mexico at the time.

Other mentors were Héctor Mendoza, Emilio Carballido, Julio Castillo, Fernando Wagner, Soledad Ruiz, José Solé, and Clementina Otero. I can say that I studied with the crème of Mexican theatre from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. Many of these teachers were fantastic directors, playwrights, and, above all, magnificent teachers.

FG: What do you consider to be your most significant contributions to theater?

CC: I contributed to the theatre scene by developing the skills of many actors, playwrights and administrators, among them Adelina Anthony, the founder of Cara Mía Theatre Co. [in Dallas]. I imagine there are more areas in which I have contributed, but they are not tangible, just as the art of theatre itself.

I brought to the stage many Mexican American stories, like Pizcas, an adaptation I did from a short story written by Magarito Rodríguez from El Paso. This play is about the Mexican American experience of children in the cotton fields of Texas. I helped create, produce, and direct Santos, a Wandering Soul by Victor Hugo Rascón Banda, a play about the shooting of twelve-year old Santos Rodríguez [by a Dallas police officer in 1973]. Santos became a community therapy play that helped many people heal. We played to full houses on three different occasions. There was also Black Butterfly in Chloroform, which featured the life and work of Bernardo Couto Castillo, a Mexican writer of mystery and horror from the generation of the “damn poets” [los poetas malditos, the Mexican equivalent of les poètes maudits]. This play was co-written by Victor San Miguel and me. Pizcas and Black Butterfly in Chloroform were published by a university press in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, and by TCA.

For over twenty years Teatro Dallas commissioned translations of Latin American playwrights, enriching the theatre community with translations that were unavailable before. The challenge has been to publish these works. As for now, they may be available by contacting Teatro Dallas and making arrangements with translators. Many of these plays were translated by [my daughter] Sara Cardona.

My transition from actor to director, producer, and translator, adapting stories to the stage and writing, was a natural progression. The lack of resources made it a necessity. Once I founded the company, I began a journey that forced me, joyfully, into doing it all. I don’t consider myself a playwright, but I have written about three plays. The latest was 1968. [1968 premiered in 2018, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre, when the Mexican government killed hundreds of unarmed protesters in Mexico City’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas. The play is based on Cardona’s eyewitness account.]

FG: Discuss the challenges you have faced while on your artistic journey.  What obstacles were there along the way, and what successes let you know you were on the right path?

CC: The challenges I faced as artistic director of Teatro Dallas were many. First, I had to learn how to write grants.  I enjoyed this part of the job, selling my ideas in a creative and competitive world, but the administrative area gave me headaches. I found myself doing many jobs that demanded me to be 24/7 at Teatro Dallas. The lack of administrative staff wore me out, but I kept going.

Another success, but also obstacle, was our educational programming. I enjoy teaching children, adolescents, and adults; however, it also meant hiring and training other artists to do it. Teaching children and adolescents takes a special personality and skills, which can be hard to find in the theatre community. It took time and patience to train and develop artists to execute our programs, but we succeeded.

One of our greatest accomplishments, and in fact a signature of Teatro Dallas, was the Days of the Dead productions. But I also created the International Theatre Festival, a festival that exposed audiences to the works of international artists. The fest was a challenge because I needed to choose works that didn’t rely on text but more on physical theater. The festivals were presented in Spanish, English, Spanglish, Russian, Italian, French, Japanese, Portuguese, etc. Sadly, it is increasingly difficult to bring in international artists [to the United States] in today’s political climate. Securing visas comes at a great financial and time expense to organizations that invite foreign artists, with no guarantee that the programming can be secured.

FG: Which writers have influenced, inspired, or challenged you the most in your own artistic practice?

CC: Absurdist playwrights and those from the Theatre of Cruelty: Ionesco, Beckett, Arrabal, Egon Wolff, Griselda Gambaro, Arístides Vargas, Elena Garro, Tomás Urtusástegui, Michel de Ghelderode, along with Moliére, Shakespeare, and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. These are some of my favorite authors. They have inspired my love of theatre, and it has been a delight to stage their works. All of them have challenged my directorial skills.

In the case of Ionesco, while I was in Mexico, it was a challenge as an actress to give meaning to his words and understand organically his characters, both in The Bald Soprano and The Lesson. My favorite piece by Ionesco is The Chairs under the direction of Jodorowsky, who introduced me to his work as well as to the work of Beckett, Arrabal, and Ghelderode.

FG: “I got to like ugliness and found it beautiful” is quite an amazing statement.  Can you describe how that statement is a way to understand both your father’s work as well as your own? Are you still attracted to the scary, sad, and terrible stories?

CC: My parents made me understand that beauty lies in people’s souls and actions. My mother volunteered in poor neighborhoods, teaching math, reading, and writing to paraplegics and often to disfigured people in terribly poor neighborhoods. She would always say that this or that woman had a sweet soul, or was extremely intelligent, and to be respectful and appreciate people no matter what they looked like.

My father worked as a journalist and had backstage access to the circus. Deformed performers were big acts in those days, and I remember being scared and intimidated by them. But my father was so kind and warm to them, photographing them, and treating them with a respect others often didn’t show them. They were so kind, and I soon felt at home with these beautiful artists.

I used to think that I should only direct mystery and horror stories because I like this kind of literature a lot. But life can be scary and terrible on its own. So as long as a play is nicely written, it doesn’t matter to me anymore. I like to direct humor, horror, and especially the absurd—surrealists of all periods. My father once told me that Francisco de Quevedo, who lived in the 16th century was one of the first surrealists of Spanish literature.

FG: Do you have a dream project, something that you’d like to direct or a role you’d like to perform or a script that you’d like to write, that you hope to accomplish in the coming years?

CC: For now, I am getting reacclimated to life in Mexico City. I have an immediate goal of republishing my father’s work (they stopped publishing it in the mid-1990s) and getting it translated into English. I also want to continue directing, acting, and teaching in Mexico and in Dallas, whenever a good project presents itself. I am still on the board of directors for Teatro Dallas, and I’m enjoying going back and forth between Mexico City and Dallas.

The truth is that one of my goals is to travel around Mexico! I adore  this country in spite of all of its weaknesses and violence. It’s not much different from the rest of the world. I can assure you that I am not ethnocentric, but this country is the milk and honey of magic and surrealism, and it is fuel for the imagination.

Frank Garrett is a writer and translator. He lives in Dallas and is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. @limmoraliste