Understanding EVITA from an Indigenous Perspective

Melody Nicolette

Ah, yes. White-washing and EVITA, two roaches that never seem to die.

Last Fall, when North Shore Musical Theatre in Massachusetts announced their production of EVITA, “controversy” (one of my least favourite buzzwords, because it clouds the validity of legitimate concerns) erupted over its lack of Latinx actors cast in any of the leading roles. When North Shore issued its statement that “race is not part of the narrative” as a response, I was legitimately floored. Everything in Latin America has to do with race, because everything in Latin America it is a direct result of colonialism, slavery and genocide. (This isn’t exclusive to Latin America, obviously). Race is irrevocable from any narrative set in the Americas, especially in Latin American countries where race and racial identification are class distinctions.

North Shore continued to handle this well. By “well,” I mean the theatre deleted critical posts calling it out from its Facebook page.

EVITA provides no easy answers. Meagan Clearwood, also an OnStage contributor, wrote this incredible piece about EVITA last year, expertly detailing the production history of this show, and its many problems. I hope to offer this one as a companion piece, my emphasis on the colonial history of the Americas as it pertains to race relations and the problems with narratives like,  but not limited to, EVITA.

No matter how you approach EVITA, it’s a mess:

Let’s start here: EVITA is the depiction of a white supremacist colonial government as seen through the lense of two white English dudes, which in and of itself is peak colonial bullshit. (A quick Google search of the Guerra del Atlántico Sur conflicts are a great place to start)

EVITA is whitewashing, with or without an “authentic” Latinx cast.  Yes, neither Juan or Eva Péron, nor Agustín Magaldi were people of color. One could argue that Argentina is a “whiter” Latin American country than, say, Brazil or México, partly because of its wholesale slaughter of its Indigenous populations. So yes, Argentina is a “whiter” Latin American country because of genocide, as well as curated narratives that Indigenous people don’t exist anymore. Argentina also has a serious problem with its Afro-Latino population, to the point where it’s been repeatedly stated that they don’t exist, either, ---damnatio memoriae.  In Argentina “negro” is used to describe the poor in general, regardless of actual ethnicity. (Not to mention the erasure of its  Afro-Indigenous cowboys).

Related example of white washing in Latin America: Carmen Miranda’s use of turbans and other Afro-Brazilian cultural staples as a Portuguese-born white woman acting as the face of Brazil and Brazilian culture. This was controversial and resented even during her lifetime.

Here are some other things to understand and remember when discussing race in Latin America:

Racism isn’t just an Argentina problem. It’s an ugly, festering open sore that Latino exceptionalism prevents from being addressed appropriately (“we don’t have racism HERE!”). The racial and ethnic amalgamations of Latin American countries varies nation to nation with the different colonial histories, whether it is tres roots, or any other ethnic populations (the Japanese in Brazil, the Irish in México, etc.), but racism is prevalent in all of them. (This isn’t a contest to see who has the most sordid and bloody colonial history. No one wins. Racial inequality is a global problem, obviously).

It should also be understood that, in addition to having serious repercussions on class and social standing, race is also seen as a casual way to address, or to comment on the features of, someone you don’t know. Race is seen as both inescapable and informal. For example:  Anyone Asian can (and probably will) be addressed as “Chino,” regardless if they’re Chinese or not. Someone with “narrow” eyes, regardless of actual ethnicity, could also be called “Chino”---and addressed as “Chino,” regardless of how well you know them or not. (This came under fire during the 2017 World Series because Yuli Gurriel made all-too-common-in-Latin-America gestures at a Japanese player on the opposing team). Also take into consideration that conversation starters or “harmless” inquiries such as “¿Ay, Negra, que hora es?” [“Hey Black-Girl, what time is it?”] is considered perfectly acceptable in most Latin American countries. (Unfortunately, it’s not limited to race.  Even something like “¡Ay, Gordo! ¿Cuándo viene el autobús?” [“Hey, Fattie! When’s the bus coming?”] is considered normal and acceptable. Yeah.)

And, yes, thank you for pointing out that “white Latinos exist!!!!” WE. KNOW. They saturate and monopolize Latin media, despite being a very small percentage of the over-all population. (This is true even in American media Latinx representation). Colorism (racism) in Latin America is no joke. Indigenous people in the Americas continually suffer direct consequences of colonialism,  as in all countries,  not to mention general colorism and other prejudice towards Afro-Latinx people. As the linked video from the Kat Call outlines, we as Latinx people have been fed the false narrative that light-skinned Latinos who possess predominantly European features are the only ones that exist. (“There are no ugly people in Brazil, only poor.”) The only time you will see a dark-skinned person on Latin American television is if they are playing villains or servants. Latinx people will identify as “Spanish” or “white,” even they aren’t, because being Indigenous is considered “filth.” Colorism runs its insidious self so deeply, it even influences which eye colours are considered more attractive and coveted than others.  That is some dye-in-the-wool shit.

To my fellow Light(er)-skinned/ white-passing Latinx people:  No one is saying that you’re not Latino enough, because Latino/a/@/x is an umbrella term for a multi-ethnic, multi-racial conglomerate Transformer. Who gets to be Latino/a/@/x? I’m not the Latinx Identity Police. It’s an ugly game I don’t play, and there are no winners. It’s one thing to struggle sometimes with being recognized as Latinx (and yes, that can and does hurt), but it’s another thing altogether to be seen as less intelligent, less beautiful, and even to a point where your life is seen as having less value. Most importantly, you can see exactly the way your dark(er)-skinned peers are treated.  As an Indigenous Latina (and First Nations person) with light(er) skin, I have transitioned from varying shades throughout my lifetime. I have directly seen how the way I have been treated, how my beauty and intelligence have been perceived was in correlation to how dark I was or wasn’t at the time. I got a taste of colorism; this doesn’t even speak to the lasting multi-generational consequences of colorism and racism in Latin America. Anti-Indigenous and anti-blackness are so pervasive, both in Central and South America (and the United States), it permeates almost every part of Latinx life, whether it’s cognizant or not. This instance from last August is another example of anti-Indigenous sentiments. However, there appears to be some positive changes in attitudes that are happening in terms of narrative and representation.

So, yes, to reiterate, even if you were to cast a production of EVITA with an all-Latinx cast, you would still be contributing to the colonial narratives. You’re still telling the story of a colonial government built on the bodies of murdered Indigenous people the descendants of slaves (hmm, doesn’t that sound familiar, HAMILTON? America?). Yes, Eva Perón was not an Indigenous or Afro-Latina, so her being played by someone who isn’t would technically, one could argue, be correct. Eva Perón is still part of colonial imperialism. As an Indigenous Latinx person with ancient roots en México, I obviously don’t have the same relationship with Péron as someone from Argentina would. Is she just a colonizer? Is she also a cultural icon, not just in Argentina, but in the North American consciousness?  Not all Argentinos agree about EVITA, either. Does that mean that only Argentinian people should weigh in on Eva Péron? Regardless of how many view her, she remains a symbol of nationalism to a lot of Argentinos.

Nationalism in Latin America is a strange creature, that creates weird blind spots for all of us, so in a way, I totally get that. Even the film Coco, for as wonderful and as beautiful and as necessary as it is, even depicting an ancient indigenous practice, focuses heavily on Mestizaje and nationalism, and while making nods to tres roots, has an absence of Afro-Mexicans.  Ernesto de la Cruz is an homage to Mexican nationalism’s icon Pedro Infante,--Euro-centricism, white/-passing/ Mestizo (and, Imma let you finish, but Jorge Negrete is the greatest Mexican singer of all-time, ayyyyyy).  Even I have blind spots, an Indigenous person, who has never actually been to México, still refers to México as “my belovèd México,” and can bellow Yo Soy Mexicano along with the best of them. I can talk all I want about Indigenous solidarity, sharing the same Indigenous DNA from top of Canada to the tip of Argentina all I want, but when it comes to futbol, it’s ¡Viva México! para vida y eternidad.

Another serious point that needs to be addressed is how EVITA, because it’s written through a colonial white male gaze, depicts Péron as a Spicy Latina Stereotype. This dangerous trope with a long and disturbing history has serious real-life consequences. The gross sexualization of Eva Péron removes focus on her, and other Latin American female leaders, from political accomplishments. The hypersexualization of Eva Péron continues to affect the lives of Latinas and the perceptions of their worth, Latinas seen as a monolith of inherently hyper-sexual beings.

So, what do we do about all of this?

Ask yourself why you want to tell these stories. The “why” is incredibly important. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote EVITA (partially) because Tim Rice was obsessed with Evita’s face on a postage stamp as a kid. One of their source materials was "The Woman with the Whip", which was written by someone who was born in Argentina who had neither met Evita or had any basis for her “sources”. Why is this depiction of Eva Péron the most notable and given the most priority?

Give space for new stories. Let stuff like EVITA just be relics of the past. Give space for narratives that center around Afro-Latinx and Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Prioritize marginalized voices. We’ve given enough time and space to colonial narratives, they’ve had over five hundred years of spotlight. “Art” and “storytelling” and “narrative” are great and all, but if you’re  directly contributing to colonial narrative  and erasure (which in and of itself is a form of continued  colonial violence), ask yourself the following: Is you getting to play Eva Péron, whether you’re Latinx or not, really worth contributing to erasure? Does it really take direct precedence over how these narratives affect actual people’s lives? Is your ‘dream role,’ your “art,” your résumé really more important? The answer to the question, ‘who played the “better” Evita, Lupone or Madonna?’, there are no winners. As far as I am concerned, they’re both losers for choosing to contribute to colonial narratives for their own gain and accolades.

To my fellow Latinx people, not only do we have to have these ugly and necessary conversations about race in our countries, communities and families, but those of us in the arts also have to critically examine representation and how choosing to participate in certain narratives impacts our peers. Is contributing to colonial narratives or stereotypes worth contributing to the detrimental erasure of your peers? Sofía Vergara is a perfect example of this, and we’re tired of it.

Lastly, maybe you were in a community production of EVITA. Maybe you were in EVITA in high school. Or maybe you’ve been in a professional production of EVITA. What now? Instead of getting defensive or centering yourself in the conversation, this can be a great opportunity to learn. Understand other narratives and perspectives, and understand roles we all play in them. Whether we like it or not, we’re all stuck in this Sharknado of Colonial Bullshit here in the Americas (and in other colonized places throughout the world). We cannot continue to subjugate marginalized people for the sake of “art” and expect to get anywhere. We all have to get there together if we are going to get anywhere. We must choose to uplift others and give others space in conversations.

Speaking of Latin America, futbol, and getting somewhere all together, during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, when the Brazilian team (rightfully) won their gold medal, and went to accept their award, they held hands and stepped onto their podiums together. It’s a small gesture, but it’s a start.

Now, let’s apply that principle to everything, the arts included.