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As a Cuban-American writer and actor, I know we need a world beyond wepa!
At first glance, most people see me and think, Look at that tall white guy from Nebraska. While I understand this inadvertent privilege has helped me in many capacities, it has also led many to ignore the reality of my life and legacy.
I'm a first-generation Cuban American born to parents who fled to the US as children when their homeland became dangerous and deadly under Fidel Castro. After they arrived on these shores, their families found few opportunities. Because of their limited English, they were shoved into factory jobs and truck driving, their skills, talent and intelligence undervalued. They also encountered signs on windows that said, "No Cubans," so even finding housing was fraught. My mother was taunted by children who threw eggs at her as she ran home from school. My father, denied access to a doctoral program due to his nationality, shifted his sights to a business degree and a career that began with the punishing hours that immigrants know all too well.
I was shielded from much of this growing up because my parents wanted to protect me and my siblings from the hardships they experienced. I still learned what it felt like to be othered.
Let's start with my last name: Ulloa, pronounced oo-yo-ah. From my high school principal laughing as she butchered it at graduation, to countless interviews where journalists blithely mispronounced it, my last name is a constant reminder of what sets me apart. In fact, one of my first acting agents in New York City insisted that I "change my crazy last name." I changed agencies instead.
For the first 10 years of my career as a performer, I was never even considered for Latin roles as I didn't look the part to teams of all-white casting directors. The irony is that, ever since my Broadway debut in On Your Feet!, I'm now only seen for Latin roles! Often those creating shows are the ones with the least creativity when it comes to diversity. Even creatives that I thought got it frequently labeled me solely as a "Latin artist" and expected only "Latin things" to come out of my mouth and pen.
Now that I've segued to a career as a playwright, it's worse. If I had a nickel for every time I was told to make sure that what I was writing was "zesty" or "spicy," as if I were writing an ad campaign for Doritos, I'd be a very wealthy man. If the show isn't called Wepa! The Musical and doesn't have pineapples in its ad campaign, they're not interested.
That stereotyping permeates the industry and the way we are perceived, even at our most incredible moments. Matthew López just made history as the first Latin playwright to take home the Tony Award for best play. However, because The Inheritance wasn't centered on Latin characters, his landmark win didn't seem to matter to many media outlets or, to be honest, most Latin artists. Meanwhile, his two-part epic explores family and generational progression within a minority community, two themes that are tremendously Latin.
The three shows I've written are about disparate subjects: a town dealing with a mass shooting, a man who walks across America and a reindeer in anger management therapy. While not explicitly set within Latin culture, they examine community, family, ancestry, toxic machismo behavior and other topics that arise from my upbringing.
We must change the mindset on what a "Latin show" is. We must expand that label and focus on the artists involved. By amplifying Latin writers' voices, we amplify our culture. We are not a monolith. Each one of us is distinct in how we feel and live within our Latinidad and all forms are valid.
We have to help aspiring Latin theatre-makers find their footing. Oscar-winning Birdman screenwriter Alexander Dinelaris is the Latin artist who mentored me. He penned the book for On Your Feet! and we met during my time as a company member. A mutual friend mentioned to him that I was also a writer, and Alex came to me and said, "Why didn't you tell me?" Every other week, we grabbed a post-show drink and talked about writing over multiple bourbons till two in the morning. Later, he hired me to be his writing assistant on two feature films, which was like a masters program in screenwriting. He reached out to me, a young Latin writer, while at the top of his game because he knew the profound influence he could have and inspiration he would be.
That changed me forever, and now I have committed myself to mentoring the next generation of theatre-makers. I speak with casts via Zoom that are doing my plays, talk with educators from around the nation about the work that needs to be done to make the industry truly inclusive and take NYC public school students to the theatre thanks to TDF's Wendy Wasserstein Program.
I have the honor of sitting in Broadway houses alongside these mostly Black and Latin teenagers as they enjoy the magic of theatre. Afterward, we talk about not just what they thought of the show, but how their own life experiences color what they took away from the piece. I see them cry at beautiful moments and it reminds me of why I love making theatre: to spark empathy and hope. I watched a teenage girl who just arrived in this country from Central America heal from the tears she shed when Ti Moune died at the gates of the hotel in Once on This Island. I know what she felt because I was that kid once, too, and I was also awed by the power of what could happen on a stage.
That's what fuels me to make new stories that keep theatre and my culture moving forward. To lift up my fellow Latin artists and all artists of color as we scale this perilous mountain together. And to make it easier on the next generation of folks who choose to enter this profession.
I come from a line of talented people who never had the opportunity to make art their profession. I carry that with me every day. It doesn't have to be as hard as it is, and I often wonder how many incredible voices have been lost because too many hurdles were blocking the path.
Eric Ulloa is a 2020 American Theatre Wing Jonathan Larson Grant Finalist and a 2020 Kleban Prize Award Finalist. He is the author of the plays 26 Pebbles and Reindeer Sessions, and the librettist of the musical Passing Through. Eric was in the original Broadway cast of On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan Follow him at @TheUlloa2. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
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Top image: The author as a child with his grandparents. Photo courtesy of Eric Ulloa.