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A window on generational divides

SANTA FE, N.M. — It’s been exactly 10 years since “We Are Hispanic-American Women … OK?” was last staged at Santa Fe’s Teatro Paraguas.

But the Patricia Grespin dramedy’s representation of family dynamics through generations is still just as relevant today, according to the cast staging its revival run.

The show, which Crespin said was written to highlight how Hispanic family members interact with each other, focusing particularly on the “strengths and weaknesses” of women in family groups, returns to the Teatro Paraguas stage later this week.

Despite some minor changes of colloquial phrases and cultural references – what was a mention of Whitney Houston now name-checks Lady Gaga, for example – the core story has remained intact. The storylines about relationships among mothers and daughters, granddaughters and sisters, and about generational divides when it comes to topics like men and religion, all feel current.

“(It’s) still the same at my house,” said JoJo Sena de Tarnoff, who plays matriarch Ramona in the revival. Ten years ago, she had the role of one of the daughters. Her own daughter, Jeni Nelson, now is playing daughter Antonia.

Written back in 2006 by Las Vegas, N.M.-based playwright and professor Crespin – and turned into a small movie called “Before We Say Goodbye” in 2010 – “We Are Hispanic-American Women … OK?” follows four generations of women who are part of an extended family living near Albuquerque.

The entire show takes place in the kitchen of matriarch Ramona, who is taking care of her own swearing, tequila-loving mother Nanita – director Alix Hudson describes her as the “drunk Greek chorus.” Ramona also is trying to keep her polar-opposite daughters Marissa and Antonia from fighting with each other, and often dotes on her spoiled teenage granddaughter, Marissa’s daughter Juanita.

The set will even smell like a real kitchen, according to Sena de Tarnoff. As Ramona, she will be preparing beans, chile and tortillas live on stage.

“It’s just a window, it’s a window into this moment of this family where I don’t think there’s a family that wouldn’t be able to … immediately get it,” her daughter Nelson said of the show.

“There’s definitely some archetypes everyone can get with” – for instance, Nelson’s character Antonia, the more rebellious of the two siblings, often clashes with her older sister. With a husband, kids and her own business, Marissa is trying to present a facade that she has her life perfectly together.

As the family faces tragedy over a health crisis, the story focuses on how the women deal with it.

“And how they don’t deal with it, more accurately,” said Nelson. “And how everyone deals with it in their own way, but what it comes down to is, the family bond will remain the same no matter how they deal with it, and that it’s strong, for better or worse.

“It may not seem like that at first. It may seem like we hate each other and it may seem like we’re always at odds, but we’re always going to stick by each other’s side, whether it seems like it or not.”

What becomes clear is how some traits and practices have been passed down through generations and others have not, said director Hudson.

Both the older women, Nanita and Ramona, try to stay tight-lipped on issues that are difficult to confront, as a coping mechanism, and the younger generations have had enough of that. Antonia has rejected Catholicism and marriage, much to her mother’s dismay.

Even the use of language symbolizes the generational divides, according to Hudson. Nanita speaks almost entirely Spanish, Ramona speaks a bit of both and the amount of English speaking increases with the daughters until granddaughter Juanita speaks almost no Spanish at all.

“It has a lot of universals, but it especially works in the New Mexican, Latino context of how women are expected to handle family and difficulty, and how these particular women handle (it),” said Hudson.

The actors noted that while issues of strong familial roles for women or the “machismo” of men – who are spoken about, but don’t make appearances in this play – may be particularly prevalent within Latino culture, those themes also are certainly universal.

This is something Crespin has also noticed through the years of staging the play, recalling a German woman coming up to her and telling her how the characters reminded her of her own family.

“The main theme I’m going for now … is just that whole idea of one-ness and we’re all sort of the same,” said Crespin. “I want them to see, especially now at a time where Latinas are getting a bad rap, I want people to see we’re just like everyone else. Family is family; it doesn’t matter where you come from.”

The show also stars Lilia Urrutia as Nanita, Paola Vengoechea Martini as Marissa and Shaunti Sitonik as Juanita. Shows are Thursdays-Sundays until Feb. 24.