Allow me to present you with a thought experiment: You meet a young brown man with a Latinx-sounding last name, caramel skin, and curly hair. He tells you that he’s a student at Cornell University, one of the most elite universities in the world.
What do you expect him to be studying?
A quick glance at the inspiration porn of your Facebook feed might lend you some ideas. “Ivy League Latino” sounds like the makings of a 4.0 high school valedictorian who’s on track to becoming a doctor in hopes of making his family of 8 (who all happen to share the same room in a tiny apartment in the south side of Chicago) proud. You walk up to him, ready to congratulate him on beating the odds and moving up in the world.
“Hola,” you say. “Wow! You go to Cornell? That’s great! Congratulations! Your (single) mother (and seven siblings) must be so proud! What are you studying? Bio? Chemistry? Engineering?”
The brown boy looks at you dead in the eye, smiles, and says, “Theater, actually. I’m an actor.”
Confused? Surprised that someone would come to Cornell University to study acting of all things? Reminded that Cornell even offered a theater major? Well, sure! Why not? As the disque late, great Ezra Cornell once famously stated, “any person…any study.” I’m sure the university went out of its way to honor Ezra’s famous love of theater and formed a solid, competitive, and robust acting program that prepares students for a career in theater like they do with AEM students and engineers, right?
Wrong (and Ezzy hated musicals.) While Cornell has a theater minor (which I am pursuing), the university merged the former theater, film, and dance majors into the underfunded, heavily academic, and often overlooked Performing and Media Arts major. In fact, Cornell is the only Ivy League school that does not offer a traditional theater degree. And while I don’t know what the statistics for Cornell’s campus are, I am willing to bet that a vast majority of Cornell students would not even consider watching theater to be a pastime they frequently engage in, and for a good reason: frankly, live performances are not as easily accessible as a trip to the movie theater or a binge-watching session on Netflix. Theatrical runs at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts at Cornell last two weekends and five performances at most. As art forms, television and film are how most Americans engage with dramatic performance. According to statista.com, 47.05 million people in the United States attended a live stage play in 2016. That number accounts for 14.5 percent of the U.S. population.
So, what gives? Who is this Ivy League “actor”? Did he choose to come to Cornell for acting on purpose or did he get lost on his way to Ithaca College’s far more reputable acting program?
My name is Irving Torres-Lopez, and I am an Ivy League actor. More specifically, I am a Cornell actor, and one of a handful of active non-White theater students at Cornell University. An aspiring professional actor, playwright and theater creative, I have spent the last six semesters actively seeking and seizing any opportunity to create for and perform on stage. If you arrived at or attended Cornell between the years 2014 and 2016, odds are you’ve seen me perform on stage at least once. Be it the controversial Tapestry of Possibilities during Orientation Week or a required play you had to attend for your acting class, I have performed in around two dozen productions of varying lengths and performance types all over Ithaca since my start at Cornell in 2014. At one point my face was even on the side of a TCAT bus or two in promotion of a play I was in. I came to the School of Industrial Relations as a pre-law student, and remained pre-law for all of two weeks before theater became my sole emotional investment.
Theater seems to be an odd choice of career for folks like myself, who hail from low-income communities of color, and I often get asked how I got involved in acting to begin with. Growing up, I didn’t have many of the privileges that a lot of acting students have. My parents couldn’t afford acting classes, and growing up in the New York City public school system meant attending schools that had no adequate drama departments in place. Unlike many of my white, more affluent peers in theater, I got my start performing not long before I came to college. My high school in Astoria, Queens was one that struggled financially, with a predominantly Black and Latinx population. A theater production that went up during my junior year was its first attempt in years to provide opportunities for students on the stage. That exposure got me hooked. I remember being on stage for two nights in a row feeling like a superstar and loving every minute of performing that role. I cherish that show as the moment I fell in love with theater, even if the embarrassing footage of that musical number still haunts me to this day.
Transitioning from a mostly Black and Latinx high school to the predominately White Cornell campus is a culture shock many students can speak to, but this shock had an added layer of difficulty for me as an aspiring actor. As you might have guessed, actors are a rare breed on Cornell’s campus, actors of color even more so. Off the top of my head, I can count less than ten of us who actively participate in Cornell’s theater scene. A smaller subset of that number are seriously considering continuing in the industry post-graduation. Being an actor of color from a low-income background is fraught with difficulty and challenges at every turn. It involves the same level of pressure, labor, and rigor described by students of color in other fields of study who are working four times as hard to achieve the same levels of success and recognition as their White peers. The financial insecurity of being a low-income first-generation American is exacerbated by the lack of financial security available in careers in the arts. The fact that I was accepted to and now attend an Ivy League university in the first place and chose to pursue acting was a big source of shame for a time, as I felt that people viewed my decision to focus on that career instead of a “more sensible” one as a wasted opportunity. Pursuing a life in the theater is a risk with no guarantee of reward, and one I gladly take every day.
The most difficult and sometimes discouraging challenge faced by actors of color in American theater is similar to the problem actors of color face in the film industry, brought to light with conversation topics like #OscarsSoWhite. Like film, the American commercial theater is plagued with a racist history of representation. To this day, people of color are not only denied the opportunity to step onto a stage and embody human beings that look like them, talk like them, and experience the world like them by mostly White teams of Broadway producers, but are also denied entry into the very theaters that claim to seek to represent them due to the highly commercialized industry that excludes low-income communities (I’m looking at you, Hamilton, The Lion King, Miss Saigon, and other Broadway shows with predominantly POC casts.) It’s wonderful that Broadway is increasing its “diversity” (woohoo), but I personally care less about a person of color being cast in a “traditionally White role” than I do a person of color telling their own stories that relate to their unique American (or non-American) experiences. Gang members, prisoners, struggling immigrants, slaves, exotic foreigners, and stereotypes of every sort are not the only performances actors of color can bring to stage. Bringing those other stories to life on stage -- the stories of struggles, triumphs, and ostensibly quotidian experiences of ordinary people that are in fact filled with nail-biting drama, obstacles, and conflict -- has become my mission.
In pursuing that mission, I draw from my own narrative as an example of why telling our stories is so important. Growing up, I struggled with my identity as a Latino. Throughout elementary school, I remember reading a series of nonfiction books with titles such as “Mexican-Americans,” “Indian-Americans,” “Chinese-Americans.” Growing up in Queens in predominantly immigrant communities and attending school as a first-generation American alongside other first-generation Americans confirmed what these books had taught me. For most of my life, I believed that “America” was fundamentally rooted in the hyphen -- the idea that the label of “American” was always preceded by another nationality, that everybody’s parents were from somewhere else.
The proverb “Ni de aquí, ni de allá” (from neither here, nor there) best defines the reality of that hyphen for many of us who use it. The unique experience of this entire generation of U.S.-born Latinxs with parents born in Latin America can be identified by a number of characteristics and stark differences between their parents and them: the ways in which our parents teased the American accents that are sprinkled into our Spanish, our poor Spanish grammar and word choices, the absence of understanding “how life works” in Latin America given our privilege of living in the “rich,” developed United States, and even the small differences between American traditions and the customs of our parents. To our parents we are not Latin Americans nor immigrants, but Americanos whose upbringing here freed us from the burdens our parents and ancestors carried on their backs as they crossed the border in pursuit of the very same opportunities that we are now searching for, laboring for, and seizing every day.
This disconnect widens as this generation of Latinxs enter White spaces. My experience at a Predominately White Institution (P.W.I.) is one you have likely heard before: Suddenly, the citizenship and American identity my parents had bestowed upon me was stripped away by White peers who assumed I was born elsewhere. I went from being a gringo with Latinx parents at home to the token brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking “real Latino.” I’ve been the resource for White students taking Spanish classes, been asked to look over homework, have annoyingly dealt with White American students knocking on the door of my residence hall pleading to speak to a “real Spanish speaker,” and have appeared in a number of surface-level interviews about the differences between Ecuador and the U.S. (as if I am in any way educated about life in Ecuador.) Within the first year alone, I had to reckon with the realization that my White peers saw an identity that I had not yet claimed, and one that I yearned to explore authentically.
During my time at Cornell, I’ve come to learn how to explore, express, and unpack my multi-faceted identity. I progressed messily from a self-conscious gringito in the eyes of my parents, to a walking Spanish textbook in the eyes of actual gringos, to the sentient hyphen I am today. Sabor Latino, a 25-year-old Latin dance team, has become beautiful haven of cultural artistic expression I had never allowed myself to experience before joining. At Cornell, I found a unique dorm tailored around Latinidad and Latinx culture, which has become a one-of-a-kind community I don’t think I’ll find anything similar to after I graduate. An evening in the main lounge of the L.L.C. “looks exactly how you’d expect it to look,” as my younger brother once said after a visit. For three years (going on fourth), I have come to call this residence hall my home, with its adoption of the Spanglish that our parents mock as its official form of communication, loud blaring bachata, and spontaneous transitions from salsa dancing one minute to frantic studying the next.
Now imagine that journey of discovery projected onto a stage. Would it sell out Broadway theaters that seat thousands? Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless of commercialization, I believe my story is one worth telling on a stage, because that story might contain the words and experiences that might not be articulated anywhere else. Theater is an art form that I feel is often overlooked as a vehicle for social commentary and change, and the impact of these stories and the ability theater has to display them so openly and honestly is why I do what I do. It’s why my ten-minute play about a low-income family struggling to agree on whether or not going to college is the right choice is being staged at the Schwartz Center this fall. It’s why I’m writing a play centering the residents of a fictional Latinx residence hall that will be performed in the main lounge of the Latinx Living Center by residents of the LLC. It’s why I’m writing, staging, and acting in an 80-minute-long, semi-autobiographical one-act play of my own in the spring of 2018 that centers the story of a Latinx Ivy League actor. Stories like these might be exactly what a young Latinx entering a Predominantly White Institution might be searching for, and the ability and opportunity to see one’s own people and communities living and breathing in front of them on stage is groundbreaking. I speak from experience, as seeing my story brought to life and presented in front of me was cathartic and life-changing for me. When considering pursuing this career, shows like In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony-award-winning musical about a community of people living on the corner of a block in Washington Heights, New York, and John Leguizamo’s 1998 one-man show Freak, a semi-autobiographical work that examines Latinx familial relationships and growing up Latinx in the United States, were tremendous in their power and influence on me. For the first time, I felt like I not only had the opportunity to be on stage but that I belonged on the stage. In an industry dominated by White narratives and plagued by issues like Whitewashing and appropriation, Heights and Freak empowered me to seize control of my own stories and work relentlessly to project it to an audience via the stage.
Storytelling is what keeps cultures alive. Without telling stories, entire identities, cultures, and groups of people are erased from the public consciousness. We gossip, we socialize, we go to therapy. We go to art exhibits, watch movies, and tear through entire television shows. As a Latinx performer and playwright being taught by an underfunded and undervalued Performing and Media Arts Department, I will be entering a line of work dominated by White performers, White creators, and White narratives. I will have to work four times as hard to be taken seriously and get by. It’s a special kind of pressure knowing that I run the risk of being turned down executives and producers who don’t feel like my stories will sell or appeal to White demographics. But while every piece of theater created by non-White creators might not be the next Hamilton, that doesn’t mean that our stories aren’t worth telling. As a playwright and actor, my life’s work is going to be devoted to collecting narratives and stories of communities forgotten on stage and throw them in the spotlight. The theater industry needs more actors, directors, playwrights, producers, and technical artists of color to thrive and keep our stories alive. Those creatives could be at the Ivy League right now, with their potential and power dampened by institutional inertia and cultural disinterest. Without the support institutions like Cornell, those in power that claim to advocate for broader representation in the theater, and my fellow marginalized peers’ interest in theater, that work is threatened and its value and impact is minimized.
To marginalized folks -- to those who are often forgotten on our stages and our screens and whose existences are erased from the public eye -- I pose another thought experiment:
Imagine that you had the chance to see your story -- a story that has the power to profoundly impact the lives of others in your community -- come to life before your very eyes.
Who’s going to tell your story?
Irving Torres-Lopez is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations with minors in Theater, Latina/o Studies, and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. He is a proud resident of the Latino Living Center, an officer of the Cornell Ambassadors for Media and Performance (CAMP), and a member of the social justice theater troupe Ordinary People. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.