"Live! In the Canyon":
Historical Pageantry as Community-Builder
in the Paso del Norte

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2007, Volume 6, Issue 1

Carolyn D. Roark
Baylor University

It is difficult to find a precise definition for the term “outdoor drama.” Even on the informational webpage of the Institute of Outdoor Drama, an organization sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and dedicated to advancing the outdoor drama movement in the United States, there is no single definition of exactly what constitutes an outdoor drama. Nevertheless, there is a set of general assumptions that can be made: the use of an open air stage venue, the presence of tourists in the audience, the likelihood of music and spectacle as central to the show. The Institute of Outdoor Drama website divides the genre into three sub-groups: historical pageants, Shakespeare festivals, and religious pageants. They provide the following descriptions:

The outdoor historical dramas are original plays, often with music and dance, based on significant events and performed in amphitheatres located where the events actually occurred. Born in North Carolina, uniquely American and epic in scope, they focus on the people who shaped the heritage of the country, preserving and bearing witness to the great things we've accomplished as a state and nation. They are part of the travel and tourism industry, designed to attract families on vacation.

Outdoor Shakespeare festivals produce full-length Shakespearean plays, often in rotating repertory with the works of modern and other classical playwrights.

Outdoor religious dramas include passion plays which dramatize significant events in the life of Christ. These plays are based on the text of the Bible and the Mormon drama (which chronicles the founding and early history of the Mormon Church) based on events described in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, a scriptural text of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published in 1830.

As practitioners and academics, our gut response to outdoor dramas tends toward mild revulsion or amused disdain; we generally dismiss them as a legitimate field of study. But these performances, with their song-and-dance reviews and reenactments, do serve a significant, and largely unexamined, purpose. Paul Connerton suggests, in his 1989 study How Societies Remember, that ethnographic work often tends to “devalue or ignore the pervasiveness and importance in many cultures of actions which explicitly take place as a re-enactment of other actions that are considered prototypical” (53, italics his). Such activity, which Connerton terms “commemorative ceremony,” characterizes the construction of outdoor dramas intended to depict significant events of a culture’s past: historical pageants. They provide a rich source of cultural information about the formation of social identity – how it is collectively discussed, determined, contested and affirmed.

Historical pageants undertake this project with particular fervor. In his study of the pageants of the early twentieth century, American Historical Pageants, David Glassberg outlines the visionary work of William Chauncey Langdon – one of the great promoters of “new pageantry” in regional civic theatre – in using drama to engage the community in civic discourse. Langdon’s ideas included the firm notion that a locally acted pageant provided

a stirring experience through which they could visualize solutions to their current social and economic problems. Local residents in acting out the right scenes from their town’s past, present, and future would become more aware of the enduring traditions…[and] how they must adapt those traditions to the direction of modern social and economic progress. (Glassberg 71)

This belief is part of Langdon’s legacy to the production of outdoor dramas in the US, where forty-five of the 113 productions listed by the Institute of Outdoor Drama depict historical narratives (Parker). Oftentimes, these serve as a primer for outsiders on the self-concept of the community represented. After all, they do purport to be the enactment of a given place’s history, a representation of a community’s life. As such, they play a notable role in shaping the perceptions of their audiences regarding the performed group; indeed, they can be a primary site for the construction and affirmation of local and regional character. In describing themselves to tourists, producing organizations also affirm group identity for the represented populace. In an age characterized by increasing homogenization between communities – fueled by burgeoning consumerism, global trade and interaction, and dependence on technology – the task of creating and maintaining a belief in specificity and local distinctiveness becomes more critical for many communities, and the role of the historical pageant becomes a site ripe for investigating the effort of human collectives to shape and maintain identity through a belief in a shared history and cohesive culture.

El Paso, Texas – my hometown – engages in this kind of activity with a local historical pageant entitled Viva! El Paso. The show occurs in an open-air venue at a local state park. Unlike most plays of its kind, tourists make up a minority of the audience base. Though a significant number do attend, local citizens purchase the bulk of yearly tickets. For more than twenty years, this pageant has participated in the discourse of how regional culture is to be defined and how the events of the past are to be remembered by the city as a collective. Moreover, the pageant seeks to shape the perception of “El Paso” in the minds of its audience in order to encourage feelings of unity, optimism, and community spirit within a population of disparate (and often discordant) social groups. In order to understand better how the pageant functions as a community-building engine, I will address the interaction between dramatic narrative, staging, and theatrical space by drawing from several branches of scholarship on space, place, and performance. Before beginning this analysis, however, a little historical context for the historical pageant is in order, as it is not widely known outside of Texas.

A Short History of Viva! El Paso

Viva! El Paso is an outdoor drama that presents a cultural history of El Paso, Texas. It was developed specifically for performance in the amphitheater at McKelligon Canyon, a park situated in the mountains around which the city has developed. The production is unusual among established U.S. outdoor dramas in two ways: it is located at a venue inside the city limits, and the lion’s share of its audience lives within the area depicted by the performance. Consequently, it has the same general spectator base from year to year, and its producers must frequently alter the content of the show to entice the local community to return for performances of multiple seasons. Viva! was created specifically for the venue in which it plays annually, which was itself the result of a building project funded with the vision of creating a site in the park dedicated to “hous[ing] a production that would depict the history of this region” (Viva! 1983 program). 1. Thus, from the outset, the local government intended both the space and the production to play a role in articulating El Paso’s identity. The project was overseen by the city Heritage Committee. Prior to the construction of the space, committee members visited other outdoor drama sites and consulted with the Institute of Outdoor Drama for guidance on how to integrate a historical pageant and accompanying venue into the city. The committee then organized public funds, and built the stage using labor provided by CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, an initiative of Carter’s presidency). The project demonstrated a political imperative as well as exemplifying the government’s civic responsibility to promote arts and entertainment: as Connorton articulates, “the question of the control of ownership of information [is] a crucial political issue” (1). The amphitheatre and production began, therefore, as a public venture guided by a social engine with a vested interest in promoting a particular image of El Paso and its history and in establishing a specific role for the drama in the life of the city.

Actually, Viva! is the second production created for the space. Its precursor was El Paso del Norte, a play that primarily addressed the conflict between Spaniards and Native Americans in the region at the time of the Conquest along with the uneasy union that produced the Mestizo race. Created in the early 1970s by Teatro de Los Pobres, a local Chicano theatre group, the show drew very few spectators and lasted only two seasons, disappointing the expectations of both the troupe and their sponsors. Former Viva! artistic director Hector Serrano, an original member of Los Pobres, describes this first show as dark and serious, intended to draw attention to the vexed nature of both the discovery of the New World and intercultural relations in the Americas as they played out in the Paso del Norte. According to Serrano, public opinion declared the show too depressing and tragic; audiences were not interested in seeing the dark side of their regional history. Still, the newly built stage needed a play. The amphitheater was designed to house an historical pageant; the failure of El Paso del Norte necessitated a re-thinking on the part of city legislators and artistic collaborators.

City council member Polly Harris returned to Los Pobres, issuing them “a challenge” to take the $20,000 of surplus from producing del Norte and use it to try again, exhorting them this time to create a show for the venue that would be “upbeat” and help present a more positive vision of El Paso. This call for a more celebratory performance reflects the social impulse that Connorton outlines, in which power wielding elites “have invented rituals that claim continuity with an appropriate historical past, organizing ceremonies, parades and mass gathering, and constructing new ritual spaces” (51). Though their first attempt did not fit the bill as an appropriate vision of history to fill the new “ritual space,” the committee offered Los Pobres the chance to try again. In response, the group developed a show loosely framed by the metaphor of the six flags of Texas, representing the different nations and cultures that successively laid claim to the region: Spanish, French, Mexican, Texas Republic, Confederate, and US. It mixed musical numbers with dramatic sketches and “primarily spotlighted the talents of individual cast members” (Viva! 1983 program) in a variety-style format. This was the birth of Viva! El Paso.

From their inception, the park and the play both demonstrate Connorton’s insistence that “control of a society’s memory largely conditions the hierarchy of power” (1), through the active efforts of the city council and Heritage Committee to determine the character of the story that the combination would tell. This does not necessarily impugn the motives of the local government in sponsoring the drama, nor does it condemn Viva! as an instrument of hegemony per se; rather, the circumstances of its birth demonstrate that a historical pageant may serve ideological imperatives as well as amuse the spectator. Moreover, the pedagogical aspects of these pageants – as repositories of historical data – also actively work to mediate the audience’s interpretation of that information, so that a particular (desired) understanding of the community results.

In the twenty-five years of continued production that have followed the rise of Viva! El Paso from the ashes of El Paso del Norte, the summer months in McKelligon Canyon have been largely occupied by evening performances of the play. During the early seasons, the show’s format of song-and-dance punctuated by short dramatic sketches and tableaux developed and solidified into the structure that it used for the last fifteen seasons. The “six flags” device was maintained for years (it was finally retired after 2002), and a presentation of all six flags was made during the opening procession and finale each year. Over time, the central focus has shifted to foregrounding images of the different cultural groups that influenced El Paso’s development – including Native American tribes, Conquistador Spain, Mexico, US pioneer settlers, the Ft. Bliss military base, and others. Featured cultural groups shift from year to year, as do the musical numbers and short scenes. An individual element might be created for a single year, or periodically “rotated” in and out of the repertory. A particularly popular number or bit might be maintained for multiple years, or brought out of retirement by request from the public. Highlighting the virtuosity of individual performers has become much less important than emphasizing the historical and artistic contributions of each focus group to the region’s combined culture, and promoting unity between different groups of people living in the El Paso area – stressing cooperation, shared heritage, and appreciation of each other’s folkloric traditions.

In this manner, the production serves a community-building purpose. In addition to song, dance, and sketch, the drama functions by using the regional geography as a tool for teaching cultural awareness and value. The construction of Viva! as a site-specific dramatic narrative in McKelligon Canyon is a civic project of unification and positive group identification. The remainder of this analysis pays particular attention to the manipulation of the physical place in which the performance occurs along with the interpretation of geography and ideological space that aim both to instruct the audience in the value of cooperation and community spirit and to stimulate the emotions of cohesive regional identity and cultural pride.

Remembering the Future, Building the Past:
Surrogation and the Canyon

John Casey addresses what he calls a “process of platializing” in his book The Fate of Place. He describes a growing trend towards global “monoculture” in which technology, physical mobility, and international social and economic exchange – especially those dependent on Western/American economic and political paradigms – converge to overwhelm traditional regional differences (xiii). Cities fall prey to increasing uniformity of architectural structures and commercial institutions; skyscrapers and McDonalds can be found from Santiago, Chile to Kuala Lumpur. Economic exchange makes it possible to access the same goods in multiple countries while decreasing diversity among businesses from which to buy. Electronic technology makes it possible to connect with individuals across the planet while simultaneously permitting users to mask or reconfigure their own identities into online persona. The overall result of globalizing influences is to cultivate an overwhelming sense of human anxiety regarding “placelessness,” or the inability to forge identity based on a sense of local or regional belonging. According to Casey:

[This anxiety] makes the human subject long for a diversity of places, that is, difference-of-place that has been lost in a worldwide monoculture . . .This is not just a matter of nostalgia. An active desire for the particularity of place – for what is truly “local” or “regional” – is aroused by such increasingly common experiences. Place brings with it the very elements sheared off in the planiformity of site: identity, character, nuance, history. (xiii)

Historical pageants such as Viva! represent the effort of local communities like El Paso to establish that desired particularity, to give participants (including witnesses) the needed sense of unique identity and belonging.

Glassberg also sees evidence of platializing in early twentieth-century pageants, when increasing urbanization and industrialization threatened traditional rural lifestyles: “Historical pageants would revitalize rural towns by enabling local residents to catch up with history by preserving a particular version of their traditions, helping them to recognize outmoded practices while promoting a unique local identity, sense of cohesion, and attachment to place” (71). While contemporary pageants may worry less about bringing their communities into step with progress, they continue to evidence a preoccupation with civic pride and investment in the community – Viva! included. In fostering that “attachment to place,” the particulars of physical geography are an important part of that process. McKelligon Canyon and its surrounding parkland lie within El Paso city limits, only a few miles from the downtown area. The location of the stage – outdoors in the desert landscape and yet within the city proper – reflects an effort to mediate urban homogenizing and isolating influences described by Casey, problems that US theatre often reflects and unintentionally reinforces.

Richard Shechner describes what he calls a performative schism manifested in western theatrical performance. He addresses the tendency of European and American drama to construct divisions between performer and spectator and within the community, positing that “[t]he history of the development of the western playhouse has been to reposition an event that was largely open, outdoors, and public into one that is closed, indoors, and private” (19). Historical pageants like Viva! potentially and partially reverse this process. The event occurs in an open air setting surrounded by flora and fauna native to the region. Local authorities and corporations encourage the public to attend through sponsorship and advertising. The producers attempt to connect potential spectators to the performance by informing them that, as members of the community, they will be seeing their own history performed onstage. As the program progresses, they are encouraged to participate by clapping and singing along with familiar songs, offering enthusiastic whoops and “ajua!” as appropriate. Performers exit through the audience and remain at the back of the house to interact with spectators after the event, pointedly thanking individual attendees for their presence.

The combination of venue location, marketing aimed at creating a sense of ownership in the drama on the part of consumers, and performer availability during this “cool-down” period (to use Schechner’s term) following the performance, create closer associations between community members and the production and help to strengthen the sense of community between performed, performer, and spectator. Of course, the community must still pay to attend, and man-made staging alters the environment where the show occurs. Nevertheless, sponsorship by city government and local merchants in addition to the fact that the drama is staged on public parkland in a city-funded venue render this historical pageant an example of theatre aimed at decreasing this performative schism in the creation of an artistic event (and subject matter) designated as shared community property. However, Viva! El Paso simultaneously exists to carry out a government-sponsored project of fostering among residents of the Paso del Norte region a notion of shared local identity common to all, and has had from its inception an ideologically loaded agenda in determining the characteristics of that identity and promoting a specific definition on what it means to be an “El Pasoan.”

Framing this ideological project are the canyon and its stage, in which the show and its producers establish El Paso as both physical place and cultural/historical space. The theatrical and quasi-natural space of the canyon and amphitheatre becomes, in a sense, the wider place “El Paso” for the duration of the performance and serves as a venue for developing and transmitting ideological information to the people there.

What Casey effectively describes as an epidemic of monoculture sweeping across the globe has symptoms that appear acutely in cities like El Paso. It is a border city that sits at the edge of three states and two countries. A majority of the population has some Hispanic heritage, and the blending of Anglo and Mexican culture is almost as old as the settlement of the region; its closeness to the Mexican border assures a constant stream of immigrants from the Mexican interior. In earlier eras, many different cultural groups migrated through the region on the route West; members of these groups – European, Latino, African-American, Asian – stayed and put down roots. The present economic environment dominated by military and NAFTA industrial commerce, however, imposes a more fluid population structure. While the city population continues to be dominated by Chicanos and other Hispanic peoples, a significant number of the current local inhabitants come from many different places and backgrounds. The population is relatively mobile and has a high rate of turnover as people move in and out of the region (most for reasons of career and military service). As in the past, newcomers bring and maintain their own ethnic, class, and cultural identifications. In this convoluted arena of so many fluctuating influences, further complicated by homogenizing pressures of major industry, the city must forge a viable identity.

The fluidity of border culture, combined with the problem of monoculture fostered by corporations and trade, make it difficult for both established community members and recent immigrants to identify characteristics that would help give El Paso a unique character and differentiate it from other cities or regions. The process of creating a performative space where El Paso’s regional story of history and culture could be played out reflects this desire to differentiate and imbue the city with a distinctiveness that denotes a sense of place. The use of the site, and the performance constructed for it, carry out this project of creating a suitable ideology, identity, and history for the city and its people. For the producers of Viva! and the local government that supports the show, it is vital that this project be one that generates feelings of positive identification, pride, and goodwill between community members.

To accomplish these goals requires a dual process of remembering and forgetting, as certain parts of the Paso del Norte history must be emphasized while others are suppressed, and still others rewritten in order to celebrate the positive aspects of the regional story while bringing the more painful, troubling moments of conflict and discord into the service of the community-building endeavor. In this sense, the production and the venue both become what Joseph Roach terms “surrogations,” substitutions that replace one thing or concept for another when the first becomes unavailable. Often, the process entails overwriting unpleasant or unusable aspects of the original (2).

The use of the McKelligon Canyon amphitheater aids in the bifurcated, yet crucial, venture of remembering and forgetting in the production; it becomes a surrogate for the original landscape in which the events of El Paso’s past unfolded. The park, as it is used in performance, stands in for the natural desert landscape of the Southwest as it rapidly disappears under concrete as urbanization expands in the region. Various onstage scenic structures represent the early phases of urban development; the venue consists of a hard stage floor and stadium-style seating facing one side of the canyon. A part of the mountain forms the back wall of the playing area. Walls of stone and mortar (reminiscent of the building style used for early missions and forts in the area) form a three-sided structure that encloses the playing space, yet affords spectators a view of both the night sky and the high canyon walls. Natural flora and strata surround the audience. The offices of the producing organization, the El Paso Association of the Performing Arts (EPAPA), reside against the adjoining hillside. Looming canyon walls dwarf the multilevel gravel parking. The surrounding terrain consists in sand, desert vegetation, and a few wooden structures that shelter picnic tables. Observers cannot see the city from the park (though they can see the ambient glow of the city lights at night); the slope of the mountain housing the theatre also conceals the urban sprawl wrapped around the end of the Franklin Mountain chain.

The Image of “Home”:
Connecting the Physical Landscape
to Performer and Audience

Viva! performances from year to year are constructed to reflect the importance of the natural environment, the geography of El Paso, to the communal identity. The stage rests at the foot of the canyon walls, with the backstage area on the bowl’s sides and up its incline. Performers walk and ride horses down the side of the canyon onto the stage, passing facades of conquest-era mission buildings that rise from terrain closely resembling the landscape of the actual locations. These factors integrate the performers and spectators into the land, asking observers to locate themselves with characters in the physical space. The narrative draws parallels between character groups and contemporary spectators as humans seeking to survive in the desert environment and as witnesses to the history that has occurred on its soil. Yearly performances affirm this in a number of ways: by 1) emphasizing the need for water by all settling peoples and the nearness of the Rio Grande river that attracted human colonization of the small valley at the foot of the mountains; 2) highlighting the importance of the area as a trade and travel route between Mexico, the US, and the frontier; and 3) playing out significant moments of contact between the peoples striving to survive in the area. Though many historical episodes enacted will change between seasons, the overall narrative attempts to foster group identity and regional pride in the collective effort needed to build El Paso. Each season’s production maintains the message that the existence of the community in this unique place arises from of the interaction between different social and ethnic groups living in the region over time. It dramatically depicts power struggles between distinct peoples, but configures them into encounters that facilitated physical unions between the ancestors of many El Pasoans, who met on this landscape. It asserts that the city built here has grown through the combined efforts of all people living in and around El Paso. In the logic of the performance narrative, current El Pasoans co-exist in this space and can celebrate a common heritage that includes diversity and cooperation, a commitment to neighborliness and local growth, and a continuing commitment to unity and the common good.

To achieve this end, the producers often rewrite history in ways that belie the actual events, especially with regard to the presentation of participants in important episodes. New, or at least reconfigured, narratives, which spectators are encouraged to remember, work to present a politically and socially charged image of El Paso. One notable example of this reconfiguration is in the casting of characters. The characters present in the performance space from year to year do not necessarily depict accurately the people that participated in the original events. Serrano typically practiced colorblind casting for many roles, due to his conviction that seeing as many ethnicities as possible represented by the bodies on stage matters more than making sure that each segment is “authentically” presented with regard to the time and group portrayed. Therefore, audiences have seen African-American Spaniards, Anglo dancers in the Native American sequence, and other examples of what might be called ethnic anomalies. This practice has continued with subsequent directors, after Serrano left both the show and the EPAPA organization.

This use of ahistorical casting to serve the ideological needs of the present marks the action depicting the claiming of the land by Spaniard Juan de Oñate, a scene that remains a consistent feature of the program. Serrano frequently practiced ethnic anomaly in his casting of this role as well. In this scene, the actor playing Oñate rides onto the stage with his entourage, including a retainer who carries the Spanish flag, soldiers, and brown-robed priests. He recites a speech declaring the land the property of Spain and stating their intention to colonize it – to “civilize” it according to their values by establishing trade routes, settlements, and missions for Christianizing native peoples. Many of the lines spoken are recovered from historical accounts written by monks and soldiers who witnessed it. Serrano insists that the feel of the moment matters more than historical accuracy:

He [Oñate] has been played by a Mexican-American, he has been played by a Black-American, and he has been played by an Anglo-American. None of them were correct ethnicities, you see, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to say, “This is the character that claimed the land you see, here he is. He’s wearing the helmet, he’s carrying the flag of Spain, and he’s saying the words that were actually spoken.”

The actor playing the Conquistador effectively surrogates the real Juan de Oñate by speaking his words, appearing in the scene carrying the symbols of Spanish conquest and standing in surroundings close to the location of the original act of taking possession. That Serrano chose in his directing to single out a moment as historically significant while engaging in an anachronistic casting choice reveals an important feature of the pedagogical relationship between the performance and its audience. The dramatic moment presents the event as foundational to El Paso’s community identity, but in a way that delivers a modern message of inclusiveness and ethnic harmony. By inserting a modern Oñate into the pre-existing place of the event, a new space of multicultural discourse appears in order to affirm the official ideology established for El Paso by community leaders and show producers, which promotes collective cohesion over individual ethnic difference.

Shechner refers to these kinds of revisionist acts as “behavior [that] offers to both individuals and groups the chance to re-become what they once were – or even, and most often, to re-become what they never were but wish to have been or wish to become” (38). In this case, the desirous becoming is not so much an opportunity for the actor to play at being a conquistador as an effort to re-imagine the Conquest as something more (or other) than an oppressive, brutal colonialism practiced by the Spanish. It works to neutralize this negative interpretation of a key moment in the regional past in much the same way that in Greek mythology a rape can be romanticized into the auspicious conception of a hero or god. The historical event has been reconfigured to include room for many ethnicities, and altered to de-emphasize (if not exclude) the subjugation of one ethnic group by another. In this way, all can share in the telling of the collective history, or at least in memories constructed for their unifying powers.

To be fair, Viva! producers have never attempted to bury some of the grimmer aspects of the Conquest. Each year has featured battles between Native Americans and Spaniards shortly before the end of the first act. As stated earlier, the producers of El Paso del Norte found that audiences felt acutely uncomfortable with theatrical presentation of the more brutal parts of El Paso’s past, especially those that too openly foregrounded racial conflict (though the presentation of violence is not necessarily a problem. In fact, on stage shootings remain a perennial favorite in the Wild West sequence of the show.) For many seasons, dramatic depiction of the conflict between Spaniards and Native Americans was not entirely erased, but framed in such a way as to celebrate their association while acknowledging the conflicts between them. At the end of the first sequence, the performers stage a battle. With an emphasis on melodramatic appeal and technical spectacle, explosions and stage combat culminate in the tableaux of a Spanish woman and a Native man mourning their respective losses in the midst of many slain corpses. In certain seasons, each mourns a lover from the enemy camp, in others, a loved one of their own ethnic group.

This scene fades, yielding to one of the perennially popular moments in the performance. Depicting the union of the Spaniard and the Native American, the lights come up on the now corpse-free stage. The narrator relates a general description of the conflict between the two groups and its effect on the region. Two spotlights depict a handsome Spanish male with sword drawn and a beautiful Native female with chin raised and hands at her side; a third soon highlights the Mexicano in his sombrero and serape, feet planted wide apart and elbows out, announcing his presence with an exuberant cry. The narrator summarizes:

The Indian and the Spaniard would have many battles, and in the end the Indian would be defeated, but not destroyed. His religion would become a mixture of paganism and Christianity, his blood would mingle with Spanish blood to bring forth. . .the Mestizo, a product of the Proud Indian and the aristocratic Spaniard. (Viva! El Paso Promotional Video)

In most live performances over the years, the Spaniard and Native American have posed standing amid the rocks and cacti of the canyon above the stage, reasserting their connection with the physical environment. The Mexicano stands at the base of the canyon between them, closest to the concrete stage but still connected to the earth at its edge. Thus, the event is not just happening in the performance, it represents an exchange that happened in the immediate geographical region and had an impact on the contemporary inhabitants of the region who are now watching. The audience response to this moment is often vocal and enthusiastic; they greet the tableaux with applause and shouts. This was certainly the case at each performance I attended over the years, and newspaper reviews and articles frequently mention the scene and describe audience reactions similar to the ones I experienced. The moment transmits a particularly central message of affirmation to the audience. As El Paso’s population has a Mexican-American majority of more than 70%, the positioning of that heritage and people in a celebratory light has special cultural value.

As Roach has said, “Memory is a process that depends crucially on forgetting.” The violence of the Conquest must be forgotten, or at least concealed, by focusing on the good that arises from the bad situation. The events on stage turn a collective head away from the circumstances of the union – native women were often raped or taken as spoils of war to become concubines. Like Greek mythology, the show chooses to replace the frequent brutality of the original events with a vision that celebrates the offspring instead of castigating the parents. For a community whose membership contains a great deal of both bloodlines, this is an important difference. The scene depicts the Mestizo, and therefore the majority of its audience, as the vibrant, strong, and colorful progeny of “proud” and “aristocratic” groups; in the process, it minimizes (while not completely ignoring) the more painful part of their identity that arises from being the descendants of conquest and strife. In the process, it locates all three in the natural environment, emphasizing that all belong to the place El Paso and, therefore, contribute to the ideological construct “El Paso.”

Viva! El Paso is a variety show with a message. Its intent is to promote ideas about cultural celebration and collective unity to the city’s inhabitants. The event occurs in a site that was specially constructed for the dissemination of that message, and as such serves as a space for discourse among El Pasoans, a transmitter of officially sanctioned ideas. It also serves as a representation of El Paso as a differentiated place, establishing and upholding its uniqueness among places for the benefit of an audience that lives within its dramatic and literal borders.


I would like to extend special thanks to Baylor’s Institute for Oral History, which provided funding for research, and my colleague Deanna Toten Beard who read several drafts of this paper and provided invaluable counsel.


1. I am grateful to the EPAPA offices for providing me with souvenir programs for more than a decade’s worth of performances. Informational materials in the programs has tended to repeat itself from year to year; I, consequently, chose to cite the first year in which the information appears, when I reference these programs.

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Works Cited

Casey, John. The Fate of Place: a Philosophical History. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.

Connorton, Paul. How Societies Remember. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Glassberg, David. American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1990.

Institute of Outdoor Drama Website. “General Overview.” U of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. 11 November 2005. http://http://www.unc.edu/depts/outdoor/about/

Parker, Scott. “Outdoor Dramas Expand Across the Country.” Institute of Outdoor Drama. “General Overview.” U of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. 11 November 2005. http://http://www.unc.edu/depts/outdoor/about/

Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.

Schechner, Richard. Between Theatre and Anthropology. Pittsburgh, PA: U of
Pennsylvania P, 1990.

Serrano, Hector. Personal Interview. 20 March 1998.

Viva! El Paso. Souvenir Program. El Paso: EPAPA, 1983.

Viva! El Paso Promotional Video. El Paso: Martin Recording Co., 1998.


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