F.I.N.D. #14
How to Melt an Ice Cap with a Match Mexico’s Incendiary Politics on Stage

by Joseph Pearson

10 April 2014

 It started when the directors, Luisa Pardo and Gabino Rodríguez, discovered an obscure political tract. »La revolucíon institucional« (1998) is an analysis of Mexico’s historic ruling party, the PRI, written by Natalia Valdez Tejeda, a woman from the conservative province of Michoacán. Shortly after its publication, Natalia disappeared. She has been missing for fourteen years.

»We found the book in a library in Xalapa, Veracruz. It is not an edited volume produced by a commercial publishing house. It is handmade and very small. We found it and then we started our research. It’s absolutely unknown«, says Gabino. Luisa adds, »That’s why we decided to re-edit the book.« The couple has since produced 3000 copies, adding dates and images.

I ask them whether the book has anything to do with Natalia’s disappearance, and Luisa replies: »Her family does not want to talk about this … it is not clear why she disappeared. On stage, we try to leave that in doubt. Natalia was a problematic person. I can understand her because Mexico is a very macho country. It is not easy for women to be critical and to act freely, at least in the working classes. Natalia was very critical inside her family and in the places where she worked. That’s why the disappearance is not clear, because she was problematic in many different places.«

The re-enactment of Natalia’s story on-stage personalizes a greater struggle – the story of Mexico’s PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, a national State-unity institution with liberal tendencies. If you want to understand Mexican politics, then, you must understand the PRI and its journey through the twentieth century to today. Founded in 1929, and born of the Mexican Revolution, the PRI ruled Mexican history until its historic Presidential electoral defeat in 2000 by Vicente Fox, leading the conservative Christian PAN party (National Action Party). The PAN then ruled until its defeat in 2012, bringing the PRI back to power under the helm of President Enrique Peña Nieto. The PAN’s defeat followed a period of disappointment with rising violence accompanying Mexico’s war on drugs. The PRI, say Luisa and Gabino, provided a concept of political unity for Mexico’s diverse electorate that the other parties lacked.

The title of Luisa and Gabino’s play, »Derretiré con un cerillo la nieve de un volcán/I Melt the Snow of a Volcano with a Match« is a quote from Jorge Meixuerio, a PRI politician from Oaxaca, who penned it immediately before his 1943 electoral defeat and suicide. His death, he argued, was »mi último argumento«/»his last argument« against his political opponent whom he accused of fraud. He claimed that his chances of reversing the electoral decision were no greater than trying to melt an ice cap with a match. The title is playful, the circumstances tragic, and the historical parallel a complex meditation on the PRI’s recent return to leadership.

How then do the directors feel about the PRI’s contemporary politics? Gabino says, »The PRI’s outward image – because we don’t have a military dictatorship in Mexico like in many other Latin American countries – is one of harboring dissidents from other places. But within Mexico, the PRI is killing in the same way that the military does. The PRI always has two faces: on one hand the PRI is very paternalistic, invests a lot in culture – during the 20th Century they invested more than any other country in Latin America – but on the other hand, they do not give the people the freedom to say what they want in the country. There is always the smiling face, and the other face.«

The return of the PRI, and the positions of the other parties, is a source of disappointment for the directors, and this play reflects on that disappointment. Yet, at the same time they are encouraged by one aspect of the 2012 electoral reversal.

»The Yo Soy 132 student movement politicised many young people who were not into politics before. Now the movement is over, but it changed the perspective of how young people think politically. The good result of the election … was this movement that maybe can start changing things. Not as a movement, but as a changing of individual perspectives of how to deal with politics«, says Gabino.

The goal of the directors is to represent the history of the PRI and to reconstruct its history, on stage, also through the individuated perspective of Natalia’s story. Their role too, says Gabino, is to educate, and to educate themselves. From their critical hypothesis about the evils of the PRI, they have come to a more nuanced position.

»We are trying to do more of a reconstruction of the history than to judge it«, says Luisa. »At the beginning of our research, we were only thinking that the PRI is bad … But we recognize that the PRI developed a free education system, the health care system. You have big museums of archaeology and Mexican ethnicities. Travelling and comparing in Latin America, we realize that it’s true. The PRI is not only the bad things. Maybe this is what we are trying to do: to recognize the complexity of the party, because the PRI is the biggest institution of politics in Mexico. It is the school of politics. The PRI is at all levels of society: farmers, unions. Everything is related to the PRI.«

»I think that we have been raised in a society that likes to think of politics like football«, adds Gabino, »This is my team. But let’s try to think about what is really happening. We are trying to think about politics, not to be loyal to one party or the other.«

The current production of »Derretiré con un cerillo la nieve de un volcán«, which will premiere at the Schaubühne in the FIND festival on 8 April, is a heavy rewriting of a version performed in 2013 in Madrid and Brussels, and 30+ university performances in Mexico City and elsewhere in Mexico (»We thought the play was too ambiguous« says Luisa. »We are much happier now«, adds Gabino). They bring it to the stage with their company, Lagartijas tiradas al sol (Lizards lying in the sun).

I ask about how they work together and with their troop, and Luisa admits that, »we have a lot of differences. And we fight a lot. But this is something that is important to us. When we started to work together, we thought that the idea of one director, one writer, one big image of power in the theatre, which is vertical, is not a good idea. It is not a good way to live and to work. We prefer to argue and to discuss and to create some kind of democracy inside the company, some collective thinking. We think the difference between the ideas could result in a more complex process.« They strike me as exactly the kind of people who should be speaking out critically against the top-down politics that the PRI represents. But why should this be done on the stage?

Luisa replies, »Theatre is a way to understand life in a lot of ways because you need your body, your emotions, your intelligence. You need to work together with many people. That is why I keep working in theatre.« Gabino adds, »The idea is that we need to produce reality. Nobody, or few people, like reality for what it is. It is good to produce reality and use reality. It is not about how we produce fictions, but how we produce realities and live inside those realities we produce.« 

Derretiré con un cerillo la nieve de un volcán
I melt the Snow of a Volcano with a Match

Guest Production from Mexico
by Lagartijas tiradas al sol

Premiered on 8 April 2014