Cristin Kelly

Interview with Jose Rivera: Boleros for the Disenchanted

Jose Rivera, one of America’s most respected playwrights and an Academy Award-nominee, spoke to Florida Studio Theatre’s Literary Manager, Cristin Kelly, about his new play, Boleros for the Disenchanted.

Cristin Kelly: I understand that your parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Puerto Rico when you were a child, were a major influence on the creation of Boleros for the Disenchanted.

Jose Rivera: The play is heavily biographical, coming from my parents. Act One is things that my mom told me over the years – stories about how she met my father and what her life was like. In terms of the background for Act One, almost all of that came from the stories that my mom told me.

I was around for the events in Act Two. Those were witnessed events. Some of the stories were also told to me, for instance my mom doing the marriage counseling and the confessions. But, the general feeling of it, I saw first-hand. I was there to see how they lived and what they were doing and how my father was.

CK: What was their experience like, as immigrants?

J.R: In the Fifties and Sixties in Puerto Rico, the Great Depression essentially never ended there. There was massive unemployment and a lot of poverty on the island. It’s still very poor to this day, but back then it was really a crisis. Around the same was the beginning of very inexpensive airfare to New York City, so going back and forth from San Juan to LaGuardia was not that expensive. It opened up this flood gate and a lot of people left the island and moved to New York for work and a better life.

My dad had eleven siblings. Most of them went to New York and settled in the city. My dad, who was allergic to cities, opted for the countryside. He, my mom, my sister, and I moved to Long Island, which at that time – about 1959 – was just woods, not all the development that has occurred. In a way they were duplicating what they had in Puerto Rico – trees, animals, we had chickens and ducks for a while. My parents killed pigs in the backyard. The problems were that they didn’t know the language, at first, and neither of my parents got any education higher than high school. My mom has a third grade education. So, they were poor. My dad was a laborer. He worked in a greasy spoon for many years as a short order cook, he was a gardener, he drove a taxi, he was a janitor in a high school. He did those menial jobs throughout his life to support his family. My mom raised six children out of nine, because three of them died young. It was hard. It was a hard life and they felt very isolated because they were the only Puerto Rican family in that area. My father’s family didn’t go out there. As the years went by more Puerto Ricans moved out to Long Island and more of my family moved there, as well, so it became more and more of a community. At first it was very isolated and lonely. I think the winters were a shock to my parents. They had no idea what was coming. My sister, who died of pneumonia when she was a few months old, was a huge loss for my parents. Life was not easy. They did the best they could.

Throughout it, they stayed together and raised a family. They sent my sister and myself to college, and my youngest siblings all went into the military. So, in a lot of ways they did succeed. They succeeded at what they wanted to do, but at great cost.

C.K.: Did they feel that sense of having succeeded because of how well their children did?

J.R.: Yes, I would say that is true. My mom, to this day, is proud that all of her children are fine and doing well, raising their own families. All of them are living at a level that was inconceivable, as children. In no way did we ever expect to have the lives that we have. In that way, there’s always a cost. Sometimes people leave the material poverty of Puerto Rico to experience personal poverty. I’d have to ask my mom, but I suspect that there is that feeling that life isn’t as rich as it was in Puerto Rico in a spiritual or emotional sense. It’s hard to keep any traditions going. One tradition is that families stick together. Our family is dispersed all over the place. So, there is a lot lost, but a lot is gained.

C.K.: Do you think that sense of emotional versus spiritual poverty is something that is still felt today?

J.R.: I think it’s different. I think that the U.S. is a religious country in a lot of ways, but the sense of true spiritualism is missing. I think religion and spirituality are two different things. As a little girl, my mom wanted to be a nun for instance. Her level of belief is very deep. I would say it’s not matched by a lot people that she meets in her life. I would think that she probably looked around and felt something’s missing here.

C.K.: I understand that your mom saw the play? What was her reaction?

J.R.: It was tough. I think Act One charmed her and made her nostalgic for that life. The scenes in which Flora meets Eusebio are very accurate to how it really happened. For her to see that was emotional. Act Two is a harder act for her to deal with because it is the decline of my father. Obviously at the end, its heart breaking and she cried a lot. But she got to know the actors. She felt very taken care of. Everybody treated her like a celebrity, so that was fun for her. But, it was a roller coaster.

C.K.: Let’s talk about the title. What are boleros? And what is the significance of disenchantment?

J.R.: They originated in Cuba and they’re basically love songs – slow, very romantic, very sensual. You dance to them very slowly and very close to your partner. They are the songs that sweep you off your feet and put you in a romantic mood. They tend to celebrate love, but sometimes they are about heartbreak, too. In a way, it’s saying that they play is a love song.

Puerto Rico is called the Enchanted Island. But obviously, there was a huge disenchantment when people left. The title talks about a love song for those people who faced disenchantment.

C.K.: Your dialogue has a very poetic quality.

J.R.: A lot of that comes from the kinds of works that are influential to a writer. The work that I find to be influential tends to be poetic: The plays of Lorca. The plays of Sam Shepard have their own kind of Western poetry. Also, actual poets like Pablo Neruda and Charles Bukowski. I tend to view the language of theatre to be of a different magnitude than the language in a song or the language in real life. There ought to be a place for language that does more work than normal speech, where people can go and hear incredible language and be entertained by language the way they used to. The way they used to with Shakespeare, for instance. That place is the theatre. You go to have your mind provoked and startled by beautiful language.

C.K.: You write quite a bit for film, as well. Does working in that medium change your relationship to language?

J.R.: Yes, it has too. It’s basically a different set of muscles. I have to think in visual terms for film. If there is any poetry in the film, it’s the poetry of the visual imagination.

C.K.: Was The Motorcycle Diaries your first film?

J.R.: It was the first film to get produced. I’d been writing films since about 1992 – a long time before the first one got made. It’s funny because suddenly your status in the business jumps after you have had your first movie made, especially if it is successful. After Motorcycle Diaries, everything changed in a big way in terms of the kinds of assignments I was getting and the kind access I had to people. All that changed overnight. Now, I’m very lucky to be working with some very interesting people on some very interesting projects.

C.K.: Do you always have a theatre project going, as well?

J.R.: There’s always something in the works, either in production, or something that I am planning to write.

C.K.: Let’s talk about some of your influences, as a writer. I know that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was influential to you. Can you talk about him and any other influences.

J.R.: The thing with Marquez is that I grew up in a household that was very different than the world around me. I grew up in a Puerto Rican household in an Italian neighborhood. They never seemed to connect. It was so different being home than being in the outside world. Because my parents didn’t read, I didn’t get Marquez from them and school was always about Ibsen, Chekhov, and Tolstoy – Europe. Reading Marquez was the first time that anything from the world of school and education came to me that reminded me of my home. These were the kinds of things that my mother talked about.

C.K.: How old were you when you read One Hundred Years of Solitude?

J.R.: I was probably twenty-one. It was like my grandparents story in this guy’s book. It was great. I felt like, wow, someone celebrates this culture. Someone gets it, and someone writes about it in a beautiful, amazing way. It was really a personal thing for me to read this work.

I felt that what he was doing in terms of the novel, nobody seemed to be doing in terms of the theatre. Or, at least not as well. I wanted to see if I could apply the same sort of aesthetic that one finds in his work to the theatre and see what happens. That really changed the way I wrote and how I looked at the theatre and its possibilities.

Sam Shepard also opened my eyes to a way of doing theatre that was not strictly fourth-wall realism. Shepard wasn’t about the things that can happen, it was about things that might happen that are above and beyond what really happened. So those influences were really the first key influences that helped me to shape a writing style that was not based on realism.

C.K.: I feel like this play is so Marquez-infused. I see so much of his influence in terms of magical realism. It seems to me, in some ways, that this play is about how magic exist in our everyday lives without our even knowing it.

J.R.: Right. That’s very true. I think about this play being one of the most realistic that I have ever written. The other ones are really wild.

C.K.: In an interview with Yale Rep, you talked about wanting to develop a closer relationship with Puerto Rico. Is that something that you’re developing?

J.R.: Yes. It’s haphazard, because I don’t get down there very much. My last trip was very recent and it was during the Boleros rehearsal period. The University of Puerto Rico was doing Marisol. It’s the first time the play has been done on the Island, and it was being done in a bi-lingual production. They would alternate English and Spanish each night. When they invited me, I jumped at the chance and went down there. It was great. I really felt we connected. The kids and the theatre community were great and there was just a lot of energy. I felt really at home there. So, that was great.

C.K.: Do you feel that kids today have more exposure to writers of their own culture than you did when you were growing up?

J.R.: It’s hard to think about other cultures. I know in terms of mine. When I was growing up, there were so few of people that you could point to, especially in the theatre. There was Miguel Pinero, Maria Irene Fornes and Luis Valdez. When I was in my twenties, these few writers were the ones that were out there. Happily it is much better now. There are many more writers and Nilo Cruz won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago. There are all kinds of interesting writers – men and women – who are Latin in some way. Back when I was younger, Miguel Pinero was probably the most famous of Puerto Rican writers. His world was so different than anything that I knew. He wrote about heroin addicts and guys that go to prison and child molesters. That was his world and I could not relate to it at all. Now though, people are exposed to such a variety of voices. People who work in realism, people do write about drug addicts, but there are also people who write about magic realism; stories about family, history, culture. I think it’s a much better time than it used to be.



  1. Admiro mucho a José Rivera, pienso que es un escritor con una calidad humana extraurdinaria. Sus obras tienen un valor sentimental enorme y es un ser humano muy especial. Son pocos o ninguno los escritores que escriben sobre la vida de su madre, y mucho menos estando ellas en vida todavía. Lo común es que lo hagan en ausencia de ellas. Ésto nos deja ver el interior de éste escritor. Conozco personalmente a José y es un HONOR para mi y toda su familia; que sea parte de nosotros. Le deseo mucho éxito en su largo caminar como escritor y también en lo personal. Que Dios lo BENDIGA hoy y siempre. Te queremos JOSÉ.

    Comment by Marisol Molina Concepción — April 12, 2010 @ 10:51 pm

  2. […] an interview with Jose Rivera where he discusses Boleros for the […]

    Pingback by 185: Boleros for the Disenchanted « 365 plays — November 21, 2011 @ 7:00 am

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