‘Tacos La Brooklyn’ centers cultural identity: Who appreciates and who appropriates?
From left, Zilah Mendoza, Alejandra Flores, Gavin K. Lee, Jesus “Chuy” Perez and Xavi Moreno / Grettel Cortes

LOS ANGELES — There is a new generation of Latino theater artists at the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC) and audiences are responding with standing ovations. September 30 was the world premiere of Tacos La Brooklyn, a vibrant, fast-paced multilingual comic drama written by Joel Ulloa. The play takes us into the world of the pop-up night market scene in East Los Angeles as well as the Cholo lowrider subculture blossoming in many Japanese communities.

The playwright asks us to examine our view of family, interracial dynamics, cultural appropriation, gentrification, and the pros and cons of the street venture scene all the while immersing us in a distinctly Los Angeles social media environment. Tacos La Brooklyn is the first play to emerge out of the Latino Theater Company’s new play development program, Circle of Imaginistas, supported by a grant from Warner Media. The production is by the Latino Theater Company in association with East West Players, bringing into close collaboration a whole cast of Hispanic and Asian artists.

The play introduces us to Chino, a young, ambitious Korean American who was “adopted” by Don Agapito, his Chicano abuelo (grandfather) on Los Angeles’ Eastside. Chino hopes to grow his successful taco stand, “Chino’s Underground Tacos,” into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. He is committed to cooking an “elevated” but otherwise authentic barbacoa, a unique barbecue prepared in an underground oven with maguey leaves lending its special Hidalgo-style flavor, that he learned how to make from “Don Aga.” Chino has improved on his abuelo’s recipe by using non-GMO organic and locally grown—but more expensive—ingredients for the tortillas. Because of the added cost, some of Don Aga’s old clientele have fallen away.

Sayaka Miyatani and Paul Dateh / Grettel Cortes

Yesenia Tapia, a self-absorbed, über-hip Mexican-American social media influencer, accuses Chino of cultural appropriation and pandering to a gentrifying neighborhood with his high-priced fare. “Stop the taco takeover!” she gets her followers to chant. We are challenged to ponder any number of questions that arise. At what point does cultural appreciation turn into appropriation? What is cultural authenticity anyway? What is family? How do we honor the past and live in the present? And, despite differences, when do we stand together against City Hall and how do we do that effectively?

“There’s a huge crossover between Latino and Asian cultures on L.A.’s East side,” director Fidel Gomez says, recalling a recent commemoration event for the 80th anniversary of the Zoot Suit Riots held in Little Tokyo. “It was attended not only by Chicanos but by Japanese ‘Cholos’ and lowrider enthusiasts—a subculture touched on in the play. To be able to tell a story from multiple cultural viewpoints is really exciting.” Among Ulloa’s characters is a Japanese “Cholo” girl who is fascinated by the old cars and becomes a skilled mechanic. No doubt the play—and later movie—Zoot Suit must have been a significant influence in introducing worldwide audiences to this highly localized culture. A newspaper article with photos by a Japanese journalist covering a lowrider festival in L.A. also captured the Japanese imagination.

“I wanted to celebrate the different neighborhoods of L.A. through street vending, language, and the overlap between cultures that we often experience in our city,” explains Ulloa, our playwright. “In the end, this is a story about exploring identity and how we find (or choose) our family.”

The topic of street vending and night markets is highly combustible and complicated. There is a historic push-pull between allowing street vendors, many selling their own homemade products, and trying to regulate them. Of course, it is a story of people, many of them immigrants, with no wealth or power trying to eke out a living and avoid paying rent, with the usual and real concerns about sanitation, taxation, traffic, etc. Gentler regulation has been won in recent years in part because the vendors themselves were able to amplify and create a platform for their cause.

Alejandra Flores and Sal Lopez / Grettel Cortes

Some of the most touching moments in the play are the more personal storylines. In flashback style, we understand how Chino, a neglected and abused Korean child, comes to form a bond with Don Aga. He shows Chino how to use the sal (salt) on the lamb meat, which is kind of amusing because Sal is the actor’s first name. We learn about the hard-edged Yesenia’s family history and how she has personally been affected by gentrification. And we overhear Japanese Cholos talking about why they were drawn to recreate lowrider culture for themselves: “This isn’t just a style. It’s a way of life for me,” says Benjiro. “Por vida. For life!” At the end, he reveals a tattoo on his arm reading, “Familia.” We share a strong need for family, human connection, and cultural identity.

Social media is more and more present in movies, streaming, and theaters large and small, and not always so effectively employed. Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh did a memorable job of creating a social media-saturated world beautifully blended into the action on stage by director Gomez. We salute the playwright Joel Ulloa for so successfully weaving together a story with so many locales and elements, past and present time periods, and a host of important issues to wrestle with. Ulloa’s use of language is stunning in its heightened sense of piquant vernacular, to which the audience responded enthusiastically.

The acting is strong with a special nod to the leads Esperanza América and Gavin K. Lee, sworn enemies as the play begins but both capable of growth, humility, and empathy. “It’s good,” Yesenia admits once she takes a taste of Chino’s underground tacos. But “who are you trying to be authentic for? Your food is for hipsters.”

“My food is for everyone,” Chino retorts. “Why do you hate that other people eat your food?”

And special appreciation for Jesus “Chuy” Perez, whose songs remind us how meaningful it is to hold onto the past even as we embrace this ever-changing present. East L.A.’s Brooklyn Avenue, lending its name to the title of the play, no longer exists: It’s now César Chávez Avenue. “Tengo dinero en este mundo que no vale nada,” he sings: I have money that’s not worth anything in this world.

Go see Tacos La Brooklyn before it closes on October 29! It will be time well spent and an opportunity to support a new generation of professional, talented Latino and Asian artists.

Opening night boasted an almost sold-out house in the Theater Center’s large amphitheater-style play space. Latino demographics in the U.S. are considerably different from Caucasian, with a much higher percentage of young people. It was encouraging to see so many of them—well over 200, I would guess—out to enjoy an evening of theater, not just to entertain themselves but to gain perspective on their own condition and lives in L.A. We look forward to future plays emerging from the Circle of Imaginistas program. Those playwrights have a high standard to live up to!

For those not in the know, there is a fascinating read about Japanese Cholo culture (in Japan) here. And for the Los Angeles night market scene, see here.

Tacos La Brooklyn stars Gavin K. Lee as Chino; Esperanza América as Yesenia Tapia; Xavi Moreno, Zilah Mendoza and Alejandra Flores as fellow Night Market vendors Mike, Monse and Lencha; Sal Lopez as Don Agapito, Chino’s “abuelito”; Paul Dateh, Ariel Kayoko Labasan and Sayaka Miyatani as “Japanese Cholos” Benjiro, Whisper and Mariko, all with more than a passing command of street Spanish; and Jesus “Chuy” Perez as “El Músico.”

The creative team includes scenic designer Natalie Morales; lighting designer Pablo Santiago; sound designer John Zalewski; projection designer Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh; costume designer Maria Catarina Rodriguez; and choreographer Urbanie Lucero. The assistant director is Nicolas Ruano. The stage manager is Alexa Wolfe, assisted by Valerie Vega.

Tacos La Brooklyn plays on Thurs., Fri., and Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 4 p.m. through October 29. The Los Angeles Theatre Center is located at 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles 90013. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (213) 489-0994 or go to www.latinotheaterco.org. The Theatre Center is currently also featuring signal productions of The Travelers and This Is Not a True Story. It seems as though the new emphasis on cross-cultural offerings has elevated the venue to new heights of importance on the national, not just the local theater scene.

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Lori A. Zimmerman
Lori A. Zimmerman

Lori A. Zimmerman is a Los Angeles-based fiber artist and retired nonprofit administrator who was always delighted to land a job in theater.

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.