Local educator, counselor, activist, and actor Mary Méndez Rizzo (you may remember her as Camilla in Geva’s 2017 production of In the Heights) is Geva’s Artist-Educator for our upcoming production of Where Did We Sit on the Bus? by Brian Quijada, in partnership with Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. Mary been steering the ship on shaping the content choices of our e-Discovery Guide for educators and students for the past month. The e-Discovery Guide is a 22-page educational resource packet compromised of informational articles, podcasts, interviews, videos, questions for reflection and discussion, activities, and other exploratory links compiled specifically for students and the educational community to introduce them to the key topics and themes of Where Did We Sit on the Bus? prior to video streaming the Student Matinee performance, and for deeper curriculum dives following the viewing.
We are excited to share with our Geva Journal readers the article that Mary wrote for the e-Discovery Guide, aptly entitled “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?”
Where Did We Sit on the Bus? by Geva Artist-Educator Mary Méndez Rizzo
The title of this play provokes interesting responses that range from curiosity to suspicion. In telling friends and family about this play, I’ve seen eyebrows raise, heard a few nervous giggles, and have seen a look of genuine confusion come across some faces. I’ve even been asked, “Well…where did we sit on the bus?”
The question is genuine and innocent and underlines the confusion we feel about race in the United States. After all, we have all learned a very similar U.S. history lesson: Christopher Columbus, the Mayflower and first Thanksgiving, cruel plantation owners, runaway slaves, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama. And with the exception of some really nice Native Americans who played a supporting role in the first Thanksgiving, U.S. history is basically black and white…but mostly white. The answer provided in the play by the school teacher left me, well, unsatisfied. So I wanted to take a shot at answering this question, and share what I know about the contributions of Latinos in United States history, as well as my own family’s experience.
So…where did we sit on the bus?
The Long Answer: In the play, Brian’s teacher answered the question by saying that Latinos “weren’t around.” Her explanation left Brian confused about his identity, and with no sense of pride for Latino contributions to society. It also creates the perception that Latinos, Hispanics, Spanish-speakers, etc. were not a part of anything important…ever. I set out to find evidence otherwise.
I started my search in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was written. A quick Google search of a 1776 map of the United States, and BOOM: an image showing that parts of the southeast and most of the area west of the Mississippi River was being settled by the Spanish. Spanish language, culture, and influence existed in the land before the United States was an independent nation.
Fast forward to 1822: José Mariano Hernández became the first Hispanic member of congress. However, at the time he would not have been considered “Hispanic” as that term didn’t exist. And his birth name was changed and recorded as Joseph Marion Hernandez. This is one of the first documented instances of a name change that has the effect of hiding ethnicity.
In the 1850s there was an increase in cigar factories in the United States and this brought an influx of mostly Cuban immigrants to the United States. And in March of 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship which provided the U.S. an island full of young, strong men for the world war the country entered into one month later. My grandfather was a WW1 veteran and told me about going through basic training. The military saw the diversity in Puerto Rican physical features and didn’t know whether to place them with white troops or black troops. The solution was to have Puerto Rican recruits take off their shirts so the sergeants could see the color of the skin on their untanned backs. Puerto Rican men who were light colored were put with white troops and darker men were put with black troops.
In 1919 and again in the 1933 World Series, a pitcher named Dolf Luque is credited with helping his team win the championship. “Dolf” was born in Cuba and his real name was Adolfo Domingo de Guzman Luque. Major league baseball was integrated several years later in 1947.
In the 1920s-30s, Arthur Schomburg, a Black historian, writer, collector, and activist is recognized as an important intellectual figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Arthur was born Arturo Alfonso Schomburg in Santurce, Puerto Rico.
In 1947 the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the parents of Sylvia Mendez in the case Mendez v. Westminster. The Mendez family sued their local school district when Sylvia was not allowed to attend a school that her light-skinned cousins were attending. The Mendez v. Westminster case set the stage for the well-known Brown v. Board of Education case.
In the 1950s we saw many Latino/a actors gaining popularity – actors such as Desi (Desiderio Alberto) Arnaz, Jose Ferrer, Rita Moreno, Anthony Quinn (born Manuel Antonio Rudolfo Quiñonez Oaxaca), and Martin Sheen (born Ramon Antonio Geraldo Estevez).
These are just a few examples of Latino contributions to the United States; examples prior to the 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks which demonstrate that Latinos were around and were doing important things. Examples such as these can easily add a sense of pride and dignity to any history lesson. These examples also provide valuable clues to the short answer to this title question.
So…where did we sit on the bus?
The Short Answer: That depends on how we looked. If we were dark-skinned, or had features that were “not white” we sat in the back. If we were light-skinned and had more European features, we could sit in the front and not be questioned or harassed. And if we changed our name to something easier to pronounce there were additional privileges available like better schools, military benefits, access to sports and entertainment, and American wealth. For most of history, rather than be recognized as a distinct group, we Latinos have been subject and adapted to a racist paradigm.
Finally, I found another interesting bit of information. The first major attempt to estimate the size of the Latino population in the U.S. was in the 1970 Census. And it wasn’t until the 1980 census that the term “Hispanic” was used. With Latinos living either a Black or White identity, and with no official government recognition of Latino identity, you can begin to understand why the teacher believed Latinos weren’t around. Latinos had been an unnamed population until the late 20th century.
With these new insights, it is my hope that educators, parents, and students can advocate for a curriculum that highlights the contributions of Latinos and people of color. Doing so has the effect of building dignity, pride, and respect for the full diversity of America.
Mary is an educator, counselor, and actor. A Rochester native, Mary’s Puerto Rican culture was the major influence in shaping her passion for education and service. Mary is a lifelong “fan-girl” of theater and movies, but it wasn’t until 2013 that she stepped on stage for the first time. Mary’s theatrical roles include playing Conchita in Anna in the Tropics (Blackfriars, 2018), Bette in The Undeniable Sound of Right Now (Blackfriars, 2018), Camila in In the Heights (Geva, 2017 and RLTC/OFC Productions, 2014), Madame Renaud in La Cage aux Folles (RAPA, 2015), and Maritza in the Rochester Latino Theater Company’s 2013 production of Mi Casa es Su Casa. In 2019, Mary was cast as a background extra in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” (scheduled for release in December 2021) and has done several national and local commercials. But her all time favorite roles are being a mom to Juliana and Joshua, and wife to Salvatore. Mary is a graduate of the Rochester City School District, earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University at Buffalo, and a Masters degree in Counselor Education from SUNY Brockport. When she is not acting, Mary works as an Educational Consultant with a focus on Student Engagement and Accreditation, and as a wellness educator with a focus on healthy relationships, yoga, and personal safety for women and girls.
You can learn more about Mary and her work by visiting her website imperfectmindbody.com.