A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 7 - Autumn 2015

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Mexican-American Women on the San Antonio Stage (1910-1920)1

by Trevor Boffone

Although the majority of scholarship, albeit patriarchal, leads one to believe that concerns regarding the construction of Mexican-American womanhood did not gain traction until the height of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the question of female identity and experience in the Texas-Mexico borderlands has long held interest since well before this time. In her comprehensive overview of Mexican-American theatre activity at the turn of the twentieth-century, Footlights Across the Border: A History of Spanish-language Professional Theatre on the Texas Stage (1990), Elizabeth C. Ramírez recovers in full detail professional theatre in Texas from 1875 to 1935. Her study demonstrates that professional theatre companies regularly appeared from Mexico, activity that indicates the Mexican-American community’s development of taste and culture. As a result, theatre, by means of its cultural themes and Spanish language, served as an integral force for Mexican Americans that promoted identification with Mexico. Ramírez’s more-noted book, Chicanas/Latinas in American Theatre (2000), builds upon earlier research, establishing a continued history of female participation in theatre, both on and off stage, through to the end of the 1990s.

As an extension of previous studies, this article examines understand female participation in theatre by analyzing the physical space occupied by Mexican-American leading ladies. These women –Margarita Fernández, Magdalena Solórzano, and Concepción Hernández– carry the distinction of opening up the world of performance and theatre for other Mexican-American women in San Antonio. By navigating a male-controlled theatre industry, these women were forced to become businesswomen and artists who had to develop a certain level of business acumen in order to successfully maneuver within this environment. Thus, Mexican-American actresses broke social codes by entering into public spaces and maintaining the public’s attention, oftentimes demanding more presence than their male counterparts. In this way, these women turned the stage into a definitive site of female empowerment in an era of increased immigration to San Antonio from Mexico of people with conservative values such as those adhering to the ideologies typical of followers of fallen Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz. In light of these premises, this study explores what it meant to be a female performer from 1910-1920 as well as to fully comprehend how these women performed sexual and gender politics in Mexican exile and immigrant communities of San Antonio, Texas by focusing on Concepción Hernández (?–?) of the Compañía Villalongín. 2

The San Antonio Exile Community

Although Laredo served as the center of Spanish-language theatre activity in Texas from the 1890s to the early 1900s, San Antonio began to see a large influx of professional companies due to the large amount of refugees and exiles from the Mexican Revolution that began arriving to the city around 1910.3 In A History of Hispanic Theatre in the United States: Origins to 1940, Nicolás Kanellos highlights San Antonio, alongside New York City, Tampa, and Los Angeles, as one of the major centers for Spanish-language theatre in the country. San Antonio saw more companies coming and going as itinerant troupes, such as the Compañía Dramática Solsona and the Compañía Solórzano, regularly performed in Laredo and sometimes traveled further north to San Antonio (Kanellos 71). Furthermore, the itinerant company Concepción Hernández-Villalongín regularly toured to San Antonio, taking up residence in the city for brief periods of time, only to return to Mexico at the end of their season.

Given that this study focuses on Concepción Hernández as a key figure of the Compañía Villalongín, it is necessary to briefly contextualize this company’s history. In 1911, the company leased the Teatro Aurora, an event that influenced their decision to remain in San Antonio as a means of escaping the unstable sociopolitical climate of the Mexican Revolution (Kanellos 73). By taking permanent residence in the city, the company ensured that the first generation of native Mexican-American actors, such as María Luisa Villalongín, would be born and grow up in San Antonio and, thus, help to build the city’s theatrical history. 4

Given previous studies by Kanellos and Ramírez, it is clear that Spanish-language newspapers potentially offer the most understanding into the everyday politics and culture during the period in question. In this way, for instance, we can look to the crónicas, or chronicles, of Angelina Elizondo de García Naranjo (1888-1971), a writer for the socially and politically charged newspaper Revista Mexicana during her time as an exile in San Antonio.5 Elizondo’s crónicas, 6 directed towards a nascent female readership of Revista Mexicana, serve as a call for exiled Mexican women to remain faithful to traditional Mexican ideologies, largely patriarchal in nature, while living in the United States and, thus, avoid assimilation to the radically modernizing social values of the dominant culture.  Considering that newspapers were one of the primary means of disseminating thoughts and knowledge, it is clear that Revista Mexicana promoted an ideology supporting women’s space as private and, as seen in Elizondo’s writings, inherently linked to the interior of the home, contrasting sharply with the public space of the stage.

The writings of Revista Mexicana were primarily focused towards exiled Mexican readers who hoped to maintain Mexican traditions, their mexicanidad (Mexicanness), and avoid acculturation to North American customs. By adhering to their Mexican ideals while in the United States, Mexicans intended to establish a better Mexico than the one that existed in the country itself; the exiled believed that the true Mexico was corrupt due to the Revolution and corresponding revolutionary ideologies (Baeza Ventura 21). Hispanic newspapers such as Revista Mexicana were in charge of maintaining the protection of immigrant rights and assuring the relevance of the homeland by occupying an intellectual, cultural, and political position; they focused on what was happening in Mexico, the events of Mexican-American societies and organizations, and reinforced traditional Mexican values (Dennison 261).

This snapshot overview of Angelina Elizondo and Revista Mexicana contextualizes the cultural and societal norms being disseminated to the San Antonio public, the same public that was quickly making the city a major center of Spanish-language theatre. In this way, the Mexican-American leading lady routinely broke traditional gender roles and rules simply by taking the stage and maintaining the audience’s attention throughout the play.

Women, Front and Center

Although Elizabeth C. Ramírez notes that Antonia Pineda de Hernández (?-ca. 1927) is the most documented female actress prior to 1900, the peak of her career is paralleled by a lack of female counterparts across the Texas stage (Hispanic and Mexican American Women 36). In fact, it was not until the twentieth-century when the railroad brought an influx of theatrical activity to Texas. Among the women to find most success were Margarita Fernández, Magdalena Solórzano, and Concepción Hernández.7 As leading ladies, they were public women, figures who regularly gave voice and open expression to female subjectivity via the stage. In this regard, their domain was the theatre, a space that prominently featured women’s bodies on display and, by means of equal theatrical billing, promoted a certain level of perceived gender equality inaccessible to those women in the audience. These three actresses’ career trajectories as well as performance style were more or less similar and, therefore, focusing on one can give us further insight into the group as a whole and, moreover, leading actresses in Mexican-American theatre in Texas (Ramírez, Chicanas/Latinas 12). In light of these premises, this paper focuses on Concepción Hernández as due to her theatrical activity in Texas being closely linked to San Antonio, where the Compañía Villalongín took residence in 1911.

Concepción Hernández is unique from her peers in that she grew into maturity as an actress during her company’s permanent residence in Texas as opposed to Margarita Fernández, for example, who was already achieving notable status as a leading lady in the theaters of Northern Mexico before coming to Texas (Ramírez, “Compañía Villalongín” 452). Her acting training and professionalization began as a child born into a theatre family and, thus, she grew into the role of a leading lady. Her parents were involved as managers and actors in the Compañía Hernández before its merger with the Compañía Villalongín. After Concepción’s sister Herlinda left the stage in order to become a full-time mother, Concepción became the exclusive leading actress of the company, performing principal roles in Maria Antonietta, Tierra baja, Don Juan Tenorio, La Abadia de Castro, and La Llorona, four shows frequently staged as part of the company’s repertory.8  

Elizabeth C. Ramírez sustains that the features that most newspaper reviews mention were an “actress’s intelligence, ability to comprehend her part, and skill in presenting a well-studied role with clarity in diction, all of which Hernández displayed” (Hispanic 37). Nevertheless, despite Concepción having these talents and skills, her signature asset was her unmatched vocal range (Ramírez, Hispanic 37). A broadside 9 in the Carlos Villalongín Dramatic Company Records prominently displays Concepción Hernández as the leading lady in Ángel Guimerá’s Tierra baja (1896) as Marta, the main character in the melodrama. Strikingly, her name is written in capital letters, stylized with ornate “A’s” and squiggles on the “C’s.” Only Carlos Villalongín, playing Manelick, receives similar treatment, albeit five lines below Concepción. The names of the remainder of the cast are written in a smaller and less ornate font.

Additionally, Concepción’s performance in Tierra baja is singled out in Carlos Villalongín’s personal memoirs vis-à-vis a newspaper review of the February 20th, 1910 performance in Matamoros, Mexico.10 Even though this review refers to a performance in Mexico, it remains useful because it provides an observation of a production that was regularly included in the company’s repertory while in San Antonio. The review states that in the role of Marta, Concepción gave an inspired performance, highlighted by the unmatched range and inflections of her voice (Ramírez, Chicanas/Latinas 14). This review helps us to appreciate the critical role of the lead actress on the San Antonio stage given that no other actor in the production receives as much critical attention. Moreover, by archiving this review and not others, Carlos Villalongín preserves that this history lives on while other performances remain lost, yet to be recovered.

Despite Concepción Hernández’s portrayal of Marta persevering through the archive, perhaps the actress’s leading role in Francisco Neve’s La Llorona (1893) can offer us more understanding about her significance as a leading lady during this time period. While not a traditional telling of the La Llorona archetype, the play does follow the characteristics of the traditional legend. The heroine, Luisa, is a remarkably beautiful, humble, and virtuous young mestiza woman whose lover is a Spaniard of noble blood. When he leaves her to marry a woman of his own class, Luisa stabs their children, an action that leads to her death. In this way, Neve’s play makes sharp commentary on the social injustices committed against the indigenous population, and, specifically, women and children. By focusing on Luisa, a powerful and defiant woman, Neve’s work presents a woman who questions and eventually violates society’s patriarchal norms.

The promptbook for La Llorona, transcribed by Luis Hernández on August 31, 1911, archived in the Carlos Villalongín Dramatic Company Records indicates that Concepción played the lead role of Luisa. Her top billing in the cast list, not to mention her continued appearance throughout the four act drama, reveals her significance to the drama. By starring in the production, she was considered to be the most important person on stage and, likely, the most important person in the room as the entire audience’s attention could potentially be on her at any particular moment. In this way, the play begins with Luisa and its attention stays with her throughout the drama as the audience bears witness to a woman who takes agency and action, sharply contrasting with the types of leading female roles typically seen in the company’s repertoire.

Her depiction of a woman representative of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, serves as one of the early portrayals of the legend in the United States. Before Américo Paredes’s folklore scholarship, particularly “The Rise of the Mestizo,” elevated La Llorona to mythical status alongside the Virgin of Guadalupe and La Malinche, Concepción’s theatrical embodiment of the figure presented an early representation of not only the Mexican Nation but also motherhood, in this way, conflating both mother and Nation and preserving the female’s place as the bearer of national culture. La Llorona is an archetype of the Mexican nation and people and, therefore, a mother of the newly-immigrated Mexicans to San Antonio. Accordingly, by transforming into a character emblematic of La Llorona, Concepción Hernández occupied a key space in the public’s psyche of Mexican identity.

Portraying the leading lady in Tierra baja and La Llorona, Concepción Hernández’s body played a key role in affirming a continued public imaginary of the Mexican Nation. The leading lady was in public at the center of attention during a time when women’s bodies were more often than not hidden as is evidenced by Angelina Elizondo’s newspaper writings. Indeed, maintaining and hiding women’s bodies was one of the most noticeable characteristics beginning from European colonialism in Mexico through to its development into a capitalist nation-state, a culture that crossed borders along with its people. Mexican intellectual Carlos Monsiváis, in Amor perdido, offers understanding of this period, mapping the post-revolutionary era in Mexico as one that saw women’s rights systematically and constitutionally denied despite their equal participation in the struggle of the Mexican Revolution. Monsiváis maintains that the dominant post-revolutionary Mexican middle class continually attempted to restrict women’s power and voice by rekindling practices of morality typically seen under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (69). Given these points, the public space of the stage posed a major challenge to patriarchal ideologies such as the ones Monsiváis discusses.

Aside from her performances specifically, The Carlos Villalongín Dramatic Company Records provides additional insight into the prominence of the leading lady, in this case, Concepción Hernández. The archive contains several gifts from people such as assorted ephemera of friendship and, more so, of adoration. These photographs and cards from admirers more often than not wish her success in her various performances. For instance, the archive includes a beautifully ornate card, complete with an embossed basket of colorful flowers on the front, from Victoria González, dated January 23rd, 1910, in which she wishes Concepción a successful performance at that night’s benefit. Additionally, a note dated April 9th, 1911, from Fidencio M. Chinauya, includes a poem expressing Concepción’s unique qualities as a performer: “The inspiration of you creations is born in your soul; and you lovingly make it live in the hearts of everyone. You create a reality of both suffering and feeling. Your modesty is a gift! A gift of art!” (Qtd. in Ramírez, Footlights 107). These two notes manifest Concepción’s popularity as a leading lady while, first and foremost, demonstrating that she was equally appreciated by both men and women.


In sum, this article demonstrates how Mexican-American actresses, particularly Concepción Hernández, blurred conventional Mexican social codes by occupying a public space, the stage, and demanding the public’s attention. In this way, she transformed the stage into a definitive site of female empowerment and perceived gender equity in an era of heightened immigration to San Antonio by people with traditional values such as the many followers of Porfirio Díaz. Eventually, Spanish-language theatre began its demise in 1935 as other forms of entertainment became popular, notably variety and comic shows, motion pictures, and radio, not to mention increased budgetary constraints due to the Great Depression (Poggi 66-93). Nevertheless, given the premises highlighted in this article, actresses during this time established an important legacy of the Spanish-speaking leading lady that paved the way for more-noted actresses and performers to become active in theatre and performance in the 1930s and beyond such as Netty Rodríguez, Lydia Mendoza, La Chata Noloesca, and Josefina Niggli.

1 Research for this study was made possible by generous funding from the LLILAS-Benson Latin American Studies and Collections Research Fellowship through the Center for Mexican American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

2 The Compañía Villalongín was a theatre troupe also known as La Compañía Dramática Hernández-Villalongín and as La Compañía Cómico Dramática Carlos Villalongín at varying times throughout its history from the late 1800s to 1924. The company’s archive, the Carlos Villalongín Dramatic Company Records, 1848-1945, housed at the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin contains 163 volumes of play and promptbooks in printed or manuscript form which include 265 plays or short theatrical pieces.

3 Kanellos notes that this is based on newspaper accounts from this period and on the fact that more documentation has survived from Laredo than from San Antonio (71).

4 Among the children of the San Antonio theatre community was Lalo Astol. His memoirs housed at the Benson Latin American Collection reveal that theatre was a constant in his youth, ensuring his future career in radio, one of the new forms of entertainment that replaced theatre in the mid-1930s .

5 Due to the efforts of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project housed at the University of Houston, Angelina Elizondo’s chronicles, alongside other pieces from the newspaper’s production, have been recovered and are available for scholars to study in an effort to better understand the Mexican exile community living in the Southwestern United States at the time of the Mexican Revolution. The Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, headed by Nicolás Kanellos, has been responsible for the recovery of thousands of unknown or lost texts by Hispanic authors. Housed at the University of Houston, the project works to find, identify, conserve, and make available the literary works of Hispanic authors of the United States from early colonial and conquest times through 1960.

6 Among her recovered texts are four crónicas published in 1920 in Revista Mexicana: “El salón de recibir” (“The Receiving Room”), “La belleza del crespón” (“The Beauty of the Crape”), “La mentira del divorcio” (“The Lie of Divorce”), and “¿Qué hubiera dicho Cleopatra?” (“What would Cleopatra have said?”).

7 Given that this study focuses on actresses who remained in San Antonio, it will not focus on Virginia Fábregas although it is necessary to note that the Mexican actress and theatre owner frequently traveled to and performed in San Antonio, notably in 1917, 1919, 1923, 1926, and 1928 (Ramírez, Footlights 78).

8 In the promptbook for Maria Antonietta, the last page includes a schedule showing that the company performed Fosca, La Llorona, Maria Antonietta, and El Hijo del Ajusticiado on successive days.

9 Another broadside in the collection, for La Abadia de Castro, presented September 30th-October 1st, 1911 at San Antonio’s Teatro Aurora, shows Concepción as top billing.

10 Carlos Villalongín’s memoirs are housed in personal archives. Elizabeth C. Ramírez recovers this text in Footlights Across the Border.

Works Cited.

Baeza Ventura, Gabriela. La imagen de la mujer en la crónica del "México de afuera." Ciudad Juárez: Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, 2006. Print.

Carlos Villalongín Dramatic Company Records, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin. 4-8 Aug. 2014.

Dennison, Craig. "México de Afuera in Northern Missouri: The Creation of Porfiriato Society in America’s Heartland." Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities 2.3 (2010): 256-67. Print.

Kanellos, Nicolás. A History of Hispanic Theatre in the United States: Origins to 1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. Print.

Lalo Astol Papers, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin. 5 Aug. 2014.

Monsiváis, Carlos. Amor perdido. México. Ediciones Era, 1977. Print.

Poggi, Jack. Theatre in America: The Impact of Economic Forces, 1870-1967. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1968. Print.

Ramírez, Elizabeth C. Chicanas/Latinas in American Theatre: A History of Performance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. Print.

---. "Compañía Villalongín." American Theatre Companies: 1888-1930. Ed. Weldon B. Durham. Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 1986. 449-53. Print.

---. Footlights across the Border: A History of Spanish-language Professional Theatre on the Texas Stage. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. Print.

---. “Hispanic and Mexican American Women on the Texas Stage, 1875-1990." Women and Texas History: Selected Essays. Ed. Fane Downs. By Nancy Baker. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1993. 34-41. Print.