'You're a poet, you can do whatever you want!'

Chicano playwright-poet-Professor Carlos Morton visited the University for a comprehensive two-week lecture series, focusing on bi-lingualism in creative writing and theatre. Teodor Reljic caught up with him on campus. 

I wait for Prof Carlos Morton outside a small lecture room in University’s ‘Gateway’ building – the Chicano playwright-Professor is giving a lecture to theatre studies students, and ten minutes into my wait, the lecture ends with a pleasant patter of applause, only to then spill into question-time.

Luckily the American embassy-dispatched cultural attaché that waits along with me proves to be as pleasant as usual – the cynic in you wants to believe that they’re trained to be that way, the rest of you doesn’t – and during our chat, it becomes clear to me what the intentions behind Morton’s visit are. Having a speaker of mixed origin (broadly, Mexican-American in this case) is of particular interest to a culturally bilingual country. 

Dr Clare Thake Vassallo, who helped facilitate the playwright’s visit – and it was a comprehensive, two-week stay, during which Morton spoke to several departments within the Faculty of Arts – confirms this when we eventually start the interview. “The mixing of Spanish and English is one of the main reasons I decided to invite Carlos here. In Malta we keep saying how we have a crisis in theatre because nobody wants to write in a mixed register. Actually, the only kind of theatre that does that is the panto…”

The lecture room doors finally open to a smiling troupe of students. You get the impression that they’ve enjoyed the talk, that Morton has given them something refreshing to think about. It takes a while for Morton to emerge, and when he finally does, the modesty hits you: he is slightly hunched over, and wears a cream-coloured jacket that appears to blend in with our limestone-rich geography.
But we do finally sit down, away from the bustle… though the conversation remains lively, and involved, as ever.

Early on, it becomes clear that Morton is modest not just in demeanour. He seems to be shy to discuss his work in any detail, and instead just points me to relevant works (at the end of the interview, he generously donates a couple). But his passion for the context that fuels him is more than apparent.

Born in Chicago in 1942, Morton began to experience the multi-faceted nature of his continent and heritage from an early age, as his U.S. Army-serving father had to move the family around.

He tells me of his Romantic back story: he drove a taxi around New York (“it was a perfect job for a writer because the hours were flexible”) and also cleaned airplanes (“a disgusting, disgusting job”) while writing ‘Beat’ poetry on the side, when that pre-hippie countercultural milieu was still in full swing.

As it usually happens, stability came with marriage, and after acquiring his PhD from the University of Texas in 1987 (“the best thing I’ve ever done”), Morton became Assistant Professor of Drama at the University of Texas (he is now Professor of Dramatic Arts at University of California, Santa Barbara).

But while Morton feels “fortunate” about the way his career path turned out, he doesn’t really consider himself to be too heavily invested in academia. “I’m lucky to be part of a university that cherishes my creative side,” he says with a wry smile.

Thanks to his plays, Morton is considered to be ‘the theatrical voice of American Latinos and Hispanics’ and ‘one of the main contributors to the development of Chicano drama’. A rough-and-tumble mix of comedy and tragedy, shot through a heady, unapologetic Anglo-Spanish, the plays offer a satiric outlook on the often contentious state of Latinos in America.

Morton treated the theme of judicial injustice in the US with The Many Deaths of Danny Rosales, based on a true case. His subsequent works included more playful stuff: in Rancho Hollywood, a prejudiced theatre director forces Latino actors to portray insulting stereotypes of their culture in a play about the history of California, and as Morton cuts back and forth through history, we are made to realise just how deep this prejudice runs.

Morton has also taken it upon himself to give classic works of the Western canon a Chicano twist: Johnny Tenorio is a humorous and bi-cultural take on Don Juan, while The Miser of Mexico uses Moliere’s The Miser as a starting point.

Another tenuous connection to Malta is the fact that Morton comes from a Catholic background, which is reflected in El Jardin – a one-act take on the story of Adam and Eve, where they are juxtaposed with a modern-day middle class couple and where Eve is seduced by a ‘whitewashing’ Anglo culture – and Pancho Diablo, which re-interprets the Fallen Angel as a Mexican cantina owner.

But the clearest connection between Morton and our isles remains the issue of language. During an exercise with the Theatre Studies group, the prickly pear (‘bajtra’) turned out to be a fruit that bridges the divide. Apart from being the Maltese emblem for the Republic, it also appears on the Mexican coat-of-arms.

And in the passage in question, the word began to reverberate across different languages. One line went ‘take a bite, you have no balls’, so this ‘bite-bajd-bajtra’ word kept refiguring itself, seemingly by its own accord.

It’s a bit sad that Malta appears seems to have a collective hang-up about mixing languages, because Morton describes the process as being one of gleeful abandon. “I just thought of it as: you’re a poet, you can do whatever you want!”

That’s not to say that Morton’s culture doesn’t have its own checks-and-balances for linguistic pretentiousness. He describes how the ‘Vendido’ (‘sell out’) has become an archetype for a Latino who chooses to remake himself as ‘Anglo’, and how certain people from the Mexican-American border are hostile towards the development of ‘Spanglish’ or ‘Tex-Mex’ because such mixing would lead to a diminished sense of either tongue.

“But in time, this could lead to the development of a new language. If you look at Chaucer’s time: wasn’t English a mix of Norman, Saxon, Latin…?”

Ultimately, what bolsters the persistent influence of Spanish within the Americas is a steady influx of immigrants from Mexico (“34,000 dead during the drug wars – do the math”) and Spain itself. “The novelist Carlos Fuentes calls it ‘genetic imperialism’…”

There’s no real equivalent in Malta, because the Semitic influence has been suppressed over centuries of European rule.

“But who knows what will happen, with the way it all turns out in Libya!”

More in Books