Language and migration in Cinco Palmas

A version of this post was originally written for the graduate seminar “Framing Migration,” taught by Prof. Deniz Göktürk of the UC Berkeley Department of German. In this post, seminar participant Jon Cho-Polizzi comments on the role of speech, translation, and transcription in a performance of Cinco Palmas, a theatrical piece by writer-director Martha Herrera-Lasso Gónzalez and dancer-choreographer Juan Manuel Aldape, a Performance Studies PhD student and a fellow participant in “Framing Migration.” 

Berkeley’s Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies Department website describes the premise and concept of the piece:

A bilingual dance-theater performance, Cinco Palmas explores frustration with the US-Mexico immigration system, and the bizarre pleasure of helping an undocumented minor travel from Honduras to Los Angeles. Based on actual accounts and audio recordings, this work-in-progress utilizes a layered form of storytelling in which dance, spoken text and supertitles mix and collide in telling a story of borders, immigration and testimony.

In the context of our class and “framing” migration, I appreciated the way that the device of the audio recorder “framed” or “bracketed” the entire narrative. The play begins in a flight en route from D.F. to Los Angeles and shows the flight attendant temporarily confiscating an audience member’s recording device as an “electronic device” during her pre-flight spiel. The play concludes with excerpts of a voice over from one of the three recordings which served as source material for the play’s narrative, ending with a statement from the unnamed narrator in which he says he is worried his recording device will be confiscated and that he needs to put it away. This is not only effective on a narrative level, as it brings the story full-circle, it also served as an interesting metaphor when thinking about the tenuous manners in which such migrant narratives are told – the uncertainties, the censorship, the silence.

I really appreciated the way transcription and translation functioned throughout the piece. Virtually all dialogue was conducted in Spanish, with the exception of the initial bilingual pre-flight recommendations as voice over, and the of “señora” and “ma’am.” Throughout the performance various aspects of the dialogue were translated, transcribed, and projected on the walls behind the characters.

Typically something of an English equivalent was provided for the audience, though at certain critical junctions different but related information was provided (for example when statistics about the high incident of physical and sexual violence was discussed, incomplete images of some of these statistics were revealed in sequence which did not exactly correspond to those being discussed.

The missing information from the English statistics and questionnaires further highlighted the high degree of uncertainty about this information, reaching an English-language readership after passing through many different hands. Inversely, one of the climactic end monologues was provided with significantly more transcription than there was actual dialogue, and the quick succession and overlapping of these words added to the overall confusion.

As a Spanish speaker, I never needed to read the transcriptions, but for the purpose of this seminar, I tried my best throughout to reference them to see if they were, as I suspected, different from the dialogue. In addition to the difficulty negotiating between these two media, the further aspect of the piece as predominantly dance-driven further disadvantages a non-Spanish-speaking audience, forcing them at critical junctions to choose between “reading” the text or reading the movements of the actresses and actor. Again, this seemed to me a highly effective way of achieving a feeling of the disjuncture and semantic confusion in the audience to mirror that experienced by the performance’s migrant protagonists.

Jon Cho-Polizzi is a PhD candidate in German Literature and Culture at UC Berkeley. He is the managing editor of Transit

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