Friendships made at John Spring have lasted more than fifty years.
A while back I wrote about “La plebe de John Spring,” a group of 1950s junior high-school classmates from different Tucson barrios who formed inter-barrio friendships at John Spring Junior High, friendships that have endured over 50 years. About 20-30 of us meet monthly for lunch, and we sponsor an annual Christmas dinner-dance. In that blog I wrote that, “I feel deep pride being amongst La Plebe de John Spring” and listed the many professions we represent, one of which is “…a nationally known playwright.”
That playwright is Silviana (Silvia) Wood, who was born and raised in Barrio Anita, Tucson’s second oldest barrio (the first, the downtown “Barrio Viejo,” was destroyed during the “Mexican Removal,” aka “Urban Renewal,” campaign in the 1960s). Silvia is a prolific writer and actress and stage director. Silvia’s experiences growing up in Barrio Anita are the foundation of many of her works, including her soon-to-be-published book “Barrio Dreams” (University of Arizona Press, Spring 2016).
The railroad divided the Anglo and Mexican communities.
Barrio Anita is a product of the social, economic, and political marginalization of Mexican Americans in Tucson. Up through 1900, Mexicans were the majority in Tucson. This changed with the arrival in Tucson of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1880, which brought large numbers of Anglo-Americans. Anthropologist Thomas Sheridan, in “Los Tucsonenses: The Mexican Community in Tucson, 1854-1941” (University of Arizona Press, 1986) notes that, “…the railroad destroyed the frontier and drove a deep wedge between the Anglo and Mexican communities in town.”
By 1920, Mexican Americans were a minority, and the Southern Pacific tracks, which ran right through the area that would become Barrio Anita, became a de facto ethnic boundary: Mexicans on the south and west, Anglo-American on the northeast. In his Ph.D. dissertation on “Interethnic Relationships in the Community
By the 1920s Mexicans in Tucson had become the minority.
of Tucson,” Harry T. Getty quotes a Tucsonan (born in 1870) who asserted that Anglo-Americans settled in the northeast “…partly to get away from the Mexicans…You see, most of the easterners resented mixing with the Mexicans.”
In “Hispanic Arizona, 1536-1856” (University of Arizona Press, 1987), anthropologist James E. Officer reports that what is now Barrio Anita once belonged to a band of “Apaches mansos” (peaceful Apaches), i.e., Apaches who were not at war with the Anglos and Mexicans in the Tucson area. Ownership changed hands several times, and eventually (in 1903) Tucson businessman Thomas Hughes bought the tract between the railroad tracks and the river. Hughes developed the parcel and named the subdivision’s principal street for his sister Annie. The Mexican American families who settled in the area promptly Mexicanized “Annie” to “Anita,” from whence the barrio gets its name. By 1920 there were approximately 150 households in Barrio Anita. Several black families settled in Barrio Anita, where they were welcomed (blacks could not live in “white” Tucson in those days). Yaquis fleeing persecution in Mexico in the early 1900s also found refuge in Barrio Anita (they later settled in what is today Pascua Village). As was common in every Tucson barrio, there were several Chinese grocers in Barrio Anita.
Silviana (Silvia) Wood
Silviana (Silvia) Wood
In Tucson and Southern Arizona Silvia is known and beloved through her television portrayal of her character “Doña Chona,” a feisty, outspoken 70-year-old activist who, dressed in her trademark old-school housedress and apron, from her kitchen dispensed uncensored personal and political advice, scoldings and admonitions, chismes and mitote (gossip), and sage observations on barrio life. For many years Southern Arizonans religiously tuned in to Doña Chona’s weekly monologues on PBS. Even today, some people address Silvia as Doña Chona. But Doña Chona is but one manifestation of Silviana Wood’s extraordinary creativity.
The University of Arizona Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree (the terminal degree in the arts) Silvia earned complements her profound mastery of the layers and nuances of barrio life. Her best childhood memories are of “…running around the Barrio Anita streets, La Victoria ballroom, all the chino stores, and Oury Park.” Her characters illustrate her barrio roots and the Chicano penchant for nicknames: El Penguin. La Peanut Butter. El Maromas. El Chino Loco. La Molacha. El Yemo. El Chueco. La Cuata. Doña Remedios. Reflecting the Barrio Anita culture that shaped her, Silvia writes in Spanish, English, and Caló, the Chicano barrio dialect. One of her plays, “Yo, Casimiro Flores,” has dialogue in Spanish, English, and Yaqui.
Silvia is no slouch with her pen…
Silviana was inspired to become a playwright by El Teatro Campesino.
Silvia has written over twenty plays which have been produced in Arizona, California, Texas, and New York. Her titles and storylines reflect Silvia’s genius in capturing the common and often complex dynamics of barrio life. Her stories include “La vida dulce de los Compadres Mascazacate y Pansavacía” (The sweet life of the Compadres Mascazacate and Pansavacía), a comedy about feuding compadres. “El militante y la Señora Martinez” (The militant and Señora Martinez) focuses on a sensitive poet and a reclusive old lady who meet and share dreams. “Y que tiene que ver un turkey con Veracruz, anyway?” (So what does a turkey have to do with Veracruz, anyway?) is about a school janitor who dreams of visiting Veracruz while his wife would rather buy their daughter a washing machine. The story of a neglected boy who dreams of leaving his barrio until the barrio grouch teaches him love is told in “El Dragonslayer.” “And Where Was Pancho Villa When You Really Needed Him?” details the first day of 6th Grade in a Chicano-dominant school taught by a white teacher. Silvia is multi-talented and directed and acted in several of her plays.
Silviana’s writings have been published in many publications.
Silvia’s plays and stories have a wide audience. Her work appears in anthologies and journals such as Revista Chicano-Riqueña; Puro Teatro, A Latina Anthology; and Grito del Sol, A Chicano Quarterly. In recognition of her work, Silvia has received, among other honors, two playwriting fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts; playwriting residencies from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations Gateway Project, the 1993 Arizona Arts Award from the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona, and First prize in Theater/First prize in Fiction (separate awards), Chicano National Literary Contest (University of California, Irvine)
Silvia is multi-dimensional…
Silvia participated in the El Rio for the People movement that created a park for the barrio.
Silviana’s life work goes beyond writing plays, stories, and poems. Silvia is a veteran of the youth- and barrio-based Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s that fundamentally changed the educational, political, cultural and social landscape of Tucson and Arizona.
Silvia and her entire family, including her children and her siblings, were intimately involved in the “El Rio for the People” movement in Tucson, which came about when in 1970 Democratic politicians promised the people of working-class Chicano Barrios Hollywood and El Rio a neighborhood center and a park in a portion of the El Rio Municipal Golf Course and then reneged on their promise. Over many months entire families marched and picketed in the summer heat. We were beaten and arrested. But we won—the City built El Rio Neighborhood Center and Joaquín Murrieta Park. This was a defining moment in the political evolution of Tucson’s Mexican American/Chicano community. Silvia and her family were also involved in the many other issues we worked on at the Centro Chicano, such as the founding of La Raza Unida Party in 1972.
Silvia started honing her teatro skills during the Chicano Movement period. In the tradition of Luis Valdez’s El Teatro Campesino, Tucson’s Teatro Chicano, Teatro del Pueblo, and Teatro Libertad used theater skits—performed in barrio venues—to educate and organize the community around issues. Silvia was a key member of these teatro troupes. Silviana co-founded the local Latina writers’ group Mujeres Que Escriben (Women Who Write) and is a member of the Board of the Directors of the barrio-based El Pueblo Health Center.
Inspired by the Chicano civil rights movement, Silvania has spent thirty years as a family and youth counselor.
Professionally, Silviana has thirty years’ experience as a family and youth counselor in Tucson mental health and social service agencies, schools, and prevention programs. She is an experienced group facilitator for parents and youth workshops and classes in parenting skills, value clarification, problem solving, positive communication, self-esteem enhancement, and related topics. In addition, Silviana has taught Chicano/Latino Theater, Literature, and Writing at Pima Community College, and has also conducted many writing workshops in collective script writing, poetry, journal-writing, playwriting, and creative writing at schools, libraries, and theater companies.
Yes, indeed, those of us who know Silvia are proud and excited about the upcoming publication of her book, “Barrio Dreams,” by the University of Arizona Press (Spring, 2016). Believing that we need to honor our own and not wait for others to do it, “La plebe de John Spring” is planning a barrio-based Book Signing Reception for Silvia when the book comes out. c/s
Copyright 2015 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Salomon write: firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo of Silvia Wood courtesy of Monique Soria. John Spring album and Tucson protest used by permission. Teatro Campesino and El Rio Park photos copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. All other photos use under “fair use.”