Gregg Barrios is a San Antonio based playwright, poet and critic. In September of 2008, his play Rancho Pancho was premiered in San Antonio, Texas by the San Antonio Classic Theater. The play examines the hitherto obscured relationship, lasting several years, between playwright Tennessee Williams and a young Mexican American from Eagle Pass, Texas, Pancho Rodríguez. Since its premiere the play has turned drama scholarship on its head as the Barrios play reveals that the character of Stanley Kowalski in Williams’ most celebrated play, A Streetcar Named Desire, was likely based on Williams’ lover, Pancho Rodríguez. Latinopia asked Gregg Barrios to tell us about his own development as a playwright and how he came to write Rancho Pancho.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
I was born in Victoria, Texas, South of San Antonio. My father was a professional photographer who had come to the United State in the 1930s from Monterrey, Mexico during the Cristeros uprising. My mother was farm girl–Tejana– from Nursery, Texas. It was very difficult for me growing up in Victoria as a sensitive child coming to grips with the reality of a small town living.
I was constantly reading. Without reading I would not have survived it. There were certain things that were important in forming the idea that I would become a writer.. One of these was that I was on the school newspaper and I became the music critic in the eighth grade. It amazed me to see my name attached to a byline on something that I had written.
Soon I was approached by the man who ran the book review section of the Victoria Advocate, the city newspaper, to see if I wanted to write book reviews for the paper. And soon every Sunday I would have a book review–I reviewed writers like John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger to pulp fiction books. I was 16 and a half years old.
At eighteen I was drafted to go into the Air Force. I had trepidations because I didn’t want to go into a war in Vietnam. I found myself saying I’ll go if I can save lives and not take lives. So I went and became a medic and I did temporary duty bringing back wounded from Vietnam. During this time I kept writing and I wrote a short story and it won the second Air Force prize for fiction. I received my first royalty check for $27.00!
After the service I was station at Burkstrom Air Force and went to the University of Texas in the evenings. I began attending events I had only dreamed of–a Kingston Rio concert, a play with Helen Hayes, going to a lecture by Norman Mailer, things like this. All of this influenced me greatly.
About this time, I read a book in which I saw myself as a Mexican American. It was City of Night by John Rechy. And in the first two chapters its about a little Mexican boy living on the border who lose his dog and cries. And he describes his loneliness and how he cannot find a place under heaven where he can find solace. Later he becomes a street person, he says, at one point, instead of going to Columbia University I went to Times Square. And I said, Wow! He didn’t believe that he had barriers or boundaries, neither do I!
I became very involved politically, I wrote for the underground newspaper in Austin. I was a member of the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. I was in the first march against the war in Vietnam– I joined the Vets Against the War. At the same time I started the first film club at the University of Texas. I had the first Andy Warhol festival in the United States.
I began to teach and then I moved to San Antonio and started teaching here. In December of 1969 a call went out. That students in Crystal City Texas had walked out because they were being discriminated in the school. And the students were not allowed back into school and they were having midterm exams. So the call went out to Mexican American educators to go to Crystal City to give them instruction so they could pass the mid-term exams.
I went to Crystal City and worked with the students. The walk-outs ended successfully. Later I went to Crystal City and became a bilingual teacher and I taught second grade for a year Then I was asked to take over the senior English program and that is how I wound up at Crystal City where I started the Teatro Estudiantil de Cristal.
I started writing plays in Crystal City. It was an agit-prop acto, estilo Luis Valdez. The Teatro Campesino had come to Crystal City and perform La Carpa de los Rasquachis and that influence me very much. At this time there was this narco-traficante that was gaining headlines. His name was Fred Gomez Carrasco. He ran one of the first drug cartels between San Antonio and Laredo, Monterrey and Guadalajara. He had been sent to prison and had conducted a prison siege and had been ultimately killed by the Texas Rangers. All these corridos were written about him and I decided to write a play about him. It was a one-act and it was well received, and it asked the question Quien Mato A Carrasco? By then he had become a folk hero. We took it to the second Flor y Canto in Austin, Texas. Later on I did Evita in Crystal City, Texas, the first time in the United States.
About this time I looked at the Los Angeles Times calendar and said, hey they don’t have an Chicanos writing for them in the entertainment section. Not a one. So I wrote them a letter and they got printed in the paper. One day I got a call from the editor of the Calendar wanting someone to proof read. Would you be willing to do that? This is 1980 and 19881. I said , yes I will proof read.
I worked at the L A Times for many years. First as a regular contributor and later on I reached the point where I was assigned stories and I was given carte blanche to do my research. But at this time I was with the Los Angeles Times, I also was a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School district and working on student productions there.
I decided that I wanted to write a play about Katherine Ann Porter, the Texas writer. I approached Diane Rodriguez who was working at the Mark Taper Forum, the Latino Initiative. I said why don’t we write a play together. So we started working on this but soon she got promoted So I was on my own but I was asked to apply for a Mark Taper fellowship for a year. I applied with the Katherine Ann Porter project and I joined an elite group of writers including Milcha Scott Sánchez, Josefina López and several others. This was better than a Ph.D. for me. Ultimately I came back to San Antonio.
I first heard about Rancho Pancho or rather the Tennessee Williams/Pancho Rodriguez story early on when I used to go during the summer to teach grammar and composition at Loyola University in New Orleans. And I heard the story from my drama professor there. He told me do you know that there is a man from Texas who had this relationship with Tennessee Williams? I said no. He said well, we’re going to go to dinner with him. So I said fine.
We went to dinner with Pancho Rodriguez. We talked about everything except Tennessee Williams and the relationship. They steered the conversation away from it. They told me that they were from Eagle Pass, Texas. They didn’t want to talk about anything but home. So I presumed the story was false. And then in 2004, I was approached by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center to submit an idea for a play. I brought up the idea of this story. If it is true then perhaps it is worth exploring as a play.
I was given a grant from the Gateways Ford Foundation program and I picked up the autobiography of Elia Kazan who directed A Streetcar Name Desire, both as a play and as a movie. And somewhere in the middle of the book he brings up Pancho Rodriguez. Up to this time I had never seen his name associated with Tennessee Williams. I said , ah, finally at last! Up until this time when I asked people in New Orleans about Pancho Rodriguez people would tell me, no you are confusing Pancho with Frank Merlo. Merlo was Tennessee Williams’ long time partner.
So when I found this validation in Elia Kazan’s autobiography. He reports of an altercation between Tennessee Williams and Pancho Rodriguez which he witnessed in which they behaved in such a manner that he thought he was watching Blanche and Stanley [the main characters in A Streetcar Named Desire] going at it. So Kazan said, if Tennessee was Blanche, then Pancho was Stanley. This became my mantra for my research and for my vision of writing the play.
Armed with that kind of knowledge I found other references and people started talking. Pancho was dead by this time but his brother was still alive and he opened up and gave me access to letters. And the letters filled in the blanks. The letters were like diaries that he kept and letters that he had written his brother. At this time his brother was the only one who knew of the affair.
In my play, the relationship is doomed in part because of the difference between Williams and Pancho, reflecting their place in society. We see this early on in the play. When the play opens it seems on an even keel, but when Tennessee offers a toast to Carson McCullers who is visiting. He doesn’t include Pancho in the toast. Pancho retorts by looking for his bottle of mescal. Tennessee Williams asks, what are you looking for? Pancho says, my bottle of mescal, because I want to offer a brindis (toast) to Carson.
I think the reason I end the play tragically is that we are the point in the story where Tennessee Williams has used Pancho. Pancho has served his usefulness. The play [A Streetcar Named Desire] is completed. He doesn’t need him as a resource. Pancho is devastated by this. In their last scene together, Williams presents Pancho with a birthday gift: a portrait of Pancho that he had commissioned.
It is an image not as Pancho is, but Pancho as a peon, dressed in white linen like one of Diego Rivera’s peons. And he says, you look so handsome that I want to send a copy to your parents. So they can see how wonderful you have turned out. And Pancho says do you remember the artist who did the painting? When I showed up in my best Brooks brothers suit, she told me it wasn’t the right look. That I wasn’t Latin enough for what she wanted to portray.
I think at that time, 1946 and 1947, the picture was different about how Latinos were treated. Pancho didn’t think there was anything wrong talking to an officer in the military about his sexuality. But for that he is drummed out of the service without an honorable discharge. No G.I. benefits. It could be a page ripped out of today’s headlines. Don’t ask, don’t tell. This is the kind of thing that makes Pancho an important symbol of what we have had to struggle with not only today but all the way back fifty years ago.
I’d say Pancho inspired the role of Stanley Kowalski. Perhaps the best validation of that has come from the Harry Ransom Center which has a storehouse of the greatest writers in the world., from Tom Stoppard, T.S. Eliot, to Tennessee Williams. And in their archives they recently purchased , after my play came out and after all the hubbub that I created about Pancho Rodriguez ‘s rightful place in Tennessee Williams’ life, they came out with a press release. Not a press release saying we have just acquired Norman Mailer’s archives of $5 million which they had previously announced, but a special press release saying we have just acquired two letters from Tennessee Williams to Pancho Rodriguez.
And they explain Pancho Rodriguez was consort of Tennessee Williams and he is considered the prototype for the character of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Now any scholars reading that are going to have to go back to all of these biographies where Pancho is completely left out. They’re going to have to readjust it and say oh-oh, there went the research out the window. Because there are many books that said that Frank Merlo was the inspiration for Stanley Kowalski. At the same time I also found recordings in the New York City Public Library that Pancho and Tennessee Williams made where Pancho is playing Stanley. Further verification of what was intended.