Morality with a twist
Celebrating the work of writer Tony Mares
Ernesto Antonio Mares, better known as Tony, grew up in Albuquerque’s Old Town in the 1940s and ’50s. The future writer played in the Río Grande and learned about nature from his father. He got an education in other realities of life in the city, where he came into contact with the denizens of the Old Town plaza, which included business owners, drifters, and a cadre of retired prostitutes, for whom young Tony developed a deep respect. He wrote a one-act play, Lola’s Last Dance, about the dying days of one such woman, who is visited by people from her past in the form of masked, balletic dolls that appear to her in a reverie. Teatro Paraguas presents Lola’s
Last Dance on three nights at its studio space in Santa Fe beginning Thursday, Jan. 19, and for another three performances at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque beginning Jan. 27, as part of Río del Corazón: The Magic of Tony Mares, a tribute to the writer, who died in 2015 at age seventy-six. After Lola’s Last Dance, which runs approximately 30 minutes, the actors perform several of Mares’ poems selected from his books, which include The Unicorn Poem & Flowers and Songs of Sorrow; With the Eyes of a Raptor; and Astonishing Light: Conversations I Never Had With Patrociño Barela. Lola’s Last Dance is codirected by Paola Martini and Argos MacCallum, the executive director of Teatro Paraguas.
Mares, who published under the name E.A. Mares, taught at North Texas State University, the University of New Mexico, and elsewhere, and was dedicated to social justice causes, including civil rights and protests against the Vietnam War. He worked construction to put himself through college, which is where he found his love for poetry. He later developed an interest in the Spanish Civil War, about which he wrote his doctoral dissertation. Lola’s Last Dance can be interpreted as a story about the end of the protagonist’s life, MacCallum told Pasatiempo, but it can also be performed as a “morality play with a twist, in that here she is, Lola the prostitute, who society supposedly looks down upon, but she’s actually the glue that holds society together. In the play, everyone revolves around her and her memories of them. She’s a positive force in her community — full of life.”
It is a play anchored in New Mexico regional identity. Many of the dolls that visit Lola are prominent men from the community, all of whom insist they did everything they could for the “Mexicans” — a term that, each time it is used, is quickly corrected by an offstage voice shouting, “Spanish!” The stage directions indicate that this is a comic device, to be used with some level of irony. Mares wrote the play in the late 1970s, on the heels of the Chicano civil-rights movement, which advocated for MexicanAmerican self-determination yet created discord for some native New Mexicans, many of whom preferred to identify with their Castilian Spanish heritage. The issues continue to resonate today as marginalized groups, often people of color, have revived self-determination and civil-rights movements in the face of militarized police forces across the United States and the ever-growing gap between rich and poor. The contemporary conversation revolves in large part around terminology and how different groups choose to speak about themselves, and focuses on inclusion in — rather than assimilation to — American culture. Sex workers, like Lola, have also organized to combat sex trafficking, violence on the job, and misconceptions about women who choose this lifestyle.
Though the play is quite brief, its language is densely layered with symbolism and metaphor. The dolls are fashioned as puppets, and the first one to speak to Lola is a successful businessman, Mr. Baronetti, whose name sounds like a cross between “baron” and “marionette.” MacCallum said that Mares was trying to convey that the imposition of social roles, class divisions, and ideas of status keep us trapped in false notions of who we are and who we are supposed to be. “It’s an exceptional person, like Lola, who can be free without all the conditions and parameters of modern life.” Florinto, a rag-and-bone man and Lola’s true love, is the only doll who does not wear a mask. “He says in the play that his business in life is never to have a business. Lola wants to be free to dance whenever she feels it. She says everything dances. The wind dances through the trees. The air dances. The light dances in people’s eyes when they are thinking of making love.”
Lola’s dancing is both literal and figurative, sometimes used as a euphemism for sex and sometimes for the breath of life. She does not judge the men who pay for her services, not even Father Hoehner, whom Lola and the other prostitutes used to call “Father Horny.” Though she teased him, she did not believe he was hurting anyone by hiring her, despite his shame over his lust. Lola accepts dying but does not want to be lonely or cold. That sense of overwhelming isolation and being awash in memory is a point of view Mares explored often in his poetry during the final two decades of his life, following the death of his daughter at age twenty after a prolonged illness.
In “There Are Four Words, Miguel,” from With the Eyes of a Raptor, Mares responds to a poem, “He Came With Three Wounds,” by Miguel Hernández, whose words he translates from Spanish to English. Hernandez claims there are three wounds that human beings must endure: the wound of life, the wound of love, and the wound of death. Mares adds the wound of silence — the silence birds leave in their wake, the silence of tree-house planks, and the silence where once there was music. Silence, in this case, is absence.
“One by one the days slip into history,/and where there was a voice/there are only documents, evidence/ that my daughter once walked this land./Now she leaves footprints only in my memory,” he writes. “Tsin Tsun,” also from With the Eyes of a Raptor, is dedicated to his daughter. In it, he compares the fleeting time he had with her to the flight of a hummingbird. Here again, there is absence. “I remember the agitated air,” he writes.
The tribute to Mares in Santa Fe falls very close to the anniversary of his death on Jan. 30 — and to that of Galit Mares, who died on Feb. 25, 1994.