Aguijón Theater celebrates 30 years of bringing Spanish-language works to Chicago

Their plays have examined women’s social conditions, power dynamics between landowners and oppressed workers and the marginalization of indigenous populations.

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Aguijón Theater founder and co-artistic director Rosario Vargas is photographed at the theater last month.

Aguijón Theater founder and co-artistic director Rosario Vargas is photographed at the theater last month.

Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

In 1989, it was not “glamorous” to speak Spanish, especially not in theater.

But Rosario Vargas was a woman of theater and, having just arrived from Colombia, her language was Spanish. She took the risk and bet there would be an audience for a Spanish-language theater — the first of its kind in Chicago.

And her risk paid off.

“I thought at that time that there was a necessity in that moment, a desire, to express myself in Spanish and to have a Latino company that performed in Spanish,” Vargas said, remembering her decision to start Aguijón Theater Company of Chicago. “Today I am so proud to have accomplished all that we have in the past 30 years.”

Aguijón Theater sits on a quiet street in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood on the city’s Northwest Side.

Aguijón Theater sits on a quiet street in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood on the city’s Northwest Side.

Pat Nabong/For the Sun-Times

The theater company (pronounced ah-ghee-HOHN) didn’t have a central location at first, but in 1999 Vargas mortgaged her home and bought an old building on the Northwest Side of Chicago. The yellow-brick structure at 2707 N. Laramie in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood is still home to the troupe.

Vargas was there with her daughter, Marcela Muñoz, on a recent Saturday in October, preparing for their current production of Nilo Cruz’s “Exquisito Agonia” (“Exquisite Agony”). The theater has an intimate setting, with 65 seats recently refurbished in a fresh velvet red.

Muñoz remembers growing up around the theater and under the influence of her theater-driven mother. She appeared in “Homage to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz” as a 15-year-old actor. Now, she’s co-artistic director with Vargas and works to introduce younger generations to theater in Spanish.

Aguijón Theater’s managing director and co-artistic director Marcela Muñoz at Aguijón Theater on September 28, 2019. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

Marcela Muñoz is the managing director and co-artistic director of Chicago’s Aguijón Theater.

Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

Through an After School Matters program, Muñoz mentors kids and works to increase inclusiveness for Latino youth whose Spanish may be imperfect. To wit, the the company has also begun experimenting with incorporating bilingualism (Spanglish) into its productions.

“The language is always going to be our first block and first mission, but with younger generations we’ve become more flexible — we go back again to what is a Latino?,” she said. “There’s some of that from older generations: ‘If you don’t speak Spanish, are you really this?’ Well, yes you are.”

The story of “Exquisito Agonia,” directed by Munoz, features Vargas as a widowed opera singer searching for the man who has her deceased husband’s donated heart. Secrets and dysfunction are unearthed.

Raúl Romero as the Generalísimo Creón Molina and Elio Leturia as Monseñor Bernardo Escudero in a scene from the 2011 production of “La Pasíon Según Antígona Pérez” by Aguijón Theater.

Raúl Romero as the Generalísimo Creón Molina and Elio Leturia as Monseñor Bernardo Escudero in a scene from the 2011 production of “La Pasíon Según Antígona Pérez” by Aguijón Theater.

Courtesy Aguijon Theater

Like the name suggests, Aguijón theater may not be the place to find lighthearted comedy. Aguijón means “stinger” in Spanish, like the stinger on a bee. It’s the same name as the twin theater that Vargas helped start in Cartagena, Colombia; and she decided to keep that same name when she opened the company in Chicago.

“Like the bee, like the stinger, it stings the conscience,” Vargas said, “with political themes, agonies, and the stories that concern all of us, as immigrants and Latinos in the United States.”

The plays they’ve performed have examined women’s social conditions, power dynamics between landowners and oppressed workers and the marginalization of indigenous populations.

“The audience needs to be entertained but there need to be subtexts, there need to be stories, situations that you reflect on,” Elio Leturia, an ensemble member for the past 10 years. “You need to shake them somehow. I want them to feel a little uncomfortable at times.”

Aguijon Theater’s 1990 production of “Homage to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz” featured Marcela Muñoz (left) and Betty Velasco.

Aguijon Theater’s 1990 production of “Homage to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz” featured Marcela Muñoz (left) and Betty Velasco.

Courtesy Aguijon Theater

Leturia spearheaded a project with a team of writers, designers and researchers chronicling the many “sting”-worthy productions at Aguijón to celebrate its 30th Anniversary. “Aguijón 30 años/Aguijon 30 years” is a bilingual book featuring more than 300 photographs and eight chapters that tell the story of the history of the theater through memories, interviews and newspaper clippings.

“Aguijon has become part of the history of theater in the United States,” Leturia said. “It has to be documented.”

Muñoz remembers how experimental and audacious the theater felt when it first began, and still continues as they take on challenging new stories.

“When we started doing theater in Spanish it felt crazy to a lot of people. At that time it was a political statement to be doing works in Spanish,” Muñoz remembers. “Living in the current political climate, it feels political again.”

“People are questioning what it means to be American, what language Americans speak, who gets to have that ownership of this country and this culture,” Muñoz continued. “Where we stand, all of these cultures, make up the United States, and we definitely feel this is our home, and this is the work that we do here.”

“Exquisita Agonia,” presented as part of theChicago Latino Theater Alliance‘s Third International Latino Theater Festival: DESTINOS, runs through Nov. 24 at Aguijon Theater. It is presented in Spanish with English supertitles. Tickets and information are available at aguijontheater.org.

Alexandra Arriaga is a local freelance writer.

Aguijón Theater’s ensemble member Elio Leturia in front of some of the posters he designed at Aguijón Theater on September 28, 2019. | Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

Aguijón Theater’s ensemble member Elio Leturia stands in front of some of the posters he designed for the company’s productions over the years.

Pat Nabong/For The Sun-Times

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