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In the Kitchen

[whitespace] Rosita's Jalapeno Kitchen Spicy Dishes: Rosita (Rosa Maria Escalante) serves up tasty food and gossip.

Photo by David Lepori

Rosa Maria Escalante evokes an entire community in 'Rosita's Jalapeño Kitchen'

By Heather Zimmerman

RODRIGO DUARTE CLARKE'S Rosita's Jalapeño Kitchen is a timely play that demonstrates some of the cultural repercussions of the Silicon Valley boom. Teatro Visión closes its season with the one-woman comedy, which explores the dilemmas redevelopment brings to the barrio through the eyes of Rosita (Rosa Maria Escalante), whose personal stories and memories evoke the history and identity of her neighborhood, Salsipuedes. Rosita serves up Mexican specialties in the small diner she owns in Salsipuedes. A developer has bought up almost the entire neighborhood, planning to build a mall. The residents and merchants, Rosita believes, have fallen prey to a seemingly easy promise of entry into the world of the haves--namely white middle-class America. Exploiting Rosita's loyalty to her friends and neighbors, the developer is pressuring her, the last hold-out, with the threat that he won't buy from anyone unless she, too, sells her property.

Rosita is prepared to sell the diner, but hasn't yet signed the final papers, when a stranger drops in for one last cup of cafela (the stranger is an unseen woman who seems to be situated, not coincidentally, in about the same place as the audience). Lamenting to this last customer the demise of a neighborhood where Mexican and Chicano culture once thrived, Rosita tells stories, recounts dreams and generally gossips about the soon-to-be former denizens of Salsipuedes. Her first story sets up one of the play's major themes--that assimilation into the middle class doesn't guarantee acceptance, much less happiness. A friend of Rosita's was so desperate to assimilate that she found herself literally trying to keep up with the disapproving Joneses when she moved to an Anglo neighborhood. The barrio may be called Salsipuedes ("Get out if you can"), but Rosita doesn't necessarily see moving away from the area as an escape from the prejudices Latinos face; if anything, it scatters people and disconnects them from their culture.

Rosita has also felt at odds with her own culture at times. Its patriarchal structure, within both her family and the church, she says, caused her to lose the love of her life, leading her to swear never to bow to anyone else's authority again. Her defiant attitude reflects the new life she has carved out in the U.S. in the many years since she left Mexico, and her story symbolizes the rich history of a neighborhood of immigrants that may be lost if Salsipuedes is destroyed. Colorfully illustrating Rosita's tales, Escalante acts out the roles of all the different characters Rosita describes, from the nearly toothless neighborhood codger to the Irish priest who sermonizes in stumbling Spanish. Director David Tempel has given the energetic Escalante something of a free rein, and the comically gifted actress is all over the stage with hilarious, sometimes cutting, parodies of Salsipuedes residents. Although Escalante's performance in these various roles is generally precise and convincing, above all, like the play itself in its celebration of the barrio as a cultural center, it is appealingly affectionate; even Rosita's most critical caricatures are not without heart.

Rosita's Jalapeño Kitchen plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through June 13 at the CET Theater, 701 Vine St., San Jose. Tickets are $15/$10. (408/947-8227.

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From the June 3-9, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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