"Theater can contribute so much to our understanding of what is going on, to our understanding of our neighbor, to sometimes understanding ourselves."
Last week, Miriam Colón passed away at the age of 80. Born in 1936, the Ponce native was a noted television, film, and stage actress; as well as founder and long time artistic director of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. Overall, she will be remembered as a pioneering figure and leading advocate of Puerto Rican and Latin American theatre in New York City. Here at Centro, we wanted to honor her legacy, yet allow Mrs. Colón to speak in her own words. Below, we’ve prepared an edited transcript of a panel discussion in which Miriam Colón was one of the invited speakers. She discusses everything from her accidental discovery of the theater while growing in Puerto Rico, to the importance of supporting cultural institutions that represent our community.
On the support of her mother and her teachers from an early age:
“I didn’t know I was getting into show business. I was led as a young girl, in school—mostly by teachers. I didn’t know what I was going to be. But I had a wonderful mother. If I was involved with a project, she wouldn’t hold me back. She was supportive. And she also offered very strong type of support and assurance to me. But she was not the kind of mother that she has a plan for her daughter and she knows exactly what college she’s going to push her [to attend]. There was none of that. There was this quality of being part of me and being my friend. That was very, very important.”
On her first ‘accidental’ audition in Puerto Rico:
“So it was mostly teachers, and in school. I remember the first time I auditioned for a play. I didn’t know what ‘audition’ [meant]. Just that the girls were going to a room and one of them said, “Mira, van a leer gente allí para una obrita, y entonces, si quieres poder venir a leer con nosotros.” I followed. I sort of was curious about it and I read for one of the roles in junior high. They gave me the role of a young woman. I had never acted or anything like that. But it was the beginning. And it had this sort of accidental kind of nature to it. It’s just that the first experience was so wonderful and I wanted to continue. I kept asking when was going to be the next play, etc. And there was only going to be one play. So at the end, I had no direction. But it was this way that I awakened to the possibility of maybe acting or doing something like that. And it was slow and it was sort of innocent. I liked doing that. It gave me great satisfaction. And before I realized it, I was up to here in that. That was all I wanted to do. It was a slow immersion in something I enjoyed doing. And then I suddenly realized, it took my entire life. This is becoming my life. I was not going to make a commitment like that. I was just in the middle of it and enjoyed every moment.”
On the process of becoming an actress:
“Well, it was slow. It was very, very slow. I sort of went deeper, and deeper and deeper in it. And all of a sudden, I had no other hobbies, I had no other activities. And I don’t resent it, it’s just that I was deriving great satisfaction from it. I was learning. And that’s what I felt satisfaction doing. And then I became curious about learning more. And I started learning all about the schools and how you can graduate from that. And I learned that there are schools for advanced studies. That you could come to New York and study here. Then I heard about the Actor’s Studio. And little by little, I kept going close to that and close to that. And then I did become a member of the actor’s studio. And later on, with my identifying with a theatrical movement in New York, I realized I enjoyed that very much, although supposedly, I came here to study the theater in English."
On the founding of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater:
“Later on came the part where I said, “Wait a minute, can we put the plays on ourselves? Can we get the plays ourselves?” I was never going to dream that I was going to become a producer, that I was going to have a company, and that there was going to be the creation of something called the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. It was so slow. It was just one step after another. And pretty soon, we were there and there was something called the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. And I love it. And it also was a slow process. I was behind the idea of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. But it took thousands of people to make it a reality. I didn’t do it myself.”
On the need for more funding for the arts and self-reliance among Puerto Rican and Latin American arts communities:
"Theater can contribute so much to our understanding of what is going on, to our understanding of our neighbor, to sometimes understanding ourselves. And I am sold on the idea of theater. But I suffer. I am constantly saddened by the thought that, “Oh, my god, we could collapse tomorrow.” Because even after forty-one years, we have not achieved the economic infrastructure that it’s protected against economic collapse. And there’s so much to be done. There’s so much to be gained, so much to be conquered in terms of making our own community respect and understand that they have to support their own cultural institutions. We cannot continue to depend on the Americanos to bring it and to invent it so that we can do it. We have to do it ourselves. What else could we contribute to the world of theater, here, the capital of theatre in the world?”
We’re not going to have a legacy. We cannot become dependent on what is happening in the theater. We have to search for our own playwrights. We have to celebrate our own playwrights. And in the case of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, it’s not just the Puerto Ricans. We have presented the Cubans, the Dominicans, the Venezuelans, the Argentinians, the Colombians, the Spanish. Because the element of theater is what comes from here [the heart and mind]. What comes from here is important. Yes, our theater is the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. And I want to continue to defend the essence of that theater. I want that pride. I want that name, but the theater is open to Cubans and Venezuelans, and Dominicans, and Argentinians, and Spaniards, and everybody. Because I feel together, we have a larger scope.”
The full panel discussion is available streaming in the video below:
The Centro Archives are proud to house a collection of newspaper clippings, flyers, programs, and press releases of Puerto Rican Traveling Theater productions. A 20th Anniversary Program contains a list of all the plays presented by 1987. Several images of items included in this collection are included above.