By ARMAND EMAMDJOMEH
Josefina Lopez cries a lot.
This is okay with the twelve women and one man listening intently to the author known best for her play, then screenplay and movie, “Real Women Have Curves.” Maybe they’re used to it – this is Lopez’s third workshop for aspiring writers at the Brava Theatre on 24th Street.
Or maybe no one minds because the 39-year old also has an ear for the comic. In the course of the evening, she takes her students (or acolytes, as it appears — some have been there for all three sessions) from her own despair of living as an undocumented immigrant to the empowering experience working in her sister’s garment factory in Los Angeles.
“No one can know how much fun we had,” Lopez says, referring to the jokes and gossip she shared with her co-workers, and “how powerful we were working as women.”
But Lopez is no Holly-Go-Lightly, as this session on writing and social change makes clear. Those who want to hear her work can do so at the Brava on October 23 when the Brava will host a showing of her most recent play, Trio los Machos. She considers the play, which concerns the Bracero Program during World War II, “an homage to my father…a feminist take on machismo.”
Like other contemporary writers who use their art as a tool for social change, Lopez’s prescription is reminiscent of the Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s quote.
“Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
For Lopez, this means restoring humanity and dignity to society’s oppressed, dispossessed, or disadvantaged.
“This means so much to me I’m willing to starve for it,” she says, and like many aspiring artists, she has. While waiting for Real Women to be produced, she lived in her brother’s garage and borrowed money from siblings to make ends meet.
So, she cries. She writes. Most importantly, she laughs.
Often, she told her students, her best material starts with another emotion.
“Anger is what allows us to challenge injustice at any level.”
That was exactly what led her to writing a screenplay, “Loteria for Juarez,” on the murders of more than 300 women in Juarez, Mexico.
Lopez, who currently lives in Los Angeles, recounted visiting the site where many women’s bodies were found. She felt the physical presence of the murdered women, and began to draw the outlines of their bodies as if they were still on the ground. She lay down, started praying, and felt as if she were one of the victims.
Suddenly, “as if some force turned my face,” she turned her head and her eyes met those of a man peering at her from under some bushes. She ran.
In writing “Loteria for Juarez,” which Lopez described as “macabre hyper-realism,” she uses loteria pieces to set the narrative. Each tells the story of one murdered woman.
Her narrative focuses not on the mystery of who killed them, but on the women’s lives and spirits crossing over into the afterlife.
“The killer is corruption, the killer is misogyny, the killer is exploitation…the only way you will get justice is if you bring these women the truth and the only way is through the arts.”
She understands that narrative will be hard to sell in Hollywood — Showtime recently chose to air “Bordertown” with Jennifer Lopez and Antonio Banderas — but she believes that if it is ever produced, her decision to develop the women’s stories will focus more attention on the murders in Juarez than any previous attempts.
As she tells the women’s stories at the Brava, the tears come. Her voice cracks and the roses tattooed on her wrists bend back and forth as she grasps the tissues in her hand.
But Lopez understands well the limits of tragedy.
“You get to the point where people are about to cry,” she pauses, “and then you hit ‘em with a joke!” she says, punching the air with her fist.
Like Loteria, Lopez favors character rather than issue-driven narratives.
“Our survival mechanism is to not care, but by personalizing it,” she says. A reader feels an issue through the character’s eyes.
When writing with an agenda, she says, the toughest issue is timing and staying dedicated during the boom and bust cycles of freelancing. She has developed a television adaptation of Real Women, but even with the support of Norman Lear, who pioneered sitcoms addressing race and feminist issues such as “The Jeffersons” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” she has failed to find support for the effort.
The frustration, and the memory of the 11 years it took for the Real Women to be produced, remind her that perhaps she has to wait again for the right time to be heard.
Her voice cracks.
“Maybe in five or ten years I’ll be laughing about this, she says.
At the end of the seminar, two women and the one man remain to discuss race and identity.
“What do I write about as a white privileged male?” asked Cristobal McKinney, who stayed until 11:00 p.m. to ask questions about his own writing.
“Entitlement,” Lopez responded.