Prida, Dolores: 1943—: Playwright, Journalist, Poet
Dolores Prida: 1943—: Playwright, journalist, poet
Cuban-American playwright Dolores Prida began her writing career while working for a restaurant chain, and went on to write more than a dozen plays and musicals that achieved critical acclaim. Her plays are known for their frank portrayal of the difficul-ties faced by immigrants who try to embrace a new culture without losing their old one. Prida's work has reflected her own experiences; while still a teenager she left her old life in her native Cuba and had to build a new one in the United States. Her writings have explored the prejudices that face immigrants, and often focus on the sexism that exists within immigrant communities. What sets Prida's work apart is her adept use of humor to help confront these issues, and this has allowed her to develop characters with more humanity and depth. Humor can also make difficult topics more approachable to people who may carry around their own stereotypes; laughter can be a disarmingly effective means of getting people to open their minds.
Dolores Prida was born in the small town of Cabairíen, Cuba, on September 5, 1943, the first of three children of Manuel and Dolores Prieta Prida. Manuel Prida was a salesman who provided adequately for his family, but he was also a womanizer who had difficulty putting down roots. This was a subject that his daughter would later tackle in her plays. Young Dolores took business courses in high school, but she also wrote poems and short stories, most of which she kept to herself.
Early Career: From Baking to Writing
The Cuban revolution of 1959 and the beginning of Fidel Castro's rule changed life throughout the country, especially for those who were opposed to the new communist regime. Like many others, Manuel Prida chose to leave Cuba. He fled to the United States in 1959, and his wife and children followed in 1961. Dolores Prida arrived in Miami, Florida, but soon settled in New York City, taking a job with Schraffts, then one of the best-known restaurant chains in New York. Initially she worked in the bakery, but soon she was promoted to an administrative position. She managed to make use of her writing skills, and became editor of the Schraffts employee magazine.
In 1965 she entered Hunter College, where she majored in Spanish-American literature. She spent four years there but did not complete her degree requirements. In 1969 she left both Hunter and Schraffts to take a one-year position as a foreign correspondent for the publishing house Collier-Macmillan International. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, she held several positions that allowed her to make use of her writing and editorial skills. She became an editor for Simon & Schuster's International Dictionary, worked as the information services director for the National Puerto Rican Forum, served as managing editor of the Spanish-language daily newspaper El Tiempo, as well as being the London and New York correspondent for the magazine Visión, senior editor of Nuestro magazine, and literary manager for International Arts Relations, Inc. In the 1980s she served as publications director for the Association of Hispanic Arts.
At a Glance . . .
Born Dolores Prida on September 5, 1943, in Cabairíen, Cuba. Education: Attended Hunter College, New York, 1965-69.
Career: Schraffts, employee magazine editor, 1963-69; Collier-Macmillan International, correspondent, 1969-70; Simon and Schuster, editor, 1970-71; National Puerto Rican Forum, director of information services, 1971-73; El Tiempo magazine, managing editor, 1973-74; Visión magazine, correspondent, 1975-76; Nuestro magazine, editor, 1977-80; INTAR, literary manager, 1980-83; Latina magazine, senior contributing editor, 1996–; author: Beautiful Señoritas, 1977; Beggar's Soap Opera, 1979; Cosar y Cantar, 1981; Pantallas, 1986; Botánica, 1991; Hola Ola!, 1996; Casa Proprio, 1999; Four Guys Named José … and Una Mujer Named Maria, 2000.
Awards: Cintas Fellowship Award for Literature, 1976; Creative Artistic Public Service Award for Playwriting, 1976; Excellence in Arts Award, given by Manhattan Borough President, 1987; Doctor of Humane Letters, Mount Holyoke College, 1989.
Address: Office— c/o Latina Media Ventures, 1500 Broadway, Suite 700, New York, NY 10036.
Found a Bicultural Voice
During these years Prida continued to devote time to creative writing. In the 1960s she concentrated on poetry, and became one of the young Hispanic poets of the Nueva Sangre (New Blood) movement. In the 1970s she decided to try her hand at writing plays. In 1976 she joined a collective theater group in New York's Lower East Side called Teatro Popular. There was no theater community to speak of in Prida's small hometown; theater was something that only wealthy people in large cities attended. She had never seen a live play until she came to New York. Teatro Popular gave her an understanding of the art of writing plays, and it also allowed her to see theater as an art form that could be accessible to people from all backgrounds. She told Repertorio.org, "I didn't write a play until I had been involved with other things: doing the props, doing the lights out of tomato cans, running the music cues." She made her debut as a playwright in New York in 1977 with the play Beautiful Señoritas. Written in English and Spanish, Beautiful Señoritas explores the issue of feminine stereotypes, especially within the Hispanic community. In the work Prida was able to tackle important social issues such as the relationship between women and the Catholic Church, but she did so using humor and satire. The play won critical acclaim and was performed across the United States. In 1980 it was performed at the National Organization for Women's annual convention in San Antonio, Texas.
In the next few years, Prida wrote more plays, including the 1979 musical Beggar's Soap Opera (based loosely on Bertold Brecht's Threepenny Opera ) and La Era Latina (co-authored with Victor Fragoso) in 1981. She also wrote Coser y Cantar, a play that focuses on a Hispanic woman living in the United States and how she attempts to deal with living in two very different worlds. (Coser y cantar—literally "sewing and sing-ing"—is a Spanish idiom meaning "child's play.") Subtitled "A One-Act Bilingual Fantasy for Two Women," the play has two characters, She, who primarily speaks English throughout the play, and Ella, who primarily speaks Spanish. It becomes clear to viewers that She and Ella are not actually two separate characters, but are the two sides of one woman. Throughout the play these two sides of the same woman argue, each trying to gain control over the other. In the end, they come to the realization that the separate elements complement each other. While She and Ella will never be "one" person, the two sides they represent make for a strong (if somewhat unsettled) individual.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Prida continued to write plays. These included Pantallas, Botánica, and Hola Ola!, which was performed as a musical. Much of her work was written for the experimental theater Duo in New York, but she also wrote for groups such as the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. Prida also continued to work as a journalist, with her work appearing in numerous publications. At times she also worked as an editor and a speechwriter. She also taught and lectured on writing at a number of colleges and universities, and became a contributing editor for Latina magazine, which was launched in 1996.
An Unusual Contest
In 1999 Prida was presented with an unusual opportunity to use her creative skills. The Federal National Mortgage Association, popularly known as Fannie Mae, was looking for a way to promote home ownership within the Hispanic community. Instead of launching a traditional advertising campaign, Fannie Mae decided to sponsor a playwriting competition that it called The American Dream. Entrants had only one guideline to follow: all submissions had to address Hispanic home ownership in the United States. The winning play would be performed at Repertorio Espanol.
Prida's submission, Casa Propria (A House of Her Own), was selected as the winning entry. It focuses on the emotional struggle between Olga, who wants to buy a home, and her husband Manolo, who sees home ownership as constraining (Prida based the role of Manolo partly on her father). But through them and the play's other characters it also explores such issues as infidelity, domestic abuse, personal responsibility, and friendship. According to the ABA Banking Journal, the New York Times called the entry "a high-spirited comedy," as once again Prida uses a light touch to address serious issues and makes her characters more human, more real. And because it was sponsored by Fannie Mae, Casa Propria achieved an honor undoubtedly reserved for few plays: a write-up in the flagship publication of the American Bankers Association. Prida stated at Repertorio Online, "The play is about realizing that 'American dream' of owning a home-but it goes beyond that. It's a sort of A Room of Your Own infused with Lysistrata. "
In 2000 Prida wrote the musical revue Four Guys Named Jose … and Una Mujer Named Maria, which tells the story of a Hispanic woman who wants to join a four-man musical group. The play was performed off-Broadway and received excellent reviews. It was performed in several other cities as well, and the soundtrack was released on compact disc in 2001.
Despite Prida's popularity and her reputation as a writer who used humor to make her points, over the years her work was attacked by some anti-Castro elements of the Cuban-American community. Like many Cuban Americans who left their homeland while young, Prida felt that it was important to seek ways to make a connection with Cuba. She was part of a delegation that visited Cuba in the late 1970s to find ways to build bridges between the Castro regime and Cuban exiles. Ultimately, the group was able to gain concessions from the Cuban government that allowed exiles in the United States to visit with relatives in Cuba. This was such a sore point for some Cubans living in the United States that Prida and others who tried to build these bridges actually received death threats, and two of the Cuban Americans who traveled with Prida's group were later murdered. This kept her works from being performed in certain Cuban-American regions in Florida and the Northeast, even though Cuban politics was never among her themes.
Throughout her career as a writer, Prida has received many awards and honors including the Cintas Fellowship Award for Literature in 1976, and the Creative Artistic Public Service Award for Playwriting in 1976. She received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Mount Holyoke College in 1989. Her plays are continuing to open doors for up-and-coming playwrights. Prida told Repertorio Online, "Hispanic American theatre is beginning to have an impact and is going to be the theatre of the future. I still think that we will continue to be very much bilingual. It's not going to disappear like Yiddish theatre, and the American theatre will be richer because of our Hispanic theatre, because it's part of the whole mosaic of what this country is."
(Contributor) Breaking Boundaries, Eliana Ortega et al., eds., University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
Beautiful Señoritas And Other Plays, Arte Público Press, 1991.
Cortina, Rodolfo J., ed., Cuban American Theater, Arte Público Press, 1991.
Meier, Matt S., et al. Notable Latino Americans, Greenwood Press, 1997.
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States, Oxford University Press, 1995.
ABA Banking Journal, December 1999, p. 80.
Studies in American Humor, Annual 2001, pp. 21-35.
"Dolores Prida," Repertorio Español Online, http://www.repertorio.org/education/pdfs/prida.pdf (March 31, 2003).
—George A. Milite