Noloesca, La Chata (1903-1980)

views updated

Noloesca, La Chata (1903-1980)

La Chata Noloesca was the most famous and celebrated vaudevillian on the Hispanic theatrical circuits of the United States, northern Mexico, and the Caribbean. For more than four decades, she sang, danced, and acted on stage and screen, principally drawing her material from Mexican-American working-class culture and performing for the Hispanic working classes in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Tampa, Havana, and San Juan.

Born Beatriz Escalona on August 20, 1903, in San Antonio, Texas, into an impoverished Mexican immigrant family, Escalona's schooling was minimal and she began working at an early age, selling food and drink to passengers on trains that stopped in San Antonio. Undoubtedly her sharp observations of street life and her acute ear for the nuances of Spanish working-class dialect were nurtured during these years of daily contact with the masses of Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans in transit at the train station.

Escalona's life as a theatrical artist began in 1920, when she was discovered while working as an usherette and box office cashier at the Teatro Nacional, the most important theater house in Texas at that time. It was then that she was recruited by the Spanish-Cuban song and dance troupe of Hermanos Areu, after they spotted her on the Nacional stage competing in a beautiful-legs contest, a promotional event run by a hosiery company. She won the contest and won a place in the Areu troupe. She made her debut with the Areus that same year in El Paso (she later married José Areu) and went on to star in everything from melodrama to vaudeville. Over the course of the 1920s, Escalona developed and perfected her comic persona of La Chata Noloesca (Noloesca is a scrambled version of her real last name, Escalona)—the street-wise maid, a peladita, or underdog character, with an attitude who maintained a spicy and satirical banter that was not above touching taboo subjects and improvising monologues on topical themes. So successful did the Areus become with La Chata Noloesca on board, that they were able to rent their own theater in Los Angeles and serve as the impresarios for the numerous Hispanic companies touring to that city during the 1920s. La Chata Noloesca, by far became the main draw for the mainly working-class, immigrant audiences of Los Angeles during these years.

By 1930, Escalona had divorced José Areu, split from the Areus, and formed her own company, Atracciones Noloesca, made up principally of young women recruited in her hometown, San Antonio. During the Great Depression she continued to tour the Southwest and northern Mexico, but it became evident that, as Mexicans voluntarily and involuntarily returned to their homeland during the economic crisis, audiences had dwindled and theater owners could no longer afford live performances in their houses; many switched to the more lucrative showing of movies that were now offered with Spanish sound tracks. In response, Escalona decided to set out for venues where the Hispanic community was growing, not decreasing; this meant heading out for cities that were drawing Puerto Rican immigrants, such as New York and Chicago.

In 1936 she reformed her company with local San Antonio talent under the name of the Compañía Mexicana and set out to weather the depression by performing at points east: Tampa, Chicago, and New York—as well as Puerto Rico and Cuba. Escalona's novel idea was to bring to the Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and other ethnic Hispanics her brand of Mexican vaudeville, music, folklore, and her own brand of humor. In 1941, the company set down roots in New York for a stretch of nine years, during which time it was a mainstay on the Hispanic vaudeville circuit made up of the Teatro Hispano, the Teatro Puerto Rico, the Teatro Triboro, and the 53rd Street Theater.

In 1950, Beatriz Escalona returned to her beloved San Antonio for her retirement, but nevertheless performed periodically for special community events until her death in 1980. She was survived by her daughter Velia Areu, a singer and vaudevillian in her own right who had come up in La Chata's companies.

—Nicolás Kanellos

Further Reading:

Kanellos, Nicolás. History of Hispanic Theater in the United States: Origins to 1940. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1989.