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Early Life

René Marqués was born on October 4, 1919 in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, a small city about 50 miles west of the Puerto Rican capital San Juan. He was the grandson of agronomists, also called crop scientists, and he spent his early years in the home of his maternal grandparents, who instilled in Marqués a love of the land. He was also influenced by his relative Trina Padilla De Sanz, who was also known as “Hija del Caribe” (Daughter of the Caribbean). She was a writer, pianist, and activist who wrote about women’s rights and Puerto Rican independence. Throughout her life, she encouraged Marqués’s literary ambitions, and often hosted gatherings of fellow artists in her home that he would have attended.

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The Road to La Carreta

Despite the impact of Trina Padilla De Sanz on his life, Marqués did not initially pursue writing. As a young man, he attended the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts of Mayaguez, where he followed in his grandparents’ footsteps and graduated in 1942 with a degree in agronomy. He then worked for two years in the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture.

In 1946, his formal study of theatre began when he left Puerto Rico to study classical and contemporary Spanish theatre at the University of Madrid. While there, he wrote articles for the Puerto Rican newspaper El Mundo (The World) under the title “Crónicas de España” (“Chronicles from Spain”). It was in Madrid that he also wrote his first two plays. The first was El Hombre Y Sus Sueños (Man and His Dreams), an abstract drama about a man dying in bed while various characters discuss his legacy. The second was El Sol Y Los MacDonald (The Sun and the MacDonalds), a tragedy about an aristocratic family in the Southern United States that resorts to inbreeding to preserve their bloodline.

In 1947, he returned to Puerto Rico, where he continued to pursue writing. He wrote literary criticism and reviews for the literary journal Asomante, as well as El Mundo, and the newspaper Diario de Puerto Rico (Diary of Puerto Rico). During this time his first play, El Hombre Y Sus Sueños, was published in Puerto Rico.

In 1949 Marqués left Puerto Rico again, this time for New York City. With the help of a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship, he studied theatre at Columbia University and the Dramatic Workshop. The Dramatic Workshop was run by German stage director Erwin Piscator, who also taught famed American acting teachers Stella Adler and Lee Strasburg. Marqués wrote his third play, this time in English, for a Columbia University playwriting class. Palm Sunday told the story of a massacre of unarmed, peaceful protesters in 1937 in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Organized by the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, which had a stated goal of Puerto Rican independence, the protesters were attacked by the police. The attack resulted in the deaths of 19 civilians and two police officers.

In 1950, Marqués returned to Puerto Rico, settled in San Juan, and founded a theatre company called el Teatro Experimental del Ateneo de San Juan (the Experimental Theater of the Atheneum of San Juan).

In 1951, Marqués brought together his literary ambitions with his farming background when he wrote what would become his most famous work, La Carreta (The Oxcart), a three-act play about a family of Puerto Rican jibaro (traditional farmers) who migrate from the countryside to San Juan and then to New York City. Describing what inspired him to write the play in the 1961 essay "Origen y en enfoque de un tema puertorriqueño" (Origin and Focus of a Puerto Rican Theme), Marqués wrote the following:

In 1951, while a group of filmmakers and I were making the picture “A Voice in the Mountain” in the mountains of Puerto Rico, I met the principal characters of “The Oxcart.” I lived with them for three months. It was not, of course, my first intimate contact with the Puerto Rican peasant. As a grandson of farmers - and myself an agronomist besides - the land and its inhabitants had always been an intimate experience of my life.

On the other hand, four years of residence in the capital had permitted me to observe the agony of the peasant adapting himself to the conditions of the San Juan slums. And my studies at Columbia University gave me the opportunity to capture the tragic conflict of that same Puerto Rican when, tireless in his pathetic quest for an easier material life, he emigrates to the New York metropolis.

I had, then, at first hand, the material which would constitute the three dramatic stages of the emigrant family: the Puerto Rican countryside, the San Juan slums, and the North American metropolis.

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Early Productions of La Carreta

La Carreta had its world premiere in New York City on May 7, 1953 in the basement of St. Sebastian Church at 313 East 24th Street, a now-closed Roman Catholic parish. The play was produced by El Nuevo Círculo Dramático (The New Drama Circuit), a short-lived theatre company formed by Puerto Ricans Roberto Rodríguez Suárez, who directed the production, and young actor Miriam Colón, who performed the role of Juanita, the family’s daughter. Colón had met Rodríguez Suárez after moving to New York to study at the famed Actor’s Studio, where she was its first Puerto Rican student. Unknown to Colón at the time, this play would become inextricably linked with her life’s work: the founding and leadership of the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, one of the nation’s first bilingual theatre companies. Marqués attended a performance, and was very pleased with the production. He wrote the following dedication to Colón in her script: “To the great Puerto Rican actress Miriam Colón, whose masterful interpretation of my dear Juanita will always be one of the most emotional experiences of my life. Most warmly, René Marqués - May 10, 1953.”

The play premiered in Puerto Rico later that same year, produced by Marqués’s company. In 1958 La Carreta was produced at the María Guerrero National Theatre Company in Madrid, and was the first modern Puerto Rican play ever presented in Europe. However, Marqués intensely disliked this production due to the censorship imposed by Spain’s Francoist dictatorship. He wrote, “I was present at the opening in Madrid and only then did I understand that the “approval” of La Carreta by official censorship meant the merciless slaughter of the drama.”

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The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater

On December 19, 1966 La Carreta premiered Off-Broadway, in an English translation by Charles Pilditch, at the Greenwich Mews Theatre. This second New York production was once again spearheaded by Puerto Rican actor Miriam Colón, who reprised her performance as Juanita. In the years after the first New York production, Colón found work in Hollywood, appearing in TV shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gunsmoke, and the movie One-Eyed Jacks with Marlon Brando (Brando’s only directorial credit). However, Colón ultimately felt a need to return to both the Puerto Rican and theatre communities in New York City. In archival footage from her later years, Colón said about this transition,

I lived there 6 or 7 years and after a while I got bored. I got restless. I was not dragged off my feet by the idea that I had to be a movie star. I wanted to be able to audition for the theatre, and do a play. I just needed to be home.

This Off-Broadway production of La Carreta was directed by Lloyd Richards, who had been nominated for a Tony AwardⓇ for Best Director in 1960 for A Raisin in the Sun. Other notable cast members included a 26-year-old Raúl Juliá, who played the eldest son Luis, and Lucy Boscana, a prominent Puerto Rican actress, who played the family matriarch Doña Gabriela. The production ran for 89 performances, including five matinees for student audiences.

Less than a year later, in August 1967, this same production of La Carreta toured across New York City in a series of free outdoor performances, once again organized by Miriam Colón, now under the auspices of her newly formed company, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre. The cast and creative team remained the same as the Off-Broadway production, with the exception of Raul Julia, who was appearing in Titus Andronicus as part of Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival (now known as Shakespeare in the Park). Sponsored by Mayor John V. Lindsay’s Summer Task Force, which supported the project with $23,000 in funding, the first performance was inaugurated by the mayor at the Carver Amphitheater on 102nd Street in front of an audience of 1,200 people. The production toured in a flatbed truck which could be converted into an outdoor stage, and over the course of 19 days, La Carreta was performed in 14 locations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. Locations included the PS 136 Playground in Harlem, Tompkins Square Park, the PS 149 Playground in the South Bronx, McCarren Park in Brooklyn, and Linden Park in Corona. The majority of performances were in low income neighborhoods, and this was by design. The original funding proposal to the city states that one of the main goals of the touring program was “to bring free high quality entertainment to neighborhoods which cannot afford to pay Broadway or Off-Broadway prices.”

This model of touring theatre, with its focus on accessibility for working-class people, was inspired by El Teatro Rodante (The Rolling Theater) at the University of Puerto Rico, where Colón had taken classes. El Teatro Rodante was itself inspired by Federico García Lorca’s touring theatre company La Barraca in Spain.

The success of the 1967 tour of La Carreta paved the way for Colón to formally establish the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre as a non-profit organization. Now known as Pregones/PRTT after merging with another company in 2014, they continue to champion Puerto Rican/Latinx theatre with permanent stages in both Manhattan and the Bronx. Jorge Merced, Associate Artistic Director of Pregones/PRTT, aptly sums up the impact of the company,

The Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre has been the guiding force, the ones that have opened the grounds, for I think almost every single Latino artist that continues to do work, especially here in New York City.

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Over the years, La Carreta has continued to have numerous productions in both Puerto Rico and the continental United States. The Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre has returned to the play throughout its history, mounting new productions in 1977, 1983, and 1992. There were plans for a musical adaptation to premiere in February 2022 in Puerto Rico, before rising COVID numbers forced the organizers to cancel. At one point early in its life, film producers were interested in adapting the play into a movie, but this never came to fruition, in part due to creative differences between Marqués and the producers.

Marqués had a long and distinguished literary career after writing La Carreta; he wrote plays, short stories, essays, novels, and poetry until his death on March 22, 1979 in San Juan at the age of 59. Throughout much of his work are similar themes to La Carreta: social commentary on Puerto Rican society and the effects of colonialism. He is considered a part of “Generación Del 50” (Generation of 50), a group of artists who contributed to a period of significant growth in Puerto Rican arts and culture in the 1950s. He is perhaps the most well-known writer in Puerto Rican history.

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