Que Viva” means “long may she live! “Malinalli” is a woman–and a musical. A new one, a unique one, an original one.

Book, music and lyrics are by Dr. Robert Paul Moreira, Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Edinburg, Texas, (UTRGV). Music is also by Senior music student, twice winner of the “Engaged Scholar” Award, Mr. Josiah David Esquivel.

The concert workshop of Act I premiered last May on campus. The workshop of Act II of this creative, Broadway-styled musical will be presented (free) Thursday, December 6, 2018, at UTRGV’s Student Union Theater, 8:00 P.M. The entire musical will be work-shopped in the Spring of 2019.

This musical is in English. But it is set in largely Nahuatl-speaking Mexico, circa 1519, soon-to-be joined by friendly Spanish speakers (I’m kidding). It features Aztec Emperor, Moctezuma, and leader of the “Conquista,” Hernán Cortés, as well as the famous “mistress” of Cortés, Malinalli.

I feel a special connection to this whole story. I lived in “La Casa de la Malinche” in Cuernavaca, when researching in Mexico. I felt her presence there, along with that of the souls of the former inmates. (It became a women’s prison in later years; the chains were still in the walls.) You, too, can feel that presence, via the music and drama of this musical about Malinalli.

The monumental encounter between old and new world was one of historic proportions. Her fabulous story ranges from the theme of “traitor” (the pejorative “Malinchista” in Mexico, an insult to those who prefers things foreign) to one of feminist heroine (revenging herself, her people, conquered by the Aztecs, with the help of the Spanish). She is played by Princess Chávez (yes, that’s her name–perfect casting). Moctezuma is portrayed by imposing baritone, Emmanuel Vargas; Cuauhtémoc by Padini Paolo Santiago; Cortéz by Ronnie Zamora.

Moreira carefully balances his duties with courses and his labors with this musical. The students do the same with their educational work. His creation has come to life through the sensitivity of Co-Directors, UTRGV Theater Majors, Michaela Gomez and Nallely Pitones. Moreira received his MFA at UTPA and PhD from UTSA. Winner of numerous literary awards, Robert is a multiple book author (fiction), lyricist and composer. He is a veritable Renaissance Man, a musician, a playwright (“Roses from Castile”), professor, and Managing Editor of UTRGV journal, riverSedge.

Robert, a Los Angeles transplant to the Valley, recalled his youth: “I have always been writing and composing music.” He remembers vividly, one day in high school, being introduced to “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” “I was hooked, man.” He experienced other major shows  (“Les Miserables” and “Jekyll and Hyde”). Robert searched for “stories that sing” through his own Cuban/Mexican American identity. He found it with Malinalli. He presents her as a complicated but “empowered woman,” letting the audience decide about the good/bad polarity.

In his research, Robert found similar themes in the past (Vivaldi’s opera, “Montezuma”). But they often deal only with Cortéz vs “Montezuma” (sic). They leave out the near-mythical Mother of Mestizaje, or demonize her. His musical is more in line with those featuring “tragic heroines.” He colored Malinalli subtly, using enlightened, critical sources (from Sahagun, to Carmen Tafolla, to Gloria Anzaldua); she emerged as a “more nuanced personae.”

I think the Valley has found its Lin-Manuel Miranda. “Local boy” makes very “good.” He is innovative, even visionary, also a nice guy. He magnanimously shares his accomplishments. He praises his co-composer, Esquivel. He credits Josiah with bringing his compositions to light, orchestrating them, adding what he terms “high energy,” plus appropriate indigenous sounds and instruments to complement the mixture of Robert’s English, Spanish and Nahuatl lyrics and nuances.

That other local boy doing good things, Musical Director Esquivel, hails from McAllen. After graduation in May Josiah hopes to continue his education at North Texas University. He plays guitar and directs the ten piece orchestra, adding harmonies to Moreira’s original rock/Broadway music. Esquivel entertained the university community with last year’s “Bonnie and Clyde.” He views the feat of reducing into two hours the “Malinalli” score as a “278 page challenge.” They make a fine team.

The result of their collaboration: a magical fusion of cultures, sounds, and intellectual stimuli. The plot follows history. The tragic “Noche Triste” transpires and Moctezuma is murdered. Yet, Robert takes necessary poetic license to heighten the stakes, themes, and character conflicts. There is a love-triangle among Cortéz, Malinalli and Tecuichpo, daughter of Moctezuma.

Rehearsals showed a great deal of promise. Love scenes are touching, ensemble singing evokes a Greek chorus. Acting may still be a bit stiff, as students (unnecessarily) hold back their emotions and voices. The orchestra is smooth but the theater has no pit;  this arrangement tends to overpower the singers. (A kind benefactor needs to endow the university with state-of-the-art sound systems.) Despite these obstacles, the student directorial team and cast valiantly continue.

This entire “family” of cultural innovators love to “push boundaries.” Some will graduate and leave; newbies will be auditioned. A “really big ‘shew’” (expanded sets and costumes) is envisioned for the near future. Their courage to dream of such an undertaking is admirable. They deserve our encouragement. Their energy and commitment propel this show.

Moreira and Esquivel expressed their immense gratitude to the Dean of the College of Fine Arts (Steve Block), for financial support, and to the UTRGV Office of Global Engagement (Director, Dennis Hart), for a grant for purchase of wireless microphones. They also thanked the Mexican American Studies Program for perspective, and the “B-3” Institute for help with marketing. Thanks, also, goes to the staff of the UTRGV Student Union (Massy Muñoz and Edna Zambrano) for the use of facilities for multiple rehearsals and performance.

More of us can and should do more to help. Por favor! Show support: don’t miss the Thursday night performance. The positive stimulation of ear, intellect, and soul will be your thanks. I would urge additional contributions from private donors who support the arts and who encourage study of the history of the Americas. May the habit of meager financing for the arts be vanquished. Que Viva! innovative works such as “Malinalli.” Que Viva! this and other opportunities for our students to prepare for artistic and business aspects of the entertainment profession. “Live long and prosper!”