Lopez proves real women have nerve

If nobody gives you an identity, you'd better invent one.

If nobody hears your voice, you'd better shout louder.

If you're an undocumented alien through childhood, you'd better document your dreams.

Those were the lessons Josefina Lopez spent 18 years learning and has spent more than 20 years teaching, often through "Real Women Have Curves."

The film about Latina seamstresses in Los Angeles won the Audience Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and made a star of America Ferrera ("Ugly Betty").

But the earlier play of "Curves," which had no male characters, is closer to Lopez's own life, and that's the one Carolina Actors Studio Theatre undertakes this week.

Lopez will take a break from her latest avatar of "Curves" - a musical with original songs - to come to Charlotte and hold Q-and-A sessions after performances on opening weekend.

"After I saw 'Hairspray,' I thought 'Curves' could become a musical, because Latinos are so dramatic," she said from her Los Angeles home. "We live life in the moment. And this is a perfect opportunity to meld the play and movie.

"I wrote the first draft of the play when I was 18, and now I'm 41. Immigration has become the big issue, so this is my chance to get everything in there: the women in the factory, the family dynamics with the mother and daughter, even the marches of 2006, where (aliens in the United States) stood up for their humanity."

Lopez knows about "coming out of the shadows," as she calls it: She grew up the daughter of an undocumented worker and got her green card at 18, after an amnesty bill allowed her to become a U.S. citizen.

That issue surfaces in "Curves." So do questions of self-image, because well-upholstered Latina woman find themselves making beautiful clothes for slender (and mostly white) clients they'll never see.

Both the play and screenplay (which she wrote with George LaVoo) raise smiles.

Funny as they can be, they come from a playwright who admits she has often been fueled by anger.

"I think it was Emerson who said words should be bold, like cannons," Lopez says. "I'm writing a play about what's happening in Arizona, and I was so angry and inspired that I wrote (a draft) in two days. I'm going to present it in September, and it'll offend a lot of people.

"But with all the hate crimes and the kind of talk that enables groups of boys to look for Mexicans to kill them, I feel I have to say these things."

Lopez read "Fat is a Feminist Issue" at 18 and acquired an unorthodox take on female self-image problems she addresses so eloquently in "Curves."

"The book argued that men were not allowed to own any emotion except anger; and women were allowed to own every emotion except anger. Latina women especially are told not to question things, and a lot of women swallowed their anger. Through weight gain, they said '---- you' to society.

"But anger allows us to challenge injustice. It's what we sometimes call passion, and I thought, 'People want to help passionate people.' So I use wit and humor to give (audiences) the bitter pill of the truth. I'm like the fool telling the king what he needs to know about not cutting off his own head."

Her passion translates to activism, through the Casa 0101 theater she founded or screenplays such as "Lotería for Juárez," about the unsolved murders of women in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez.

Lopez has overseen more than 100 productions of her work. Yet she says she usually runs into show business types who think Latino/Latina culture revolves around the two poles of George Lopez and Salma Hayek, the easygoing funnyman and the sultry señorita.

"It's not outright racism," she says. "Here in Los Angeles, we're a majority, but we remain invisible. We're seen as a serving class. I've had 20 years of hitting the wall, creating TV pilots and movies and being told they're not commercial."

So is she more pessimistic as she sails through middle age?

"No, more optimistic. Call me naïve, but I look at it this way: There's an immigrant backlash because people are scared, and sometimes that forces them to address their fears. We're getting closer to recognizing our equality."

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