In Where Did We Sit on the Bus? Latiné Artists Excavate Their Own Histories

When performer and playwright Brian Quijada was in the third grade, his teacher taught the class a lesson about the Civil Rights Movement during Black History Month. She explained that a woman named Rosa Parks changed the course of history by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Quijada raised his hand and asked, “Where did Latinos sit on the bus?” His teacher replied that she didn’t know. This moment was etched into Quijada’s mind and nearly 20 years later he wrote, Where Did We Sit on the Bus?, a one-person show inspired by that memory.

The mostly autobiographical play, which Quijada started workshopping a decade ago, is composed of a mix of poetry, rap, monologues, and live sound mixing and looping. In it, the Civil Rights Movement lesson sends a curious kid, Bee Quijada, home to ask questions about his Salvadorian family’s immigration story and pursuit of the American Dream. This search for answers continues well into Bee’s 20s. However, what he finds along the way is that the only answer he needs is the dream he holds inside his heart.

Quijada says he was inspired to write the play as a young actor in New York when he kept being called into auditions for roles that didn’t resonate with his experience as a brown kid who grew up in a Jewish and Italian neighborhood in Chicago. By that time, he’d defied his parents’ wishes, moved to New York, and chosen to be an artist instead of a doctor, lawyer, accountant.

“I wanted to play a Latino character that wasn’t steeped in Latino trauma,” Quijada said. “There weren’t a lot of comedies. I love hip-hop and there weren’t a lot of stories of hip-hop. I wanted to tell a story where I could do the things I loved and tell personal stories through musicals and comedy.”

Quijada grew up making home videos with his brother Marvin. They created their own sketches and played them at family gatherings. He also grew up going to Quinceñeras and other celebrations where music moved the room. In the script, he recalls this early introduction to performance by saying, “I’m a strong believer that we are all born with rhythm. Those who think they can’t dance do have it somewhere deep within them. Waiting to be released and displayed on the floor.”

As Quijada got older, he started doing musical theatre with Jewish friends at his middle and high schools, performing in shows such as Cats and The Wizard of Oz. The closer he got to art, the more distance he felt between his true calling and his parents’ desires for him. He pointedly captures this experience gap in Where Did We Sit on the Bus? in the stanza: “I get why the Mexican workers in Highland Park restaurants don’t know whether to talk to me in English or Spanish when I walk in with my white friends. I get why the white librarian wonders what nationality I am because my English is white-washed.”

“American isn’t Black and white, there’s nuance and gray lines,” Quijada said. “We have to have empathy for the American immigrant. I was battling identity questions and asking where I fit in a Black and white America. What does it mean for me to grow up loving Michael Jackson, me a brown kid, dancing like a Black kid who wanted to be a white kid. The piece is summed up by a coming-of-age story and figuring out who the hell you are.”

Where Did We Sit on the Bus? received its world premiere at Teatro Vista in Chicago in 2016. It garnered Outstanding Solo Performance and Sound Design at The Chicago Jeff Awards and earned him two Drama Desk nominations in the same categories for its Off-Broadway debut at Ensemble Studio Theatre that same year. Since that time, it has been performed at dozens of theatres and schools across the country.

Four years ago, Quijada stopped acting in the play and passed it along to his friend Matt Dickson, who has directed the production ever since, and mentee and friend, performer Satya Chávez. The two met when Dickson and Quijada were working on another show, Undesirables, while Chávez was a student at the University of Colorado, Boulder attending the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. When Quijada’s journey performing the show ended, he knew who to call.

In addition to changing Bee from a boy to a girl, Chávez and Dickson added more loops and songs to the piece during the Covid-19 pandemic, so that it would have fewer lulls when it went from in-person to video theater. It requires a deft, multi-instrumentalist who can act and rap, and Chávez has risen to the occasion. In the show, she plays piano, bass guitar, Mariachi bass guitar, Quena (Indigenous flutes), harmonica, ukulele, as well as creating percussion and programming the sound loopers.

Chávez said that part of what attracted her to the script is that it reminded them of their family’s story.

“Eduardo Quijada is basically Gerardo Chávez,” Chávez said. “Brian’s dad told him the story of having to eat tortilla and salt for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and my dad ate rice and beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and having to fetch the eggs and his parents and older siblings ate the protein.”

Chávez’s parents migrated to the U.S. from Mexico. Immigration is an ever-present issue in the piece, much like in real life. When Bee asks her mom how she came to America, she responds, in part, “A quarter of an apple and half a sandwich to get over the border. / 3 days.”

“The piece itself is not trying to be politically divisive,” Chávez said. “It makes a point to make you fall in love with the immigrant characters and Bee Quijada, but then there’s a spoken word piece called ‘Let Them In’ that reflects on the hypocrisy of a country founded by refugees and immigrants who won’t let a new generation in.”

“The border is the talking point,” Quijada said. “Bills are not passed that are helpful because it is a winning point. Things could be helped but it’s such an argument argument that things refuse to get fixed. It’s terribly sad.”

As artists, both Chávez and Quijada carry their parents’ stories with them. Quijada said that he hopes the next generation will feel inspired by the piece. “Tell your story in the unique way that you can tell only the way you can tell it. That’s what I did, put all the joy in with all the things I was passionate about.”