Playwright Diana Burbano immigrated from Colombia to Cleveland with her family when she was 3, then they moved to San Jose when she was 9. It wasn’t easy and Burbano struggled in school. “I went to seven or eight schools because I couldn’t hack it in any of them,” she says. “One of the things they said was that I wasn’t writing.”
It’s because she couldn’t, Burbano said. Not by hand. She credits her eventual life in letters to the laptop’s autocorrect feature. “It changed my life because I didn’t have to be ashamed of what I wrote,” she said as she sat on the patio of her Long Beach apartment, seagulls croaking in the distance.
After years of acting (Burbano has a classical education, including a stint in London), she began writing plays in her thirties. Writing her own material served as a corrective to her lived experience of playing what she calls the “hot tamale” parts: Anita in “West Side Story” or Bianca in “Kiss Me, Kate.”
“It’s really not me,” Burbano recalls thinking of those symbolic roles — roles that suggest Latinx culture is a monolith to be boiled down to a singular essence: what it means to be brown in the world. As if there was only one answer to that. After that, Burbano started writing for herself.
One of its earliest pieces centered on Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta, who created cathartic artwork using natural materials including mud, grass and blood, and died at 36. years after falling from her 34th floor apartment in Greenwich Village. Sculptor Carl Andre, her husband, was accused of pushing Mendieta out of the window; he was later acquitted. “I don’t think she ever got her due, and he still lives in the same apartment,” Burbano says. The experience also made Burbano realize that she enjoyed writing plays more than acting in them.
The Bay Area’s Alter Theater, a champion of underrepresented voices, commissioned Burbano’s first published play, “Ghosts of Bogotá.” He won the nuVoices festival at the Actor’s Theater in Charlotte in 2019 and made his debut at Alter in 2020.
“Ghosts of Bogotá” follows a trio of Americanized siblings as they return to Colombia to clean up their grandfather’s apartment after his death. It is a disturbing mission; their grandfather sexually abused them. The siblings grapple with their family history as the ghosts of their grandfather and grandmother – who failed to protect the children and pretended bad things didn’t happen – appear. “How to forgive him? And do we forgive him? I mean, do we have that ability? Burbano asks. “We have this tradition of a great matriarchy. And yet we keep all these secrets, male secrets, really painful secrets.
Her own family harbored such secrets, which is part of why, Burbano says, she felt so isolated as a child. Her family did their best to integrate into the United States while pushing back against the uncomfortable truths they would eventually reveal through their art. “As a Latinx woman, I want to show people that you have the right to be really angry, that you can be messy, and that you can’t be a nice person. And that’s great,” says Burbano.
Burbano credits playwright Luis Alfaro, who mentored her at East LA Rep, for helping her stay true to her authentic self as a writer. She wanted to write about what might have happened if Joan Jett and Linda Ronstadt were in a band together when they were younger.
“I was like, ‘Well, maybe I should write something more Latino because this is a bunch of Latino writers, and I’m always told my stuff isn’t Latino enough,'” says -she. “And Luis was like, ‘What do you want to write? Just write it.
Since then, she says she’s felt the freedom of being a Latinx writer who explores what it means to be a human in the world — grounded in her personal identity and independent choices.
Burbano is also fascinated by history – particularly what can be gleaned about our inner workings through the lineage. She is currently part of the Geffen Playhouse Writers’ Workshop, digging into a project called “Beheading Columbus,” inspired in part by protests that involved the toppling of public statues rooted in white supremacy.
“How is it to be so divided in your body, to have Native people, to have very traumatized people in your body, and then also to have the blood of the conqueror in your body? she said from the room. “To have them both. And they fight.
Burbano often wonders what life was like for his ancestors. Who they loved, what secret pain they carried, the triumphs they shared, the legacy they left. It’s hard to know more because record keeping in Latin America isn’t that good, she says. Her husband, on the other hand, she jokes, could trace his family line back to Magna Carta.