The Great Peace
Rolla. Bonanza. Pouce Coupe. Progress. These communities dotted throughout Peace River Country bear place names evocative of another time and sensibility. Known as “Little Prairie” pre-colonization, neighbouring Chetwynd, population around 3000 and the so-called gateway to Peace River Country, sits on an ancient floodplain on the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains in northeastern British Columbia. Home to caribou, wolves, and a statue of a lumberjack (“Chetwynd, the Little Giant of the Great Peace”), Chetwynd’s economic engine is fueled primarily by resource extraction. When a young mechanic from Guatemala arrived there several decades ago, it was the nearby open-pit coal mine that employed him.
Fast forward to 2021 and first-generation Guatemalan-Canadian, Pedro Chamale, who talks about his parents—that young Guatemalan mechanic and his new bride—with humour and fondness. Referring to his father (after whom the younger Pedro is named) as a “mix of indigenous and settler/colonial Guatemalan,” Pedro describes his father’s early life in Guatemala as “rough” and marked by poverty, circumstances that would one day launch the elder Pedro onto a bus bound for Toronto. Some time later, Pedro’s mother, whose parents had also moved to Canada and who were, coincidentally, former neighbours of Pedro the elder in Guatemala, would reunite with her old friend in Calgary. According to their son, this ‘friend’ had “actually been trying to date [his mom] for years.” When they decided to marry, a process to regularize the bride-to-be’s immigration status began, along with the groom-to-be’s earnest and successful pursuit of a heavy-duty mechanic’s qualification.
Raised with his older sister by this formidable pair in Chetwynd, Pedro offers directions to the small town in a way those familiar with the north will understand: “When you get to Prince George coming from Smithers, you can either go south to Vancouver, or continue northeast to Alberta or to Mackenzie. So, you go another three and a half hours that way through the Pine Pass and then we’re the first little town you get spit out into which has a couple gas stations and then you probably continue on your road trip.”
According to the 2016 Census, Chetwynd has an immigration population of 7%, well below the provincial average of just over 28%. Growing up, Pedro says that they were the “only Latinx family that [he knew] of within several hundred kilometers.” His sister, older by six years, recently reminded him that the family would drive just over 2 and half hours to Grande Prairie to meet with Guatemalans who worked there as janitors in the mall. In Pedro’s young head, he wondered: “Why do we always talk to these Spanish-speaking people? Like, why are we going to their house?” Older now and a new father himself, Pedro has begun to answer these questions: “It’s like, oh, they were Guatemalan! For my parents, they meant home, connection.”
The best country in the world
Such a disconnection from one’s culture and the need to reconcile it set against the backdrop of the vast northern landscape quickly comes into sharp focus. When asked if not being surrounded by Guatemalan culture and language growing up feels like a loss, Pedro responds with, “Oh, for sure. Sorry, it is emotional because it’s something I’m rediscovering and reclaiming for myself. I didn’t know what I was missing.” Pedro’s journey of discovery began when he moved to Vancouver as an adult. He describes a bittersweet awakening: “I started meeting larger Latinx communities and realizing what was Latinx for me and what was Guatemalan and what was very much not Canada and then realizing how much I lost because of where we were—and through no one’s fault, right?”
Pedro believes that his father embraced a common immigrant narrative, “that classic immigrant story,” in which Canada is the “the only place” to be and “the best country in the world.” In Pedro’s mind, it follows that this father may have thought it pointless to continue to speak the language of a country to which he would never return. According to Pedro, his mother, however, was fiercely proud of her Guatemalan roots and resisted speaking English. Indeed, she only relatively recently became a Canadian citizen after living in Canada for over 40 years.
Revealing that because he has felt “shame” about how he perceives he sounds in Spanish, Pedro began to intentionally weave the Spanish language into his work. As artistic director and co-founder of rice & beans theatre, Pedro is able to employ writing as one conduit through which he heals the past fractures of his cultural identity and allows the intersectional parts of himself to co-exist. He says that his “reclamation of culture and community” is for his children, “for them to enter into…to be a part of and do whatever they choose to do with it” because he wasn’t given that choice.
Art is life
With a mandate to facilitate “original, Canadian work that tells the story of where we came from and where we are going by way of experimentation with language and the theatrical form,” rice & beans theatre is the natural space and vehicle for Pedro’s process. The theatre’s artistic and administrative teams hail from all corners of the world and the theatre’s repertoire amplifies lived experiences and leverages the power of their linguistic and cultural diversity with initiatives such as “DBLSPK” and plays “Pineapple Bun” and “yellow objects.”
This conversation with Pedro took place in the second pandemic summer of 2021, just before the debut of Made In Canada: an agricultural song cycle/podcast. This multi-form production was originally developed as an operetta, yet another theatrical or otherwise performance that fell victim to COVID lockdowns in 2020. Re-imagined as a “song cycle” (which Pedro says was described to him as a “narrative song thing they do on Broadway all the time”) as well as a standalone podcast, Made In Canada centres the lives and stories of Canada’s seasonal agricultural workers. Interviews with the workers themselves, migrant worker support workers, migrant rights experts, along with text from news headlines and articles, legislation, and federal government websites help make up the lyrics for the songs from the song cycle and the content for the 10-episode podcast. Song and podcast titles such as “Tienes trabjo,” “Esclavitud Moderna,” and “Pandemic in the Fields” hint at what is at the heart of the production: a withering critique of Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the ongoing and system-supported abuse and violations of migrant workers’ rights here in Canada.
That classic immigrant story
Like in his other work that was influenced or inspired by his own life experiences, Pedro feels a strong connection to the migrant worker plight. He shares how he first heard about migrant workers in Canada only a few years ago and was stunned to learn that they included Guatemalans. His first thoughts were: “people are coming from Guatemala? To work on our farms? What? Why have I never heard of this?” This new awareness took him down the Google rabbit hole and eventually, to the creation of Made in Canada.
Pedro admits that his experiences developing Made in Canada triggered new questions and more self-reflection, including how SAWP may be another way of “oppressing people to ensure that they don’t have the rights we do when we get here, so…that we’re not inundated with so-called wrong immigrants.” For Pedro, acknowledging these failings of the country where he was born “has been part of peeling the layers back of what it means to be Canadian and the colonial identity behind that.”
When asked about the weight of the responsibility for a creator in regard to what they choose to show or produce, the son of that young Guatemalan mechanic is reflective: “I think for me, on the personal journey where I am as an artist, it’s more that the work we do, especially after getting public funds, is in service to our communities. I feel like for a long time I had perhaps an elitist view that art is art. I make art and you should just know that it’s art! But now I believe the art I need to make— yes, it can beautiful and abstract and experimental—still needs to be in service to the people I am asking to come and sit and commune with me.”
Parents seeking a better life for their children is often a part of ‘that classic immigrant story,’ and one can’t help but think that the elder Pedro is quite happy with how his story is turning out.
Pedro’s most recent play, “Peace Country,” ran at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts and online from April 27th-30th 2022. It was inspired by Pedro’s experience growing up in Chetwynd and carried this content advisory: “The content includes alcohol use, reference to colonialism, racism, ableism and homophobia. It also includes frequent cursing.”