Celebrated novelist, Marisel Vera, and her daughter, director Alyssa Vera Ramos, present You Can’t Cover the Sky with Your Hand, a new play incorporating live music with theatre to uplift stories of Puerto Rican women as part of The Memory Place, a unique multi-arts experience about cultural memory and hidden histories showing June 1-11. We chatted with the dynamic mother-daughter duo about their background and inspiration for this piece, which you can see when you purchase tickets here.
PIVOT ARTS: You Can’t Cover the Sky With Your Hand deals with the challenging subject of the sterilization of Puerto Rican women. Can you share a bit about what prompted you to create this piece?
MARISEL: La Operación, as Puerto Ricans call sterilization, was an accepted birth control method for Puerto Rican women of my grandmother and mother’s generations, so much that it is part of the culture. Even today, young Puerto Rican women, here and on the island, choose sterilization as a form of contraception. Of course, it’s their choice, but we think it’s important to depict the historical truth of la Operación. As I became more educated about US colonialism that was and is still forced upon Puerto Rico, I learned that the US government, with the help of the Puerto Rican government, tested its population control policies on the wombs of Puerto Rican women. The US government would go on to implement these policies on women in other nations. It made me very angry, I’m still angry, and I wanted to draw attention to this particular imperialist evil through You Can’t Cover the Sky With Your Hand.
ALYSSA: For me, it’s also crucial to show the ways in which these policies impacted real humans, in virtually every sphere of their lives: jobs, marriage, health, sense of self. We both believe deeply in narrative as a vehicle for truth. And that big helpings of love, humor, and pleasure can help audiences (and us) navigate the hardest things.
PA: What is one joy and one potential challenge of collaborating as mother and daughter?
M: Alyssa brings the sun and everything is better in the sunshine. The first time that we worked together, I gave some directing advice during a rehearsal. Alyssa said, “Mother,” and with that one word in that tone, I knew I’d overstepped. I’m Mami to her, sometimes, Mama. We joke about it now, but I knew she meant business.
A: My mama focuses her fire with precision. She’s diligent. She’s direct. She’s funny as hell. It’s always a joy to think and dream with her. We had a particular dynamic when I was a child; every day, we are getting to know each other differently as adults. Now, how do we speak to each other and come to agreement as equal collaborators!? One way is sharing power. As a devised theatre artist, I’m used to the “playwright” being the ensemble – often a long list of names. But Mami has been crystal clear: she is the writer! And once we get into the rehearsal room, that’s my domain.
PA: I’m intrigued by the use of live music in the play. Alyssa, how has your study of bomba music and dance informed this piece and your work as a director?
A: Since 2020, I’ve been a dedicated student at La Escuelita Bombera de Corazón, based here in Chicago. It’s been transformative in many ways. Bomba is Black music from Puerto Rico, and it’s helped me to recenter racial justice in my life: to constantly attune to where I can be useful to building anti-racist community, and to learn about and amplify the systematically erased and minimized histories of Afro-Puerto Ricans. It’s also helped me to allow myself the grace to grow skill and knowledge over time: to let go of “perfection” and immediate gratification, and to honor my ancestors by showing up consistently. Music is essential to the way Puerto Ricans gather in community. We celebrate this way; we move grief this way; many of us are very loud storytellers, and that’s a kind of music! Colonizing forces like the police and respectability politics try to strip us of that cultural expression, especially the Black cultural forms. We resist by continuing to take up joyful, rageful space in community, as our ancestors did – or maybe as they wished to. I want the theatrical experience of You Can’t Cover the Sky With Your Hand to be a part of this tradition. The play exposes reproductive violence endured by generations of Puerto Rican women and their families. We’ve got to make a lot of noise about that.
PA: Marisel, how has writing for theatre been similar or different to your usual writing process as a novelist?
M: Writing a novel is the solitary work that I love most, just me and the blank page until I’m ready to give up control and share with my agent. A play requires listening to actors speak your words to hear if they “land” or not, taking suggestions from the director, possibly making changes right there in the room. The first time we did a table read of You Can’t Cover the Sky With Your Hand, it was hard to give up control over my writing, but I trusted Alyssa to guide me through the process, to help me make it live.
PA: And finally, which Chicago landmark would you say most embodies your personality and why?
M: For me, it’s the Puerto Rican flag sculptures on Paseo Boricua in Humboldt Park because being Puerto Rican is the essence of how I live in the world, how I look at it, how I feel it.
A: Find me in Lake Michigan. The water teaches me to flow, to be still, to notice beauty every day, and to practice trust over fear.
Many thanks to Marisel and Alyssa for diving deeper into their artistry with us! Don’t miss your chance to experience their incredible work.
photo by Wes Carrasquillo