Acclaimed playwright's U.S. premiere canceled after immigration authorities deny crew visas

Veteran actress and playwright Conchi León had been set for a U.S. premiere of a play at Chicago's third International Latino Theater Festival.
By Nicole Acevedo

Veteran actress and playwright Conchi León has been looking forward to bringing a piece of her native Yucatán, México to the United States since March, but immigration authorities quashed her hopes a week before she was set to put on her play "La Tía Mariela" (Aunt Mariela) in Chicago.

Mexico's Once Once Producciones had been working with León and the play's cast to present the U.S. premiere of "La Tía Mariela" on Saturday at the National Museum of Mexican Art as part of Chicago's third International Latino Theater Festival.

"We built a new set design for this production, so it could be more travel friendly. We've been rehearsing for a long time with our band and the cast, we even turned down gigs to commit to this," León told NBC News in Spanish.

On Monday, days before "La Tía Mariela" was set to premiere in Chicago, organizers of the Latino theater festival announced the play's cancellation because the "U.S. Department of Citizenship Immigration Services (USCIS), under the current administration, has officially denied granting touring visas for the cast and crew."

"We are sad to announce that we have had to cancel the performance of La Tia Mariela due to circumstances beyond our control," the National Museum of Mexican Art tweeted on Monday.

According to the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance, which organizes the festival, immigration services denied visas to León and Once Once Producciones because "they were determined to not be 'culturally unique.'"

"I think the argument is absurd and out of place because my work of 20 years is precisely known for its cultural footprint," León, who wrote "La Tía Mariela" last year, told NBC News.

The immigration services agency does not comment on individual cases.

León's play is centered around three women from Yucatán who come together in the wake of their aunt's death to remember her legacy. Along the way, the women end up honoring the legacy of all their "tías" while talking about such timely topics as discrimination, violence, abuse, human trafficking and LGBTQ issues affecting women in Yucatán.

"We use humor as a framework discuss these topics," said León. "As a 'yucateca' myself, I made sure to include a well curated selection of 'yucateco' songs, including some from world-renowned singer and composer Armando Manzanero. We include Mayan words and go deep into the cultural roots of Yucatán which are deeply Mayan and mestizo."

Throughout her career, León has written more than 30 plays. One of them, "Mestiza Power," was nominated for the Heidelberg International Dramaturgy Award and translated by The Lark Play Development Center in New York. Her play "Del manantial al corazón" was recognized at the "Teatro del Mundo" Awards in 2016 as one of the best plays of the year. Both plays are currently being turned into films, according to the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance.

León's work has been presented internationally at festivals and venues in London, the United States, Argentina, Spain, Chile, the Philippines and Germany.

"It's important to remember that cultural manifestations are not only about artistic exchanges," said León. "Hopefully authorities understand that art is a weapon loaded with poetry and culture, contributing to peace."

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Nicole Acevedo

Nicole Acevedo is a staff reporter at NBC News Digital where she reports, writes and produces content for NBC Latino and NBCNews.com.