As a country, we are less compassionate and unmotivated to help others. From the litany of sexual harassment cases to the reckless acts of celebrities and politicians, these public examples in American society illustrate larger, more disturbing themes. At some point, we started only taking care of ourselves, partially due to “American ambition,” something deeply ingrained in our culture. No one kept count of the damages that kept slowly accumulating. Now, we’re paying for it—and it’s time to take a look around.
I don’t think Luis Alfaro’s Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles could have come at a better time. Luis Alfaro takes Medea, a Greek tragedy, and sets it in modern day Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. Medea, Hason, their son Acan, and Medea’s nanny Tita move there from Michoacan under tragic circumstances, making the arduous journey from Mexico to the U.S. that approximately 350 migrants die from each year.
The conflict driving the story is between Hason’s career ambitions in America and Medea’s desire to preserve the traditions and culture of her homeland. Hason’s ambition is as American as it gets: he dreams of moving up the ladder in his contracting job, presumably so he and Medea can live like royalty. He doesn’t mind using whatever he can get his hands on to move up, including the affections of his boss, Armida. Medea is reserved, and characters frequently comment on how she looks like the physical embodiment of Michoacan. She treats everyone with care, making her new friend Josefina beautiful dresses and nurturing her son and husband. Yet it’s clear that she doesn’t want to make anything of her skills or assimilate into American society.
The play’s central dilemma contrasts with antiquated plays where the conflict was flipped upside down. Women with ambition similar to Hason’s were stifled by their gender roles and society, silenced and allotted a husband. A popular example is Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, where Nora, the wife to Torvald, a respectable banker, tries to work under her husband’s nose to pay off a debt. When Torvald discovers her secret, he readily abandons her. Stories like these highlight the element of choice women in free countries experience today. A woman like Nora, who courageously stepped away from her domestic confines to see the world at the end of the play, would be revered.
So, where does that leave people who still respect their traditional cultures where the community is priority? If we are truly a society that respects differences, especially differences in choice (and yes, Medea is making a choice), should we not have a place for a woman like Medea?
The play ends with its own answer: a bloody, vengeful resounding: “NO.” This is because our society is driven by hypercompetitiveness, for building “brands” and empires, chasing gold rushes. It is the thrill of the American life but it is becoming its greatest downfall as we witness millions of people lose health care, live lives with untreated mental and physical health problems, and the planet go to waste. According to a Gallup poll, people in Mexico are the happiest in the world, prizing social ties over careers, despite political and economic turmoil. But space for traditions, family, and kindness between the busy work schedule and the next leg up is hard to come by here.
When humans are blinded with power, enmeshed in the status games, other people become obstacles, assets, or zeros. They’re either in one’s way, helping them score, or entirely irrelevant, and thus, without identity. Hason openly admits Medea that Armida, his boss has a crush on him. He claims to exploit her feelings “for the family.” Medea slow becomes irrelevant. Her friend Josefina, the local gossip, tells Medea what she’s been hearing around the neighborhood: “Hason is like, well, like a king. You know, someone powerful and with ambition. But, well… I hear you’re not really like, his queen?” Medea denies this out of blind conviction, but Hason’s priorities become clear: he stays away from home and spends more time with Armida.
That we chose our ambitions over people isn’t news (the original Medea is now over 2,000 years old) nor is it intrinsically harmful. A Doll’s House is clearly proof of this—Nora was trapped in a loveless marriage, used by her husband for entertainment, and left for her higher calling. What is harmful is when our choices have an increasing negative impact on our friends, family, and community. When we’ve become so absorbed in ourselves that we’ve forgotten about our responsibilities to others, and maybe our own values.
Alfaro’s contemporary Medea shows us the consequences of the discordant relationship in America between the pursuit of ambition and the preservation of community in Medea’s tragic ending. A deep existential torment takes over her life when it’s revealed that Hason married Armida. The real estate tycoon she is, Armida kicks Medea out on the streets without remorse. Without the love of Hason, Medea is desperate, hysterical—and ends the play by killing her son.
Have we lost in lost the “village”? We’ve been quick to expand in industry without providing cushions for those who have lost their ways of life. We’ve become immersed in a fantasy of a better tomorrow for ourselves lost a sense of the people surrounding us, their humanity as it relates with our own. It may be a complicated way back—is it worth the search?
Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.