Fulbright Impact – Elaine Ávila

An interview series by Filipa Dias – Intern at Fulbright (2024)

I have always been interested in culture and from my point of view, it is something crucial to our society because it can increase our empathy for the world around us and it can also teach us things, whether it is through media like literature, cinema, or television. To better understand how different people became interested in different fields of culture, how it affected their lives and – most importantly – how the Fulbright Scholarships enabled them to pursue and explore these areas, I was given the opportunity to interview Portuguese and American Fulbrighters who had studied or are currently working in these fields.

Filipa had the pleasure to interview Elaine Ávila, who is an American and Canadian playwright, also of Azorean heritage. She is a co-founder of Climate Change Theatre Action. In 2019, she received a U.S. Scholar Fulbright to do research to write two plays in Açores, Portugal.

Here’s the full interview:

  1. Can you share with us a bit about your background and how it has influenced your interest in theatre and storytelling?

I grew up in San Jose, California, next door to a poet named Loie Johnson who was going through a divorce, so I used to slip handwritten poems on scraps of paper through her mail slot to cheer her up. For my tenth birthday, she typed up all of my poems, showcasing them in a beautiful, handmade card. She also gave me a blank book, and told me to use it, to not worry about keeping it too perfect. Writing still holds this kind of astonishing transformational magic for me. It leads places I don’t expect, its gifts come back to me a hundred-fold, just like Loie did for me when I was young.

Around this same age, my best friend, Yasmin Shah, told me about being in a play, Snow White and Rose Red. It sounded incomprehensible to me, like a magical substance of some kind. How could another reality exist at the same time as our own? I still feel this way about theatre. Yasmin got me a role in this play with her, and we went on to make up puppet shows for the neighborhood. At school, we’d perform comic skits for other kids during recess. Theatre continues to have this personal feel for me. I love to make stories for and with communities.

  1. Have you encountered any challenges during the development of your plays? How did you overcome them?

I work to overcome challenges all humans face, through theatre. I am a co-founder of the Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA), which now reaches 45,000 worldwide. It is free for anyone to participate: https://www.climatechangetheatreaction.com

In my new book, I write about how we got the eight-hour day and how an Azorean Portuguese community near Alaska became the only North American municipality to vote on Big Oil. In my previous book, Fado, I write about how a Portuguese descendent learns about the Portuguese resistance to fascism: https://talonbooks.com/authors/elaine-avila

During my Fulbright, I was working on two plays about Azorean women. While there were confident women I spoke with, many found it hard to believe in themselves enough to be interviewed. These women would refer me to men in their lives as the experts, even though we were talking about practices in which women tend to be the authority—Azorean capotes, embroidery, folkloric dance. Being of Azorean Portuguese heritage, I recognized that I was not different than the women who didn’t believe in themselves. I had the same inheritance. We overcame it together. I worked to build up my confidence and their own.

  1. How has the Fulbright experience influenced your outlook in general?

Immigrants often suffer from what has been lost in terms of their heritage. My Fulbright experience made me realize that being Azorean is not lost, it is something I can earn back. It is an integral part of me, a gift given to me by my grandparents, like seeds that I can care for, help flourish. It’s work: I had to learn the Portuguese language, read extensively–especially Azorean authors, ask scholars for help, learn about Portuguese current affairs and history. But it’s one of the greatest treasures of my life. Thank you Fulbright!

  1. As a Portuguese of Azorean heritage, do you think studying abroad contributes to cross-cultural understanding and exchange between the United States and Portugal?

I find that Americans do not know very much about other countries. What makes it worse, is that they don’t know they have this lack (except for Fulbrighters). Mostly, Americans don’t listen to news outside the U.S., which has a very damaging effect.

Citizens in the U.S. tend to see Portugal and the Azores as a cheap place for a holiday or a discount retirement, without considering how this affects the environment and displaces people. Emigrants who return to the Azores often act as if it is a backward place. It’s not. Certainly, there may be issues of poverty, corruption, and bureaucracy. But if you don’t find a bank machine or a fast-food restaurant easily, that might be for good reason. One of my favorite pieces of Azorean art is by Mário Roberto of Miolo Gallery in Ponta Delgada. It depicts a person wearing a gas mask, and says “Take it Off. You’re in the Azores.” It applies to everything, especially attitudes.

The relationship between the U.S. and Portugal could be so much more:


Portugal is beginning to face its colonialism (see the Mercado do Escravos in Lagos) and its Inquisition (see the Jewish Memorial in Lisbon), which could be of great help in current American politics. Portugal overcame the longest fascist regime of modern times and is working to remember this history—please see 1. https://www.museudoaljube.pt/en/ , 2. the Casa do Passal in Beira Alta, and 3. the Candelbro (from an idea of my dear friend Sebastian Sousa Mendes), first displayed in Peniche. Portugal took a strong stand in terms of helping UNRWA: https://efe.com/en/latest-news/2024-02-02/portugal-announces-extra-million-euro-donation-to-unrwa-despite-accusations/


In terms of the wonders of Portuguese writers and writing, I taught for the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon, which is an opportunity for writers from Canada/the U.S. to encounter Portuguese writers and vice versa. http://disquietinternational.org I had the great fortune to write about Portuguese poetry here: https://enroute.aircanada.com/en/travel-inspiration/porto-literature-travel/


Portugal is doing so much to help the environment and honor the Paris Agreement: https://grist.org/energy/portugal-just-ran-on-100-percent-renewables-for-six-days-in-a-row/

As Fulbrighters well know, this is only the beginning—there is much to be learned from Portugal in the fields of education, health care, oceanography, care of the oceans, agriculture, and geothermal power, for starters. As for Portuguese scholars/students/artists who learn from the U.S., I love what I hear, but I will allow them to speak for themselves. The late Fulbrighter Dra. Ana Luísa Amaral spoke beautifully to this, especially in her RTP podcasts “O Som que os Versos Fazem ao Abrir” on Emily Dickinson and others.


  1. What advice would you give to other Fulbright Scholars considering applying for a Fulbright Scholar grant in Portugal?

I have been told that those in the arts do not apply as often as in other disciplines. My advice is simple: You can do it! Apply!


Thank you for participating in this series, Elaine! We wish you all the best!