by Latoya Peterson
I thought I knew Oedipus Rex.
The first time I read Sophocles’ masterful Greek tragedy was in the 11th grade. There, scribbling out an analysis as part of a 40 minute timed writing, I focused on what epitomized Oedipus for me – the struggle between fate and free will. After hearing from the Oracle that he was fated to murder his father and to sleep with his mother, Oedipus does what any rational person would do – he tries to put as much distance as he can between himself and the only family he knows. Unfortunately, prophecies are not so easily averted – Oedipus never knew he was adopted, and thus did not know the man he slew on the road to Thebes was his father; nor did he know the beautiful widow he would eventually marry was his birth mother.
Back then, I wrote about the icy hand of irony in Oedipus’ journey – how he closed himself to what would have revealed the truth because of his hubris, but once he finds out he literally blinds himself. But what really stuck with me was the idea of fate. If your life is predestined – and all roads will lead to your eventual path – what is the point of having free will? Life never promised to be fair, but the fates are needlessly cruel, especially in Greek mythology. And so, when I heard about a retelling of Oedipus Rex, set in the barrios of LA with a Chicano protagonist, I could immediately see the connection.
Indeed, the idea of being trapped by larger, unseen forces makes a lot of sense when thrust into a modern context. Oedipus El Rey bases its narrative in California’s penal system, with the title character Oedipus (also nicknamed patas malas due to the torture inflicted by his father at his birth) growing up in juvenile detention. At one point, Oedipus confesses that after he was released at the age of seventeen, he robbed a Costco without a gun, just so he could be returned to jail. It was a powerful admission – that so many boys who go into the criminal justice system at an early age come out without any sense of what it means to function in society, that there are people who come to prefer the steady monotony of incarceration than be forced to cope with the unstructured chaos of real life. The idea that regardless of your own intentions, one might still end up ensnared in forces beyond your control resonated with me. I could understand that.