Abuela Alessandra

“Domiii-NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

Alessandra Settineri’s voice reverberates through the room – a small, black-box style theatre. Onstage, she is Abuela in Wendy Kesselman’s Maggie Magalita. Her character has just finished (and won) a game of dominoes with her Americanized granddaughter. She lifts her arms, cocks her hip, and the lights go black. The room explodes in between-scene applause. She isn’t playing the lead role, but she is the star of the show.

In character, she is wearing head-to-toe black. But she doesn’t stray too far from that in her real life, favoring greys and neutrals in her wardrobe. Her favorite coat, a Ted Baker number in millennial pink (she’s a fan), with a floral lining, adds a splash of color when she needs it. Alessandra is average height and curvy, with thick brown hair that sometimes curls at the root but other times cascades down her back in waves. High cheekbones complement her strong nose and deep brown eyes. Her cheeks are generally a little bit pink, and her wide smile is contagious. Her sentences are dotted with “pero” and “like,” typical filler words for someone from Miami.

In Maggie Magalita, the character Abuela – Grandmother, in Spanish – has recently come from an unnamed Latin American country to live with her daughter and granddaughter, the titular Magalita. She speaks only Spanish and starts to familiarize Maggie with the culture she has left behind. “The way she acted in it, it reminded me of my own grandma – which is obviously her grandma,” says Alessandra’s sister, Francesca, who has come from Miami with their mom and cousin to watch her perform. “I could see how she brought our life into her character.”

Chantal Encalada, Maggie Magalita’s assistant director, says she knew as soon as she met Alessandra that she was perfect for the role. “I felt that she was very calm, open-minded, and warm, which was ideal for the role that she was playing.” As an actor, Alessandra is easy to work with: she takes notes well and incorporates changes naturally. In rehearsals, she experiments with her character in scene, and plays peacemaker in between when conflicts come up.

Most of all, she’s playful. “It’s fun to live vicariously through a character and be a different person or get to say things you don’t normally say, or be outrageous when you’re not normally that way,” she says. “It’s kind of like playing pretend.”

In one scene, without anyone asking her to, she stands up on the couch. It’s perfect for that moment in the play. “I was like, ‘This is typical. That’s what my grandma would do.’ The typical Latina grandma moments – she knew,” says Encalada. “It’s hard to direct those kinds of moments, for them to seem genuine and feel genuine, but she did it so well. We didn’t have to worry about that. We just were able to laugh and enjoy the scene.”

Although, her mom and sister point out, Alessandra herself is the worst Spanish speaker in the family, which her mother theorizes is because she spent much of her childhood reading, and later acting, in English. Ale, as those close to her often call her, speaks a third language, too: her father’s Italian. Both her parents immigrated as young adults: her mother from Cuba, at fourteen, and her father from Sicily, in his twenties. Her parents met and married in Miami, and Alessandra was their first child, born on June 24, 1997.

When Alessandra was six years old, her parents divorced. But her family remains tight-knit: “He basically still lives in our house,” she says of her father, who is always around and who, she believes, is still in love with her mother. Family is important to Alessandra: her parents, who bicker but are now good friends; her two sisters, Chiara and Francesca; her grandparents, who live nearby; cousins and distant Cuban relatives; and the giant group of family friends that have become like family to her (“El Grupo,” they call themselves). “Our dynamic works. In our house, because it was my mom, my sisters, and me – we all lived together –  it was a female-dominated household. All women, super independent. We’re all über feminist and my dad hates it.”

A week before the show, Alessandra is in Explorateur, a new café near her college’s campusn downtown Boston. She’s eating a lemon square and sipping on a fragrant latte. Maggie Magalita is the first theatrical production she’s been a part of since starting at Emerson, save for a staged reading her freshman year and another production that didn’t end up happening. But she’s been performing since kindergarten, first in the usual class-wide productions and later, in high school, 2-3 plays a year.

She almost didn’t audition for Maggie Magalita, says Alessandra. The director was looking  hard for talented actors. “I had been thinking about auditioning, and then I chickened out – like I always do. And then Tizi, my roommate, was like ‘Ale can act!’ At that point, I could not say no,” she says. But she had to call her mom first. “I literally cannot make a decision, it’s so sad. It’s really bad, but I cannot go through with a decision until I’ve consulted my mom about it.”

Although she’s far away from Miami, Alessandra has stayed close with her family; she talks to both parents at least once a day. By mid-afternoon, if she hasn’t called, she gets an angry ring from her dad and a concerned text from her mom. “Hopefully I’ll grow out of it, but for now I’m a struggling infant,” she says.

On the Friday before the show, Alessandra stops by CVS to buy makeup – but also ends up with a shiny copy of the latest issue of InStyle, her favorite magazine. Heading home on the T, she leafs through its pages before transferring from the green line to the blue line, taking her to East Boston, where she lives.

After a short ride, she gets off at the Maverick stop and heads to La Sultana Bakery, her favorite spot to grab food on her way to or from home. It’s small and a bit dingy but vibrant, with a blue and white checkered floor and a counter display of colorful cakes and frosted pastries. Orders are given and taken in Spanish, and elderly men sit at the few available tables, resentful of the current rush. Alessandra orders with a smile and leaves a tip. She walks out into the chilled fresh air, carrying a Styrofoam cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice and a warm white paper bag with a cheesy pastry inside.

Her apartment is cozy: a nice kitchen with marble countertops and five different coffee makers, a small living room with a comfy dark grey couch and a giant tapestry of Harry Styles, and her room, the smallest in the apartment, with a bed made up for others to sit on. On her bookshelf are titles related to Paris and being Parisian (“I’m such a Francophile”), the letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, plus plenty of Shakespeare and even more fairy tales. Folk tales, she says, were her introduction to storytelling, and fed her love for both theatre and the writing/literature field she’s majoring in. Open any book she’s read, and find pages covered in her notes and thoughts.

Her mom calls her a dreamer, always in la-la land. Her love for Disney (movies, World, Channel, and a youtube show called Drunk Disney), tumblr fandoms, and YA fiction lead many of her friends to see her as innocent. “She sleeps in a sports bra,” says Alessandra’s roommate and best friend, Tiziana Vazquez, describing a habit left over from childhood. “She says that when she was little, she always thought that Peter Pan was going to fly to her window and take her away to Neverland, and she wanted to be ready.”

Every friend group in Alessandra’s life has a title: the previously mentioned El Grupo of her youth; her high school friends, the Ethnic Aisle at Publix; and her roommates, aka The Bold Type – the first show they binge-watched together. On Saturday mornings, they watch Andi Mack, a Disney Channel show that has grown popular among adults. They talk theories, many of which you can find on Alessandra’s blog.

Still, like her character, she plays a mature, maternal role in her everyday life. “With my friends, I have this image. I’m the more or less collected friend, the mom friend,” says Alessandra. “Most of the time I end up having to play mediator with my friends, because they don’t always get each other.” Although she sometimes feels forced into it, the role of mediator and mom friend is one she enjoys. She loves entertaining, says Vazquez, and goes all out when hosting dinners, brunches, and parties. She also loves cooking; she regularly tries out recipes from her How to be Parisian Wherever You Are book, and also takes cues from her Italian grandmother.

One weekend, Vazquez came home to find Alessandra in the kitchen, in an apron, making her grandmother’s traditional tomato sauce and playing Spanish music. “I always buy sauce in a can, and that’s like a sin to her,” says Vazquez. “She has spices that she orders from Italy or that her family members send her, and it’s kind of like a whole-day process.” For her roommates, she creates a sense of comfort and home.

She does the same for her family, as the character Abuela, in Maggie Magalita. In her final scene, she goes with Maggie to the beach and sings to her in Spanish. In the silent theatre with only the ocean waves as accompaniment, her clear, melodic voice brings the audience to tears:

“Ay mi Maggie, Magalita,

No te vayas de mi vista,

Vuelve al sol, al cielo y al despertar,

Del país que dejamos por un nuevo hogar.”