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Immigrant actors tell their story

Day laborers in Los Angeles offer impromptu street theater between jobs.

By Jennifer BleyerContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 29, 2009

Actors (l. to r.) Luis Saviera, Jan Manuel Marquez, and Lorena Moran perform at the West Los Angeles Job Center, a trailer beneath a freeway overpass where laborers wait for work.

Stephanie Diani/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Los Angeles

Until recently, Gildardo Maldonado's experience as an actor did not extend far beyond the small role he once had in a Christmas passion play back home in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. Xico Paredes had even less experience performing, although he had always loved singing songs and telling clownish jokes for his friends' amusement.

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The two men are normally part of the vast corps of immigrant day laborers who gather by the thousands on street corners and curbs across Los Angeles every morning, hoping to be hired to mow lawns, pour concrete, clean swimming pools, or hammer roof tiles.

But lately, Mr. Maldonado and Mr. Paredes have also become amateur thespians. As members of Teatro Jornaleros Sin Fronteras – Day Laborer Theater Without Borders – they are part of a Spanish-language theater troupe of day laborers who perform for their fellow workers at job sites around the city.

"In our culture, some guys have never seen a play," said Juan José Mangandi, a Salvadoran laborer who serves as the troupe's director. "They think that only high-life people, like in Hollywood, can make theater. But when they see us, they say, 'He's like me.' "

The troupe was formed last fall as a project of the Cornerstone Theater Company, a 22-year-old theater company in downtown Los Angeles known for addressing current social issues in its performances and using regular people as actors.

Participants in Teatro Jornaleros Sin Fronteras were recruited at day labor job sites, and from the approximately 50 people who auditioned, the troupe was established with about a dozen members who hail from Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

The volunteer actors still mostly spend their mornings trying to get plucked for day labor work, and they gather two or three evenings a week to write and rehearse short plays based on their experiences.

Pablo Alvarado, the executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which cosponsors the troupe, said that the artistic depiction of day laborer issues is especially relevant given the economic meltdown, which is being felt acutely by immigrants, rendering their lives more tenuous and their futures uncertain. He added that Teatro Jornaleros also offers much-needed levity and humor to help laborers weather the financial storm.

"It's bringing a smile to their faces in this moment of crisis," Mr. Alvarado said, estimating that work has fallen at least 25 percent for day laborers, who are now lucky to get two or three days of weekly employment when they used to frequently get seven. "Times are tough. Competition has increased. When the Teatro Jornaleros comes to a [street] corner that's going through a difficult time, it's beautiful."