Immigrant actors tell their story

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

Stephanie Diani/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
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
Men waiting for work look on as a member of the immigrant theatertroupe Teatro Jornalero Sin Fronteras performs in a skit at the CypressPark Job Center in Los Angeles.
Stephanie Diani/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

Both the social and entertainment values of the troupe were on display on a recent sunny morning in the parking lot of a Home Depot in northeast Los Angeles, underneath the roar of the Pasadena Freeway. Over a hundred day laborers were milling around in work boots, paint-splattered pants, and baseball caps when a three-piece mariachi band began to circle among them, singing and strumming guitars. It was show time.

The Teatro Jornaleros launched into an hour-long performance in a corner of the parking lot with skits that ranged from the literal to the fantastical. In one, a drunken day laborer squandered all the money he had toiled so hard to earn on alcohol instead of sending it home to his family. In another, a priest struggled with a red-faced devil encouraging him to steal money from the collection plate, while a white-robed angel implored him not to.

Day laborers in the parking lot drifted into a circle around the performance. They watched with rapt attention, nodding and chuckling at moments that seemed scripted from their own lives.

In the final skit, a group of day laborers were shown hanging around a job site not unlike the Home Depot parking lot where the performance took place. A pair of immigration officers emerged, screaming at everyone to put their hands up. Members of the audience jumped.

Paredes, one of the actors, stepped in with a pretend remote control and shouted, "Freeze!" The actors froze, and using a device inspired by Augusto Boal, the Brazilian theater director, Paredes asked the audience what the actors should do.

"Run!" said one man.

"No, I would keep silent," another offered.

There was a discussion of options before Paredes "pressed play" to let the skit resume. One actor ran from the immigration officers but was caught and wrestled to the ground. A pregnant woman burst into tears, readily admitting that she did not have a visa. Another woman stood in front of the officers and offered her name but remained silent when they asked her where she lived, where she was from, or if she had any identification. "Am I detained or am I free to go?" she asked stoically.

Paredes froze the action again and confirmed that the last woman's reaction was the correct one. There is something called the Fifth Amendment in the United States, he explained, which says you have the right to remain silent and you have the right to a lawyer. Still, he said, "it's not a perfect world. If it were perfect world, it might look like this."

He "hit play", and a rousing cumbia song came on. The immigration officers wrapped their arms around the day laborers, and everyone danced together.

The men in the audience burst into laughter and applause. Then they scattered back around the parking lot in search of a day's work.

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