The Dallas theater company Cara Mia is embarked on its most ambitious project. It’s a trilogy of plays collectively called The Dreamers. They’ll chronicle the struggles of Latin Americans coming to the United States. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports these plays are different – and not just because Cara Mia is creating them themselves.
David Lozano, artistic director of Cara Mia Theatre Company, is leading eight performers in exercises at the Latino Cultural Center — loosening up, warming up their voices. Lozano has worked to forge an effective, responsive Chicano theater troupe out of Cara Mia. Evidence: After two successful seasons — including his co-written project, Crystal City, 1969 — he has pushed the company into new territory. They’ve already been working on this show for more than a year.
In February 2012, Lozano sent the members of the troupe out to research everything they could find on immigration from Central America. He and his collaborator-wife Frida Muller had seen Una Ruta Nada Santa — An Unholy Route, a documentary about the 2010 massacre of El Salvadoran refugee families. The undocumented immigrants had left El Salvador and traveled across Mexico, getting within a few miles of the U.S. border — only to fall prey to members of the drug cartel, Los Zetas. Seventy-two of the Salvadorans were shot to death in the San Fernando valley.
Lozano says there’s still a lot of controversy ‘regarding the violence because of corruption, international drug trade and human trafficking. It hit us so hard and it seemed like that is what we needed to create a play on.”
The Cara Mia performers brought in news clippings, photos, printouts from websites. They constructed visual collages of the material. Then they started making performance collages. They shaped characters, movements, scenes. Devising plays through this collective, creative process is something Lozano learned from UTD professor and performer Fred Curchack. It’s also the operative mode for another inspiration of Lozano’s: Luis Valdez, the playwright (Zoot Suit), film director (La Bamba) and founder of El Teatro Campesino, the California troupe dedicated to educating the Latino community and expressing its concerns.
But even as creating their own plays was the next step Lozano hoped Cara Mia would take, it turns out trying to find and shape a dramatic story out of the mountain of research proved daunting. And time-consuming. In fact, he says, “it may not have been the wisest choice because it was so wide open and the amount of research is endless.” Lozano says the question, ‘What is the play here?’ nagged at him over the entire year’s process. Fortunately, Cara Mia was one of the first recipients of a grant from the TACA Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund that helped underwrite the workshop process.
Part of the research for Dreamers included interviewing people like Sixto. He’s a 32-year-old, undocumented Salvadoran immigrant in Dallas. Details from his story of leaving El Salvador for the U.S. are used in The Dreamers. Sixto says he and family members hid under bananas in a truck to enter Mexico illegally. They took buses and trains across the country. They walked for two days and two nights in the Mexican desert. Then the coyotes – the illegal guides – put them in a mini-van, hiding five of them under the seats.
“That mini-van,” Sixto recalls, “it started getting hot, that spot where I was. And then I told the guy, hey, something is burning me, my back, and you need to do something. And he told me, ‘You have to stay over there, bitch, because you don’t have a choice.’”
Sixto says he rode like that for 15 hours – into the U.S.
Ana Gonzalez plays one of the women in The Dreamers. Her character is based on an undocumented Salvadoran teenager named Gabriela whom Gonzalez interviewed. She says Gabriela’s uncle was a member of Mara Salvatrucha, one of the most violent and powerful gangs in the world with a reach that stretches from prisons and barrios in Texas and California down to Honduras and El Salvador. The uncle tried to quit the gang — and in typical Mara fashion, he was killed, so was his brother, Gabriela’s father, and other members of the family were targeted.
Gabriela’s mother fled to Dallas to earn the money to bring Gabriela here — which only led the Mari to pull a common tactic: They tried to extort the money from Gabriela, threatening to rape her and cut her up into pieces and then mail them to her mother. Gabi’s eventual journey from El Salvador took a year and cost $15,000. What impressed Gonzalez was how level-headed Gabi was about it all.
There was no self-pity, Gonzalez says. “I really saw the strength that Gabi had and the maturity. But also how she was just a 14-year-old girl — talking to me about her boyfriend.”
To encompass all this material, Lozano shaped A Bloodline, the first play in The Dreamers trilogy, as a collage. It follows three Salvadoran women and their children making the terrifying trek through Mexico. The play includes the rise of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. And it documents the sweatshop conditions that drive many to seek a better life for their families.
One actor, playing a factory manager, yells at the sewing women: “Sixty minutes divided by 12 shirts is five minutes. Five minutes to complete each shirt equals seven point seven cents per shirt. A t-shirt in the United States sells for 25 dollars. Someone is getting rich somewhere! Keep up the pace! There is no slowing down!”
For Lozano, the aim of The Dreamers is to convey something of the entire system of crime and governments, poverty and violence that has become a fact of life and death for Latinos. It’s what Lozano calls the ‘web of conflicts’ that the undocumented immigrants are trying to flee or overcome.
“The crime that you’re hearing about when you go to Mexico?” Lozano says. “It’s a free market in its purest form. Everything and everyone is for sale.”