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Staging the Anti-Immigrant Hysteria

Who picks the fresh vegetables you eat at dinner?
Who landscapes your lovely lawns?
Who cleans your tall corporate towers in the late of night?
Who picks up your garbage in the early morning?
Who are these invisible workers you don’t even dare to make eye contact with?

Si, yo soy ilegal. Cruce ilegalmente cuando era una niña de ocho años con mis tres hermanitas.

Yes, I’m illegal. I crossed “illegally” when I was a girl of eight years with my three sisters, four little girls crossing the Rio Grande with my aunt as our guide and only a full moon as our witness. I don’t wish it upon anybody.

We were frightened, but nobody told us it was illegal. My aunt said we were crossing to reunite with our father, who had left Nicaragua to escape the war. He left before I was born, and I was going to see him for the first time. Eight long years he was gone from us.

“Illegal!” It’s a disgusting term, but I embrace it now because for many years it caused me great shame and pain. We have to take such words and remove their hatred, squeeze the poison out of them. Now, I use it to empower myself.

Many Latino people try to silence me when I say I’m “illegal” because they are frightened. Ay, mi hija no lo digas tan fuerte, te puede oír alguien. Pues que lo oigan.

Let them hear me. Yes, I am illegal, but I am also a human being and a political refugee from a war torn nation—a war the US had much to do with.

Did you know the US occupied Nicaragua for much of the early part of the 20th century? Why would you want to know?

Your collective voluntary amnesia protects you.

You know why they called themselves the Sandinistas?

The rebels chose to honor the name of Agusto César Sandino, a revolutionary leader who led a rebellion against the US military occupation of Nicaragua in the 1920s and 30s. Sandino was assassinated by La Guarda Nacional—the US-backed armed forces of the Somoza family dictatorships that ruled Nicaragua for over 40 years …

Even your then President Reagan “forgot” his cronies supplied guns to death squads who slaughtered us. We have not forgotten. For a decade, my people, we ate war for breakfast. We ate war for lunch. We ate war for dinner.

—Nicaraguan Woman character from Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers

an actor on stage
Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers by José Torres-Tama. Photo by Craig Morse.

My greatest fear is that we are suffering from amnesia … It’s a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten.—Eduardo Galeano

I believe in remembering a people’s truth. I believe in chronicling the personal experience to counter ‘official accounts’ that inevitably cultivate historical lies to silence and render some people invisible.

I believe in remembering a people’s truth. I believe in chronicling the personal experience to counter “official accounts” that inevitably cultivate historical lies to silence and render some people invisible—disappearing them through the controlled mainstream media tentacles of misinformation.

For the past ten years, I have been on a creative mission to develop performances based on the “documented stories of undocumented people”—making sure their lives are not relegated to official amnesia.

All we have is our memory against the lies of governments and their self-serving narratives of a selected history.

The prolific Uruguayan intellectual, poet, journalist, novelist, and historian Eduardo Galeano has influenced my work, and has served as my conceptual mentor in a decade-long project to document the stories of undocumented immigrants under persecution in the “land of the free.”

In performance, my mentor is Guillermo Gomez-Peña and his complicated multilingual and hyper-visual aesthetics are an inspiration to my genre-bending shows. Also, intrepid and brilliant performers such as Rhodessa Jones and Tim Miller have influenced my work because they, too, explore the personal story as an imprint of the human condition.

The opening lines here are inspired from a Nicaraguan woman I interviewed in Houston when developing Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers, a sci-fi Latino noir performance exposing the hypocrisies of a system that vilifies the same people whose labor it readily exploits. She was immediately compelling and proclaimed her status without any fear in fluent Spanish and English.

Her border-crossing story became an archetypal tale that informed Aliens, and speaks of the longing a child has for her father who was forced to flee to escape a decade-long civil war. I transformed the filmed interview to inhabit her as an almost sacred crone recalling her dramatic passage.

With support of my brilliant lighting designer John Grimsley, who arrived at just the perfect lighting effects to transform this character into an almost Guadalupe-like icon, I employ only a veil to cover myself and make the gender leap.

Her story humanizes a people dehumanized as “illegal aliens” with a character who directly addresses the audience—continuously breaking the fourth wall.

Aliens was developed through a National Performance Network Creation Fund, and the commissioning partners were GALA Hispanic Theater in DC, the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans, and the Mexican American community arts entity Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (MECA) in Houston. This valuable support allowed me to travel to Houston and DC to interview immigrants and activists at the forefront of the Immigration crisis. In New Orleans, Ashé was engaged in early staging of the work, and we brought in the Latina/no immigrant community and day laborers to ask for suggestions and offer them work-in-progress performances.

I arrived in the United States with my mother in 1968 at the tender age of seven. She was brave enough to make the journey from Ecuador, South America, to New York City with a suitcase full of hope, her only child, and barely a few words in English to negotiate our passage into GringoLandia.

an actor on stage
Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers by José Torres-Tama. Photo by Craig Morse.

Having been born in Ecuador and come of age in the United States of North America, I consider myself a bilingual resident of the Hemispheric Americas, and while I am a naturalized US citizen, I often feel like a man without a country—especially during this dark era of anti-immigrant hysteria post-9/11.

We have been forced to migrate North because of the decimation of our countries’ economies by US policies and the many dictators propped into power—keeping Latin America in a Third World state while plundering its natural and human resources.  

Let’s dare to remember, because as Galeano states, We are much more than what we are told.

Let’s dare to remember, because as Galeano states, We are much more than what we are told.

The Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty of 1848 sanctioned the appropriation of the Northern territories of Mexico, stretching from Texas to California, to serve Uncle Sam’s hunger to manifest imperial destiny.

The rightful Mexican landowners were stripped of their properties, and if they refused, entire families were lynched. They became foreigners in their own land, and English the forced language while Spanish was broken on the backs of every Mexican child forbidden to speak it.

When Mexican immigrants cross the current US/Mexico border, they are actually coming back home.

Indigenous people who existed before the European invasion was framed as discovery of the Americas are the true stewards of these lands, and we have to stop framing the near genocide and extermination of all Native People across the hemispheric Americas as European “discovery.” Let’s begin with this proclamation because the meta-fiction reality is that the real aliens are the Europeans and their descendants.

The Pilgrims arrived without papers. Why were they not deported?

I have filmed interviews of numerous immigrant reconstruction workers in New Orleans, and in Tulsa, Minneapolis, Houston, and Washington, DC, I have interviewed Dreamers, immigrant activists, and immigrants who have shared their dramatic border-crossing stories.

One Honduran worker I interviewed told me how he arrived two weeks after Hurricane Katrina in early September 2005, and witnessed many of his compadres fall to severe illness because of the despicable working and living conditions. He was “housed” in a trailer with fifteen other workers. Only nineteen when he arrived, he almost lost his left hand when a dumpster weighing a tonnage, fell on his hand and sliced it in two.

The white contractor who hired him did not even have the decency to call for an ambulance, but fortunately his working compadre had a phone and reached 911. When he arrived at the hospital the nurses and doctors were shocked, and recommended severing his left arm to contain the infection.

But it took an African American doctor, the university hospital chief surgeon, to state such a procedure would be overly traumatic for a nineteen-year old boy, which was the same age as his own son. The surgeon reconstructed the worker’s hand, and connected with him on a human level.

He went from workplace victim to a major leader in the organization called the Congress of Day Laborers in New Orleans. El Congreso is made up of immigrant day laborers who have become activists to fight the rampant wage theft and human rights violations of reconstruction workers. He granted me permission to perform his story.

I have developed an extensive archive of undocumented people and their heroic human stories: horrors with Immigration Agents when captured at the border; longing for children and loved ones left behind in their countries of origin; working in the shadows and living in fear of deportation; and redemption as they negotiate their new lives in the United States while birthing babies who become their little “American Dreams” with citizenship status.

I believe writers and theatre artists can be instrumental in creating work that serves as the conscience of our times, and it’s our duty to make sure our people are not forgotten victims of cultural amnesia.                      

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