Unaccompanied Minors Seek Shelter

Begun in the midst of the surge of Central American and Mexican migrants across the US-Mexico border in 2014, Shelter, a brilliantly written and produced play that premiered in Los Angeles in April 2016, gives voice and visibility to the kids who flee unrelenting violence at home and travel alone to El Norte (The North). The play tells the story of the unimaginably perilous journey they undertake in search of refuge, family, and opportunity in the US. Performed in a park venue that is free and open to the public, the play shares moving personal testimonials culled from many interviews with recent arrivals. It speaks directly to the largely Latina/o community in this East LA neighborhood but, at the same time, Shelter is pitched to a broader American public about the ordeals faced and surmounted by these bright and resilient young people. In the park there are no barriers between the performers and the audience. The actors repeatedly confront and interact with the audience, a device that forges a connection that will hopefully persist after the performance. Martin Acosta’s visionary direction and creatively minimalist set composed of cardboard boxes, wooden crates, and a battered shipping container works perfectly with playwright Marissa Chibas’ crisp, staccato dialogues in Spanish and English. Together they dramatize the desperate urgency and surreal dangers of a journey that leaves too many dead or damaged. Gifted young actors from the California Institute of the Arts, many from immigrant backgrounds, give intensely compelling performances as their characters explain why they left home, how they suffered, and what they learned along the way.

actors performing
Shelter actors (left to right) Emilio Garcia Sanchez, Peter Mark, Jonathan Bangs, Cynthia Callejas, Jazmen-Bleu Gutierrez, Andres Velez and Moriah Martel. Photo by Steven Gunther, CalArts.

In the opening scene we meet the seven boys and girls aged thirteen to sixteen from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras who each struggle with a cardboard box and the choice of what to bring. The boxes function as a literal and figurative repository for the things that are acquired and lost along the way. They must be packed, held, and carried long distances. As such, they symbolize the emotional baggage—the regrets, hopes, and fears—that the migrants take with them. The shift to a disco scene with screaming techno music, throbbing strobe lights, and gyrating dancers suggests how normal teenagers should fill their nights. But the scene of joyful abandon turns deadly when a man points a gun at the head of one of the dancers, foreshadowing the pornography of violence that awaits them on the journey.

When night falls, they sleep on wooden cots literally supported from below by the bodies of the young migrants who came before them.

The title of the play has many meanings. First, Shelter signifies an escape from countries where social inequality is high, livable wages are scarce, and violence is a scourge in the home and the community. As we learn from the characters’ stories, young people leave home to reunite with undocumented parents “on the other side,” to end abuse or abandonment, to flee the unrelenting struggle of life on the street, and to extract themselves from an expendable, surplus labor force: in short, “to be somebody.” In their home countries these young people experience firsthand the intensification of lawlessness, the political corruption, the extrajudicial killings, and the armed gangs that infect all spheres of social life. As one character reminds us, most will not make it to the US but they leave anyway. Migration is a hedge against predatory police, forced gang conscription, and the everyday insecurities that are a hallmark of weak states. Migration is a calculated wager against the certainty of a physical or social death if these young people remain at home. As they embark, the characters place their wishes in a bottle. They desperately want to find honest work and take on the challenges of a normal life. Their dream is to become doctors, architects, even rich businessmen with limousines.

During the journey, Shelter acquires a second meaning. It is the fragile but necessary bond that is forged among fellow travelers as they venture into uncharted areas without help or money, struggle with hunger and exposure, and see other migrants lose limbs or die while falling from the Mexican freight train, the Beast that devours unwary riders. Staying together promises a temporary respite from the constant threat of betrayal by smugglers, from the Mexican gangs, police and traffickers “who rob you, rape you, kidnap you or kill you.” To keep fear, loneliness, and horrific memories at bay they conjure ghosts and tell eerie folk tales around the campfire as they wait for the next train.
 

actor performing
Emilio Garcia-Sanchez in Shelter by Marissa Chibas. Photo by Steven Gunther, CalArts.

As they approach the border the play moves from the intimate scale of a small group of young migrants on the move to the larger political landscape. We get a shrill recitation of the public policy issues that surround the surge of “illegal immigrants” to the United States. Media sound bites from across the political spectrum are delivered in a blisteringly effective manner. Dressed in formal garb, actors assume the persona of activists, pundits, and politicians and step to the right or left of a vertical line of chairs to shout out their opinions. Here anti-immigrant rhetoric— “They are not refugees!” and “Why is this our problem?”—does battle with empathetic entreaties to remember our past as an immigrant nation and the imperative to protect “children caught in the crossfire.” The play reminds us that Americans “are not innocent.” Living in Central America and Mexico, these migrants feel the effects of punitive US immigration laws and harsh gang abatement policies. Thousands of Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gang members who were deported from Los Angeles, reconstituted themselves in El Salvador and spread their operations to Guatemala and Honduras. The insatiable US demand for drugs has spawned new criminal cartels, creating murderous competition over smuggling routes and distribution networks for the traffic in drugs and migrants from Central America.

The play reminds us that Americans ‘are not innocent.’—Susan J. Terrio

actors performing
Andres Velez, left, Cynthia Callejas, Peter Mark, Jonathan Bangs, Emilio Garcia-Sanchez, Jazmen-Bleu Gutierrez, and Moriah Martel (foreground) as refugees in Marissa Chibas' Shelter. Photo by Steven Gunther, CalArts.

After their apprehension by US immigration authorities, the kids mechanically list the steps required to move through the highly bureaucratized federal custodial system for “Unaccompanied Alien Children.” In this touching segment, the play’s title acquires a third meaning. Shelter in federal custody is a welcome but uncertain refuge from the terrors of the journey. Three girls whisper their fears about the Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters where they are held. When night falls, they sleep on wooden cots literally supported from below by the bodies of the young migrants who came before them. This scene is a metaphor for the constant turnover in custody fueled by increasing numbers of new arrivals. 2016 promises to break the 2014 record of 68,000 minors in custody. 

Despite the nearly insurmountable obstacles they confront, the kids resolutely refuse to be extinguished by the tortured ghosts of their past. In the final scene, they list their positive attributes, face front, and remind us that, as part of the great American mosaic, they are our future and we need to help them. 

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I remember speaking to Marissa Chibas about this piece last year for an article I wrote in American Theatre Mag. Then and now, she reminds me of the powerful impact of storytelling invoking duende. Her collaborator on TIMBOCTOU said, "the only way if tearing down walls and crossing rivers and tunnels without visas is with the powerful sliders of imagination." I can't wait to see this. Marisa Chibas is an inspiration.

The description of the set as "composed of cardboard boxes, wooden crates" reminded me of Nilo Cruz's NIGHT TRAIN TO BOLINA--the scene where the children use boxes to create a train and silently move from the country to the city. They too were fleeing danger and I wonder how these two plays might be in conversation with one another.