In their Own Words, Of their Own Worlds

This piece is part of a larger series of responses to TYA/USA’s Call to Action: Responding to Hate with Art and Action, written by a range of leading voices in the TYA field.

My daughter came home from school one day last year describing the terror that many of her peers in her fourth grade class were experiencing as children of immigrant families. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had issued a statement that they would be making raids throughout the city of Austin. One of her teacher’s family members had been deported and many children in her class had shared their fear of loved ones, and even themselves,  being deported as well. My daughter struggled to understand the political context of what was happening, while feeling a deep sense of empathy and a desire to do something to help. As I tried to help her navigate this moment, TYA ultimately provided a vehicle to process her feelings – a particular piece called Por Los Mojados (For the Wetbacks) by Proyecto Teatro. Little did I know how this play we had seen a few years earlier would help to offer insight and understanding in this context.

Proyecto Teatro- Por Los Mojados. Photo Credit: ESB-MACC Staff/Ulises Garcia.

As I ingested the recent articles of my colleagues Jonathan Shmidt Chapman and Courtney Sale, I was reminded again of the work of the Youth Company of Proyecto Teatro, a non-profit Spanish-language theatre company in Austin, Texas. Proyecto Teatro is part of the Latino Arts Residency Program (LARP) at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, overseen by Lorie Martinez. I often witness the company’s work, and I pay special attention to their youth company.

In 2015, the youth company staged a most compelling, relevant, critical work entitled Por los Mojados (For the Wetbacks). The play tells the stories of several young people who have recently sought refuge in the US from their devastating circumstances in their home countries in Latin America.

As we seek to represent the lived experience of any people or individual, it is most critical that their voices are included in the creation. In this case, the youth company members were engaged in the writing process from the beginning. While director Luis Armando Ordaz Gutiérrez first brought the idea of creating a play about refugees, the youth wrote monologues and scenes and ultimately shaped the piece with Gutiérrez. The youth also engaged with NYC-based choreographer Juan Pablo Flores to develop impactful movement for the piece which further illustrated the struggles of the young refugees at the center of the play.

While none of the cast are refugees themselves, they all identify as Latino/a/x and have roots in Latin America. From my perspective as audience member, the performances illustrated a commitment to story that I long for when I witness theatre. The performances were completely void of self-consciousness. The performers were fully dropped into the characters they portrayed and the story they were telling.

According to the youth, this deep commitment commenced and was nurtured throughout the process of writing the play. In order to ensure accurate representations of young refugees and conditions, the youth conducted interviews with child refugees and their family members in refugee camps in Austin. Youth company member Edson Hernandez explains that the youth researched for about six months before beginning to write, “For me it was mentally challenging because I didn’t want to let the people that have gone through this down. I wanted them to be represented in the right way so they could be proud of who they are and what they mean to us.” Hernandez is now fifteen but his reflections are on his thirteen-year-old self and experience when he was in the play.

Proyecto Teatro- Por Los Mojados. Photo Credit: ESB-MACC Staff/Ulises Garcia.

The outcome of the dedication of which Hernandez speaks was a riveting and heart-wrenching piece of theatre that sticks with me. I am certain it sticks with those who saw their lived experience on stage and also with the young performers who threw themselves at this work with deep conviction. “This play impacted me in the way that has made me more passionate about conveying controversial topics and disseminating stories about my culture through the arts,” reflects company member Brianda Campos Verde, who was fifteen when she performed in Por Los Mojados.

Before attending the play, knowing only a little about it, I could only hope the piece didn’t move toward didacticism. Too often, devised work based on a “socially relevant” theme seems to want to teach us statistics about people and issues. Teaching through the art is tempting as we engage in research. But this work was not that at all. The script of Por Los Mojados is the best kind of theatre: poetic and bold and asks big questions without fully answering them. The play is written in Spanish and Proyecto Teatro offers English supertitles for non-Spanish speakers as it does with all its work. The writing also adeptly avoids the awkward language problems that often arise in devised work, when too many cooks can spoil the broth. Rather, the poetry is consistently powerful and handled with grace and skill by the twelve young performer/playwrights in the cast.

Of the creative process behind this production, Gutiérrez said,“Por Los Mojados allowed me to codify and see the results of years of pedagogy development and the testing of these guidelines: 1. Always challenge them to explore their limits because they haven’t gauged them yet; don’t hold them back; 2. Allow them to be part of the creative process by guiding their ideas, not imposing yours; and 3. Don’t be scared of working with “adult” or “serious” thematics with young performers; they know more than you think. This project exemplifies what young performers can achieve when they are challenged to tackle real life issues that are close to them through the magic of physical and emotional theatre.”

Proyecto Teatro- Por Los Mojados. Photo Credit: ESB-MACC Staff/Ulises Garcia.

I had brought my daughter to see Por Los Mojados. When she came home from school talking about the ICE raids, we were able to remind her of the play and talk about the refugee and immigrant children who are impacted by ICE. The play explores a real issue faced by young people in our city. Yes, I agree with Jonathan Shmidt Chapman: We need “more timely and political art” to share with young people. And, we need to create art with young people and make space in which they may create art (without us) as they seek to make sense of and impact the world around them. I want to see Por Los Mojados again. I want to bring everyone to witness it with me, and then I want to talk about what these young people are saying with their bold, unique, committed voices. Theatre is powerful, still in the 21st century, as Kevin Brown reminded us at the 2014 TCG conference.

But what of the long-lasting impact of theatre to help young audience members and performers to reflect upon, engage with, and even impact the world around them?  I am left wondering about the long-lasting power of theatre and how art can return and reverberate as a way to unpack an experience much later. How might art resonate differently as time progresses and the political climate changes? Young people keep reminding me, on and off the stage, of the potential of theatre to better understand our world and move us to action. And for that I am grateful.