By Lura Wilson
What do you believe is the importance of telling not only your stories but especially the stories of others in immigration communities?
In the Latin American tradition, the poet, performing, and visual artist bears a social responsibility, a mythic duty, to document and articulate the people’s struggle—la lucha de la gente—when they are denied effective means to have their voices heard in their fight against oppression and their many oppressors.
I am an interdisciplinary artist, and through my writings, performances, and visual art practices I explore the underbelly of the “American Dream” mythology. Also, I am an immigrant born in Ecuador, South America, and while I am a naturalized United States citizen, I consider myself a bilingual native of the Hemispheric Americas. Immigrants’ rights drive my thematic concerns.
As an Ecuadorian-born immigrant raised in New Your and New Jersey, I have been hearing the stories and challenges of my immigrant community for many years. I am deeply committed to using performance and experimental theater practices to cultivate the stories of people on the margins, of those who may not have a voice. In my extended Latino family of many aunts, uncles, and cousins, I am the storyteller, the keeper of the family’s history. It has been a duty entrusted upon me by my great grandmother, who told me that I need to tell our story. She would say that in the U.S. people think that immigrants come from nothing, but she would emphasize that we came form something. Our family tree that includes one of the ear;y presidents and revolutionary leaders of Ecuador, Eloy Alfaro, a well-known poet and pianist Colombia Tama, and a Supreme Court Judge of Ecuador Gustavo Tama. We also have family in politics and law, theater and telenovelas.
During this current state of persecution of Latino immigrants across the so-called land of the free, it is a prime directive of mine to archive the many stories of individuals who are suffering under this anti-immigrant hysteria, which has been exacerbated post-9/11. This anti-immigrant sentiment has been extended to include our Muslim brothers and sisters, and Middle Eastern immigrants as well. Under such a heightened state of persecution, all immigrants, Asian, Latino, African, Muslim, or Middle Eastern, are under suspicion. In presenting the real life stories of immigrant activists, Dreamers, and immigrant day laborers and workers, my aim is to humanize the dehumanized immigrants who have been stigmatized by right-wing zealots and blamed for everything that is wrong with the United States today. Make no mistake, the current persecution of immigrants is another episode of long-lasting and disturbing legacy of such demonization of a country that boasts it is a a nation built by immigrants. My goal is to expose the hypocracy of a country and system that demonizes immigrants while it readily exploits their labor. In “ALIENS,” I perform the stories of various immigrants who share their dramatic tales with me, and it includes a Nicaraguan woman who crossed the border at the tender age of eight to reunite with her father; a Honduran day laborer who almost lost his left arm in a reconstruction job post-Katrina New Orleans; and a Mexican Methodist Minister who petitions you to see the Christ figure in the persecuted immigrant.
For the “ALIENS Taco Truck Theater Project,” I am looking to develop stories that reflect the parallel struggles of Latino and Middle Eastern immigrant communities, and through this process based on interviews of real people, these performance also serve as performative documentations of real lives under persecution.
How do you feel art is a tool for social change?
In a country that boast freedom of expression for all, we are generally made to feel that our voices don’t matter but as artists, I think we need to make loud noises about the issues that are pertinent to our lives. We need point out the madness that exists and the inherent contradictions of a system that has gone mad, like a bad sci-fi B movie.
This beacon of democracy called the United States imprisons more people than any other country in the free world. I think that is mad and disturbingly ironic. This free country also supports torture and still operates a base for it in Cuba, which is suppose to be the mortal communist country enemy. Why do we have a base of torture there? Why has Obama not closed it down? How is it that this resident, who is the son of an African immigrant, has deported more immigrants than any other executive chief before him? No one could have imagined this when candidate Obama looked so princely, and like the “one”, the “Uno” from a new matrix, the humane choice of a “Yes, We Can Reality!” that would bring us out of the dark ages of the previously “Bushwacked” nation. This is a meta fiction reality we are living here in “freedomlandia.”
No matter what happens with Immigration Reform, the dark legacy of Obama’s perverse million plus of deportations will remain a stain on his years in office.
When my immigrant brothers and sisters are under such attack, I do not have the luxury to make “art for art’s sake,” and wallow in meaningless experimental theater practices that have nothing to say about the human condition and the atrocities committed in the name of freedom. I have to raise my voice against such oppression, and if artists are not engaged in exploring the issues of their times, then they are just creating work that helps to propagate the power structure. I have no time to waste, and I have to use my creative strategies in poetry, the visual arts, and performance to challenge the abuse of power. I think that artists engaged in practices that are only about aesthetics are basically sticking their heads in the sand. I think we need to question such choices, which are most likely made by artists whose communities are not experiencing social attacks and marginalization.
I look to develop a “divine marriage” between experimental form and social content to create an art of human consciousness. Whether any of it can lead to social change, can be considered questionable, but it will not keep me from trying because I need to make a record of my lived perspective as an immigrant still pushing the promises of this experiment called the United States. Time will tell whether our efforts can be fruitful, but I have no choice than to speak the pain that my community is experiencing. In the process, I have to entertain my audiences, and while there is inherent drama in my work, there is also humor. As such, there is NO GUACAMOLE for immigrant haters.
Do you have a target Audience? Who do you believe needs to see this show?
Everyone needs to see this work, and I especially invite Tea Party members and other GOP patrons. I hope to move their hearts and stimulate their minds, and even make them laugh. In the process, I break down the myths that have been created to demonize immigrants today. Most of the folks demonizing immigrants today, are themselves the great, great grandsons and great, granddaughters of previous immigrant generations, and if they are the descendants of Pilgrims, then, they are the descendants of some of the first “illegal aliens” in the Americas. For such folks, I recommend self-deportation for the sins of their colonizing ancestors. In “ALIENS”, I ask, “Since the Pilgrims arrived without papers, why were they not deported? Unless, you are a Native American, you really have no real claim to these lands which were appropriated from the true owners.
I think that Latino immigrants and other immigrant communities should experience this work because they will see themselves in the stories being performed. There are specific stories, but they resound with the universal truths of human stories and archetypal struggles.
How would you like to see this show engage with the community?
If the work rings of truth, it will resonate with the communities that experience it. Hopefully, for those who might have bought into the demonization of immigrants, it will offer them a more human perspective and move their hearts to understand that this is a universal work of a people under persecution. For immigrants themselves, and especially Latino immigrants and Latinos in general, it is important to see our stories on stage because the anti-immigrant hysteria affects all of us, whether we are U.S. citizens, legal residents, or undocumented workers. We are all labeled suspicious because of our brown skin, and how does that relate to the legacy of vilification experienced by our African American brothers and sisters in our culture, who have been judged not by the content of their character but by the color of their skin. Of course, I am paraphrasing the historic quote of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and if he were alive today, I am sure he would stand with immigrants and our communities.
By taking these stories and putting them into a performance how are you giving back to the community and bringing these things full circle?
It is real life stories that are the most truthful, and through the research process I engage in, the goal is to take these stories of people living in the shadows and bring them to bright lights of the stage. In doing so, the stories of individuals’ lives are reflected and they reflect the lived lives of the larger communities. Most often, the stories that make it to the performance script represent some of the most archetypal and epic struggles, and some present heroic triumphs under the most difficult circumstances. As such, they demonstrate the strength of individuals, and that is of prime importance to communities under attack. I am not sure if one can measure how this may give back to the community, but it is my goal to offer another truth about immigrant communities whose people are being diminished and criminalized.
How do you think the mobile element of the show will change the way you and an audience can engage with the work?
The larger goal for the ALIENS Taco Truck Theater Project is to bring this moving stage and engage the community in being protagonists for their own stories, and make the work truly accessible to audiences that may never step inside a traditional theater venue. It is aimed at reclaiming the voices of people working in the shadows, and the Augusto Boal-inspired strategies will engage immigrant workers and Dreamers to perform themselves on the truck stage. As performers, we aim to pull up to various places in the public domain, and begin the show as sort of open air dinner theater, setting up chairs and offering free vegetarian “Immigration Reform Now” burritos and “social justice” tacos. We will perform a variety of heroic stories of immigrants that are based on the interviews developed through the research.
In keeping with the sci-fi prism, I will perform as a 21st century “Obi-Juan Kenobi” alien shaman that fights for the justice of the worker and proclaims a better future, where we move away from the “dark side” of anti-immigrant legislation such as Arizona’s SB 1070. From there, the goal is to eventually invite the immigrant audience to take the stage and tell their stories, and transform the public event into community testimonials. We will also look to archive as many stories as possible through a filmed process and audience recordings, and the roaming vehicle will serve as a documentary truck as well, archiving the voices of those living in the shadows.
The big goal is to break down the barriers between audience and performers as much as possible, and truly engage communities and to empower them through the importance of telling their own stories. Hopefully, it will serve as a cathartic process to combat the fear mongering that feeds this current anti-immigrant hysteria gripping the so-called land of the free. We want to go where no Taco Truck Theater has gone before.
See José Torres-Tama perform ALIENS on Nov. 22 at Pangea World Theater Studio.