“Coming to terms with the suffering of others has never meant looking away from our own.”
–Cherríe L. Moraga, director, “Our Undocumented Lives”
This weekend, CultureStrike and El Teatro de Estánford present “Our Undocumented Lives: Stories From A Politic & A People.” Under the direction of Cherríe L. Moraga, this groundbreaking theater workshop project explores the lives of undocumented youth through a multifaceted storytelling experience. Beyond the trappings of the stage and the artistry of performance, the object for all participants, undocumented or not, is to subject themselves to new encounters with alienation, family, and community, and all the pain and joy with which those experiences are inextricably bound.
The story unfolds this weekend with performances at Stanford University and the Brava Theater Center. CultureStrike activist and storyteller Marco Antonio Flores walks us through his journey of sculpting his story and threading it through the practice of theatrical expression.
Finding the Words, in Three Acts
By Marco Antonio Flores
It is hard to find the words to best describe this artistic encuentro, “Our Undocumented Lives,” which originated through Cherríe Moraga’s Chicano Teatro class at Stanford University. I recall the first time Maestra Moraga had approached me about doing some teatro work.
“You’re a writer,” she said. “I know you’re sensitive enough that your orejitas can hear when there’s a good cuento to be told.” The idea of doing teatro work always fascinated me. Even at the age of five, I knew I was a huge dramaqueen, always attentive to my mother’s voice and daily chisme of our cuadra. But I didn’t exactly know how my love for words could assist the artistas we’d be working with for the next ten weeks. Nevertheless, I understood that if Maestra “saw it in me,” it’s because there was a craft there for me to develop.
My second encuentro started, outside of the class, as a writer and activist. Maestra Moraga and I had discussed the significance of bringing the voces of undocumented gente to the stage; so entrevistas became essential to crafting stories that were not solely focused on DREAMers themselves but also intentional about giving artistic expression to our communities and familia. I collected stories of our undocumented gente, interviewing community and familia about their undocumented lives. Stories ranged of gente crossing the U.S.-México border to sueños that were lost at the frontera. I collected stories from many people living in the U.S. without papers, interviewing during our national encuentros, always taking advantage of any undocuqueer convening to gather those experiences of my own familia of jot@s.
Pero each cuento had it’s own sense of magic, always carrying such profound depth about the injustice we’ve had to encounter as undocumented people over the years; the separation of families through deportations, fear of being ripped apart from familia, denying our gifted gente from a college education, and parents working endless hours to pursue the “American Dream.” There were also more complex stories–of the missing father who, even from a distance, kept trying to kill the queer out of his son or daughter.
I remember sometimes leaving these interviews con un nudo en la garganta [with a lump in my throat]. I often felt I was left sin palabras, so moved by the stories of madres who’d be willing to risk everything to give their children better life; sharing stories of the days of walking in he scourging sun al cruzar la frontera. Such cuentos have created a space on stage to remind us that being undocumented carries a history, and a suffering of our own familias. For me, I distinctly remember how it all brought me back to mamá, and her sueños al cruzar la frontera. It was always this llanto that brought me back to my own undocumented life. My own suffering as a joto in the undocumented movement always made me feel that my queerness has only complicated my immigrant identity.
And I am exhausted of all the injusticia I continue to confront from my straight undocumented brothers, who are always asking me to set my queer politics aside. Because like our mothers, I too have a vision towards walking the right path toward something good for us all, as undocumented gente – as queer familia sin papeles.
Like many of those who remain silent, I too am left without words. Still, throughout all this gathering of stories, I have learned to listen and share this moment with my gente, allowing the camera to record those gifts, those cuentos that ground us and bring our política back to what is experienced in the flesh.
My third encuentro occurred behind the pristine walls of Estánfor [Stanford]. This place is just so damn clean – white walls, perfectly molded sculptures, fountains, and green hills that seem crafted by a divine touch. Everything appears to be so perfectly categorized, tightly put together. “Paradise,” as a friend once called it.
But I found my first day in the teatro class, greeted by familiar faces. While none of the students in the class were undocumented, many of us come from undocumented families. So it was important for us to be intentional with our own artistic craft, because as Maestra reminded us – “courage is courage, and everyone has their own undocumented life.” This workshop production was about shedding light onto our own lives, the hidden and unnamed aspects of our lives that can serve as política.
It was all followed by Maestra Moraga’s opening remarks, Why are you here? Why does this matter to you? I knew I had to bridge our histories with what is happening now by interviewing our familias for cuentos to share on stage, along with developing our own stories that could shed light on those “secrets” that remain hidden. It was all part of our artistic process; learning the basics of writing for stage, moving on the stage, and creating stories from oral histories.
Each workshop involved various exercises, from intensive meditations to practicing “writing (with) our body.” Pero siempre con cuerpo and corazón was at the center of our artistic expression. Maestra kept reminding us what it meant to embody our cuentos, bring life to our words through the breath and heart and physical movement. In the process, we have learned to expose the wound that has caused us sufrimiento, what has been stolen from us as a gente – exposing the nightmare of the “American Dream.” We have learned to create meaning from those parts of ourselves that we have been taught to shame, silence, hide, and leave nameless. But, most of all, we have learned to be a collective esfuerzo. Arte has brought us all together. UndocuTeatro — documenting con lágrima and laughter, we bear witness to el anhelo profundo de nuestras familias, our youth, and ourselves.
Statement from La Directora
In the developing this Performance, one student asks, “How is this work going to create a different narrative beyond ‘there are no borders,’” and I am speechless to say what I know from the deepest place. For it is the unspoken spirit place from which this small offering of staged reflections is born; born from the collective knowledge que somos un pueblo.
What I learned from El Movimiento Chicano (‘back in the day’) was that to claim “La Raza” meant that we were not separated by borders or documents or distinct migrations, but bound by our indigenous origins in América and our history of ‘movement,’ politically and geographically.
Not everyone presented and represented in this play is “undocumented,” (not everyone is meXican@), but each of us has a site within us that is, in fact living in the shadow, occulted, and silenced through fear. From that place of living identification, these young people’s voices emerge – the “undocumented and the children de los indocumentad@s; UndocuQueers; survivors of intimate violences; and writer warriors against censorship.
And so, a politic is born through what we hold in common. This is a política bred and bled into the bodies of the youth on this stage, the faces reflected in los testimonios, the folks with the courage to act. Just act — on a stage, in the street, in concert con consciencia.