Fifteen Central Americans are crammed into boxes hardly bigger than their own bodies. A tall white man paces above them, ordering them, pushing and forcing them still further into their small boxes.
This scene is not the next, sick iteration of Homeland Security’s crackdown on migrants, but part of a theater workshop I participated in this past September in the outdoor chapel of a migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, Southern Mexico. The troupe, Irse Hacia el Norte, or, “Going Northbound”, consists of two Guatemalans and a Dutchman. For two and a half months, Irse is presenting workshops and an improvisational play along the migrant trails of Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States. Following routes that an estimated 250,000 Central American migrants travel every year, the troupe first performed in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala on September 17, 2012, and will be conducting roughly twelve performances and twelve workshops in twenty cities. In the US, the troupe will be performing in El Paso, Tucson, San Diego, and Los Angeles; its tour will end at the New Orleans Fringe Festival in late November. The tour has been funded by donations and fundraising parties; to cut down costs, the actors have also been sleeping in migrant shelters in hammocks, on thin mattresses, or in the back of their truck.
“What we are looking to do,” Guillermo Santillana, an actor from the troupe, explained that evening, “is to spark dialogue.” But in addition to raising awareness, Irse also has a very practical, non-political motivation. Santillana said the workshops are meant to: “relieve some of the stress, the worry, the fear, the tension” of being on migrant routes, of riding on top of the trains, of being chased, being looked at with hostility—in short, from “all the things migrants suffer.”
Bonifaz Díaz began the workshop guiding the circle of barefoot (and in some cases bare-chested), bug-swatting migrants through a short session of yoga stretches and breathing exercises. He stopped often to explain the importance of stretching to shake off the long miles on top of the train cars many Central American migrants ride to cross Mexico, as well as the stress of trying to avoid migration checkpoints and gangs of kidnappers. After the opening stretch, Santillana led the circle through a brief vocal exercise in which, starting in squatting positions, we all slowly rose onto our tiptoes while saying “Ahh…” Gradually, we increased our volume from a stage whisper to an open-armed, teeth-baring “¡¡¡AHHHHHHHH!!!”.
Each of the exercises we did in Ixtepec had at least as many viewers as participants, with other migrants either snickering or watching shyly from the short concrete wall at the chapel’s edge. But the screaming exercise, which we practiced in the opposite direction as well—starting with the howl and squatting into a hush—provoked genuine laughter, and not only among the participants. In a human orchestra exercise, each member of the circle picked a noise and repeated it with increasing volume until we had worked up such a racket that even the shelter’s three dogs came running into the middle of the circle, barking confusedly. This too incited belly-laughter and a few howls of delight among participants and spectators alike.
After the workshop in Ixtepec, one man said simply that “the train [had] left [him] for a little while.” A Honduran woman in her fifties who was beaming, sweat shining on her forehead, said, “I walked in [to the shelter] this morning in tears, with cactus spines in my feet.” Her smiling, nearly guffawing laughter throughout the exercises suggested that the Irse workshops were indeed helping to alleviate, at least momentarily, the anguish of her migrant life.
On October 8, as part of a week of events about migration, Irse presented its full theater production at the renowned Ibero University in the ritzy Santa Fe suburb of Mexico City. The solid acting in the group’s performance from all three members—especially the tall and wildly expressive Dutchman, Jordi Möllering—was notable. However, what was particularly striking was that the cast included three actual migrants as well: José Luis Reyes Morales from Honduras, Luís Miguel Vazquez from Guatemala, and Yoni (pronounced Johnny) Remberto Deasis Ortiz from El Salvador. The three didn’t have leading roles, but if you didn’t know that they weren’t experienced actors, you would never have guessed that this was their very first stage performance. Yoni, a heavily tattooed Salvadoran who, of the three migrants, had the only speaking role, delivered a particularly convincing performance, spontaneously dressing down Möllering’s character for complaining about reverse racism in Guatemala.
During a Q&A session after the play, Yoni described his trip so far, which had already included a stint in a migrant detention center, a deportation back to El Salvador, a second journey across Guatemala to Belize and on to Mexico—all the while riding cargo trains, begging for food, and crashing in migrant shelters. Rounding out the list, now, he said half-jokingly, was helping out a theater troupe. Irse had presented the workshop and play a few days earlier in a migrant shelter in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz. During the workshop they ran the first night there, they had recruited a few of the more enthusiastic participants to rehearse with them the following day and act in the play that evening. And so José, Luís and Yoni, three friends who met on top of a train, got their first acting gig. After their performance in Coatzacoalcos, one of the members from the troupe had invited them to perform with them again in Mexico City.
While the actors were able to drive a truck with their equipment, Yoni explained that the three migrants participating in Irse had had to ride the trains for three days through the near-freezing mountainous regions outside of Mexico City. Yoni discussed how he had decided to take part in the play again; and then, still standing onstage, he admitted that he hoped that acting would lead to either the troupe or an audience member helping him get his papers. This would allow him to work for a bit in Mexico, and then take a bus northward to the US-Mexico border instead of having to get back on the trains to avoid immigration officials. He had a cold, he said, and he didn’t want to ride the trains again. His request for help was an honest, unscripted moment, exactly the sort of moment Irse hoped to provoke with its performances. It drove home the absurdity of criminalizing immigration: a few moments ago, they were simply six actors on a stage; then Yoni reminded the audience that three of them were on that stage (according to Mexican law) illegally. That afternoon at least, nothing seemed more absurd—that three bold, street-smart young men as keen and human as any of us in that theater, faced humiliation and the threat of detainment and deportation because they were seeking a better life.
The setting of this performance I attended, the pristine Ibero campus in Mexico City, couldn’t have been more different from the workshop venue I had witnessed in Ixtepec. In Oaxaca, just a few hundred yards from the train tracks, shirtless and barefoot migrants had sat under the insect-clouded lights of an outdoor chapel. Here, we found ourselves in the air-conditioned Santa Teresa de Jesus theater and lecture hall, sitting in cushioned seats with fold-up desks. But this chameleon-like aptitude is one of the strengths of the project; the actors are working to raise awareness about a Central American presence in Mexico and the US—and the difficult and frequently cruel realities of migrant life—to a variety of audiences.
It would be easy to say that the artists of Irse, at least when performing the play, are preaching to the choir, but if their audiences and those who have an interest in their work are a choir, I would call it a meek (or perhaps even completely silent) one. If Irse can get us singing again, we might be able to raise enough of a din to extend rights to those millions of migrants who are—right now—riding the trains, sleeping in shelters, swimming across rivers, walking across deserts, or simply living in fear every time they step foot outside of their homes. For years, in the United States and in Mexico, politicians have been bantering about “fixing” the immigration system, raising impenetrable walls, extending amnesty to all, cracking down on employers, and initiating national ID cards. And for years they’ve punted, allowing this cruel system to flourish at the cost of oppressed millions and the killing of thousands of men, women, and children. (See some hard numbers here and here.) We can’t wait any longer for politicians to pull themselves out of the morass of politics and take action. It could take years and the results could be even more draconian than the status quo. What we need are new ideas. We need to raise awareness. And then we ourselves need to act.
The migrants are still in their small boxes. The tall white man pushes them further into a dark, meditative emptiness, a deep desert. The blackness closes in on them. They are trapped. The man tells the migrants to reach out, to feel the insides of their box, to feel all sides of their claustrophobia. And then, the man tells the migrants, there appears a pinhole of light. Stare at the light, he tells them. The light is growing. It is a growing hole. The migrants put their hands through the hole, pulling it open, wider, still wider, until before them appears a vision, a vision not guided anymore by politics or ruled by law or by distance, but a vision of their own, of their happiness. Their freedom.
And then the exercise ends.