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TBA Online: News & Features: February 2018

Theatre Artists Feel The Pressure as DACA Hangs In The Balance

Tuesday, February 20, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by David John Chavez

The very nature of an actor is to bring attention to oneself. An actor interprets life for an audience and has the power to enrapture with their presence, anger with their actions, and inspire with their passion. Standing out is a prerequisite for the profession.

But what if an actor has to avoid attention in order to keep doing what they love?

This is the plight of theatre artists who are also recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—a program introduced in 2012 by President Obama to prevent the deportation of undocumented immigrants who were brought into the United States as children. President Trump rescinded the program last September, putting the fate of almost 700,000 Dreamers—as undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children are colloquially known—in doubt.

As the endless tug-of-war in Washington fails to produce new legislation and with the impending March deadline, when DACA protections begin to expire, some members of the local theatre community are feeling the pressure.

Yosimar Reyes (photo: Tony Mauro Ruiz)

Actor and poet Yosimar Reyes grew up in San Jose, and has never shied away from his legal status. As a DACA recipient, he has made a conscious choice to live outside of the shadows, creating work that speaks to him as an artist and to his community.

“I am very open about my undocumented status, and I’m not scared about being open. I feel more protected if I’m open.” said Reyes.

Reyes is also clear that there are many things that define him, but his legal resident status is not one of those things.

“I am not just an undocumented writer, I am a writer who happens to be undocumented.”

For other artists, the difficult reality of Dreamer status manifests itself in other ways.

Laura Lorena Morales (Photo provided by Laura Lorena Morales)

Laura Lorena Morales of Atlanta remembers going into an audition for a scholarship, after spending her high school years engaging in every theatre production at her school. But the answer to one simple question squelched her dreams and forced her to think about a future where financial support for a college career on the stage was impossible.

After scheduling her audition, Morales asked if the scholarship required a social security number. Once she learned that it did, she was crushed.

“I broke down in tears and the teacher pulled me outside of the theatre,” said Morales, who has since continued acting in Atlanta’s community theatre scene. “My dad was waiting outside, and when he came up and asked me what was going on, I couldn’t talk because I was crying so hard I was out of breath.

“Once I learned that I needed a number, I didn’t want to know anything else.”

Oakland-based actor, artist, and activist Sarita Ocón currently finds herself mobilizing others around her more than ever before. As an active member of the Bay Area’s theatre community, Ocón is keenly aware of the initiatives in place to support undocumented workers but feels there is so much more to be done.

Sarita Ocón (photo: Stephanie Brown)

“I feel very connected, conscious, and aware of those that are closest in my life who are undocumented DACA recipients, and everything feels very amplified because we are inundated with content right now,” said Ocón. “When there is a statement being made by the White House or I see a news update, my first action is to send a quick text to an individual or others I want to connect with.”

Ocón, who grew up in Los Angeles but moved to the Bay Area when she began attending Stanford University, has seen a shift in the undocumented community, especially among artists, towards greater visibility.

“Ten years ago, other artists and individuals didn’t want to talk about being undocumented and wanted to keep everything under wraps,” said Ocón. “Now, we are in a very enlightened place and true activism is coming forward with art, theatre, and dance. Artists and art practitioners are saying that we need to change the narrative.

“Undocumented immigrants are 11 million strong and are active citizens. These major threats are now happening in the world today, and we keep asking ourselves, how do we keep ourselves accountable? These kinds of conversations are bubbling up a lot more lately.”

According to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, there are nearly 690,000 DACA recipients in the country. Of those, nearly 25,000 reside in the greater Bay Area.

Because of the large numbers of individuals in this community, the need for mobilization is great. And while Ocón is inspired by so much grassroots work that is taking place in smaller arts organizations, like Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco’s Mission district and Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA) in San Jose, as well as the open mics, pub performances, and special events such as #Undocufest, Ocón knows that much more needs to be done in the form of sharing stories and bringing about awareness.

“Who is going to step up and produce our narrative? We have a lot of artists leaving the region because there is no work, and we must find a means to sustain ourselves. There is a large Latinx population in the Bay Area, and we all need to be active participants with this issue,” she says.

As a DACA recipient, Reyes is driven to tell his story and has toured university campuses, been published in various online journals, and co-founded La Maricolectiva, a community based performance group of queer undocumented poets. Now living in Los Angeles, he is working hard on his one-man show about growing up queer and undocumented, channeling both his performance skills and the drive to share his narrative. And he also understands that no matter what his personal status is, whether he arrived in this country at 10-months old or 10-years-old, there will still be those who want to see him leave. He’s perfectly fine with that.

“These folks, trapped in their own sense of history, also didn’t believe in civil rights, and there is nothing different in their talking points,” said Reyes. “I can show those people statisticswe don’t qualify for resources, food stamps, social security and we pay for school out of pocket, but that’s not going to convince them.”

So for now, he and other artists fight back with what they know—their art.

“What does it mean to be an active theatre change-maker?” asks Ocón. “When ICE sweeps through the stage, many of my artist friends and independent freelancers are asking, who is going to be down to support [them]?

What can we all be doing to create a space where, as Ocón puts it, “artistic calm can be there for those in need?

 David is a South Bay-based theatre critic/reporter, freelance director and member of the American Theatre Critics Association. You can read David's reviews and features at Follow David on twitter @davidjchavez