The cast plays a scene of Guatemalans celebrating the election of Jacobo Arbenz in 1951. The play taught how Arbenz was overthrown in a U.S.-engineered coup three years later, starting a downward spiral of military violence. Photo by Peter Maiden

Who is Responsible? Teatro Inmigrante Takes on the Southern Border Crisis

By Vic Bedoian and Elsa Mejia

The immigrant crisis at the border, triggered by the Trump administration’s policy, is affecting communities far from the border. Many immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Central America, are living with fear.

Like ripples radiating from a stone thrown in a pond, people are responding in creative ways to the immigration situation at the southern border. It’s also bringing communities together in the face of such fear. One such manifestation of unity took place in Fresno, where a group called Teatro Inmigrante, organized by Agustín Lira and Patricia Wells Solórzano, created a play as a way to bear witness.

The theatrical production, entitled Who is Responsible? The Immigrant Crisis at the Southern Border, addresses the crisis with historical vignettes and music. Deeply moved and angered by the brutal and heartless treatment of Central American asylum seekers by a racist strategy, playwright and musician Lira wrote and directed the performance to make a bold statement.

“I just got tired of hearing all the lies and seeing disinformation coming from television and different places,” Lira said. “I knew there was truth somewhere because I had studied history before, so we went back into history. Patricia and I got books from the Fresno library, we talked to people who had been revolutionaries, women as well as men.”

Lira is no stranger to political theater. Growing up in a San Joaquin Valley labor camp, in 1965, he co-founded Teatro Campesino with Luis Valdez. They became a key player in the United Farm Workers movement, bringing inspiration and education to field hands all over the Valley in helping to organize fair treatment and fair wages for those who toiled to provide food for the nation.

For many years all they got in return was low pay and disrespect, or worse. Along with Solórzano, his partner in life and creativity, they have been crafting music and theater for decades.

For Solórzano, the current goings-on at the border are like a punch to the gut. She remembers the way life used to be in border towns.

“Well, it’s very hurtful to see what’s going on at the border, because I grew up on the border,” she said. “I was born in Brawley, Calif., and my life was in Mexicali and Brawley, Mexicali on the weekends with my grandmother, and Calexico.

“And the economy there was such that they needed the workers and it was no big deal. You’d see American workers cross back and forth on the line. But what really hurt me was what was going on with the children separated from their parents; that’s very, very hurtful.”

The play doesn’t actually take place at the border, and it’s not even mentioned in the dialogue or music. It goes directly to the root of the immigration crisis—U.S. foreign policy and the global reach of corporate interests.

“With the theater group, we visit three countries,” says Lira. “We visit Vietnam, Guatemala and El Salvador. In each of those places where we visit, we check out specific historical times when actions were taken at that time and changed everything and made things really bad. And now we have thousands of people coming here because their environment is ruined and all kinds of things the military did to the people.”

Putting on the play was a community effort. The actors ranged in age from teenagers to elders and were locals, not professional actors. The performance was as much in Spanish as English, and the audience reflected the Valley’s diversity.

Lira says the project took an entire year of hard work to accomplish. “The reason we took that kind of time, of course, is because people had to learn how to act and so forth. And the material was a little difficult on people because we’re talking about death and killing and these kinds of things. Which is also the reason why we decided to use satire, comedy and things like this, just to show those kinds of things is just too harrowing, it’s just too horrible. So, we chose satire and different ways of approaching it.”

For Guadalupe Beltran, a Clovis resident who played three different characters, adopting to each role was not the greatest challenge, but rather the attempt to explain the root causes of immigration through a theater performance.

“What we performed is true, but it is one point of view according to what he [Lira] investigated about how things happened,” she said. “There are a lot of different  points  of  view,  and  immigration  is  such a 

broad subject to try to explain in such a short amount of time.”

Beltran, an immigrant from Mexico, has been living in the United States for 22 years. She directs her own theater group and said she was glad to have been a part of the play.

“The point of view we presented was a way to raise awareness and to get people to think about what the real root causes of migration are. I enjoyed doing this play because there were things I had not considered myself and it was a good way to get us to analyze.”

Solórzano, the show’s producer, says the performers, for whom it was a labor of love, gained a sense of achievement as well as an education about the world they live in.

“You know, it’s something about theater,” she said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but you have to cross that threshold and become somebody else, and that is difficult for people to understand. I don’t think it has anything academic or intellectual. It’s something that—do it, you have to do it, you know. So, we have found talent everywhere, there’s just talented treasures everywhere.”

    The play concluded with hearty applause from the audience and a sense of triumph from the actors. Their achievement, like the ripples in a pond, emanated beyond the moment to generate a more profound understanding of the times we live in. Excerpts from Who is Responsible? are available on YouTube.

*****

Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at vicbedoian@gmail.com. Elsa Mejía is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact her at editor@fresnoalliance.com.

  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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