By Alejandro Enciso Guzmán
It had always been difficult for me to watch a Chicano/Chicano-type play in San Diego. I always feel that they present a stereotype instead of an authentic story. Looking at it another way, I guess those past productions achieved their goal on the most basic level of using the art of theater to provoke thought and analysis.
My feelings about this subject of theater changed this past April when I saw “PLACAS: The Most Dangerous Tattoo,” a play written by Paul S. Flores, developed with and directed by Michael John Garcés. The play screamed “This is it! This is the way it is.” The Lincoln High School Performing Arts Center hosted the piece and it was a perfect space to voice passion, oppression and inherited vices.
The piece takes a detailed look at life in a notorious Salvadoran gang, La Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, which started in Los Angeles in the 1980’s, and documents one man’s efforts to leave that life and reunite with his family. Fausto Carbajal, aka “Placas,” (Ric Salinas) is a former gang member, Salvadoran immigrant and father. ‘Placas’ is slang in Salvadorian Spanish for tattoo. In Mexican Spanish for example, tattoos are called ‘rayas’. The tattoos symbolize loyalty to your gang.
After facing deportation and time in prison, Fausto is looking to change his ways, including tattoo removal via laser sessions in order to get a job and set an example for his son Edgar (Xavi Moreno) and former baby mama Claudia (Caro Zeller) who also came from a gang. Claudia is determined to raise teenage Edgar and her recently born daughter far from her own upbringing. But it seems a bit late; Edgar has already fallen into the hands of a counterpart gang in US.
The other thread in the play is the search for identity. Fausto tries to inculcate his son Edgar with their Salvadorian roots and heritage through language, food and visits to his grandmother (Sarita Ocon). Edgar does not absorb these echos of the past, something that is sadly common. When I spoke to a tour guide recently, he mentioned that the native language of immigrants is the first thing to disappear by the third generation. This point is well addressed in “PLACAS” as well as the situation with MS-13.
Caro Zeller’s emotionally raw performance communicates the pain Claudia has gone through in her life and the anger that has built up because of it. Sarita Ocon’s portrayal of three characters: Mama Nieves the grandmother, Bugsy the gang girl and Liz the therapist was incredible.
The weight of the already dense plot was very well balanced by Salinas and cast members Edgar Barbosa as one of the homeboys, Luis “Xango” Juarez as both ‘Scooby’ and “largo”, Fidel Gomez as Fausto’s brother ‘Nelson’, his nemesis ‘Sgt. Orozco’ and a homeboy. It was a fantastic ensemble.
This play totally changed my perspective on things. My grandmother’s brothers are Salvadorian; I remember as a little girl seeing my grandma cry because one of her brothers was held for ransom. “PLACAS” made sense of the people who are a part of the puzzle that goes from El Salvador to the States.
I applaud “PLACAS” as a wonderfully written piece that resonated with its audience. Hopefully we will see more artistic expressions of this story.
“PLACAS” was developed as a pro-active community response to the issue of transnational community violence and the current anti-immigration environment. It has toured nationally to 10 US cities including Washington, DC, New York, Sacramento, CA and Los Angeles, CA.
More on “PLACAS” here.