Sunday, October 04, 2009

El Teatro de Los Oprimidos

Olga García Echeverría

In truth the Theatre of the Oppressed has no end, because everything which happens in it must extend into life….The Theatre of the Oppressed is located precisely on the frontier between fiction and reality – and this border must be crossed. --Agusto Boal (1931-2009)

In my late twenties, I had the opportunity to travel to New York City with a group of immigrant workers and community organizers to participate in a series of Theater of the Oppressed workshops. Being the bad revolutionary that I am, though, I found myself plagued by a shameful yearning while in New York—I wanted to ditch the workshops and play the role of a bourgeois tourist. In particular, I longed to see the Statue of Liberty.

The following creative non-fiction piece, El teatro de los Oprimidos, was inspired by the personal and political contradictions that The Theater of the Oppressed workshops triggered in both me and my fellow workshop attendees. It is a tribute to the late Agusto Boal, who founded The Theater of the Oppressed in the 1970's and who passed away in May of this year. Inspired by Marx and the radical popular movements of his time, Boal impacted theater in much the same way that Paulo Freire impacted education--both shifted the paradigm in their fields by viewing oppressed peoples not as mere victims and spectators, but as critical agents of knowledge and transformation. Like many radical artists throughout history, Boal's ideas and creative work were deemed threatening by the ruling elite. Consequently, he was arrested, tortured, and exiled from his home country by the Brazilian military government. Attempts to silence him, however, were futile. Whether in Latin America, Europe, or the U.S., Boal never ceased to be a champion of art and social justice. In addition to authoring several books, Boal set up numerous Centers for the Theater of the Oppresssed. His theater techniques and philosophy have long been the focus of workshops in theater communities throughout the world.

El Teatro de Los Oprimidos
We ventured together--a few domestic workers, some jornaleros, a couple of community organizers and me, an underemployed poet in search of inspiration. We were on our way to a Theater of the Oppressed workshop in New York, but Agusto Boal was just our cover, the perfect excuse to escape our monotonous routines in Los Angeles and travel for the first time ever to the Big Apple.

Our trip was full of drama from the onset. Many of the workers in our group were undocumented and had no formal identification. But that did not deter us. With homemade worker IDs, which were printed on cheap paper and laminated the night before our trip, we headed to LAX. Vamos todos o no vamos was our motto.

The attendant at the check-in counter ogled the strange IDs apprehensively. Don't they have driver's licenses? she asked Antonio, one of the organizers who was a U.S. citizen and therefore the temporary spokesperson for the group.

Not right now, answered Antonio.

What about valid California IDs?



These are their formal worker IDs, he insisted as he pointed to the IDs on the counter.

She pointed to the large bolded word on one of the IDs. And what is this...this...T-O-R-I-W-I-L-A? Is that their home country?

TORIWILA, answered Antonio, is not a country. TORIWILA is The Organization of the Rights of Immigrant Workers of Los Angeles. He enunciated each word slowly as if he were teaching her English.

Excuse me?

Some of the workers drew closer and began repeating different versions of the organization's name in Spanish. Organización, señora. De Los Angeles. Pro-derechos. Trabajadores. Organización en Defensa de los Derechos de Trabajadores Inmigrantes de Los Angeles.

She held up her hand to shield her face from the racket. Everyone quickly piped down. We feared she would hand the IDs over to a superior and ruin our pending trip. But since this was long before 9-11 and we were all rallied in front of her ready to riot, she merely sighed, shook her head and checked us in.

Despite the long flight and our heavy makeshift luggage (backpacks, gym bags, and plastic mandado bolsas), we joyfully sashayed through the labyrinth of the JFK International Airport. Every turn and escalator was an adventure. Huele a libertad, said Karla, the youngest of the domestic workers. We raised our noses and inhaled the whiffs of New York freedom.

When we finally exited through the automatic glass doors, Karla gasped at the yellow taxi cabs lined up against the sidewalk. ¡Aiiiii! ¡Como en todas esas películas! We didn’t exactly know what movies she was referring to, but it didn’t matter. We were all moved by the cabs. In Los Angeles, taxis were nearly extinct and ridiculously expensive. Only rich people or pendejos rode cabs in L.A. But here in New York they were ubiquitous and they symbolized metropolitan mobility. Even poor people like us could afford an occasional cab in New York.

We all wanted to flag down a cab, but it was Jose-Juan, the jornalero from Michoacan, who suddenly raised one of his arms like a pro and began shouting, Taxi! Taxi! Taxi! We watched in admiration and were about to join in when someone snapped a loud Hey! We turned to see an airport attendant. You need a ticket. Over there.

¿A ticket for a taxi?
We’d never seen that in a movie, but oh well, so what. Nothing could spoil our mood. We got our tickets, crammed ourselves into three taxis and made our way to our hotel where we quickly dropped off our bags. Then we were off to our first day of revolutionary theater workshops.

Agusto Boal wasn’t there. Instead, we were greeted by a woman who handed us clipboards and forms to complete. Pablo, who detested being asked personal information, eyed the forms suspiciously. ¿Qué es está mierda? He asked.

Registration, answered Antonio.

¿Venimos a hacer teatro o venimos a llenar aplicaciones? Ni crean que voy a poner mi nombre verdadero. He grabbed a clipboard and quickly falsified his registration form.

Once inside the workshop room, Pablo shook his head in disbelief. ¿Aquí nos van a tener encerrados? The space was basically a banquet room with no tables and a few chairs against one of the walls. It wasn’t too bad (there were windows at least), but we all knew what Pablo meant. We had expected to see more people like us--immigrants, people of color, struggling ghetto artists. Instead, we found ourselves in a room full of mostly White intellectuals and liberals. Not that these progressives weren’t our allies, but once the workshop began we felt a little foreign huddled together, some of us having to whisper simultaneous translations to our predominately Spanish-speaking group.

As we lay sprawled on the carpeted floor of our workshop doing theater exercises, we sighed like serious sufridos. Cedillo, one of the older jornaleros who hardly ever spoke, really stood out, looking like a cross between a heavy metal rocker from the 80’s and a stereotypical narco-traficante from Tijuana or Juarez. Long curly hair, black suede cowboy hat, fake Ray-Bans, thick metal marijuana buckle, vaquero boots and skin-tight jeans. He was the least oppressed among us, habitually disappearing from the workshop without a word, leaving the rest of us curious, envious. We all wanted to take Cedillo’s lead and ditched the workshop entirely. But leaving was out of the question. We had traveled so far. Paid money. Falsified IDs. Left children with sitters. Most importantly we had identified ourselves as activists and artists on a political mission. Our job--to take whatever skills we learned from the oppressed theater back to our oppressed communities.

Oppressed by our own politics, we stayed. And on the following morning, despite our utmost desires to venture onto the New York streets, we returned to the oppressed workshop like obedient slaves.

Quiero cheese cake, whimpered Karla.

Yo un hotdog de la calle, muttered Antonio.

Pizza Nueva York, grumbled Jose-Juan.

Quiero ir a Chinatown, I added.

Mátenme, muttered Pablo.

For three days we stretched aimlessly like cats, mimed, role played and followed orders, all the while longingly staring out the windows, thinking of the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, Harlem, Broadway, and most of all we thought of Her, our most touristy desire—Nuestra Señora de la Libertad. She and her raised torch burning inside of us like a shameful fantasía.

In our group was our own Lady Liberty, the fierce Mexicana-rubia-community-organizer-barrio-actress whose name was actually Libertad. I followed her around as her personal translator, enthralled by her mysterious perpetual black attire and her medusa-like hair. Nosotros somos el teatro de los oprimidos, she kept whispering intensely in my ear, the warmth of her breath lingering on my neck and cheek long after she had pulled away.

And there was Elsa, the 60-year-old, short, dark Central American woman who had crossed numerous borders sin papels and spent the majority of her life scrubbing the floors and dusting the furniture of the rich. Every time a facilitator asked us to come up with a creative skit, she’d burst out, ¡Yo! ¡Yo! ¡Yo quiero ser la Estatua de Libertad! We gave her the role repeatedly, each time cheering her on as she got up on a chair and lifted a feathered duster toward the ceiling. ¡Bravo Elsa! ¡Bravo! we shouted as if we had not seen her do the pose a dozen times prior. When one of the facilitator's suggested Elsa try something different, Elsa pretended not to understand. ¿Quién se cree? she whispered as we helped her up on the chair. Ni mi esposo me manda.

It was a layered contradiction. The Theater of the Oppressed workshop seeming somewhat elite, and us—dizque politicized artists and workers of the underclass--wanting desperately to ditch the progressive theater classes to flock to Her, a statue. A patriotic figure. Oh, beautiful liberty. Romantic symbol of refuge. Schizophrenic stuck-up American bitch. We wanted to shout We are your tired, your poor, your wretched huddled masses yearning. Why not lift your lamp for us?

It stung—Lady Liberty’s rejection, our love-hate relationship with her and a country suffering from immigrant amnesia. Deportation Nation. We didn’t want to be lured by her and her lies, yet she loomed over us during our stay in New York.

On our last day in the city we gave in, quit the workshop, eagerly took the subway, got in long lines and boarded a boat. Off into the waters we went, imagining our long-anticipated encounter. From a distance we saw her growing taller, more majestic, our anti-everything feelings temporarily subsiding. Gateway to America. We wanted to touch her sheets of metal, enter her body, walk up her whirling flights of stairs, finally peer at America from the inside out. Liberated woman in the water shipped over all the way from France in hundreds of crates. ¡Imigrante! She wasn’t too different from us. We wanted to witness and experience her chisled body, her spiked crown. No biggie we’d say later. La Mona en Tijuana está más interesante. We wanted to demystify her once and for all, but the boat…the boat…it never stopped.

Wait! Aren’t we going there? We asked todos norteados, a little frantic, pointing to Liberty’s shrinking image.

No, answered the boat’s steward. This ferry goes to Staten Island.

Soon we realized that in our last minute clamor and excitement, we had bought the wrong tickets, boarded the wrong ferry.

As the Statue of Liberty grew smaller and more distant, we pouted on the rails, planning our next move. When we got back to the docks, though, the last ferry to the statue had already left. No more tickets.

The waning sun shone golden streaks against the water. We lingered on the fringes of the bay, shrugging our shoulders. Ni modo, a la otra, we told one another, knowing our scheduled flight would soon sweep us away. It’s not like New York’s just around the corner or anything but a la otra. What else could we say? Plus what’s the big deal? She’s just a pinche statue and we did get to see her from afar. Some of us even held out our hands as we glided past her. We just never arrived like we wanted and had planned to, at her flowing skirts, a la punta de sus pies.


Viva Liz Vega! said...


Beautiful, sad, hilarious! And a lesson on Agusto Baol and the theatre of the opressed. I feel enlightened and giddy. Great way to start my Sunday morning. You should turn it into a play.

msedano said...

beauteous! i'm getting a late start today, and as liz says, a great way to start the day's activities.