On May 13-15, the SCR Studio Series presents Angel of the Desert, a play by Janine Salinas, produced by Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble. Recently, dramaturg Tiffany Ana López interviewed Salinas about her play.
Salinas: I began writing this play in the fall of 2006 as I was entering the last year of my Masters in Fine Arts program at the University of Southern California. At that time, I was doing research for my thesis play, a story about 30 years in the life of a family that included the character of a grandmother recounting having crossed the border with her young daughter.
I came across several articles about children crossing the border by train, and that led me to Sonia Nazario’s essay series, later the subject of her book, Enrique’s Journey. I could not believe the statistic that each year over 48,000 children, some as young as eight years old, leave home to enter the dangerous world of jumping trains. These children risk loss of life and limbs, as well as being robbed and raped by gangs of older kids that form around the train culture to take advantage of others who are even more poor and voiceless. Many of the children are forced into gang life and become drug mules or prostitutes.
The only incentive for their survival is getting to the United States. Most are motivated to begin the journey because they want to reunite with their mothers, who have left them behind in a desperate search to find work. The extreme poverty of their villages and homelands leave them with a terrible sense of choice: Either leave their children or watch them starve.
From this research, I began writing scenes about a mother who left behind a son who wanted to cross the border to join her, but at that time the story would not fully materialize. I attempted to write this play four different times and then finally set it aside. I did not return to this work again until 2009.
López: What were some of the challenges for you in telling this story?
Salinas: I was raised in a home where there was ample love and support. Writing this play, I had to work most to understand in a heartfelt way what kept the kids hopeful, especially as their journey became increasingly dangerous.
Nazario’s work served as a touchstone in the writing process because she provided such a powerful level of insight into the stories of the children and how they got ensnared in the train culture. She explained how the child’s quest to reunite with his mother gets ultra-romanticized, akin to the quest for the Holy Grail. The child fantasizes about all the mother can provide and the void that will be filled in being reunited with her. The desire to find a sense of home and to feel loved is what keeps them hopeful and gets them through the worst of situations.
The other big challenge I faced with the work came after it was finished. I wondered about the reaction to the issue of age and sexuality. I know from my research that the stories of the boys in this play authentically reflect the emotional and situational reality of the train culture. I don’t see the behaviors depicted as outside the range of experience for these kids. Extreme poverty strips the body down to an essence and makes feelings such as love and hope a luxury. I want people to see that this world has a brutal hierarchy where drugs and sex are currency vital to survival. The idea of love and safety is nearly non-existent, with the physicality of the body reduced to a mode of exchange and a tool of survival that is divorced from the physical intimacy associated with love and affection.
Francisco and Sweetie give one another the gift of feeling loved, but we see how Francisco is violently shaped by even his brief entry into this world. Their sexuality is fluid because they are young and haven’t yet had a space for their identities to evolve. The oldest, Chavo, is the one who feels shame about what he is forced to do; he is also the one who has had to most harden his heart so that he can take care of his younger brother. To feel emotion leaves one vulnerable to feeling. Ultimately, the need for love transcends gender, and I believe that this is even more the case the younger one is in age.
When people are desperate, they do desperate things. What the kids in the play have to do to survive shows how the violence of poverty takes away their childhood and threatens their personhood. I want people to feel moved by their situation, and I feel getting angry and upset is an important response. But it’s always a challenge as a playwright to feel comfortable making the audience uncomfortable.
López: How did you balance your sense of political urgency about the plight of the children depicted in the play with your desire as an artist to practice your craft and simply tell a moving story?
Salinas: One of my most influential writing teachers, Luis Alfaro, advised that you should never tell yourself you are writing a political play. Audiences want to be emotionally touched and will react to the artistic power of the work. My main focus was to bring to life the richness and complexity I saw in my characters and to portray their journey in all its complicated dimensions. I wanted to draw the audience into their situation and emotionally move them to care about what happens within the world of the play and beyond.
As a playwright, I am often drawn to write about political subjects, but my goal is always to portray humanity on the stage and to depict my characters in the most truthful light I can. Usually with a play, I feel that the conversations that take place in the lobby and the parking lot are an excellent level of response. But with this piece, I want more. My hope is that seeing Angel of the Desert inspires others into awareness and fuels a desire to continue their investigations by reading Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey and seeing films like Sin Nombre.
López: What is most significant for you about having this work staged at South Coast Repertory as part of the Studio Series?
Salinas: Of course, I’m excited about the proximity of Orange County to the U.S. – Mexico border because it adds an incredibly powerful charge to what it means to see the play on this particular stage. It makes it easier to imagine the social relevance of the work. While we don’t think about these types of characters on a daily basis, they are very much a part of our world.
I’m also very proud to have the work staged at SCR because it is one of the few companies in the U.S. dedicated to championing new work and work by young playwrights. They truly believe in the development and artistic vision of new writers and ushering new voices onto the American stage. It’s an honor to have Angel of the Desert be a part of this year’s Studio Series and to be part of the collaboration between SCR and Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble.
For tickets to Angel of the Desert, click here.