SAN JOSE, Calif. — From the Aztecs to the Greeks, civilizations around the world have used theatre as their primary means of mass communication. Important messages crucial to the survival of the people were broadcast through plays, something that has been lost with the passage of time. Today, in a city known as the birthplace of high-tech, a group of Hispanic students is resurrecting popular theatre, and using it to help instruct immigrants in an urgent task: protecting them from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
The series was organized by Students Advocates for Higher Education (SAHE) from San Jose State Univesity, COCHITLEHUAL-LI ( dream in the Mexican indigenous language Nahuatl) from Evergreen Community College, and LULAC (the League of United Latin American Citizens).
In its opening performance, the curtain goes up and various workers appear who are suddenly interrupted by immigration agents asking for their papers. They perform the scene twice: The first time, the workers get arrested; the second time they don’t. The only difference in the two scenes is the way the workers respond to the ICE agents.
The MC, student Luis Ruelas, leads a discussion with the audience, asking them what they would do in real life to avoid falling into the hands of immigration authorities, and the best way to get out of it if they do.
More and more people now carry what they call a “red card,” an information card that can be shown to ICE agents by immigrants who want to avoid saying anything that could incriminate them. The card explains that the worker has the right to remain silent and ask for a lawyer. But few people know that they should also have a phone card with them so they can make a call if they are arrested, and a separate piece of paper with the phone numbers of their emergency contacts. “You know this, but in the moment you get nervous and you forget what you have to do. Listening to all of this, I remember and I feel safer,” explains José Antonio, who works in roofing. “You have to speak forcefully, not bow down, if something like this happens,” he adds.
Lawyers Mark Silverman of the Immigrants Legal Resource Center in San Francisco and Richard Hobbs of Santa Clara County tell the audience all the details they need to know, and advise them to learn to fit in and go unnoticed. They suggest that they should maintain their cars in good condition and not drink when they go to parties. “These are difficult times and you have to be more ready than ever,” says Cecilia Tabares, a mother who lives in San Jose.
You don’t have to open the door
This is one of the hardest lessons. When the curtain goes up again and shows two women talking in their home, a groan can be heard from the audience. “They even go to your house, with your family… That hurts,” observes Manuel, an audience member.
Raids on people’s homes have been the distinguishing mark of U.S. immigration policy in recent years, opening a wound that does not heal.
The audience learns that nothing in the world can force them to open the door to a stranger because their family is at stake and they don’t want their children to live through the drama of seeing their parents arrested. Even if the agents ask for someone who doesn’t live there, even if they say they are the police, the door should not be opened.
The students ask for a volunteer from the audience and a woman climbs on stage. She knows her role well without being told what to do, and although it appears that the ICE agents are about to knock the door down, she stays calm. She isn’t intimidated by an arrest warrant. She asks them to slip their identification under the door and when they say it doesn’t fit, she asks them to leave.
This concludes the scene that students call the migraine, the nightmare scenario that will stay with audience members for years to come.
When the curtain goes up again, two students are sitting in their dorm room, in an episode the performers call Detained Dreams. One of them is talking on the phone to his mother in Mexico.
Immigration agents arrive and ask for someone who isn’t there. In passing, they ask the student who opened the door where he’s from and where his identification is. Telling them that he’s Mexican results in his arrest.
The audience learns that universities and community colleges keep information about their students completely confidential.
When the scene is repeated, the actor who plays the student tells the agents that if they want personal information, they’ll have to go to the university’s administrative office, and the curtain goes down to the sound of applause.