Bullets on the Border

Borderlands Theatre examines the death of a Mexican national at the hands of Border Patrol

On October 10, 2012, Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Ray Swartz shot Nogales, Sonora, teenager Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, firing through the slats in the Border fence. Swartz says he used lethal force because rocks were being thrown at him as he, with other members of the BP, were attempting to deal with drug smugglers. The New York Times says videos, not yet made public, show him pulling up to the fence, jumping from his vehicle, firing the round in the chamber of his gun, reloading and emptying the twelve rounds in that magazine, reloading and firing at least one additional round. The first two shots would have killed Jose Antonio, although he sustained eight additional shots, all 10 bullets entering his body from behind. Witnesses said the teenager had nothing to do with drug smugglers and was simply walking down the street.

It's late afternoon on a still-warm-but-not-too-hot day at the La Pilita museum on south Main Street, where you just might be distracted a bit by the aromas of El Minuto's kitchen fired up for dinner prep. Several folks are seated around tables they have pulled together to make a square, so that everybody can see everyone else. Each has a stack of pages, scripts, no doubt, that have been marked up: giant "X's" made with pencil to indicate a section no longer desirable and now cut; arrows drawn to suggest switching dialogue around; words have been blacked out. The script is obviously a work-in-progress.

This is Nogales—Storytellers from Cartel Country, a new play quite literally years in the making. The show will open Borderlands Theater season. It is a collaborative effort, led by Los Angeles resident and chief writer Richard Montoya, and Bay Area resident Sean San José, director and co-author, with support from Borderlands, particularly artistic director Marc David Pinate, with whom both San José and Montoya have worked in years past.

Both Montoya and San José have been nationally recognized for their creative theatrical storytelling, often tackling issues of social justice in unusual and innovative ways.

Montoya is a founding member of Culture Clash, a performance troupe that has been around since 1984, producing original plays and sketches, most often of a topical and satirical nature. San José is co-founder and artistic director of Campo Santo Theatre in San Francisco, which also develops scripts that experiment with combining styles, focusing on finding a narrative that tells a story in unexpected ways. Both Montoya and San José are particularly interested in Chicano and Latino issues.

When they heard about Jose Antonio's killing, they were "shocked and appalled and really wanted to find out more about it," says San José. "We started without a specific track of what we were going to do. But we wanted to learn more and to investigate how this murder could have happened."

They started with some connections from ASU, and, characteristic of Montoya's work in particular, their work started in the field, interviewing, filming, asking questions, all in the presence of video artist Joan Osato.

"I've done plays about many regions—site specific work we call it," says Montoya. "There is nothing better than getting away from your writer's table or cafe nook and diving into the field. . . Get out there and get dirt and dust under your fingernails."

San José agrees that the real starting point in working this way is when "you talk to people, spend time in the community, hear their stories." Then the creators' work becomes "synthesizing . . . It's not really about interviews and it's not about documentary, but is more about flavor, rhythm and the feeling or vibe of a place. Our job is not to re-create the news" in a theatrical setting, he says.

As they worked, says San José, "The bigger question became, if this murder happened, how could it have happened? What was the temperature in our country, which would allow for such a thing and if we were to trace those bullets, where would they lead us?

"Strangely—even absurdly-enough—our first interview was with Sheriff Joe Arpaio. We spent almost two hours in the office with this guy, and we let that inform the rest of the story."

Even though they started in Phoenix, the more they searched, says San José, the more they thought "how connected the event is to the rest of Arizona." It was really the connection with Pinate that drew them to Tucson, and to produce the piece here became a more obvious and deliberate choice.

Their work of discovery has led them to ask more questions, and those questions led them deeper into what was becoming their narrative. The story becomes not just a question of policy, but how the policy has affected the people. "In the very specific case of this boy's murder," says San José, "it resonates in many ways and that's why you see multiple voices and multiple stories" in Nogales.

Although San José downplays the possibility of making the play too judgmental, Montoya does not.

"I vary from Sean here. I have no worry about a point of view. I drive to L.A. a lot from here and the toxic rhetoric I hear from border to border on A.M. radio is vibrant and loud and inflamed. I say use some of that vibrancy for the other side of the aisle. I don't have to provide fair and balanced–that's what Bill O'Reilly does!"

San Jose says, "There is something about your desert down here—it does its own storytelling. It leads you in ways that are not linear, that are not what you think it is; there's that mirage effect; the brutality of it and the beauty of it ... We let that inform our storytelling; a lot is done with visual imagery, with a huge art installation; we have film of our work in the field, talking with people, yes, but also just being in this geography of Arizona and Sonora."

Montoya expresses a similar feeling. "Nogales and Tucson are fascinating and complex; the desert forces our focus more sharply–the endless sun, the rains and monsoons; the elements are harsh and yet beauty is everywhere, and heat and dark and light.

"And that is our play . . . In the end we have a funny, sad, uplifting piece where we never talked at or down to people. We sat with them and listened to stories different than our own."