Without Papers

A South Tucson multigenre performance piece reflects the perilous existence of undocumented immigrants

In the era of SB 1070, Alejandra, an undocumented immigrant in Tucson, does whatever she can to avoid detection.

First she turns to God.

"I'm always praying, 'Please, God, allow me to end this day, to go and pick up my kids from school'" without getting arrested, she told documentary filmmaker Jason Aragón.

She has rules about driving. She makes sure everything in her car is in order. She doesn't drive at night, even if she needs medicine from the pharmacy, knowing that's when cops often pounce on the undocumented for minor traffic infractions and then call the Border Patrol.

"Sometimes they stop people because they're changing lanes, sometimes they stop people because of a tail light, or you know that small light in the license plate," she said. "When I drive I risk my freedom, my mental health.

"After SB 1070, well, months before that, wow, it was like a different world ... with all the detentions and all the profiling, I just stopped. I stopped being me. Alejandra died."

The travails of Alejandra and other fearful Tucson immigrants living sin papeles—without papers—are the heart of Dreams and Silhouettes/ Sueños y Silhuetas, a multigenre performance piece to be staged this Saturday night, Jan. 25, in South Tucson.

"We want to create a space where the community could come together and discuss the very complicated issues around immigration," said performance artist Denise Uyehara, who directs and appears in the show as a scarily masked Border Patrol agent. "We're trying to see the human side that's often lost" in the furious arguments about immigration.

Uyehara collaborated with Aragón, of Pan Left Productions, and video artist Adam Cooper-Terán to create the bilingual show, and enlisted a team of dancers, actors and painters to perform. Part installation, part drama, part movie and part live painting, Dreams incorporates audio from Aragón's filmed interviews with Alejandra and two other local immigrants and taped readings of letters immigrants wrote about their dreams and hopes.

Their haunting voices, speaking a poetic Spanish, are heard throughout the show; written English translations appear as printed surtitles atop the video images. Those words and images, said filmmaker Aragón, are intended to convey the "visceral experience of living under border security. What does militarization feel like in Tucson?"

Cooper-Terán put together a soundscape of samples that complements the spoken words of the interviewees. The son of a Mexican immigrant, he hopes Dreams/Sueños will help audiences understand "the misery of living undocumented. Others don't understand the fear that people have. This is a system that tears up families."

He and the other collaborators said they are immensely grateful to the immigrants for their courage in speaking out. "Without the interviews," he noted, "there would be no show."

At a rehearsal last week, a half-dozen actors and dancers—including Yvonne Montoya and Ryan Pinto— portrayed immigrants on an impressionistic passage through the desert, the city, through Operation Streamline hearings and into detention. Aragón's fragmentary filmed landscapes and streetscapes were projected onto a wall behind the performers. The South Tucson building, new home of the Global Justice Center, was once a dance hall, and the old wooden dance floor serves as a very credible stage.

One scene conjured Streamline, the real-life federal program in which 70 immigrants are brought en masse to a Tucson courthouse each day, and all 70 invariably plead guilty to illegal entry. Courtroom sketches by local artist Lawrence Gipe were projected onto the wall, and the voice of a judge speaking to migrant defendants—recorded on an audiotape smuggled out of an actual hearing—echoed through the room.

A film loop ran of the protests of Oct. 11, when activists chained themselves to two Streamline buses and to the gates of the federal courthouse downtown, and succeeded in preventing that day's scheduled mass hearings from taking place.

In another section, the performers dropped identification papers onto the floor, literally creating a paper trail. With SB 1070 Arizona now the "Papers, please" state, the documents challenged the idea, Uyehara said, that people are "more than a piece of paper."

Three Tucson artists will paint throughout the hourlong show. Just as the taped interviews give voice to immigrants, the artists' strokes on canvas will give faces to the shadowy figures projected against images of the desert. All three painters have tackled these subjects before: Melo Dominguez has a painting memorializing migrant deaths in the desert in her show at Contreras, closing this Saturday. Wesley Fawcett Creigh created the well-known "Painting by Numbers" mural about women in detention (it hangs alongside the stage) and Cristina Cárdenas is a well-known local painter of Mexican-inflected subjects.

Funded by the Tucson Pima Arts Council PLACE grant and the national MAP Fund, the show has gone through multiple iterations, Uyehara said. Earlier versions, titled Bus Stop Dreaming, were presented at Montoya's Safos Dance Theatre concert last spring, and at MOCA. The MOCA production attracted mostly a "high-art audience," Uyehara acknowledges. Ironically, MOCA is next door to the headquarters of the Tucson police, whose officers are now enforcing SB 1070 on the city's streets.

This time, Uyehara says, in hopes of also attracting immigrants, the group deliberately chose the South Tucson location. The building is familiar to its neighbors: It houses Coalición de Derechos Humanos, Pan Left Productions and other nonprofits concerned with immigrant rights.

Uyehara says her own family history helped shape her ideas for Dreams/Sueños.

"I came to Tucson in 2006," she said, at a time when the Arizona Legislature was furiously writing one new anti-immigrant law after another. As a Japanese-American, "I was really struck by the way anti-immigrant laws were similar to the ones behind the Japanese-American internment."

Both of Uyehara's parents and all four of her grandparents were interned in the camps during World War II. Their stories have haunted her.

"I used to have awake nightmares of Pearl Harbor happening again and everyone being interned."

When she saw the poisoned climate in Arizona, she wanted to use her art to address it. "In World War II, my people were disappeared," in the same way that immigrants are disappeared here, into detention and deportation.

"The Quakers came to help us. Now I felt it was my turn to step up to the plate."

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