The bonds of family go beyond borders and beyond generations. Many Latin American women, who come to the U.S. looking for better opportunities for their children and grandchildren, are also deeply tied to their parents and other family left behind. It is this connection between the past and the future held by women and mothers that is the heart behind SALSA, the newest production from Motus Theater.
“It is, for all of us, very hard to leave your family, your loved ones, your culture, and establish roots in a different country with a different language,” says performer Carmen Reina Nelson. “We are trying to tell the story of how it is to be far away.”
Directed and scripted by Kirsten Wilson, SALSA follows the 2013 Motus production of Do you know who I am?, a series of five monologues performed by young undocumented immigrants in Boulder County. The new show tells the stories of seven different immigrant Latina women from Mexico, Guatemala and Argentina through monologues, song and dance. SALSA is a social justice performance, using deeply personal and uniting stories of grief and heartache, resilience and strength, to give a voice and face to immigration reform.
Nelson came to the U.S. 37 years ago from Guatemala after meeting her husband, a U.S. citizen.
“I never wanted to leave. But he couldn’t work in Guatemala. Life was going to be very, very difficult so that’s why I came here,” she says.
And although she is free to return home whenever she’d like, many immigrant women, including some performing in SALSA, cannot.
“Some of the stories are really, really heartbreaking,” Nelson says.
The idea for the performance developed out of Programa Compañeras, a program of AMISTAD, a Boulder-based nonprofit focused on immigration rights. At the monthly meetings one woman presents their family salsa recipe while telling their story at the same time.
“Mostly it’s immigration stories, how we live here, why we come here, how we survive here and how resilient we women are,” says Elena Aranda, organizer of Programa Compañeras and a performer in SALSA.
Programa Compañeras coproduces SALSA and plans on releasing a recipe book of the same name, including the women’s stories.
“This is something that our own community needs to hear because every story has something that we believe in…” Aranda says. “But also, I feel that it is a good education for the whole community. That they can see us, maybe with [different] eyes, and see the struggles that we have and just to be in our shoes for a moment.”
Aranda has worked as a psychotherapist with Latinos since moving to the U.S. 29 years ago from Guadalajara, Mexico. And although she has been supportive of SALSA from the very beginning, Aranda had no intention of performing in it until she went to one of the first meetings back in April 2015. As Wilson gave the group writing prompts, asking them to think about difficult situations and things they normally wouldn’t share, Aranda realized how therapeutic the process could be — to ask herself the same questions she had been asking her patients for more than 20 years.
“It’s been a challenge, this opportunity to be one more in the community and share my story,” she says. “Not just listen to stories of many women, [but] to share my story, my pain, my struggles, makes me grateful.”
The process has served as a form of group therapy as well. “To open your own Pandora’s box, it helps you to heal some things, to understand others and share it in a very safe place with all the comfort and friendship has been very, very healing,” Nelson says. “We rehearse together, and we’ve formed a really tight bond because everybody is telling a story that is from the heart. We have cried together, we’ve laughed together.”
The group worked for 12 weeks writing and rewriting, translating and retranslating the monologues, eventually coming up with scripts in both Spanish and English. It was a huge commitment for the women who fit in writing and rehearsals amidst busy schedules, multiple jobs and taking care of their families. But there was also an emotional commitment that naturally comes with digging into and processing aspects of your own story, perhaps for the first time.
“I think the more challenges you’ve had, often the less time you’ve had to process those stories because you just have to go to the next obstacle,” Wilson says. “To do something like this, they had to pick themselves because it is too awesomely challenging to do autobiographical monologue work. You really have to get literally to the bone of your story.”
SALSA raises questions about class, citizenship, skin tone, justice and heritage through the vulnerability of each performer. All seven women in the show make their theatrical debut in SALSA and range in age from early 20s to early 60s, representing a variety of experience and history that both broadens and deepens the perspective of the performance.
The women speak of the obstacles that come with living without legal status, the challenges of identifying with two disparate cultures and their experiences of immigration. They share about family members who have been deported and the guilt they carry for living so far away from their parents and culture.
“It explores the borders of the heart,” Wilson says. “There’s this artificial boundary we have between countries and then there is the way these borders impact people’s families and separate them.”
In Nelson’s monologue, she describes surviving an earthquake as a young child in Guatemala that resulted in a stutter she has tirelessly worked to overcome. She attributes her success to her supportive grandmother and the strength of her Mayan ancestry.
“It’s about the love of who can help you overcome something that is painful for you,” Nelson says. “I don’t have a story about crossing the border in a dramatic way but since childhood I’ve had a stutter. So that’s always been in the back of my mind as my story.”
“All these women in their immigration process have had an earthquake,” Wilson says. “It’s these two cultures coming together and it’s this crash and aspects of them get buried in that crash. But with love and support… the women can emerge and find their voice beautifully. [Nelson’s] piece becomes a metaphor for all stories in terms of what it is and the challenges and the stakes.”
If Nelson’s story is a metaphor that ties all of the women’s stories together, the center of the performance is given by Rosa Elena Valle Cerezo. As she makes her family salsa recipe in front of the audience, she shares the story of her aunt, who was reunited with her first love later in life after marrying other people, having families and finding themselves both widowed.
“The story is basically that the love will arrive,” Wilson says. “I think it holds literally the heart of the piece, which is at some level having some faith that you will be with your family again. And that is not just the past, but it is the future and that love is destined to arrive in some way. It becomes a balm for the brokenness in other stories.”
The shows on Dec. 12 and 13 are previews of SALSA performed in English. Wilson says the preview performances allow the women to showcase the hard work they’ve been doing, while presenting the piece in a smaller venue, holding their scripts, gaining more performance exposure before the official debut scheduled for Mother’s Day 2016.
Ideally, Wilson says, the performance would be bilingual with the use of headsets to translate for the audience, allowing the women to speak in the language they are most comfortable with. But for now, performances are done entirely in one language.
“It is really natural to do it in Spanish because it is my feeling and emotion and I have a name for that feeling,” Aranda says. “In English, I have to learn, ‘Oh, that’s my emotion’ … I also have to learn to pronounce so I don’t feel it as much. [But] I’m learning to feel the other language in me.”
Sharing personal stories on stage also presents cultural challenges. Both Nelson and Aranda admit their families in Mexico and Guatemala don’t understand why they would want to share their experiences with the world. In their cultures, they say, vulnerability stays in family conversation but is rarely shared with friends in the community, let alone on stage.
“We talk in the family and this stays here,” Aranda says.
“But to be up on the stage telling the world… it’s a little radical,” Nelson adds.
The preview performances will be followed by question and answer time with the cast in order to both receive feedback on the show and further answer questions about the women’s lives.
Wilson says the group has per formed twice in Spanish in small settings, leaving the audience in tears. But ultimately, the point of the piece isn’t to elicit pity or shame. It is to share the daily struggles of living as an immigrant and expose the humanity that we all share. It seeks to create community by allowing people to really see each other, not by shying away from difficult topics, but by diving deeply into them.
“Don’t feel sorry for me,” Nelson’s monologue concludes. “I am not ashamed of my story.”
ON THE BILL: SALSA, Saturday, Dec. 12, 7 p.m., Sunday Dec. 13, 2 p.m., Dairy Center for the Arts East Theater, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303- 440-7826. Tickets: $18, www. thedairy.org/Online/SALSA