It’s a cold Monday night at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in Fruitvale, where seven members of Teatro Jornalero are gathered to watch a recording of their October performance of Undocumented Heart. The production, directed by Michael Moran at Oakland Theater Project, explores the immigrant experience from the perspective of the actors themselves, most of whom are Mexican and Central American day laborers from Oakland.
The troupe members, along with Peralta Hacienda’s executive director Holly Alonso, are revisiting the fall performance with a specific question in mind: What would it take to produce a whole series of performances in the coming year?
The idea of forming a theater troupe, let alone producing a performance series, would have sounded far-fetched to Teatro Jornalero’s members just four years ago. The show originated as an art exhibition called Undocumented Heart: Oakland Day Laborers Tell Their Stories, which premiered at Peralta Hacienda at the end of 2018. The show featured heart-wrenching migration stories told by 13 day laborers from the Oakland Workers Collective at Street Level Health Project, a local nonprofit, using textiles paintings and oral storytelling. Participants attended workshops led by textile artist Marion Coleman, painter Ramon Carrillo, and graphic designer Jeff Norman to help craft their stories of survival, hope, and heartbreak.
Once the exhibit at Peralta Hacienda had run its course, Alonso reached out to Street Level to ask if any of the participants would be willing to share their stories in a different format— as part of a theatrical production.
“I’m glad that Peralta Hacienda had the desire to bring us together,” said Mario Pina, one of Teatro Jornalero’s current members and an original participant in the exhibit. “At first, we didn’t know how this project was going to pan out. We did it out of love without knowing how much we would get paid or how much work it required.”
Pina migrated from Mexico to the U.S. in 2004 to earn money for his son’s college education. “We don’t come here to take away from people,” Pina said, rebuffing a view held by many in the U.S. about immigrants from Latin America. “Our goal is to better ourselves.”
His wife, Hermelinda Sánchez, is also part of the troupe and arrived a few years after her husband. In the years since they’ve become grandparents. But neither has been able to go back to Mexico to visit or meet their grandkids in person.
“The members of the group have been providing me with a lot of support,” said Sánchez. “When I came to the states, I was heartbroken. They’ve been giving me words of encouragement.”
Transitioning their work from a visual art exhibit to a stage production presented challenges for some of the storytellers. “Even if you thought of the story spontaneously,” Alonso said, “to do it as a performance that you memorize is hard.”
For Pina, continuing Undocumented Heart in this new way was a no-brainer. The stories, he said, can help to challenge some of the common misconceptions surrounding immigrants. “I wanted people to see how difficult it is to leave our countries, our culture behind,” he said. “And come to an unknown place.”
Producing live theater isn’t cheap
The group’s desire to continue performing was never in question. But theatrical productions cost money and raising it has been Teatro Jornalero’s primary challenge. Part of the troupe’s process, with Alonso’s help, has been figuring out just how much it would take to produce a run of shows in 2023.
“We don’t want to scare people with a huge number,” Alonso said of approaching potential funders. “Would $10,000 be a good number for people to get their heads around?” The group estimates that the total cost — from first rehearsal to opening night — would be roughly $8,000, with each additional performance costing around $3,000. Their estimates include payments for the cast, crew and venue.
For the original art exhibit and run of shows, Alonso was able to secure funding through donations and a grant from California Humanities, which in 2019 allowed Undocumented Heart to be shown at Peralta Hacienda, Street Level Health Project, and the Cesar E. Chávez Branch library in Fruitvale.
Alonso first envisioned having Oakland Theater Project’s director Michael Moran help produce a theatrical version in 2020, but the pandemic halted those plans.
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The concept of Teatro Jornalero isn’t new. In 1965, playwright, screenwriter, film director, and actor Luis Valdez, along with Agustin Lira, founded El Teatro Campesino on the Delano Grape Strike picket lines of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers union. Valdez wanted to use theatrical performances as an organizing tool to showcase the injustices that farmworkers were experiencing and their reasons for the strike.
Each member tells a unique migration story
For the members of the Oakland troupe, receiving guidance and care from people like Alonso and Michael Moran was entirely unexpected — and crucial to the group’s success.
One member, Alex Cruz, said he was able to set his fears of telling his personal story aside in part because Moran was so patient in coaching him, despite the language barrier. Although Moran doesn’t speak Spanish, Cruz said Moran found a way to communicate and relate to the members in a way that felt genuine.
For the latest production, the troupe downsized from its original 13 members to eight, with one new addition to the cast, Yolanda Urioste.
Urioste also spoke to the encouragement she’s received throughout the creative process from Moran, the troupe’s director. “I’m not the best at writing stuff down,” she said, “but I felt his support.”
Several of the original troupe members chose not to continue for personal reasons, while others moved away during the pandemic. The core group currently includes migrants from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala, as well as one first-generation American.
Francisco Pablo Matias, a native of Guatemala, faced a unique language barrier as a native Mam speaker who learned Spanish later as an adult.
“There were times when I had a hard time writing my thoughts down, and I needed a lot of help,” Matias said. “Holly [Alonso] gave us a lot of support.”
Adriana Martinez, the only member born and raised in the United States, brings a different perspective on immigration to the troupe as a first-generation American born to immigrant parents who migrated to the states from Mexico in the 1950s.
“This is the blessing that I have,” Martinez said. “My parents sacrificed everything for me. I’m conscious of who I am: 100% American and 100% Mexican.”
Martinez hopes her story serves to humanize immigrants for people in the U.S. who harbor resentments for misguided reasons. “Drugs are illegal,” she said, “but human beings are not.”
Troupe member Abad Leyva, like Martinez, had something that most in Teatro Jornalero did not—an opportunity to attend college in the U.S. But like most others in the group, he can relate to crossing the border under difficult conditions. Besides telling his story on stage, he helped translate the other stories into English.
“These are my people,” Leyva said. “I’m part of this community.” For Leyva, sharing the stories on stage is a way to heal from the traumas that many incur during their migration journey. “La cultura cura (culture heals),” he said. “I thank Holly for giving me the opportunity to work with this wonderful group.”
Teatro Jornalero is hopeful that in collaboration with Peralta Hacienda and the Oakland Theater Project, they’ll be able to raise enough money to make their performance series a reality in 2023. They dream of performing the show at larger venues and have also discussed performing at day-labor centers in other cities throughout the state.
“The jornaleros would feel heard and represented,” Alonso said. “The cast is brave and strong, and this is a wonderful chance for them.”