June 22, 2007

On Stage in North County: Death at the Border

By Mark R. Day

Most people know little about the tragedies that occur when inexperienced hikers cross deserts in the scorching summer heat or climb snowy mountains in freezing winter temperatures. That’s one reason why Nadia Cabuto jumped at the chance to play a physician in Cruces (Crosses), a new Spanish language play about desperate migrants crossing our southern borders in search of the American dream.

“I really wanted to do this,” said Cabuto, 24, an education major at Cal State University San Marcos. “It brought to mind my mom’s story when she crossed the border. Most of all, there was a real connection between the actors and the audience who have gone through these experiences in real life.”

Cruces chronicles the disastrous effects of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Operation Gatekeeper, inaugurated during the Clinton administration. “Gatekeeper” funded extra fencing and surveillance near San Diego, forcing migrants eastward to cross in the deserts and mountains. In recent years the deaths of illegal border crossers have soared.


Josefina dies in Lucio's arms. Photo by Carlos Von Son.

Written by Palomar College Professor Carlos Von Son (La Pastorela Mechicana, Ofrenda, Dona Criba), Cruces made its debut last April to an enthusiastic audience at the Avo Playhouse in Vista. It will be presented again in September at Cal State University San Marcos (CSUSM).

In Cruces, Von Son and his Dionisio Troupe decided to move beyond cultural drama and comedy. “We decided to deal with immigration, an issue directly related to our community,” said the play’s director, Diana Cabuto. “We did some readings and got excited about Carlos Von Son’s script.”

Most of the actors in Cruces are immigrants or the children of immigrants from Mexico and Central America attending local colleges. Nadia Cabuto plays the role of Dr Leticia Aguilar and co-directs the play with her sister, Diana.

In the opening scene at a dimly-lighted morgue, Aguilar asks colleague Dr. Remedios Sanchez why the migrants don’t exercise to prevent dying from hypothermia. Sanchez responds: “It’s already too late. They lose muscular coordination and control of their hands. They get weak, confused and apathetic. That’s fatal.”

The doctors agree that would-be border crossers need to be educated in the symptoms of dehydration and sunstroke such as cramps, fever, dizziness, fainting, vomiting and nausea. “If the migrants knew this, they could avoid many deaths,” Sanchez adds.

Several spectators at the Vista performance wept open-ly when migrants died in the arms of their companions. They also roared with laughter at the black humor displayed on the trek northward. The diminuitive Macaria, a Oaxaqueña, drew laughs when she refused to relinquish her Mexican electoral I.D. card to a coyote: “I’m bringing along this card so that they’ll know I voted for the PRD!”

“Well, keep it, and keep your vote,” snaps Chasque, a foul-mouthed female coyote in her twenties, played by Lucia Lopez. “The van will soon arrive.”

Lopez, who worked as a stage hand in previous productions in the Dionisio Troupe, said that the play was a growth experience for her. “It’s hard to put it into words,” she said, “but we built a sense of community and respect for one another.”

Amilcar Chavez, a CSUSM education major, plays the part of Lucio, an experienced border cross who leads his group through the desert. This time they get lost and Josefina expires in Lucio’s arms just before a border rescue group arrives. “I lose my mind when she dies,” said Chavez. “It’s really a touching scene. It makes you wonder why people have to die just because there is a border.”

For the time being, Cruces will remain a Spanish language play, but Professor Von Son plans to add television monitors with simultaneous translations in English. Plans are underway to present Cruces at other venues in the San Diego area.

Nobody in the Dionisio Troupe gets paid. Proceeds from previous productions helped pay the rental fee for Vista’s AVO Theater. Von Son is in the process of forming a non-profit media arts center in North County called the Educational, Media and Performing Arts Organization (EMPAO), to help fund theater, film making, and artistic projects from diverse ethnic groups.

Von Son can be reached at: CVonson@palomar.edu

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