By Mark R. Day
As this edition of La Prensa San Diego goes to press, it’s quite possible that a few more migrants attempting to cross the border into the United States will expire from hunger and exposure somewhere in the deserts of northern Mexico.
It is estimated that more than 5,000 migrants have perished since President Bill Clinton initiated Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, pushing border crossers further to the east where terrain is dangerous and the temperatures are extreme. “Gatekeeper” has so far cost U.S. taxpayers $30 billion.
This tragic scenario gets scant media attention. Some activists, however, such as Palomar College professor Carlos Von Son want this to change. That’s why he wrote the play “Cruces” (Crosses), a dramatic narrative about desperate migrants making the fatal journey from their small villages to the cities of the Southwestern United States.
Cruces has played to enthusiastic audiences in North County and Tijuana, oftentimes evoking tears as well as standing ovations. It is scheduled to run the first week in May at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park .
La Prensa recently caught up with Von Son at his home in Vista. He greeted a visitor in his signature wheel chair and told his personal story in his Spanish-tiled living room, decorated with the art of his native Mexico.
Q: Tell us a little about your life in Mexico and how you ended up in San Diego County.
A. I was born in Mexico City and spent a lot of time in the state of Morelos. After high school I studied agronomy and became a technical adviser for tomato and avocado growers. This experience helped me understand the plight of migrant farm workers. But the salary was low, so I decided to go into construction and I began building adobe homes in los altos de Morelos, in places like the famous Tepoztlan. Afterwards, I took on a job with the Morelos water commission. Politically, many of us thought things would get better under President Miguel de la Madrid. But the changes failed to materialize. Unfortunately, there was corruption at all levels of society.
Q. You mentioned that at that time you had a great interest in anthropology and archeology.
A. Yes. I got to know the countryside quite well. I had a friend who was a famous anthropologist and he taught me a great deal. This led me to discover some ancient ruins as well as cave paintings in Morelos. But it also led to a hunting trip in a remote canyon where I was seriously injured by a gunshot wound to my spine. It took my friends quite a while to get me to a hospital in Mexico City. I can only remember coming to after the operation. My father was grasping my hand, and the doctor was telling me that I would never walk again.
Q. Shortly after this you arrived in California?
A. Yes, in 1986. I worked for a year, then studied at Orange Coast College where I got my A.A. degree in anthropology. Orange Coast is a wonderful place where they treat people with disabilities very well. Afterwards I transferred to UC Irvine where I got my doctorate in Latin American literature and culture. I did my dissertation on parody and irony in Mexican novels, focusing on the work of Elena Poniatowska. After that I began to work in San Diego, teaching at Palomar College and Cal State San Marcos.
Q. How did you get involved in writing plays?
A. I took some theater and creative writing classes in graduate School. We used to read each other’s short stories and some of the students liked my use of dialogue and encouraged me to write for the theater. That led to my first play, Dona Criba, which is really a metaphor about writing. It’s the story of a telephone switchboard operator in a small Mexican town. She listens in on the conversations of the locals and comes up with her own stories. The audiences loved it. That led to other plays: La Pastorela Mechicana, Cruces, and Spanglish, which is performed in both English and Spanish. I am currently writing a new play called Wait a Minute, Man! You can guess what that’s about.
Q. Back to the play, Cruces. Tell us about how you gathered the story material.
A. I did a lot of research on the border. The coyotes (smugglers) rent houses in Tijuana for short periods. They keep moving to avoid contact with the authorities. They usually lead their pollos (migrants) to remote areas near Tecate for the crossings. A few years ago, the Mexican government started an educational campaign, warning the migrants about the dangers of crossing the border. Then, suddenly it stopped. A friend in Mexico City told me that the campaign stopped when the migrant remittances sent back to Mexico started to decline. The Mexican government felt it was losing funds.
Q. So what’s the long term solution?
A. Building a wall and punishing migrants is not the way to go. A better model is the European Common Market. Years ago, Spain and Portugal were lagging behind in economic development. So Germany invested heavily in those countries. Workers got visas. Now they call it the Spanish-Portuguese miracle. It can be done.
Q. How is your theater company structured?
A. Basically, we at the Teatro Suburbano are all volunteers. Nobody gets paid. Most actors are full time students who are also workers. They make big sacrifices, dedicating their free time to learn their lines. The cast has been fluid. We have some new actors now, some of them in major roles. Cruces is co-directed by Nadia Cabuto and Cecilia Esteves, both Cal State San Marcos students.
Q. Currently, Cruces is in Spanish with overhead English subtitles in Powerpoint. Do you ever plan to present this play entirely in English?
A. Why not? We have an English version of the script. It would be easy to do. We will put this play on wherever we can find an audience and someone willing to help produce it.
Q. Lastly, the current financial climate on college campuses. Both students and faculty are taking heavy hits, are they not?
A. The governor’s budget cuts are wreaking tremendous damage. People are too passive. By the time the students realize they can’t take certain classes, they feel the impact, and it’s too late. They need to get involved now!
Cruces will be performed Friday and Saturday, May 2 and 3, at 8 p.m. at El Centro Cultural de La Raza, 2004 Park Blvd., San Diego, CA 92101 (619) 235-6135.