“Shadow,” said he,
“Where can it be-
This land of Eldorado?”
“Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,”
The shade replied–
“If you seek for Eldorado!”
The desire to be somewhere better is indigenous to the human race. There are probably at least a myriad of clichés about how “the grass is greener” and it is certainly common to wish one were somewhere else. When life is relatively stable, this desire to find greener pastures is a luxury. When life is chaos, this desire is no longer a luxury but a thirst for life. It is the same desire across the world: escape the ghetto, escape the war zone, escape the oppression.
It is, allegedly, the purpose of America to harbor the escapees and promise to them the hope of a safer, fairer, less oppressive world. Obviously, as history shows, America has not quite turned out that way. The nation regularly rejects the wretched refuse of numerous teeming shores and quite regularly complains of the tempest-tost and homeless, particularly when they are brown. Nevertheless, the myth persists. It is this myth that Teatro Línea de Sombra examined in their piece Amarillo at On the Boards last week.
“Es una pieza que nosotros llamamos ‘de laboratorio,'” says director Jorge Vargas, “lo cual quiere decir que básicamente son materiales que van surgiendo a través de una investigación y una búsqueda sobre ciertos objetos y ciertos temas, en este caso el tema de la migración.” Certainly the theme of migration is at the root of everything that happens in Amarillo. Yet it is not half so simple as that might suggest.
Here in Seattle, “way out west” as pioneers used to say, people are subconsciously aware that their homes are the result of Manifest Destiny. The desire for expansion, for Americans of the 1800s, was a product of the desire for escape. Yet here in the West is where our nation is most rabid and most unreasonable about the escape of others. Amarillo plays upon this irony. It sketches the journey of a nameless group of men who promise to escape to the United States and make a life for themselves. Instead, they make a death for themselves. They become los desaparecidos. The play, in fact, opens up with the actors posting over a dozen posters of Latino men, all marked “desaparecido.”
The word means “disappeared,” but the cultural connotation runs much deeper. In Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and especially Argentina, the word implies a forced disappearance. Desaparecidos means murdered or kidnapped. The phrase comes from Argentina’s lovely military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, who, when asked by journalists what he meant by “disappeared” simply responded, “Los desaparecidos son eso, desaparecidos; no están ni vivos ni muertos; están desaparecidos.”
The connotation in Amarillo is inescapable. These men are “disappeared” as a matter of policy. This policy includes the trade of drugs for money so common between Mexico and the United States, and other human violations that make life in Mexico often intolerable for its citizens.
In such an environment, leaving for the United States of America is leaving for the promise of a better life. But why on earth would someone choose Amarillo, Texas? Why not Dallas? Why not Tucson? Likely this is because amarillo has another shade–dorado. Just as the Spanish searched centuries earlier for their El Dorado in Latin America, so now many living in Latin America look for their city of gold in North America. Likewise, the problems of searching for the American El Dorado remain the same. There is no food. There is no potable water. There is no map. There is no El Dorado. There is only hope and hope tends to die in the desert without water.
Even through the fantasies of reaching El Amarillo, a hard reality illuminates the struggle of flight. An emigrant may be fleeing toward a better life. But the old life follows across the border. Even worse, things that should not continue without one, nevertheless do continue. Families lie in waiting. Wives and girlfriends toil away, penniless without their family’s breadwinner, until eventually they disown the desaparecidos and start their own worker’s group–which many women have. Or, one may indeed find El Dorado (such as it is) and then disappear completely within it, identity erased, spirit broken, values and thoughts stripped away and colonized. Blending in becomes another form of disappearance.
When Teatro Línea de Sombra performed in Ciudad Juárez, Mr. Vargas said in a local paper:
Juárez es parte de esa complejidad cultural y social que implica una frontera, quizás en este momento el flujo migratorio ya ha bajado mucho, pero sabemos que Juárez esta hecho basicamente de migrantes, es decir, es una ciudad donde el significado frontera lo abarca todo, lo permea todo, el problema de la interculturalidad, pero también el tema de la colonización cultural, del imaginario social.
In other words: the border that seems to be so permeable to allow guns to pass through to the south and drugs to pass through to the north is not only physical but also a social and psychological border. If Amarillo has any firm stance at all, it is that crossing the border is not an escape for emigrants from the problems they have left; rather, the physical crossing aggravates them, and adds further social, moral and psychological problems besides.
All of this probably sounds quite serious, and it is. There is very dry humor within this piece, to be fair, but Amarillo approaches its subject with emotional honesty. The staging toys with, and often inverts, the space of the stage. An overhead camera records the scenes, which are then projected on the rear of the stage. The bird’s eye view and the privileged audience view from behind the imaginary proscenium (like an imaginary border) switch back and forth in importance, each offering a perspective to be considered. These perspectives also complement and compete with the documentary perspective offered by the desaparecido posters and video taking from different documentaries of migrant workers and others. None of the perspectives is privileged, none is conclusive. The entire effect is disorienting–much as the mind of the emigrant must also be.
It is impossible to deny the charisma of Raúl Mendoza on stage as he performs. His environment is hostile in the extreme. His reasoning is often faulty. His communications are brittle. In short, he is perfectly human, not merely a mouthpiece for a social message. He takes his destiny in his hands and though he often seems like a leaf blown about in the winds of fate, he is never without dignity. Nor are the fabulous ensemble of women behind him. While Amarillo often seems to be a man’s story, the women, too, take over the exact same role as emigrants toward the end of the piece. Additionally, their domestic resolve forms extraordinary bonds and even organize into strong working collectives such as Artesanas Campesinas to hold their families and their society together in the absence of their desaparecido men. The eerie multiphonic singing of Jesús Cuevas floats through all their proceedings recalling the Mongolian desert as well as the Sonoran.
As the director Mr. Vargas notes, the piece is a laboratory but not in a simply mechanical way. It is a laboratory with human subjects, just as surely as is our changing society itself. Borders are continuously drawn and redrawn. It is up to human beings to make sense of them all.
As the production proves, the lure of El Dorado remains strong, even after all these centuries. The United States of America for many still represents the mountain of gold that lured Chinese immigrants here in the 19th Century. Somewhere in this mythological “America” is Amarillo, a city–no, an idea–that will continue to lure those who seek the promise of a better world. An idea that may well strand them alone and dying in the desert to be bleached by the sun and color the sand with their decaying clothes.