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Leticia Calderon is not an actress.
And, on stage, as she maneuvers her extremely pregnant body over to the stove to fetch her husband's dinner, the pained look on her face doesn't stem from any motivational acting technique she learned in school. This is essentially real life.
She serves her husband a plate of food, and he throws it to the ground. A fight ensues, causing their teenage son to run out, shouting, "es mejor estar en la calle que aquí en la casa." It's better to be on the streets than here at home. The son turns to gangs and drugs, the husband to drinking and women.
It's a scenario Calderon has seen and heard about often during the 13 years she's lived in Phoenix's Garfield neighborhood. The experiences of women in her neighborhood inspired her to write a play called Los Actos -- The Acts -- which she performed last Thursday night along with 10 other mothers. Nearly 100 men, women and children from the Garfield neighborhood gathered at Garfield Elementary School to see a glimpse of harsh reality.
"I've lived in this community for awhile, and I've become aware of the problems that exist here," Calderon says. "I see domestic violence, drug addiction, gangs and child abuse."
But amid this troubled environment is a group of parents who are interested in illuminating these problems and working toward solutions. Twenty-one families participated in the cultural-awareness program at Garfield Elementary, which included the play and workshops geared toward helping parents communicate better with their children.
Before the play, parents and children went to separate hour-long workshops to talk about how cultural pride can help combat the issues facing the community. Children discussed where their families come from in Mexico and what cultural identity means. Their parents listened to Alejandra Elenes, an assistant professor of women's studies at ASU West, discuss the importance of cultural awareness in education and how parents can help their children assimilate without losing touch with Mexican culture.
"Sometimes it's the parents' fault," says Marimar Bautista, a mother who attended the workshop. "We want our kids to fit in, so we don't teach them enough about pride in their Mexican culture."
After the workshops, Calderon's play took the stage in the school's cafeteria, delivering the most direct message of the evening. Done in the style of teatro campesino, a movement founded by Luis Valdez in the 1960s and made popular by the Cesar Chávez farmworker movement, Los Actos combined humor, characterization and minimalistic props to explore delicate subjects like child abuse, domestic violence and alcoholism.
David Delgado, community liaison for Garfield Elementary, helped organize the event. He says this style of theater is meant to reflect the Chicano experience and motivate people to make changes in their lives.
"The purpose is to allow us to take control of our lives through theater and transform our understanding of culture and the importance of culture in resolving issues in the community," Delgado says.
The audience erupted in laughter throughout the performance as people watched their mothers, sisters and daughters play the roles of sons and fathers. The women, dressed in baggy jeans, backward baseball caps and oversize flannel shirts, overacted the bravado of an abusive husband or the neighborhood drug dealer. Children waved their hands and shouted, "Hi, tía, Hi mamá" to their aunts and mothers onstage and giggled at their fake mustaches.
There was nothing funny about the play's theme, an uncompromising statement about domestic violence and drug abuse. But the humorous delivery made the message more palatable.
And the audience got the point. After the performance, the actresses conducted a discussion with audience members.
Helen Trujillo, president of the Garfield community organization, said the play was more like real life than theater.
"Unfortunately, this is what happens every day in this neighborhood. We have to continue to educate parents."
Delgado says that, ultimately, this type of theater is an educational tool for the Latino community.
"Every community has different cultural issues and needs. We're all part of the American culture, but every community has sort of a different culture. So different issues arise in different communities, and we're trying to empower them to address these issues through theater and through cultural awareness."
Contact Amanda Scioscia at her online address: firstname.lastname@example.org