Thu. Aug 13th, 2020 Magazine

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“We Only Got Us”

16 min read

In 2016, Jesús I. Valles—a queer Mexican immigrant, educator, storyteller, and performer—wrangled twenty of their poems into a solo show, (Un)Documents, about citizenship, their family, and their queer identity. I saw several iterations of this work and each time it struck me—the words pulsing through Jesús’s body as they finally erupted from their mouth—as did the testimonies of the people who identify with Jesús’s experience and express their gratitude that the play exists. Jesús and I chatted in March of this year about how their teaching and art influence each other, theatre as a tool for building networks, their journey through writing and performing this piece, and the unfortunate and even paradoxical interruption of this work as a live performance in this time.

Roxanne Schroeder-Arce: You are a high school educator and a writer/performer from Mexico, based in Austin, Texas. How do you manage all that? And how do those roles inform each other?

Jesús I. Valles: I often narrate my coming to theatre as a kind of coping. When I started doing theatre, it was as a way for me to have another sense-making tool. I had been teaching, and I was in a really rough spot—teaching all day requires an enormous amount of energy. When you come home and try to unwind, you are always carrying the detritus of the day with you.

Theatre allowed me to process what was happening in my classroom and what was happening to me personally as it related to the classroom. Similarly, being able to do theatre sharpened my teaching because it made it very clear that what you’re doing when you’re standing in front of a group of thirty-two to forty-three young people every day is performing. You have a script that you have some relative ease of motion in and you have a specific audience and co-performers in the classroom with you.

What I learned from being on stage helped me tremendously to figure out what I needed to be doing in the classroom. It enabled me to read non-verbal cues. You start to feel the temperatures in the room and, if you’re doing the work right, you learn how to read that room as a kind of map, which then choreographs how you move in the classroom.

I don’t know that I would be able to perform the way I do if I wasn’t a teacher, and I don’t know that I’d be the kind of teacher I am if I wasn’t also working on stage.

Roxanne: I love that. I was going to ask you: Why do you do your art? But you just answered that, unless there’s something missing.

Jesús: I’ve been on a fairly strict lockdown, save for groceries, for the past several months, and I’m realizing how much my artistic practice has to do with coalition building and community building. Theatre, and my artistic practice specifically, is in many ways about finding my people. And I think that’s the case for most theatremakers. If you’re making theatre worth living for, if you’re making theatre that makes you feel alive and makes others feel alive, you’re doing so because you found the people you want to be alive with.

I make art to be together with people and to figure out what ways and what spaces and what formations allow us to be more effective together.

If you’re making theatre worth living for, if you’re making theatre that makes you feel alive and makes others feel alive, you’re doing so because you found the people you want to be alive with.

Roxanne: Can you tell me about your solo piece (Un)Documents?

Jesús: (Un)Documents is an autobiographical solo show about what happens to a family as dictated by a set of papers and how that family responds to those papers. I talk about my migration into the United States as an undocumented person, what happened when I was granted a path towards citizenship through a series of happy accidents, and how my path diverged from my brother’s, who was also here undocumented but was much older and had a different set of circumstances to live through. He was deported in 2008. At the end, the play provides a small meditation about the simultaneous cruelty and also uselessness of bureaucracy as something that guides our lives.

For so many migrant folks, the possibility of artistry sometimes seems so foreign or inaccessible. We have so many conversations about migrant parents not quite understanding art as something that their children might do. And yet I always come back to the fact that my first acting teacher was my mom. The first storyteller and the first comedian I knew was my father. So many of my stories come from my mother. She was the first person to actively pass down this oral archive.

Roxanne: Could you share a little more about the bilingualism of your work? When are you engaging which languages? In (Un)Documents, it feels seamless and organic.

Jesús: That was a really big question in the rehearsal process. A solo show is a heavy charge because the audience is going to be sitting with that one person for an hour or ninety minutes. At first, I was scared about whether or not the audience was going to be able to follow the story. Were there things I was excluding? Things I was performing that made the story illegible? During rehearsals, Rudy Ramirez, the director, allowed me to have space within the text where I could say, “No, this thing needs to happen in Spanish.” Because to translate it would be to mar it; it would break its bones.

The parts that are in Spanish happen in Spanish and only once are they translated. And that translation happens more for me than for the audience. But for the rest of it I’m hoping that the intermediary between English and Spanish is my body and my presence on stage. Hopefully that becomes the third language in the piece.

Roxanne: I heard you say in a talkback that you sometimes lean into the Spanish a little more depending on how the audience is responding. Is that pretty common for you?

Jesús: Yeah. During the first couple of runs, the Spanish-language moments really let me know, sonically, who was going to be riding with me in the story and not just watching it. That’s what was so warm and wonderful and productive and generative about keeping many of the sections in Spanish. It taught me how to listen to the audience and know who was with me in that very specific way and hopefully direct the energy of the show towards them.

The migrant experience, the migrant body, the undocumented body, the formerly undocumented body, the documented dead body is a really interesting subject. And very seldom are we allowed to tell our own stories or do we find the capacity, resources, support, and encouragement from ourselves, from our communities, from our families, from institutions to tell our stories.

In many ways, those bits of Spanish, those bits of non-verbals, those colloquial movements, gestures, and breaths that happen on stage are an extension and an invitation for the audience to be on stage with me.

Roxanne: Is there a particular line or moment that you would never translate into English?

Jesús: There’s a moment towards the last quarter of the show where my brother has been deported. My mother is picking up clothes at his home, putting them in a hamper so she can take them back to El Paso to wash them for him. My brother was very drunk because it was the holidays, and he asked her, “What are you doing?” She didn’t answer him. And he turns to me, knowing exactly what she was doing, and says, “Mi mama esta hecha de oro.

Translated, it means: “My mother is made of gold.” There’s something about the sincerity of this piece of poetry that came out of this drunk man’s mouth that I really wanted to honor. My brother has been made very hard by so much of what has happened in his life, so it was such a gift when this emerged from his mouth, and I hold it close to my spirit when I’m performing.

The Spanish-language moments really let me know, sonically, who was going to be riding with me in the story and not just watching it.

Roxanne: Can you talk a little bit about the development of the piece?

Jesús: (Un)Documents began as a set of five poems that I had just floating around on my computer, the result of a lot of journaling I did while my brother was in detention and after he’d been deported. I submitted them for a poetry contest and I made the finals, and for the finals you were supposed to submit twenty poems. So I used the opportunity to really write and reflect and think and make this thing happen. When it was done, I was like, “This is great on the page, but there is something that compels me to speak them. I want them to live in my mouth and I want them to move in my body.”

I had a reading in September 2017 in front of friends and theatremakers in Austin, and my question was, “Is this a piece of theatre?” So many folks said, “Yeah, it’s theatre. Here are some questions we have.”

Rudy really championed the piece, encouraging me to develop it. We did a two-week run in August 2018, and the show returned to the Vortex in Austin in May 2019 with some edits based off of what I had learned from performing it. And then there was its final iteration at Teatro Vivo in February 2020, which feels like last year. I have also performed at a number of universities around the country. When I did a performance at the University of Texas at El Paso, it was like a homecoming in a lot of ways. Because so much of the show is set there, it felt like a site-specific performance.

Roxanne: People have been so grateful to have your words, your body, your story in front of them and in their ears. My hope is that many, many, many other spaces will bring you in when we’re able to travel again. But right now obviously that’s not possible. What does it mean for this piece to not be performed at this moment?

Jesús: I gave a lecture at the University of Virginia recently and the students asked, “What do you think we’re missing from watching this digitally and not live?” And I said, “Sweating. You’re not watching me sweat live with you.” I really did mean that because so much of this work is absolutely about making bureaucracy and bureaucratic documents bend to the living body. All of the pieces of papers we’re asked to fill out, all of the pieces of paper that so often choreograph how we move and live and what we get to have access to, they’re all about flattening our humanity.

The fact that I can be in a room for an hour sweating and laughing and sharing the same breaths and space with people… That is the purpose of the work entirely. So not being able to perform the show for people live is an exercise in having to reimagine how we can be together again at some point. How do we think about this art form that is so dependent on togetherness, on the human experience at a fully sensory level?

Roxanne: What you’re speaking to is what we’re missing so much right now—breathing together, laughing together, crying together. I am also thinking about (Un)Documents in different spaces, and what it means for specific audiences and individuals to experience your work live, together. For instance, the response from Austin audience members who were from El Paso—that cultural knowledge was palpable. While I don’t have the lived experience and knowledge, I can feel it when audience members respond with: “Yah, we get this, and we don’t often get this experience.” I’m interested in how the show read in Maine. Not that there are no Latinx people in Maine but…

Jesús: I was also very interested in that. I arrived in Farmington, Maine and it was lovely. And I saw five people of color there, total. Three black women and two Latinos. I immediately got apprehensive, thinking, “Ooh, who’s going to be with me when I’m on stage?” That sounds strange because it’s a solo show, but I do think you feel it when you start the show—sometimes it happens in different moments, but I know when I’m being held by someone in the audience.

With the performance in Farmington, I was nervous but I had to trust that the work was enough, that it has enough doors to let people see what they need to see and to walk into the performance where they need to walk to it from. It was a pretty big space and I was nervous that we were going to get maybe six people. And it was full. Afterwards, I had a lot of great conversations with faculty at the university and with so many students.

The reception was lovely, but more importantly it was reassuring to know that I’m putting work out into the world that is allowing people to not arrive at easy answers when it comes to how we live with immigration policy and how we confront it. Hopefully the work is allowing people to ask themselves better questions about their own participation in these systems.

Roxanne: Going back to your performance in El Paso at the border. For some people—especially those being held at the borders, in tight spaces—death seems imminent. It’s where they’re headed. So it’s ironic that your work is limited in how it can be shared at this exact time when people are being held in cramped spaces, while the country practices physical distancing.

I don’t think theatre is going to solve anything, and I don’t think theatre has answers. But if theatre is asking us to formulate better questions, it’s an incredibly effective tool for building networks.

Jesús: That’s been one of the really jarring things about this. When I first started performing the piece, a lot of people were like, “This is the very time to respond to what is happening with this administration.” And my response was often, “No, it isn’t.” This is a response to the multiple presidencies I have lived through, which allowed for this moment to happen. What we’re seeing at the border right now, it is not novel. We are seeing the magnification of policies.

What is painful and difficult about that is that, in many ways, the work feels like an extreme act of privilege. And it is. I am a naturalized citizen, and despite that I can have conversations about what it means and what it feels like and what it is to have someone you love be deported, what it means to live your life as someone who is undocumented, especially as a child. It is also difficult not to acknowledge the very specific American position that I’m moving in. There is a tremendous amount of effort by multiple systems that shield me from the very harm that is coming to people with whom I once shared something very specific.

We’re talking about status, right? My question when I don’t have an answer is, “What can I do beyond the performance? In what ways might performance not be the solution but rather a tactic for building networks of mutual aid?” I’m thinking specifically about artists who are doing that kind of work. And I have certainly engaged in some of that work too. But I always turn to folks like Alán Peláez López, Ariana Brown, Yosimar Reyes, and Sonia Guiñansaca, and the folks doing work with Diversidad Sin Fronteras, and Fianza Fronterizx Fund, which are doing a lot of that mutual aid networking and putting those networks to use.

I don’t think theatre is going to solve anything, and I don’t think theatre has answers. But if theatre is asking us to formulate better questions, it’s an incredibly effective tool for building networks. And building networks allows you to create a roadmap for distributing resources.

As of today, the four trans women who were being held in Pearsall at the detention center have been released. So much of that was due to the work Diversidad Sin Fronteras engaged to not only keep them alive, but also to make sure they were released. And I think so much about how that collaboration we had with Diversidad during the FuturX Festival here in Austin was a small piece, but a piece that shows the capacity for theatre to create networks to support the folks who are most vulnerable.

The pandemic is laying bare all of the populations that this country has already deemed disposable. What I hope we can learn and enact and activate is that there’s a tremendous moment of opportunity here for us to rethink how we distribute aid, our resources, and our money. It’s a very small thing, but most of what I’ve received in stipends for the show have gone to different organizations or directly to family members and networks I know are currently in danger because of what’s happening.

I hope the one thing we’re doing as theatre artists right now is thinking about how to best use the networks we’ve already built to enact networks of care.

Roxanne: You write a lot on social media really profound, deep sentiments that make me think and that move readers to look at what’s happening in the world. And you often end those with, “We only got us.” How does this pandemic and the response from government and from people in general illustrate your point?

Jesús: I have to remind myself every single day that government in its current iteration—the project of making a nation, the project of making a country—is ultimately also the project of excluding people. The moment you create a country is the moment that you save the resources inside of the piece of land only for people deemed as people in this piece of land. And a nation becomes a nation through genocide and through slavery and through exploitation and through the most abusive and stealth forms of capitalism, and the explicit ones too.

What shines most during these moments is the absolute abandonment of most of us who are working-class folks, and the lack of care from government institutions and figures towards the working poor and those who are most vulnerable. It absolutely tells you everything you need to know about the willingness of the government to abandon its people for the sake of saving its ruling class. What that forces us to do is turn to your neighbors and say, “We have to save ourselves.” And I don’t mean looking out for me. I mean we have to figure out how it is that we all depend on each other to stay alive.

So many Indigenous and Black thinkers have pointed us towards this forever. Individualism is one of the things that is absolutely killing us. I am void of purpose if I am not living for others and not fighting for others.

During every single crisis I’ve lived through over the past eight years, I’ve always had a classroom to turn to. I’ve always had students who I constantly fight for and think with. And they’re tremendously generous and so brilliant. Not being able to share space with them has demonstrated that when I say “We only got us,” I full-heartedly mean we have to take care of each other because anyone invested in governance is going to abandon us at some point. We have to imagine ways of making our worlds together in a way that is fugitive from our governments.

Roxanne: That reminds me the moments in (Un)Documents where you’re holding the flag and the moment when you’re with your students talking about what you should say if ICE knocks on the door. And your response is—

Jesús: “I don’t know.”

Roxanne: But what I hear you saying is at least you get to be with them and hold them as you’re talking about the audience holding you and you them.

Going back to earlier about how your work as an artist and teacher are bound. In this case too, you’re not getting to hold those audiences, nor your students. I can feel that loss in you right now as you talk. I’m so sorry you’re not getting to do that, but as you say, it’ll come.

Jesús: Yeah. And we’ll figure something out. That’s the thing about trauma, right? I know that and we know that and also we relearn it every time it happens. After every single night of performing (Un)Documents, audience members would ask, “Are you okay?” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m fine.” The fact that I got to create this performance is actually for me, a testament that I lived through it. If I were not okay, I wouldn’t be able to perform it. I’m on the other side of it now.

The things I talk about in the show… A lot of it I live with. And a lot of the show is about the past. We are currently in the middle of trauma and so we really won’t be able to make sense of it, to chart new ways of moving, until we feel like there’s an after or some kind of handrail we can hang onto. One of the best things we can do is grieve and breathe and be with each other as best we can.

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