Name: José Torres-Tama
Hometown: I was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador and raised in New York and New Jersey. I was raised in Jersey City, NJ and studied Fine Arts at the Arts Students League in New York. I lived in New York City in Washington Heights, in the late 90s and early 2000s before it was brutally gentrified.
Current Town: I live in New Orleans, and I have cultivated all of my artistic voices in performance, the visual arts, poetry/literature, and as a cultural activist fighting for Immigrants’ Rights here.
Affiliations: I am the Artistic Director of ArteFuturo Productions, my umbrella organization that produces ensemble projects such as the Taco Truck Theater/Teatro Sin Fronteras and other cultural events to empower Latin American voices in New Orleans.
Q: How do you self-identify?
A: I self-identify as Latino or Latin American or Ecuayorquino since I grew up in Manhattan, and when I was back there from 1996-2001, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe presented my three early performance solos. Coming of age in Jersey City and Manhattan in the 70s, I grew up as an honorary Puerto Rican, and became a great admirer of Nuyorican poets such as Miguel Piñero, Pedro Pietri, Miguel Algarin, and a young Willie Perdomo at the time.
Q: Tell me about Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers.
A: Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers is a sci-fi Latino noir solo that was the first of my performances developed through a docu-theater process of filmed interviews, and I use this creative strategy to chronicle the real-life stories of my immigrant people experiencing such brutal dehumanized by political zealots as the anti-immigrant hysteria gripped the country in the wake of 9/11.
Aliens was my creative response to a country that has migrated deep into “Dark Side,” and where immigrants have become akin to terrorists. I was fortunate to receive a National Performance Network Creation Fund award back in 2009, and the commissioning support of NPN theater partners such as MECA in Houston, the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans, and GALA Hispanic Theatre in DC.
The NPN commissioning support literally supported the creation of this work, and to develop the intended docu-theater research of filmed interviews. I was able to travel to Houston and DC, and both MECA and GALA were engaged in connecting me to immigrant communities that are part of their theater constituency and whom they serve as well.
In both Houston and DC, I filmed interviews with immigrant activists, DREAMERS, and undocumented people who shared their dramatic border crossing stories with me, and the serious trauma they experienced while living in the shadows in the so-called “land of the free.” For many, their “American Dream” was fraught with societal nightmares and a system that dehumanized them, making them political scapegoats for everything wrong with “America.”
In New Orleans, the Ashé Cultural Arts Center became the development center where I hosted community gatherings with members of the Congress of Day Laborers and immigrant activists. We engaged in dialogue about the crisis reconstruction workers were experiencing as they rebuilt the city in the immediate years post-Katrina, while being victims of wage theft by ruthless local and national contractors who exploited the undocumented status of manna immigrants they hired to do the most arduous labor. Also, Immigrants were subjected to abuse by the local New Orleans Police and Sherrif Gusman, who jailed immigrants indefinitely to make money off their incarcerated bodies in his jails, Meanwhile, ICE Agents exacted brutal deportations and attacked the same immigrant community that was rebuilding the city, and separated families through commando-like raids of homes with excessive and violent force.
All of these myriad human rights violations were exposed publicly by the Congreso members through major protests that they held to challenge these abuses. They shut down City Hall Traffic in some protests and demonstrated in front of ICE Offices on Poydras Street to protests the death of one El Salvadorian immigrant worker who died mysteriously in their custody within a twenty-four hour period in June 2010.
I began documenting these protests by that summer, and was able to directly develop filmed interviews of Congreso members. I wanted to hear firsthand from the immigrant workers, and one such interview is performed in Aliens. It inspired the dramatization of a Honduran worker whose left hand was crushed by a dumpster in one job gone bad. This same worker became a young leader of the Congreso, and he experienced atrocious housing conditions with 17 men forced to live like caged animals in a trailer for two people.
When I perform this story, it reveals to audiences across the country the sheer brutality that immigrants have experienced here while giving of their sweat, labor, and love to resurrect New Orleans from her post-Katrina deathbed in those immediate first seven years or the epic rebuilding.
Aliens serves as an ode to honor the thousands of Latin American immigrants who have rebuilt this city while experiencing dramatic labor exploitation that is not uncommon, and the African American community know this familiar story labor abuses of workers of color in the plantation of New Orleans, which has a history as the premier Catholic Slave port city in the U.S.
In many ways, Brown immigrant people became the new Black people to exploit, and similar to when “cotton was king” and Black people did that labor for the riches of white plantation owners, reconstruction became the new industry and immigrants the new “help” to abuse. It was advantageous to pirate reconstruction companies here to have a workforce that could not protest their brutality because they had no “legal” status, and even more son, many immigrant workers did not have the English language skills to challenge these abuses.
In Aliens, I speak to these concerns as the bilingual Mexican Methodist Minister character, also inspired my interview with an actual activist man of the cloth here in New Orleans. He was an active ally of the Congreso members, and says, I petition you to see the persecuted Christ in the persecuted immigrant today… Love the immigrant who comes here to work. The contractor pulls a gun on the immigrant worker after two weeks of work instead of paying him and threatens to call Immigration once the work has been done. Does he go to church?
That’s hate against the immigrant…. “Love is radical. Hate is reactionary.”
Now, under this regime that has “Made America Hate Again” deportations are back up, and the fear in our immigrant community here is palpable. New Orleans is thriving with its tourist industry and mostly fully rebuilt neighborhoods, but the general population has been made to forget that the city owes much to the immigrant workers who have contributed to her present state.
It remains the dirtiest little secret of the reconstruction, and even worse, the recent Tricentennial celebrations of 2018 did little to recognize the Latin American immigrant community. The official three-hundred-year anthology was published by the Louisiana Endowments for the Humanities (LEH), and they have disappeared our immigrant people from their post-Katrina Chapter titled “Renewal.”
Imagine the trauma of seeing how easily a heralded arts organization with “Humanities” in their moniker like the LEH can just wipe us out of history, and expect no consequences for their brutal act that amounts to cultural cleaning during this perverse period of brutal anti-immigrant hysteria gripping the United States of Amnesia, which seduces you to forget. It’s the job of the artist to remember and tell the people’s truth!
“Remembering” is a premier theme of the Aliens performance because it is a people’s history that I perform to contest the official lies that permeate and render immigrants as akin to terrorists. As such, the piece is multilayered, and it is one of the few stage performances audiences will experience that addresses the rise in hate crimes against Latinx people—whether we are rightful citizens, legal residents, or undocumented. These concerns are made evident in the soundscapes that inform the show, and when the full sci-fi version performed with the film projections is produced, the crime graphics of newspaper accounts visually dramatize this evidence.
That brings me to note how the NPN funding allowed me to engage a brilliant group of artistic collaborators, and they have lent their genius talents to develop Aliens as a sci-fi Latino noir hybrid genre performance. This included John Grimsley on lighting design to develop that sci-fi aesthetic I was searching for. Bruce France created the sci-fi comic film shorts where we spoof The Matrix and Star Wars, and the more serious video graphics that identify the rise in hate crimes committed against Latinos, as Republicans used immigrants as political pawns with fear-mongering campaigns.
Billy Atwell, my long-time music collaborator, created the sci-fi soundscapes where the X-Files meets the border, and we call the “Mex Files.” Claudia Copeland, classical vocalist, sings a version of Stella Splendens, a 14th century Ode to the Black Madonna, and I use a recorded a cappella version that opens and closes the performance. It offers a faux religiosity to the Kabuki-like performance ritual when I inhabit the enigmatic and silent “alien” character.
Such support was also vital to the performance-in-progress productions that we developed at Ashé in New Orleans to present the work to the immigrant community, and hear feedback from them and general audiences that attended the early shows. Now, I’m touring Aliens across the country at a strong pace with a recent sold-out show in Houston, and MECA and its ED, Alice Valdez, brought me back to perform for the Latin Art Now city-wide event.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: The Taco Truck Theater/Teatro Sin Fronetars is the theater on wheels project that has been developed in the past few years, and we are trying to get this ensemble project touring across the country while we re-envision the performance with the core members. Like most of my projects, they are developed over a few years, and last year for May of 2018, we were presented by Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis performing to a sold-out house of some 130 people at Intermedia Arts.
Now, we have a film documentary on this project with the very subtle title of This Taco Truck Theater Kills Fascists by award-winning Chilean filmmaker Rodrigo Dorfman, and we WON Best Louisiana Feature at the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival last October. The film is touring the national film circuit, and it’s under consideration by South Arts for its 2019-2020 Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers.
Q: What have been the defining moments of your journey as a playwright?
A: Quite frankly, having funding support by the NPN and three commissioners for Aliens placed me in a unique position for the first time, and I was able to develop a professional strategy with collaborates that I could compensate for their creative contributions. I believe this becomes evident when people experience a performance that has been nurtured and developed over a few years now, and I have three versions of this piece that I perform. For Community Colleges and more moderate performances spaces and even conferences, I perform an a cappella version where I just shapeshift from one “extraterrestrial” character to another. I called this version Aliens Unplugged.
For in-between spaces like the recent Houston return performance at MECA this past April, I performed at the 2nd tier production with sci-fi theater lighting effects and the soundscapes in between the transformations from one character to another. For state of the arts theater like what Vanderbilt University offered, I performed the full sci-fi high-value production that includes the film projections and hate cerise video graphics, and the 25 instruments in the air for an even more hallucinatory lighting effect.
I’ve developed these three versions because I need to accommodate the variety of spaces, organizations, and theaters that invite me to perform Aliens. My performance art pieces have always been malleable, and that is a necessary strategy for survival as a politically provocative performance practitioner, who likes alliteration as well.
Q: Who have been your playwriting mentors and heroes?
A: In performance art, the intrepid practitioners of this hybrid genre include Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who has been a conceptual mentor of mine for some two decades now, and I’ve had the honor of collaborating with him and his radical Pocha Nostra ensemble projects in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Berlin. Also, inspiring has been the work of the African American performance goddess Rhodessa Jones, whose work I was introduced to here in New Orleans when Junebug Productions presented her. I have great respect for the work of Tim Miller, who also employs the personal story to comment on the political, as a gay man experiencing the many “body blows” of U.S. homophobic culture. Early on, I was also a big fan of Spalding Gray, and his powerful ability to just sit at chair and desk while delivering a powerful monologue of interconnected stories.
Q: What advice do you have for Latinx playwrights at the beginning of their career?
A: Develop your craft in writing, look to be inventive and outrageous in your staging strategies while keeping work minimal to make it affordable to travel, and above all, dare to have the courage and convictions to speak your mind and truth to persevere power while believing in your work against all odds. While I believe in reincarnation, this present life is the one that I have to bank on, and while I know that this is not an easy path, I have an unfettered passion that I am walking my calling to its creative fruition.
What else am I to do? Right now, all performance artists and playwrights should be engaged in creating work that wills serves as the conscience of our times because we are living in the most dangerous “Live Reality TV” show we have ever witnessed. Why not make revolutionary art that dares to speak our people’s truth and humanity, and dares to expose the pervasive hypocrisy of the United States of Amnesia, which seduces you to embrace forgetting its brutal history.
Q: What else should we know about you?
A: I have no more patience for gringo experimental theater about nothing NADA!
No tengo paciencia para gente sin conciencia. For those of you who are bilingually challenged, I got no patience for people without consciousness. NONE!
I’m exhausted by the Eurocentric plantain paradigm that still exists in the U.S. theater and art world, which continuous to sing and champion diversity, inclusion, and cultural equity, when, in fact, it mirrors the white nationalist agenda driven by this administration.
Look around your regional theaters across the country and big stages, and we are, generally, rendered invisible in their large prosceniums. By WE, I mean the larger, WE, as in Black, Brown, Native, Asian, immigrant, and other playwrights and performers of color, whose stories are AWOL at these big plantations.
Let’s dare to call them out, and have them put their money where there “so-called progressive mouths” are. I’m just saying. Let’s dare to have the courage to make the changes we are owed and have been owed. We are the future. We are tired of begging. We don’t just want a seat at the table. We want the whole dining room and will make prepare the “caliente meals” that will make your pallets asks for more.
And as I state in my comic battle cry, “NO GUACAMOLE for Immigrant Haters!”
***For more on José Torres-Tama, see:
- José Torres-Tama’s personal website
- Encuentro: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater, edited by Trevor Boffone, Teresa Marrero, and Chantal Rodriguez
- “José Torres-Tama’s Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers Tackles Immigration and the Latinx Community” – Trevor Boffone (The Theatre Times)
- “Performance Artist Jose Torres-Tama on LV Arts Salon” – Jamie Campisi (Lehigh Valley Arts Salon)
- “Theater Review: ‘Aliens’ arrives at Touchstone Theatre” – Paul Willistein (Bethlehem Press)
- “Torres-Tama brings his take on immigration to the Guadalupe” – Deborah Martin (San Antonio Express-News)
- “Powerful performance art piece lets audience feel mistreatment of Hispanic immigrants” – Bradley Troll (Times Picayune)
- “Staging the Immigrant Hysteria” – José Torres-Tama (HowlRound)
- “Latinos & the Rebirth of Post-Katrina New Orleans” – José Torres-Tama (HowlRound)
- “Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers Invades Encuentro Festival” – José Torres-Tama (HowlRound)
- “Teatro Sin Fronteras: Shifting Narratives” – José Torres-Tama (Alternative Roots)
- “Hard Living in the Big Easy: Latino Immigrants & the Recovery of Post-Katrina New Orleans” – José Torres-Tama (PBS)
- “The Politics of Inclusion” – José Torres-Tama (TCG Circle)