José Torres-Tama

Name: José Torres-Tama

Photo by Ben Thompson.

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. In the late 90s and early 2000s, I lived in New York City in Washington Heights 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 and without-walls 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 and 80s, 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 dehumanization by political zealots who pimp fear of immigrants and stoke the fires of this anti-immigrant hysteria that has gripped the country in the wake of 9/11.

Aliens is 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 funds 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 many 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.

The Congreso members exposed all of these myriad human rights violations through major public protests that they organized to challenge these abuses. They shut down City Hall traffic in some protests. They 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 July 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 meant 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 of labor abuses of workers of color in the plantation town of New Orleans, which has a history as the premiere Catholic Slave port 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 “colored 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 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 who 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” dehumanization and brutality against immigrants have become a collective normality, 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 renovated state.

It remains the dirtiest little secret of the reconstruction in the open air, and even worse, the recent Tricentennial celebrations of 2018 did little to recognize the Latin American immigrant community. The Louisiana Endowments for the Humanities (LEH) published the official three-hundred-year anthology, and they have disappeared our immigrant people from their post-Katrina Chapter titled “Renewal.”

We have been made invisible by their so-called scholars, who have exacted their white privilege to decide who deserves to be remembered and who can be easily and heartlessly wiped out of history. In the new Aliens revised version, I perform a poetic piece with the actual book in hand that illustrates how we have been disappeared by the LEH.

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 barbaric 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!

Adding to this disappearance of our people, the LEH’s Executive Director, has tried to silence me from holding them accountable like some bad art Telenovela, and actually engaged in having the VIDA In New Orleans cultural platform I’ve founded for Latin American writers de-funded. VIDA amplifies our collective Latinx voices, and we drive our own narratives. You can’t script a better not-for-profit arts world corruption story, and their Executive Editor, who is a bilingual white scholar, exacted her privilege and edited us out of New Orleans current history. I perform this as part of the new Aliens.

Our immigrant community is under threat with looming deportation raids, and organizations like the LEH have disappeared us in their three hundred year anthology. These are the formulas by which oppressive regimes and their cultural enforcers engage in wiping out the most marginalized people from history.

“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 Latino noir version is performed with the film projections, 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 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 Latin Americans, as Republicans used immigrants as political pawns with their 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.” Classical vocalist Claudia Copeland 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.

The 2019-20 Aliens tour includes performances at the Chicago International Latino Theater Festival with three shows October 3-5 at the National Museum of Mexican Art. Then, I head to Madison, WI a few hours away. The Los Angeles Theater Center will have me back for a two-week run of Aliens that opens Thursday-Sunday, October 24-27 and continues Thursday-Sunday, October 31 – November 3. In spring 2020, I will be at the ArstXchange in Atlanta and the University of Virginia at Charlottsville by early April for two shows and a one-week residency. We’re planning a two-week run at GALA Hispanic Theatre as well in late April 2020. I kick off this tour with two shows at the Ashé Cultural Center here in New Orleans in on Friday–Saturday, August 30 and 31, 2019.

Q: What else are you working on now?

A: The Taco Truck Theater/Teatro Sin Fronteras 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.

Our touring trio includes Spirit McIntyre, cellist, poet, performer, and vocalist, and Roberto Carrillo, singer, performer, cajón and panpipes player. We will be performing at ROOTS Week in early August, and this is major annual meeting of Alterrnate ROOTS, an arts and social justice organization based in Atlanta.

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. We WON Best Louisiana Feature at the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival last October. The film is touring the national film circuit, and it received great press and strong critical reviews at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival in February of this year.

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 performances at MECA this past April, I performed the 2nd production version with sci-fi theater lighting effects and the soundscapes in between the transformations from one character to another. For state of the arts theaters like what Vanderbilt University offered, I perform the full sci-fi high-value production that includes the film projections and hate crimes 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 with 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 back in the 90s. 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.

The comedic performance wit of Holly Hughes has also been an inspiration, and I employ humor as strategy to seduce the audience while offering the necessary levity to balance the high drama of my work. Coming form the visual arts, I like to create visually dynamic performances that thrive on complex imagery that can leave indelible marks on the psyche. Aliens is a visually dynamic performance piece, and the opening ritual of the enigmatic and silent “Alien” character carrying a large red wooden cross with dollar bills hanging off it offers a powerful complex image. As someone who studied pantomime amd movement, I perform a Kabuki-like ritual while the a capella recording of Claudia Copeland’s version of Stella Splendens offers a faux religiosity for the sacred and profane to be realized.

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 speak 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. I have found my path with performance art, and the hybrid-genre work that I forge allows me to release the trauma of the immigrant experience in a country that makes us the enemy at present.

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. 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 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 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 the Black WE, the Brown WE, the Native WE, the Asian WE, the immigrant WE, and other playwrights and performers of color, whose stories are AWOL at these big theater plantations.

Let’s dare to call them out, and have them put their money where there “so-called progressive mouths” are. 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 we will  prepare the “caliente meals” that will make your pallets asks for more.

WE are the people whose voices need to be championed and amplified because our lives as “melanin people of power” are the ones on the front lives of this unabashed white nationalists agenda looking to do us harm. We are the ones that are transforming our trauma into powerful and meaningful work on stages across the country. We just need to be on the biggest stages that continue their segregationist strategies, and pimp Eurocentric white Aryan narratives. Look at your powerful regional theaters and what they present, and it’s obvious they have a stranglehold on whose stories are celebrated.

Let’s dare to make the change happen more rapidly, and get our melanin people of power on those grand stages.

Finally, my comic battle cry, “NO GUACAMOLE for Immigrant Haters!”

Ashé y Adelante!

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