So maybe, if the stories of the “dreamers” become art, America will be better at loving them, too.
That’s what they’re hoping, the ones daring enough to tell their stories.
When Gabriel Mata dances about the frustration and fear in his life, the fluid moves, the leaps, the spins awe an audience of fancy dance fans.
And then, they begin to understand what parts of the piece are about his nightmares and his shadows, about his life as a child who is completely American, just not on paper.
“Sometimes, after a performance, someone from the audience will come and tell me ‘I wasn’t aware of this, I had no idea,’ ” Mata said. “People may not see me as different, but underneath all the skin and the physical body, I have a different story.”
Mata, 28, is a grad student and dance teacher at the University of Maryland and part of a growing subgenre of DACA stories that are being communicated as art, rather than congressional testimony or political commentary.
A DACA opera in Texas; art installations at the border; DACA theater camp in D.C.; Mata’s dances in California, Minnesota and now D.C.; a podcast series in Colorado.
It’s a last-ditch effort for some of them because the clock is ticking on the Obama-era executive order that gave them legal status here.
Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, undocumented immigrants who came as kids could get renewable, two-year permits to study and work and stay in the country they grew up in. But the Trump administration is trying to end the program — setting up the deportation of hundreds of thousands of kids and young adults to countries they don’t remember, don’t know.
One of Mata’s award-winning performances was called “Out of the Shadows.” Because it’s a little dangerous to tell that story, to come out of the shadows.
At Motus Theater company in Boulder, Kirsten Wilson is trying to help shed some light on those shadows.
“Despite the fact that immigration is probably the most contentious issue in this country right now, there are almost never any undocumented people interviewed in the news and media about the impact of these policies on their lives,” said Wilson, who helped create the Shoebox Stories podcasts that have such superstars as José Andrés, John Lithgow, Gloria Steinem and Jorge Ramos read aloud the words of DACA recipients who want to share their stories. Yo-Yo Ma added music.
The stories, beautiful and raw, are art. And that, Wilson believes, will be the way to make change.
“It is almost always a politician, on either side of the debate, talking about immigration policies,” she said. “But that doesn’t open people’s hearts and minds.”
Alejandro Fuentes Mena, 28, is a math teacher in Denver and is one of the people — one of the country’s few undocumented public school teachers — who is risking his place in America by telling his story.
He came to the United States from Chile when he was 4 years old to join his mom. And not only does he worry every day that the whole life he worked to build, the nearly perfect high school GPA that got him the college scholarship that got him the teaching career that got him his vibrant life teaching rowdy middle schoolers that math is not the enemy — could be gone in an instant.
His bigger worry right now is that too many Americans — most of whom are descendants of immigrants — have forgotten the immigration story.
His is one of the podcasts in the Denver series, the one that Andrés agreed to read.
“I could be you, I could be them,” Andrés told Fuentes Mena, as he prepared to record the teacher’s story. “Life is a lottery ticket, some people [are] born with the winning lottery ticket and other people are not even in the know that there is a ticket at all.”
And he begins the animated, slightly gruff and emotional reading.
“I was just a kid when I realized what being undocumented meant. At age eight, I started going to work with my dad so I could help him rebuild the entire outside of people’s homes all the while not having a real home of our own,” Fuentes Mena wrote.
And he watched his dad and his mom get paid half what any of their jobs were worth, knowing they wouldn’t speak up because they were undocumented. “And that’s who my father believed he was, half the man I thought he was, half the value of any other.”
Finding a universal emotion, a human connection, was what Fuentes Mena was after.
“There’s always bits and pieces that you yourself can identify with,” he said. “I know a lot of people aren’t undocumented, but they understand being taking advantage of.”
And that’s the connection of common humanity he wants to make.
Mata is trying to do that through dance. What is your earliest memory? His is crossing the border, frightened and 5 years old, with a coyote paid by his parents to get him out of Mexico.
His upcoming dance show at the Atlas theater in Northeast Washington on Friday is about that moment — “This is where/I Begin”
It is the beginning of his story. It’s all he remembers, all he knows. His beginning is in America. And he wants others to see what that feels like.
There is an old proverb: “The enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard.”
These immigrants are trying to tell America their stories. And it’s time for all of America to listen.
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