Think of the word "desert," and all that it implies. Hot. Barren. Sere. Dry. Arid. For some, it is beautiful, as well. But for most, it is inhospitable, a wasteland. And for some who seek it out, here on the border between Arizona and Mexico, it is also malevolent. But despite the desert's highly dangerous and sometimes deadly character, a large and growing number of Mexican citizens, who suffer from their country's struggling economy, find it a necessary evil. Eleven hundred square miles of desert exists between the Mexican border with Arizona and Tucson. And every year, more and more people — men, women, and children — feel it necessary to cross this desolation in order to slip into the United States and, they hope, work to raise enough money to keep their families together, and alive.
The Justice Theater Project's latest performance is a distillation of several stories related first-hand to a group of people from the Catholic Relief Services, an arm of which is dedicated to assisting those "crossers," as they have become known, in surviving the terrible trials they meet in this desert. Written by the CRS, The Line in the Sand: Stories from the U.S./Mexico Border simply tells the audience of what the crossers are risking, why they do it, and how they are treated as a result. It is the other side of the tale of illegal immigration, told from the point of view of those feel they must do it.
To tell this story, JTP asked local director Carnessa Ottelin to direct; it is her third project for JTP. Ottelin directs a multimedia production that uses film, slides, music, and actors to tell many different sides of the current situation. There is a cast of five, but only four appear onstage. The fifth, Debbie Craycraft, portrays her character, the Rancher, on film. The rest of the ensemble consists of Sean A. Brosnahan, Deb Royals-Mizerk, Gustavo Schmidt, and Maria Elena De Leon Angel-Williams. Schmidt, a native of Panama City, plays many different characters, as do Royals-Mizerk and Brosnahan. Angel-Williams portrays only one character: Lucresia.
The real Lucresia, a mother, wife, and daughter of a poor family in a small town below Mexico City, died of exposure while attempting to reunite herself and her two youngest children with her husband and sons in Chicago. Angel-Williams ably portrays what must have been the last moments of consciousness for Lucresia in the Arizona desert. Her "body" then remains onstage throughout the one-hour-plus performance. Her story ends with Juan, her youngest son, remaining with her for 19 hours while she dies of exposure. He then wanders for four days in the desert before he is picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol and returned to Mexico. Only because he returns, to tell the story, does Juan's grandfather later find Lucresia's scorched body in the desert.
Although it is short, this play is highly potent in that it tells, simply and in detail, the stories of those who feel they have no choice but to cross. One young woman (Deb Royals-Mizerk), who has been found and detained by the Border Patrol, tells a member of Catholic Relief Services that this is actually her second attempt, and that she paid a "Coyote," a guide who charged her two thousand dollars, to help get her across the desert. But Coyotes are not to be trusted. Once the money has been paid, all the crossers, who travel in groups of from 15 to 60 or more, are at the mercy of the Coyotes, who drive them mercilessly and leave those who cannot make the trip to die in the desert.
The Rancher (Debbie Craycraft) talks to the camera and wonders out loud why they would do it, risk life and freedom to get across the desert. The reason is that a crosser lucky enough to get across and find a job, any menial job, might earn as much as $30,000 in a year. You can live well in Mexico for five years on that kind of money. It is a simple economic equation.
The Line in the Sand is not pretty; it is not meant to be. It is designed to call attention to the plights of those who fight both the law and the environment to make a better life for themselves. The Arizona desert is littered, if that is the proper word, with water bottles, food wrappers, backpacks, photographs, and clothing left behind as unnecessary as the trip across the desert unfolds. One American woman who works to help the crossers, Sue Kretz (Deb Royals-Mizerk), tells us that these items are not trash. "These things," she tells us, "are parts of people's lives, dropped because they are too hard to hold onto."
The play seeks to alert us, to educate us, to inform us that these are not just "illegals" who cross into the U.S. to make trouble. To them, the U.S. is a dream. All they want is to work. And all they asked of the members of Catholic Relief Services when the team asked what they could do, once they had left this place, was to tell their stories. The Justice Theater Project's performance tells their stories, ably and with a compassion that is missing from the political debate that raises ire in the U.S. populace. The Raleigh, NC-based Justice Theater Project, along with the Catholic Relief Services, reminds us that no human being is illegal. And even in the face of the rage that illegal immigration raises in the U.S. populace, it is a tremendously potent argument.
The Justice Theater Project presents The in the Sand: Stories from the U.S./Mexico Border Friday-Saturday, June 6-7 and 13-14, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 8 and 15, at 3 p.m. in the Cardinal Gibbons Performing Arts Center, 1401 Edwards Mill Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607. $15 ($12 students and seniors), except $10 per ticket for groups of 10 or more. 919/272-1551. Note: On June 14th, there will be another post-show discussion with Aida Ocana of Catholic Relief Services, as well as Debbie McCullough and Delle McCormick of the international, experiential, education program BorderLinks (http://www.borderlinks.org/). The Justice Theater Project: http://thejusticetheaterproject.org/.