PHOENIX, Arizona — When the school counselor gave her the news, it broke Olivia’s heart. Her father had been detained by deputies from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. In the worst case scenario, he might have already been deported.
The play — a fundraising effort to keep Phoenix’s sole day laborer center from shutting down — is holding up a mirror to audiences, challenging them to acknowledge the situation faced by immigrant families torn apart in raids by local sheriff’s deputies who are authorized to act as immigration agents.
“We wanted to expose audiences to stories they might never see — said Garcia — put a third dimension to the immigrant story. Because most Americans’ image of immigrants is of people coming over a (border) wall, or being handcuffed on a sidewalk.”
Watch a segment of the play/Video by Valeria Fernández
The Tears of Lives is the story of Regino Ortega, an undocumented immigrant who has been living in the United States for 21 years when he gets arrested by a Maricopa County sheriff’s deputy. Because he is a single parent, his three young children are left to fend for themselves.
The playwright, who is also a long-time local journalist, said he was inspired by everyday headlines. One of them concerned a father whose three U.S. born children were left home alone for more than a week after he was arrested by the police and faced deportation. The children were almost separated by Child Protective Services (CPS) until a relative was able to care for them.
Another story was the recent case of Katherine Figueroa, a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents where detained in a raid at a car wash. In a video produced by local activists, Figueroa sent a message to President Barack Obama, appealing to him as a father to push for immigration reform.
The girl’s message is reproduced verbatim in the play by one of the main characters.
The Tears of Lives is peppered with allegations of racial profiling and physical abuse by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MSCO). The agency led by America’s self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff” Joe Arpaio is currently under federal investigation by the Department of Justice in connection with alleged civil rights violations.
Arpaio, who hasn’t seen the play –nor knows about the controversial ending, which we won’t give away here– told this reporter in a story for The Arizona Republic that the accusations were false.
“But with First Amendment rights, they have a right to say whatever they have to say,” he added.
Salvador Reza, coordinator of the Macehualli Work Center, begs to differ.
“This is happening here today. We’re the actors in real life,” said Reza. “But everybody wants to shy away from this situation.”
A day before the show’s opening night, the Sheriff’s Office arrested 44 workers in a worksite raid at a paper factory. Community activists had to organize to provide food and aid to some of the families impacted by the sweep.
All of this hit very close to home for some of the actors in the play.
“I heard of these stories, and I live them, and I met the families,” said Dulce Juarez, one of the leading actresses in The Tears of Lives. Juarez plays the role of Ms. Hamlin, a school counselor who has to decide whether to help the children despite the pressures of being persecuted by the authorities.
“I almost feel I have the responsibility to do something,” said Masavi Perea, the actor who plays Mr. Ortega, the undocumented immigrant.
The play was put together in three weeks with a cast of 12 volunteer actors. Garcia said he started working on it three months ago, after Reza approached him asking if he had a piece that could help raise funds.
“It is important to have plays that are produced with the aim to bring social change about,” said Luis Avila, the play’s director.
Avila feels this is a way to create awareness about the impact of immigration raids, beyond what’s reported in the news. The actor and local activist also likes the fact that the play is connected to a cause: helping the Macehualli center.
“I think it is important to preserve the model of day labor centers,” said Avila. “This center promotes the organizing of the workers, the representation and labor protection of the workers, as well as the humane treatment of people that have suffered for years the persecution of immigration authorities.”
Reza is hoping the play will raise as much as $10,000 of the $60,000 needed to keep the center open.
The center was the subject of a number of protests by anti-immigrant groups, such as the Minutemen, through 2008. The Tears of Lives presents the perspective of these groups, but Garcia doesn’t feel he’s getting into politics.
“The core of the issue is how do we address this broken (immigration) system and deal with the fact that families are being destroyed?” he said.
Katherine Figueroa –whose parents are still jailed after the car wash raid– recently attended the play with her grandmother. After the performance she was invited on stage to address the audience.
“Thank you so much for coming,” she said as she broke into tears. “I need you guys to help me, I need your help to get my parents back.”