Mexican Community Theater: A Different View of Immigration

In a small, crowded theater in New York’s West Village the night of August 8, a group of thirty indigenous women from central Mexico finally got a chance to perform their play before a U.S. audience.

The cast, members of the community group Soame Citlalime (“Women of the Star” in Náhuatl), had spent the past year creating “La Casa Rosa,” a 90-minute drama about the impact of immigration on their village, San Francisco Tetlanohcan, east of Mexico City in the state of Tlaxcala.  An April tour in New York and New Haven, sponsored by the New Haven-based Institute for Social and Cultural Practice and Research in Mexico (IIPSOCULTA U.S.), had to be cancelled at the last minute when the U.S. embassy in Mexico City denied the group’s application for visas.

But the women were determined to get their message to people in the United States, and the State Department relented in July, after the intervention of New Haven mayor John Destefano and Congress member Rosa DeLauro.

Asked shortly before the performance what their message was, cast member Yolanda Mendieta gave an answer that would surprise many people here: “No más migración.”  No more migration.

Open It Up or Shut It Down

While many people in the United States think of immigration from Latin America as a “silent invasion” by people desperately eager to live in El Norte, the view from Tetlanohcan is very different.

“La Casa Rosa” uses tensions between two sisters over inherited land to dramatize the realities of immigration for those left behind: the disruption of family ties, the erosion of local culture, and the fears for friends and relatives crossing a border region where at least 5,000 people have died in the last 15 years.  According to Mendieta, 30 percent or more of the villagers have taken the dangerous journey to the north.

But why do so many people leave?  Tetlanohcan residents have learned the reality behind promises of a better life through “free trade” and “globalization.”  Trade pacts like NAFTA have devastated rural villages in Mexico by forcing local farmers into an unequal competition with tax-subsidized U.S. agribusiness giants like Cargill.  With no way to make a living at home, the campesinos go to the North, where anti-immigrant legislation leaves them defenseless against super-exploitation by U.S. employers.

One of the sisters, Juana, forms a women’s group — very much like Soame Citlilame itself — to organize around these issues.  Near the end of the play the group holds a demonstration.  Either close the border for real, the protesters say, directly addressing the audience, or open it up.  Either end immigration completely, or let immigrant workers enjoy full labor rights when they come here.

Tamales and “Social Change”

Despite its strong political message, “La Casa Rosa” is more than simple agit-prop.  Using improvisation techniques under the guidance of actor-writer Daniel Carlton, the cast members created their drama out of their own experiences.  They really feel the emotions they portray, and they’re not afraid to show the difficulties, and occasional comedy, of political organizing.  Juana’s group suffers from the problems activists encounter everywhere: gossip, backbiting, demoralization, and people who think “social change” means throwing better parties.

What may be the most moving moment — although still with a touch of humor — comes when Juana tries to teach her “modern” nieces how to make tamales.

Community theater has become an important part of political organizing in Latin America, where every group, including Mexico City street sweepers, seems to use street theater to advance its cause.  This phenomenon is spreading here as well, partly as a result of immigration.  In 2008 and 2009, “La Casa Rosa” director Carlton worked with a group of immigrant youths, mostly Latinos, in New York City to produce a play drawn from their own experiences coming to the city.

After the performance on August 8, Carlton told the hot but enthusiastic audience that the group’s tour would continue to the end of September.  The women and their sponsors were still booking performances, he said, trying to bring their story to as many people as they could, especially the ones who needed a fresh perspective on immigration.  Carlton added that there was some possibility of an engagement in Arizona.

“La Casa Rosa” is in Spanish, with English super-titles.
For a schedule of performances, go to
For bookings, email or
For a documentary on the creation of “La Casa Rosa,” see: or
For coverage (in Spanish) of a performance of “La Casa Rosa” at the Universidad Iberoamericana (UIA) in Puebla, see: Víctor Hugo Varela Loyola, “Conciencian mujeres sobre la migración”
For more on the right not to migrate, see: David Bacon, “The Right to Stay Home”

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007.

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