It’s a story that’s been repeated over and over again: Impoverished Mexicans leave their country in search of a better life in the United States, only to find humiliations and mistreatment in exchange for a meager wage at backbreaking jobs. When these workers learn their rights and try to organize, they start to receive threats from their employers, including the threat of deportation.
This is the story of Help Wanted, a play written by Virginia McFarlen and directed by Alberto Justiniano, that Teatro del Pueblo has been bringing to colleges and community theaters throughout Minnesota. Help Wanted tells the true story of two Mexican sisters who, together with their co-workers, organize to fight for better working conditions at their Minneapolis hotel while they confront threats of deportation. The struggle and triumph of the Holiday Inn Express workers, upholding the right to organize without intimidations, became a watershed victory in the history of the labor movement. Today, it is an important lesson of struggle and perseverance for young people caught in the middle of the immigration debate.
I watched this play with a diverse audience of a couple hundred high school and college students at Rochester Community College. During the discussion that followed, the students—many of them immigrants themselves—wanted to know more about immigration issues. The stories in the audience were as compelling as those in the play. A girl talked about her father who was deported to Mexico. As US citizens, she and her mother remained here. A young man told about his own struggle as an immigrant resident and how his bad behavior caused him to almost lose his resident status. He was allowed to remain, living with a foster family and getting good grades in school. These are only a few stories; thousands more have been shared throughout Minnesota in discussions after Teatro del Pueblo productions.
“What is important for us is that we become a catalyst for these type of conversations on themes like immigration, diversity, identity and acceptance,” says Alberto Justiniano, creative director of Teatro del Pueblo. “We want to open people’s minds, to encourage the audience to see somebody else’s perspective—to agree or disagree, but to be able to have the conversation.”
Teatro del Pueblo is a small non-profit theater company located on St. Paul’s West Side. Besides developing plays with Latino themes and presenting them in the Twin Cities, the company has an educational program that brings small plays to colleges and high schools throughout greater Minnesota. The goal of the educational program is to educate young people about the issues facing Latinos, and to encourage conversations geared at breaking stereotypes and reinforcing critical thinking. Plays presented have included Echoes of the New World and a puppet show, based on the country mouse fable, that explores the differences, commonalities and relationships between Mexican and US cultures.
Teatro del Pueblo is also the organizer for the Political Theater Festival in coordination with Intermedia Arts and the University of Minnesota. Presented every year in February at Intermedia Arts, the Political Theater Festival presents plays written and directed by local and international Latino artists. This year the theme will be the politics of identity among the Latino community.
After sixteen years of work, Teatro del Pueblo continues to produce theater for and about the Latino community. It is the only Latino theater company with educational and artistic programs. Two other Latino companies are Trece Lunas Arts Collective, another small company that produces Latino plays, and Teatro Latino, which has not produced plays for some time. There is definitely a need for more quality Latino theater in the Twin Cities, theater that addresses the difficult issues facing the Latino community.