30 Years of the Salvadorean presence in DC
Quique Aviles’ floor-blistering one-man show about the Salvadorean diaspora to Washington D.C. hits you like a fireball from a volcano. From the moment Aviles bounds from the aisles onto the stage and alternates English with Spanish, there is no language barrier. There’s a method to this exuberant story teller’s madness. It’s his impersonations that transform language and stage movement into a lava-flow of multiple-personalities.
Aviles is celebrating 30 years in the U.S. after fleeing the death squads in 1980 at the start of El Salvador’s Civil War. This community activist, who is passionate about being different and an American, brings us street journalism, salted with pinches of satire, about people who could be your neighbors.
At the Tivoli Theatre, both nights of performance were sold out, even the side balconies were packed, while the irrepressible tropical rhythms of Salvadorean music, a mix of Salsa and Bachata (the music of bitterness or sorrow) descended from the overheads. Judging by the excitement in the air, Latino audiences are hungry to hear the untold oral histories that are their personal journeys.
Aviles tells the rock-solid true stories from the 1980s to 2010 based on over 50 oral histories from interviews conducted by University of Maryland students. The interviewees are with all kinds of folks in the Washington D.C.community. They are the witnesses who observed first-hand or participated in the massive migration that became a Salvadorean “tsunami.”
In Columbia Heights, Washington D.C., the Salvadorean enclave starts at 16th and Irving, the borderline where Pupusa Power confronts the African-American community and South American and international cultures. Here, even gentrification is ripe for ridicule. And Aviles shows us how the birth to death cycle cannot be reduced to numbers for the African-American Lady Census Taker, who asks: “Are you of Hispanic or Latino origin?….What is your race?” (Why not “human”?) The question hangs suspended, like the telescopic, orb-shaped projection screen of a street map, over a hushed audience. Can the answer be fit into one word, a statistic, a stereotype?
Aviles’ recitations of his own poems capture the funny contradictions in human behavior when stereotypes break down. It’s hot tamale material and this audience is hip.
Dressed in an apron and waving a spatula, Aviles swivels his hips and his entire body undulates in a hilarious impersonation of Rosita, whose daughter brought her here and got her a green card. Rosita, who runs her own business selling cooked tortillas, enchiladas and pastries from a cart, never goes hungry, she says. But she hates snow and misses the tropical climate of two seasons—wet and dry. When she finally gets to go back after 18 years, she’s sad. She finds the old country is not so great, with smoke-filled shacks and “kids running around naked.” In the beginning, Rosita never knew if her husband was a left-wing guerrilla, or a right-wing National Guard. All she knew was she lost him “to a bullet through the head” in El Salvador. “She got out in time,” Aviles adds in an aside. And that’s when I am reminded of another 30, a “treinta,” from the Civil War Memorial Wall of 30,000 names, (allegedly more than twice that number were murdered), etched in marble, in Cuscatlan Park, San Salvador, that unlike the names on Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, are all civilians, with a special section for the children. These were the desaparicidos (the disappeared ones); each one, an individual life. Rosita could have been a name on that wall.
It’s important for northern Anglo-Americans to know geography and they forget a mountain range can make a difference. Aviles wants to break down those barriers. In his poem “El Salvador at a glance,” Aviles tries to define what this tiny Central American country is, the importance of ”this little question mark,” the size of Massachusetts, the birthplace of the American revolution. What are Salvadoran exports? “War, blood, coffee, sugar, busboys and waiters,” he says. And although squeezed between larger countries – Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua – El Salvador is different. It’s the only country to eat its national flower, the “Flor de Izote,” used as a bitter herb in cooking, Aviles wryly tells us.
In the 1970s after a century, of harsh economic regulations, debilitating poverty, under 14 families, El Salvador was a “pawn” of the U.S., after fifty years of military dictatorships supported by U.S. foreign aid. The U.S. drew the line at El Salvador’s borders and chose to favor the political right-wing over the left-wing, assumed to be Communist. In 1980, the people were hungry and without a voice, and resistance was mounting. The military regime turned up its heat on political repression. As a student labeled a leftist, whose real name was Hector, not Quique, Aviles risked torture or death if he stayed. “So I ran,” he says.
Freedom comes with a price. It means disconnection, dislocation and loss. With tears in his eyes, Aviles poignantly impersonates his mother’s departures. It’s the pain in “any mother” leaving children behind to give them a better future by taking care of other people’s children. Here and in other intense moments, the personal becomes universal.
When Aviles arrives and starts to learn English, he is part of a new, gigantic wave of Salvadorans in D.C. Ethnic diversity in a Latino street festival awakens him, he says, to the power of art as a weapon against injustice, bigotry, and invisibility. His caricature of former president José “Napolitan” Duarte and his wife is hilarious. (I wish Aviles would use some of our Congressmen today as similar targets.) Yet, the hubris-filled, swaggering “military goons,” the beating up of campesinos, the country people, is not so funny. But here in the U.S., the poet finds his voice and works for the community. He also garners one of the largest laughs of the evening, accompanied by applause: “Out of a lot of Solidarity came a lot of children.”
Finally, in the 1990s contradictory events are overripe for satire. The Salvadoreans have co-existed in Washington with the African American community since the 1980s. “We had Salsa; they had go-go music.” But in 1991, there is more than a language barrier between the two groups and the tolerance for differences breaks down. A police officer shoots a Salvadorean after a Cinco de Mayo street party and the Mount Pleasant riots erupt between the blacks and the Latinos. This is an historic moment beyond surreal. With the 1992 Peace Accords, there’s peace in El Salvador. With the race riots in Mount Pleasant, there’s war.
Yet today, with pupuserias moving next door to pizza parlors, and all the turf battles over South American identities and urban territories, Mount Pleasant is still the Salvadorean Mecca. Perhaps Aviles’ greatest tribute to his passion for the U.S. is his statement: “Somehow we had recreated a piece of home right here; yet we were free to go home.” With emphasis on prevailing in spite of hardship in his poem, “We Prevail,” that rings out like a pealing bell of victory, Aviles is a gifted healer who redefines what it means to be an American. And Los Treinta, 30 Years of the Salvadorean Presence in D.C. is sheer inspiration.
This is just skimming the essence of Aviles’ theatrical piece that is still coagulating. Aviles and his partners in research, Professor Ana Patricia Rodriguez and her students from University of Maryland want to expand the project with more interviews and more performances. More translation into English, even projected surtitles, would help the non-Spanish speakers.
This is a project in process that promises to change. It’s worth it to see the show twice as I did. We are all immigrants and we can identify. We are from different states; yet we are united. Every Central and South American country is unique. White-Anglo Americans forget that. Long live those differences. Catch the next installments this Fall, maybe as soon as September at the DC Arts Center. Check their Web site for specific dates to be announced.
LOS TREINTA: 30 Years of the Salvadorean presence in DC
Written and performed by Quique Aviles
Directed by B. Stanley
Produced by the DC Arts Center and GALA Theatre at Tivoli Square
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy