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De Novo: Beyond Borders (más allá de las fronteras)
The actors proceed to create a gripping, persuasive and important documentary theater piece comprised almost entirely from court transcripts, interviews, police reports, and psychiatric exams. In particular they are putting together the story of Guatemalan-born teen Edgar Chocoy-Guzman who at the age of fourteen illegally crossed the border into the United States in a desperate effort to escape life as a gang member. A little dramatic liberty is taken, they explain, to give shape to the story although the dialogue that we hear in both English and Spanish is attributed to the real people who spoke it.
The play chronicles the route taken by Edgar (Aranda) after his mother left him to find work in the United States. She keeps her promise to send clothes to the then ten-year old Edgar and also to send money home. We are reminded that Guatemala had fallen into political, economic and social chaos following the overthrow in 1954 of the democratically elected government that was largely engineered by the United States and funded by the CIA.
Although Edgar lived with his grandfather, his aunt and an uncle who sold drugs in their home, and a younger brother, there was little time for affection or concern for him at home. He, as did many young people who live in poverty, found security and support from a local street gang. The only way to leave the gang was by paying them a large sum of money which Edgar did not have.
The gang’s name was Mara Salvatrucha, and once branded with the gang’s tattoo MS, Edgar’s allegiance to the gang can never be broken or it will mean death to him and to family members. Because he is not eighteen, Edgar is used by the gang to deliver drugs. He carries a gun, but unlike the older members of the gang has never been involved in murder.
Edgar flees and manages to get himself over the border and to finally locate his mother only to discover that life for him becomes a repetition of what he had experienced before. In the United States, he is spotted by a gang member and forced to join them. His mother throws him out of the house and he is caught in the vicious and endless cycle of arrests and incarceration and without hope for education or a job.
To be sent back by the immigration authorities to Guatemala would mean his death, as he has been marked as a runaway by the gang. What comes to light is how many of the gangs in Mexico and Latin America actually have their roots in the United States. It was during the 1980s that many of the young immigrant aliens became even more empowered when they were deported back to their homeland.
With the use of slides and photos, the play offers visuals of the life these young adults have to face. With over eight thousand children risking their lives every year by crossing the border to escape the horrors of every day life in their own country, the courts in the United States are overwhelmed with cases. The months that 16 year-old Edgar spends in jail in the United States awaiting a hearing and then an appeal is almost unconscionable.
He finds an advocate in a lawyer Kimberly Salinas (Weiner) who does what she can to convince the court that Edgar wants to change his life and that he has aunt living legally in Virginia who will vouch for him. A good amount of testimony regarding Edgar’s case is presented as is his communication with his family in letters. The play’s most poignant scene occurs as Edgar is being held for deportation by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service and, with the assistance of his lawyer, makes a valiant plea for asylum.
Writer/director Jeffrey Solomon has structured the play to fit snuggly within seventy minutes even as he keeps the momentum from ever slowing down. I was a bit confused by the time-line, especially the various charges and sentencing in various courts in Colorado, Arizona and California. What matters the most is that we can see that the system is as overwhelmed and inadequate as is the stultifying bureaucracy behind it.
The acting is notably restrained and compelling with Aranda a standout as Edgar. The other actors play multiple roles with Weiner, particularly forceful as his lawyer. Gallegos switches gears impressively as Edgar’s mother, an unsympathetic judge and as a translator. Leyton is also effective as a counselor and mentor in juvenile hall and other roles.
The title “De Novo” as explained in Merrian-Webster’s Dictionary of Law refers to a de novo review, allowing complete retrial upon new evidence. As the immigration system remains an incendiary topic, especially since the recent laws enacted in Colorado that allow “suspicious” people to be picked up without using words that might be construed as racial profiling. There are many words that can be used to explain and to exploit the problem we and our neighbors to the south are facing regarding illegal immigration, but none do justice to what fate has in store for Edgar and others like him when a plea for asylum is denied.
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