Immigrant Chicago says "I am here"

By Lance Selfa

SINCE 1997, the Albany Park Theater Project (APTP) has presented award-winning work drawn from the life experiences and oral testimonies of residents of Albany Park, a Chicago neighborhood with a large immigrant population with origins in Mexico, Korea, Ecuador, the Middle East, Bosnia and dozens of other countries.

The APTP premiered the two pieces that compose Aquí Estoy in 2003, before the pro-immigrant "mega-marches" in 2006 and backlash against immigrants since. So APTP's revival of Aquí Estoy (which means "I am here" in Spanish) in 2008 is quite timely.

Review: Theater

Aquí Estoy, a performance by the Albany Park Theater Project, Chicago.

To make the point further, the audience hears sound bites on immigration drawn from the 2007/2008 presidential debates (including Mike Huckabee joking about Mitt Romney's chasing immigrants with a "varmint gun.")

Performed on a set evoking the U.S.-Mexico border wall and the steel tracks of Chicago's El train, Aquí Estoy uses movement and testimonial to tell its stories. The first piece, called "Amor de Lejos" ("Love from Afar") focuses on Mateo, a one-time soccer star in Guatemala who is forced to migrate to the U.S. to provide for his family after an injury ends his soccer career.

Mateo lands in Chicago where he becomes a jornalero (a day laborer). Initially planning to migrate for a few years, he ends up making Chicago his home after decades of work. The piece opens with a dance between a young Mateo and his future wife Elena. It closes with a similar dance piece between the two, now estranged husband and wife.

Between these two dances, Mateo relates multiple attempts to cross the border, racism against him by both U.S. and Mexican authorities, and his struggle to find work in California and Chicago. Six jornaleros share the stage with Mateo. They form a chorus that allows each to tell a different aspect of the day laborers' lives, from being cheated out of wages to figuring out ways to work so that they can conserve energy over multiple 10-hour days.

We see them climbing over each other as each tries to get the attention of a contractor who wants to hire only a few of them. Then they fall back into the background, forming a work crew that has to cooperate to mow a lawn or to hang drywall.

If "Amor de Lejos" tells the story of first-generation immigrants, the second piece, "Nine Digits," focuses more on the second generation. It follows the true story of an APTP company member, "Julio Alvarez," who came to the U.S. as a child with his parents from Colombia.

As we see Julio grow up to become a high school student with a promising future, we find out how his lack of a Social Security Number ("nine digits"), impedes his desire to go to college, to apply for a scholarship, to get a driver's license or to travel.

The fanciful character J. Wilbur Worker, a cross between Uncle Sam and a traveling salesman, appears on the scene periodically to remind Julio of all the opportunities that his "nine digits" will afford him. Julio must turn them down, as he and his family treat their undocumented status as a secret.

Told in a compact time frame of 75 minutes, Aquí Estoy moves the immigration debate back to where it should be: on the everyday lives and work of nearly 12 million people who have declared "I'm here, and I'm not leaving."

Aquí Estoy will go on the road with spring performances at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and at The Culture Project in New York. For details, contact APTP at 773-866-0875 or at [email protected].