By Scott Shafer
Immigration was a big issue this week in Washington. Congress is in the early stages of figuring out what to do about the 11 million people in the U.S. without documents. About 10 percent of them came as children. Now, some of their stories are being portrayed this weekend in a new musical called "In and Out of Shadows" at the Marsh Theatre in San Francisco.
It's written by Gary Soto and based on interviews with undocumented teenagers living in the Bay Area. The actors are members of the Marsh Youth Theatre group, including Adan Ruiz.
"I'm originally from South Mexico from Oaxaca," Ruiz says. "I came to the United States when I was 14 years old."
Like the young immigrants whose lives form the basis of this play, the 26-year-old actor knows what it's like to live in the shadows.
"I went to high school undocumented, he notes. "I went to college undocumented. I just got my documents like a couple years ago. So, it's been a hard process."
Ruiz plays a part based on a real-life teenager who came to California with his uncle -- through sewers near the Mexican border. "Crossing into these circumstances where it was nasty and disgusting and smelly and dark for him. So, it was very dramatic."
Ruiz adds that it reminds him of his own life, sneaking into the United States as a kid. "It was really hard," Ruiz remembers. "It was just me and my brother. I felt like I was having all the responsibility. Very dramatic. I will never forget that having all of these people around us and then crossing with documents of other kids, American kids pretty much."
Cast members dance during a performance of "In and Out of Shadows."
One of the other actors is 20-year-old Deanne Palaganas. She plays a Filipino mother -- a role based partly on her own life. Palaganas came to the U.S. legally from the Philippines with her mom, but her legal status will become uncertain soon when she turns 21.
"Basically some parts of the show, some parts of the Filipino family plotline is actually part my story," she says. "So once our immigration status got all messed up, it started with a lawyer. Who did not file for our change of status to become residents in time."
This is writer Gary Soto's second play. The first, titled "Novio Boy," was about teenage love. Soto -- who's now 60 -- was undaunted by the challenges of writing dialogue for teenagers.
"I had no problems writing about young people," Soto says. "And I had no problems with writing about a subject that's really, really timely. I think if anything it was my fear of not representing all racial groups."
Soto, who grew up in the Central Valley and still spends time there, is best -known for his poetry, much of it inspired by the lives of working class Latinos. He described what he was looking for from the teenagers' stories he was given to form the basis for this play.
"In looking at the subjects I really had to think about what are the moments that would really touch really someone," Soto said. He applauds the young actors -- some of whom are or were themselves undocumented -- for taking on these roles.
"There may be risk," he said. "Like we don't think La Migra, the border patrol, would show up to gather up some of the kids and the parents in the audience as well. Or I.C.E. But I think it's brave of them, young people who have very little acting experience or zero acting experience to say yeah, I think I could play this part."
The stories portrayed include those of teens known as "Dreamers" -- trying to get in-state tuition for California universities. Others come from families with mixed immigration status -- kids who live in fear their parents or siblings could be deported.
The stories resonate with 17-year-old actor Homero Rosas. He came to the U.S. from Mexico over a decade ago -- hiding, he says, under a blanket in the back of car.
"I woke up in some lady's house and I was in a living room on the ground, Rosas recalls. "All I remember was like being really hungry, like ridiculously hungry like I hadn't eaten in several days sort of hungry."
Rosas says those memories help with honest performances in the play.
"I bring a lot of emotions into it that aren't expressed by other actors who haven't been in that situation," Rosas says. "So, I use what I know, my personal experience to really interpret how he feels and really magnify the importance of this denial of he can't do certain things that others can."
It's likely "In and Out of Shadows" will draw an audience of immigrants and their families. Playwright Gary Soto hopes his audience will include younger members as well as their families.
"I think that a lot of young people are not seeing theater," Soto says, "and this may in fact be one of the first or second plays they've ever seen live, there's something live in front of you. There's music and there's dance and there's some theatrics, we'll be throwing candy into the audience and we have a squirt gun incident. It's not dumbed-down theater, it's just really clever theater and I think the audience will very much be involved."
"In and Out of Shadows" plays now through February 17 at the Marsh Theatre in San Francisco.