On a September evening in one of Chicago’s oldest but least gentrified neighborhoods, two actors step onto a small platform stage and assume character. A hand-painted mural, a map of the US-Mexico border, provides the set. Above it a black and white video begins, with English super-titles. The play is De Camino al Ahorita (the way to the present moment), by Raúl Dorantes. It is presented in Spanish, in a community gallery named Calles y Suenos, in the Mexican-American neighborhood called Pilsen.
Two characters encounter each other here, in a remote desert and intense August heat. One is a young man on his way into the U.S. to find work and realize his ambitions, while the other is an older man retracing his steps back to Mexico after losing nearly all he valued in pursuit of success. One believes in the promise of America, the other is fleeing its dystopian backstory. Together, they are like a dog chasing its own tail. The absurdity is clear but amplified by the simultaneous, almost hallucinatory video segments of souls crossing over from life to death.
Near the end of the play, a third character enters the scene. He is an overly-aggressive border patrol agent with unapparent Latino heritage. His arrival induces confrontation between characters, just as it amplifies the questions: Who is illegal? What is asylum? In answer, the play exposes the ultimate dictator, hunger, and the ultimate lesson, that apparently disparate lives are deeply interconnected.
This play was written for people in this Mexican-American community and beyond, for anyone who knows or cares to know about the immigrant’s struggle between economics (survival and success) and identity. After its closing in Pilsen, it was presented to an audience of 170 at Northeastern Illinois University. It is so like Dorantes to begin at the center and expand.
In 1992, playwright and author Raúl Dorantes began publishing literary journals in Chicago. His focus was on poetry that explored internal consciousness and experience. That journal continued for three years while Dorantes conducted literary workshops for youth and began a career teaching Spanish. He continues to teach Spanish Language and Hispanic Literature in two Chicago-area colleges.
Dorantes’ own writing has long explored immigration and identity. He reflects deeply on the process of his own changing identity, the identity carried from his native country as it has undergone adaptation and transformation. As he explains, “There is a moment when the identity of the immigrant takes the first row and the Mexican identity moves to the second row. When we want to probe that we are still Mexican, that establishes the moment in which immigrant identity moves to the front. Probably we are not conscious about that shift.”
He has also embraced the shared experiences of immigration as co-founder of the literary journals, Zorros y Erizos (Foxes and Hedgehogs) and Tropel (Herd of Wild Horses). Dorantes has also co-written a book of essays with Febronio Zatarain, titled, Y Nos Vinimos de Mojados: Cultura Mexicana en Chicago (And We Came in Wet: Mexican Culture in Chicago). His continuing journalistic work on the national magazine, Contratiempo, concerns broader Latino culture.
In 2007, Dorantes accepted a pivotal challenge–to write for the Chicago theater company, Aguilon. The resulting play was so successful that it was also presented at the prestigious Goodman Theater. Dorantes’ work as a playwright had gained momentum and he went on to write plays for the theater group, Colectivo el Pozo. The Chicago Reader designated his most recent play a “Critic’s Choice” on its short list of recommendations.
Teacher, cultural activist, and writer, Dorantes’ work itself serves the purposes of several local organizations, but the proceeds from his work as a playwright often go to directly support them. Colectivo el Pozo, Calles y Suenos, Casa Aztlan, Contratiempo–all four are non-profits to which he has made a significant contribution of time, creativity, or proceeds. All are small non-profit organizations with a mission to cultivate and disseminate Latino arts to a broad spectrum of Latino communities.
Speaking of his dedication to these causes, he explained, “Art is probably one of the best ways to become aware of many things, including being aware of our constantly-changing identity.”
Dorantes says his next work will be a play called Incas, about gay culture in the Latino communities of Chicago. Still, he says, “I want to be writing and producing plays about immigrants (not just Mexicans) living in the United States. I think there is so much to tell.”
more about Raul Dorantes | profile by Arte Y Vida Chicago
Calles y Suenos-Chicago | MySpace Page | Facebook Page
Calles y Suenos-Chicago provides an alternative arts space for exhibition, performing arts, music, film and cultural workshops for the Latino community. A Latino Internationalist community, it works to sustain collaboration and cultural exchange among the diverse Latino communities in Chicago with its sister organizatons in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Casa Aztlan | www.casaaztlan.org
Casa Aztlan is an educational and social center that offers cultural activities, community service opportunities, leadership development services for youth, adult education, citizenship assistance, emergency services, and community organizing. Casa Aztlan is also on the vanguard of the human rights movement and immigrants’ civil rights.
Revista Contratiempo | www.revistacontratiempo.com
The mission of Contratiempo is to inform and educate, while creating awareness among Latino communities about the culture, literature, politics and other topics relevant to their daily lives as immigrants in the United States. Its programs include a publishing house, cultural events, literary workshops, a Narrative in Spanish prize, and the publication that gave rise to the organization, the journal, Revista Contratiempo.
Collectivo el Pozo | Facebook Page
Colectivo el Pozo (The Well) is composed of a group of storytellers, poets, and other artists. Together, they produce theatre works written by local authors who write in Spanish. El Pozo promotes the diverse themes of Latin-American immigrants living in the United States.