When Young Actors Tell Their Real Stories On Stage

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photographs by Breannie Robinson

by  Breannie Robinson

“This is my real life,” said actress Deanne Palaganas, a 25-year-old who plays a Filipino mother who is arrested by police and jailed for not having her papers.

The actress talks about the prejudice she encounters, the judgments of people not accepting her because she has no papers even though she pays taxes.

Palaganas portrays an immigrant and single mother from the Phillipines in Gary Soto’s newest play, Living In and Out of Shadows, which played last month at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco.

To write his play, Soto read through the harrowing experiences of immigrant teenagers, gathered through interviews conducted by the Marsh Youth Theatre actors, living in Richmond and Pinole, and wove them together in an intricate compilation of stories and songs.

Palaganas herself was an undocumented teen, forced to live in secrecy even while attending college.

Like Palaganas, many of the actors were telling their own stories on stage. Others were portraying people they had interviewed.

The play refrains from stereotyping the immigrant look and experience.  Soto said his biggest fear was not including enough ethnicities, which is why he added a Chinese teen and added the stories of several of the Marsh Youth Theater’s undocumented actors from Canada, the Phillipines, and Mexico.

This is most noticeable when a young Chinese girl addresses the point, saying “they think only Mexicans and Latinos know the way [across the border] but we Chinese know the route, too. ” In the play, her Chinese family takes a plane ride to Peru, travels from Peru to Mexico and then crosses the Mexican-US border illegally.

Several of the interviews with Marsh Youth Theatre actors made it into the play, including a story from a young man who migrated to the U.S. illegally but told Soto,  “because I’m white, they don’t bother me.”  An Indonesian girl found it frustrating to have people refer to her as Chinese or Mexican.

Besides adding cultural diversity,  Soto made sure to include real details: for instance, a young boy had to re-cross the Mexican-American border through an underground sewer pipeline after he was caught by ICE the first time when trying to cross through the desert with his uncle.

Palaganas said her character reminded her much of her own mother, loud and passionate, outspoken and prone to alternating between rapid or soft Tagalog but never a mixture. “For many of us, this is our story,” she said.

“I’m allowed to stay here because Obama let me,” said Palaganas.”Not many Filipinos are open.  They train their kids to maintain their reputation, to say they have papers,” said Palaganas.

“To them [American-born] we are aliens,” said Palaganas.  She criticized the U.S. government for accepting taxes from undocumented immigrants, but refusing to acknowledge their contribution or pay any benefits. As for undocumented parents, “They tell us we have to act normal, act American,” said Palaganas, who was accepted to UC Irvine and San Francisco State but could not get a scholarship because she was undocumented.

“You just try to live your life normally and don’t tell nobody your status,” says Louel Senores, who plays Felix, the articulate, dancing, rapping Filipino high school student and activist in In and Out of Shadows.

Senores’ story is a bit different: he received his papers in 8th grade. He was able to attend UC Berkeley from which he graduated with a degree in engineering  For him, the challenge was professional: how to portray a jock when he was trained as a ballet dancer.

Although not in the script, he added his own line about being gay because he wanted to include LGBT in the production, as they are among undocumented youth.

“Filipinos from the islands are more conservative, they are not very open to homosexuality,” said Senores. 

After spending time with undocumented cast members, Senores feels fortunate. “I am an immigrant but I got my papers.  I didn’t think of it.  I didn’t realize they had it that hard.  That’s some f***ed up shit,” he added

“It was just a role but it makes you care,” said Senores. “As soon as you know someone who is going through that,  you care.”

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