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Detained in the Desert Cuts Through the Hate Mongering

My personal reflections on the play Detained in the Desert now playing at CASA 0101.

By John E. Molina
Published on LatinoLA: October 23, 2010


Detained in the Desert Cuts Through the Hate Mongering


The arts, and theatre in particular, have long been utilized by the oppressed masses as cultural weapons of resistance to systems of domination, and to the individuals who perpetuate those systems. When utilized in this general manner, theatre takes on a revolutionary character.

I recently had the opportunity to witness such a revolutionary theatrical performance when I traveled with a group of fellow volunteers--compa??ero/as representing the non-profit grassroots immigrant rights organization, Border Angels--to CASA 0101, an independent theater in Boyle Heights.

We were welcomed by renowned playwright Josefina Lopez (best known for her play, Real Women Have Curves) as part of the audience for her newest production, Detained in the Desert, a story in which the lives of a xenophobic radio talk-show host, a young Latina, and a humanitarian worker intersect within the context of the recent nativist Arizona legislation, SB 1070.

Lopez wrote Detained in the Desert as an act of resistance to SB 1070. For those who are not informed about the nature of SB 1070, it is the recently-enacted Arizona legislation that requires law enforcement officials to racially profile, to demand on the spot legal documentation of citizenship from anybody that they suspect as being in the state "illegally" (I use parentheses to denote the term "illegally" in order to emphasize that no human being is illegal: we are all children of God residing on one Mother Earth).

While local and state officials, and anti-immigrant bigots in the media, would say that SB 1070 is directed towards all people who are in the United States "illegally", they have predominately tended to focus on Latinos, who comprise approximately 75% of all undocumented workers residing in the United States, and Mexicans in particular, who comprise over 60% of the total. When considered within this context, SB 1070 is clearly a law that targets Latino/as.

Detained in the Desert sheds light on the culture of fear and hate perpetuated by the xenophobic, hate-filled rhetoric of anti-immigrant bigots such as Lou Dobbs and Glen Beck, personified by one of the main characters, a radio talk-show host by the name of "Lou Becker" (played by actor Carey Fox).

Throughout the play, Lou Becker is the villain. He provides the audience with insight into the social psychology of nativist ideologues, as well as some of the ways that their rhetoric effects violence. In fact, we learn that the rhetoric not only inspires violence; it is in and of itself violent. Such xenophobic, hate-filled rhetoric feeds off an anti-immigrant hysteria that has gripped our society, and is in turn stimulated by that anti-immigrant hysteria. And the anti-immigrant hysteria and its complimentary xenophobic, hate-filled rhetoric function to influence public policy (such as SB 1070), and vice-versa.

In other words, there is a synergistic relationship between the contemporary anti-immigrant hysteria, xenophobic, hate-filled rhetoric, and public policy. Every day we witness this synergy firsthand. In Detained in the Desert, the audience witnesses it as it is reproduced in a microcosm.

Another main character is a young Mexican-American woman named "Sandi Sanchez" (played by Yvonne DeLaRosa) who is detained in the Arizona desert while on her way to her hometown of San Diego from college in Texas. Sandi is detained and eventually deported to Mexico for no other reason than the fact she is a Latina. So Sandi is a victim of SB 1070 and, indirectly, of the violent rhetoric of Lou Becker.

The irony of Sandi's plight is that she is Mexican-American, not a Mexican national. She is detained because she refuses to cooperate with law enforcement officials by providing them with identification proving her citizenship--a revolutionary act of resistance to the enforcement of an unjust law. But Sandi doesn't see herself as a revolutionary. On the contrary: at the time of her arrest, she doesn't even take pride in being of Mexican descent. In other words, initially her identity is that of a "Hispanic" woman. But she undergoes a fundamental evolution of identity due to her experience as a victim of SB 1070. By the end of the play, she views herself not as a Hispanic woman, but as a Chicana--a woman of Mexican descent with a non-Anglo self image.

The third main character is "Ernesto Martinez" (played by Alex Castillo), who represents Border Angels founder and President Enrique Morones. Ernesto is the hero who combats Lou Becker's xenophobic, hate-filled rhetoric with a revolutionary message of humanity, of love and compassion; and who undertakes the revolutionary task of resisting SB 1070, vigilante groups such as the Minutemen (referred to in the play as the "Minuteclan), and the militarization of the border by placing water in the Arizona desert so that immigrants may quench their thirst during the process of migration.

Throughout the play, Ernesto appeals to the conscience of the audience by reminding us that no human being is "illegal". Through his actions, he reminds the audience that each of us has the moral duty to resist injustice and oppression wherever it exists. And his actions prove fruitful, for even if they save one life, then his efforts were not in vein. In the end, the hero rescues both the victim, Sandi and, ironically, the villain, Lou Becker, who by this time find themselves dying together alongside the remains of other victims, immigrants who in attempting to cross the barren Arizona desert succumbed to the elements as have so many thousands of our Latino/a brothers and sisters over the years.

Detained in the Desert is not just a must-see for all activists and Latino/as; it is a must-see for all members of civil society. And watching it is not simply entertainment; it is an act of resistance to anti-immigrant forces that, when examined critically, fosters conscientization and therefore strengthens the people's movement for dignity, justice, and equality for all. But don't take it from me. Go see for yourselves. I'm confident that you will not be disappointed.

More info on Detained in the Desert, click here.

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