Juarez, Mexico didn’t want to be the world’s most dangerous city, but the drug cartels waged a war there that brought violence, murder and abduction into daily life for the citizens
Ruben Polendo, the founding artistic director of Theater Mitu has taken the darkness and fashioned it into a multi media performance that explores the real stories of Juarez and makes them universal. “Juarez: A Documentary Mythology” takes place at Mass MoCA on Saturday, Dec. 3, at 8 p.m.
Polendo was born and raised in Juarez, leaving at 18 in 1989 for college in the United States, and remaining to pursue his career. As Polendo explains, 1989 was before the troubles in Juarez began, but visits through the years made it obvious to him what was going on.
“It became a really strange experience and a really obvious one progressively because when one of course spends time away from a place that’s familiar, it’s been changed when you return and it’s that much more obvious to you,” Polendo said. “In a very short time, really, Juarez started becoming a very unfamiliar landscape, not only in the way it literally looks but also in the way people behave and function on the day to day.”
Things that were once a casual part of Polendo’s life there now came with warnings, especially if it involved going out after dark. The hardest part for Polendo was watching the the problems shift from news stories covering incidents across town from to firsthand accounts over the phone, taking place across the street and even involving family members.
“I literally began to see the customs, the traditions and the behaviors change,” said Polendo.
Polendo’s response was to approach Theater Mitu and seek help in making sense of things, which resulted in trips to Juarez to interview residents and gather material for a performance.
“The first trip we took was simply to explore what parts we could bring into the conversation, if any,” said Polendo. “What we found was that the answer was in people’s stories and in the stories people tell to make sense about the world around them. What we realized was that in fact there was a great disservice being paid to the community there when the focus was on the headlines, the murder and the killings, which while very true weren’t attesting to the fact that people believe in community, that people were taking action, that people were actually resilient in trying to make it a better place.”
Part of the process was figuring out what the company could bring to the conversation and how it could be done. The answer was revealed in the interviews with the residents, by the realization that while the news headlines focused on murders, the story that slipped through the cracks was that of a resilient community taking action to make Juarez a better place. Polendo speaks of one women whose two children were shot to death, who reacted by starting one of the largest orphanages in Juarez, with the specific mission of educating and supporting children who lost their parents in the current violence.
“Why isn’t this story being told? Why isn’t this part of understanding? That really gave us a sense of not only our role in it, but also the fact that it is these stories that were essential versus a journalistic approach or an imagined one. We weren’t to behave as journalists and we weren’t to behave as playwrights and imagine something, but rather to really look at the real and engage in that as our text.”
The performances employ a unique acting style that has the actors reminding the audience that they are nothing more than transmitters for the stories they are telling. They are not playing characters and reading lines, but rather wear ear pieces and hear the interviews, which they repeat to the audience in actual time.
“We premiered the piece in Juarez before it travelled to get the seal of approval,” said Polendo. “That stylistic approach became meaningful because people felt like their language, their words, their stories were being represented and transmitted in a really honest way versus making them into characters.”
The show is structured into four sections — Context, Memory, Violence and Change. The final section is designed to utilize more recent news and update with each performance, even re-interviewing participants about the current situation, to include these views in the show. This allows the audience to have different responses from performance-to-performance, a dynamic that is heightened sometimes by seemingly unrelated news. Polendo remembers a moment of government change in Mexico that brought a hopeful quality to the performances briefly, and also says that the American election has shifted the audience response as well, especially when concepts like wall building, racial profiling and separation of family are brought up.
The message of the piece quite beyond Juarez as a specific location revolves around the idea of investment in community being a necessity, that nurturing those who create the social bonds of a place is equally as important if not more so than what Polendo calls “this unbridled focus on financial progress,” which he believes, echoing his father’s opinion, can destroy the minds of those who create culture. In this way, Polendo’s production is about all of us, and he wants the audience to take that home with them.
“It isn’t something representational, it does allow space for imagination outside and beyond the specifics of Juarez,” said Polendo. “While it’s specifically about Juarez, it also engages the imagination to transport the ideas into your family, your community, your country.”