photo by Alyssa Castro
by Claudia Gonzalez
Editor’s Note: This weekend, in the historic downtown Merced theatre, the play Placas will open with two showings. The art piece is a family story weaving together the effects of gang violence, tattoo culture and family to tell a tale of redemption. We’Ced beat reporter Claudia Gonzalez got a chance to sit with playwright and producer Paul S. Flores to discuss the themes of Placas, the local impact of this work and what inspires the artist to tell these kinds of stories.
Claudia Gonzalez: What inspired you to write this play?
Paul Flores: I lived in the same neighborhood where most of these stories came from. When I was commissioned by the Central American Resources Center to write a play about gang members going through tattoo removal, many of the folks I was interviewing who were using the tattoo removal services were neighborhood folks. A lot of them had been in juvenile hall and I had done years of residencies working with a lot of young men in there supporting them in a lot of different ways. Over the last 15 years I have been in and out of juvenile hall, supporting young men with writing, spoken word, youth development, media literacy, education, all kinds of different projects. I put a poetry slam inside juvenile hall.
Often when I walk down the street anywhere in the Mission [in San Francisco], sometimes I hear a call from a student and he would say “Hey, hey, I remember you Mr. Poet Man, do a poem for me!” I would turn around and I’d see it was one of the kids from juvenile hall who’d gotten out and was back. He’d remember me, and this happened several times. So if those boys remembered me, I felt like there was plenty of good things I could say about young men who had been incarcerated and who had been in gangs. If they could remember a poem or me as the poet then there was something positive I was leaving inside their heads. So part of the inspiration was to kind of build on the positivity that I knew young men and women who were caught up in the neighborhood were capable of. So I wanted to help provide that. So you could hear their real voices. Not only their pain, but also their joys. That inspired me.
What role do you think art plays in a community that is plagued with violence?
A placa is basically an artistic expression of your identity on the wall, right? Art is a way to show the world you exist without necessarily hurting anybody. Now certainly some people view placas, and I’m talking about tags here, as blight and negativity, but I also feel like art is part of our community; art is part of our tradition. Representing ourselves is something that has always been a form of empowerment, a form of connectivity, a statement of existence. Those type of things are important for people who are often isolated and invisible in our community.
I think the important thing about art is its healing capacity. I think that sitting down and writing a story or painting a picture about your life or doing a teatro piece about your life or making some music that inspires you, all of that gets you to this really meditative place. Where perhaps the chaos of everyday life dissipates for a little bit and then you are able to channel some positive energy into a reflection of something that means something to you. So meaning leads to purpose, and purpose gives you a direction … I think the process of creating a piece of art is the same healing process.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you are looking to become a great artist. It’s more like, I’m going to take my life and all its pain and all its anguish, and its also laughter and beauty, and I’m going to put it into an exercise and I’m going to make something out of it and when its done, I will have had that feeling of pouring myself into that piece of art. I’ll have something that is evidence of what I have been through. If someone looks at that and says they can relate to that, then I am no longer feeling so isolated. I now have a sense of connection with somebody.
Here in Merced, we have had a recent wave of violence. Back in February, two young men a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old, were killed within an hour of each other. Some of the violence is also racialized: it’s between different groups of people. In that context, how do you think PLACAS can impact a small community such as Merced ?
A: I think when we ask the question: what is causing young men to kill each other? You can start with a history of oppression. You can start with poverty. You can start with self-hate. All of these things have been forced on us by the oppressive kind of system we live in. We are all under the same systems of oppression. We all should start working on coming up with ways to heal our communities. One of the things I think PLACAS speaks to beyond the focus on the Latino communities, is how are the pains and problems we have in the Latino community such as inter-generational gang violence, incarceration, poverty, being kicked out of school, bad education, those are all the same things in the African-American community and others.
A Latino father coming out of prison, trying to reconnect with his family, you know how similar that is in the African-American community? You know how many families don’t have their dad around because he is locked up? These are the same things. If we can recognize that, in this play, that Latinos and African-Americans go through the same problems, will we be inspired to start thinking about how do we collaborate on the solutions? Now that’s is going to take things to the next step. Now thats where we use the healing.
I think this play can open that opportunity up. It starts the conversation, it asks the question: can we heal? Does our own community have the means to heal? And how do we develop those means without necessarily being dependant on the systems to support that, because if they are not supporting, if in fact if they are working to divide us, then we have to subvert that and go around the system to solve our own problems… The play has the opportunity to bring people together who share the common pain, and who could perhaps work together on common solutions.
In previous interviews, you’ve said that you want to humanize gang members through “Placas.” Why is it important to humanize a gang member?
Because most people see a gang member with tattoos on their faces as a devil, or like an animal, or somebody who hates the world, or someone less than human. I feel it is an easy way to forget about them. If you dehumanize somebody, you don’t actually acknowledge their equality to you. A lot of people think gang members deserve the fate they get, because they chose to be a gang member. They don’t think about what were the reasons they chose to be a gang member or that maybe they didn’t even get a choice. Maybe it was generational. Sometimes if that’s all you know, you don’t have a choice but most people do not know about that.
To me, humanizing a gang member means to look at them as someone who hurts like you, who has dreams like you, who cries like you, who wanted to achieve something, but maybe failed like you, and who can also love like you and deserves to be loved like you. Somebody who is somebody’s child, who is somebody’s sister.
That reminds me of a comment made by our new Sheriff in Merced County. At a community meeting he said that gangsters marry other gangsters and create gangster babies. How would you respond to that?
I don’t think it’s true, first of all. I can tell you about several gang members who have married people who are not in the gang and who did not make gangster babies. I think that is a horrible generalization and stereotype. However, it is typical of the system’s view of gang-impacted communities. For every gang member who comes from a family of gang members, there’s also the gang member who creates a family that is not involved. I don’t think that gangs are necessarily a mutating virus.
I’m glad he said “marry,” though. What that tells me is that they believe in something sacred and he should identify that too. If they are married, that means that they actually want to establish a real bond, versus trying to create families without a mother and father. I also don’t think all gangs are bad, let me be honest about that, I don’t. The reality is that sometimes gangs provide things that communities don’t. When you don’t have anyone showing you love at home, who is supposed to show you love? I feel like gangs provide some of that love, but it is not the love that we imagine, it’s not always God’s love. It’s a mangled love that gangs show, because part of that is earning stripes and that’s often criminal activity…So if there are certain things in our community that gangs provide, it’s only because it is not being provided.
For these police officers, police chiefs, not to recognize what gangs do in a comprehensive perspective and only look at their negative effects, of course they are going to say dumb things… There’s no solution in that statement.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions you think people have around gang members?
I think one of the biggest misconception about a gang member is that he cannot be a positive influence on another person. I think that most people believe that most gang members are out to convert everybody to their gang. Thats just an oversimplification of the idea, you know? It’s like the idea that if you look at a gay man, and you’re a dude, then you are going to turn gay. It’s that type of thing, which is steeped so deep in fear-mongering that the authorities have promoted.
I think another one would be that it is impossible to change a gang member’s mind or to lead them down a different path. I think that every gang member is asking for love. Who out there is willing to really give it authentically? You can’t just turn a gang member around in three days. There are reasons they joined, they’ve developed types of behaviors and there is a culture of gang membership. So you just can’t take a 25-year-old gang member and decide that putting him in a job is going to automatically give him a reason not to do bad things. It takes a lot of time, a lot of investment, and a lot of patience.
One of the biggest themes in the play is redemption. How does redemption fall in place with the idea of taking responsibility?
To me, redemption means forgiveness. I think a gang member needs to forgive himself first and what does that look like? It’s taking responsibility for the things that you did and not trying to blame everybody else. I think at one point you need to take responsibility for all the bad things that you’ve done. You have to try and leave those mistakes behind and start putting in their places positive actions. In the process of that, you need to forgive yourself for having done those things in the past. Because if you don’t, you are going to live in the pain of the past. You’re not gonna get beyond that, and you’re not going to start doing positive work. Redemption starts with a self-redeeming act, which is looking at your past honestly. Take the mask off. Look at your actions. Accept that that was you who did it. A lot of folks don’t want to.
Redemption is forgiveness and the second part is actually moving forward and starting to bring the positive things into light. The accountability and responsibility is looking inside your pain. Then the redemption part is when you start taking the lessons from that pain.
The young man that is struggling with gangs in the play is named Edgar. If you encountered a real life ‘Edgar,’ what advice would you give to him?
You know how many ‘Edgars’ I’ve met? What I have learned from Edgars out there in the world is that you really can’t tell them anything. It’s not words that change a boy’s heart. It’s actions. It’s consistency. It’s being present. It’s showing up. It’s doing something. Show them something new. Take them somewhere. Don’t expect that you are going to change anyone with just some words. It’s not going to work.
Why should the community of Merced come out to see your play?
Because it’s a wonderful piece. I think that when you see this play a lot of emotions are going to be stirred up. You’re going to want to immediately want to cry first. The second thing you’ll do is you’ll laugh. And the third thing you are going to do is, you are going to wonder why plays like this aren’t performed more? And how do you get involved?
Are you looking for inspiration to help people out there? Come see this play. We are talking about you, Merced, I think you need to come see yourself up on stage. I don’t think this excludes white people at all. I think this story is just as much for white people as it is for Latinos. I think it’s definitely for black folks too, and for any immigrant community. We’ve touched a lot of bases on this, so I think this is a universal family story couched inside of some very hardcore issues.