Last evening I was fortunate enough to have tickets to see a Latino performance artist named Jose Torres Tama. Born in Ecuador, he arrived in the United States at the tender age of seven, and he and his family settled in New York and made their living selling coffee and buying into the “American Dream Mythology”, as he calls it. Since the early 80’s, he has called New Orleans home, and was witness to both the destruction that Mother Nature visited upon the Big Easy, and the truly horrifying carnage caused by unscrupulous contractors and a complicit local government afterward.
I was torn between the necessity to take notes so as not to forget critical parts of the show, and my desire to experience the show without such a distraction. In the end, I opted to leave my pen and paper in the truck. I lack the writing skill to accurately describe what I saw, so let me quote the Village Voice:
“Since 1995, Jose Torres Tama has been touring across the country with solo shows that thrive on a fusion of spoken word prose, bilingual poetry, rituals of fire, symbolic movement, and exaggerated personae, creating spectacles that are visually dynamic and politically charged. Add to this cauldron a heady dose of hilariously absurd observations on consumer culture and you have a unique vision coming from a New Jersey/New York bred Ecuadorian-born brujo performance artist based in New Orleans.”
What they said.
I can tell you that the show begins with a few disturbing facts splashed on a screen that serves as a backdrop for Mr. Tamas’ performance. One fact that I was somewhat aware of, (but had no idea how rampant a practice it was) was using immigrant labor to clean up the toxic aftermath of the flood, often without any protective gear and with no access to medical assistance, and then summoning the authorities right before “payday” to round the workers up or at least scare them away so that the monies owed would never have to be paid. These men and women were living under horrible conditions that included a dozen or more of them crammed into a single trailer with only one bathroom, and working 12-14 hour days in the brutal Louisiana heat without adequate drinking water.
Fifteen seconds into the performance, I was already shifting around angrily in my seat, disturbed that I too had succumbed to the cultural amnesia so prevalent in our consumer driven American society. Mr. Tama reminds us that our violent, exploitative past is alive and well, but there are precious few voices that can break through the din of our chaotic culture to remind us that people are suffering horribly within our borders. He does this through story-telling, coupled with disturbing imagery and props that serve as symbols that I believe are best left to the viewer to interpret. Wooden crosses festooned with dollar bills. Green face paint. Masks. For an hour and a half, Mr. Tama embodies the demon we insist is the undocumented immigrant. The stories told should make you weep for those we’ve deemed “less than.” This is no Horatio Alger feel- good story of triumph over adversity. And it should not be.
I’m not sure if and when Mr. Tama will be back in Nashville, so seeing him perform may not be an option for you anytime soon. You can, however, visit his website, read his essays, and at least for a moment consider and hopefully connect with those who toil in the shadows to help make the American Dream accessible to a few of us.