UNC Charlotte’s First Latinx Play Investigates Migration and Community
The X factor
In a video posted by an Al Jazeera correspondent on Sept. 20, a Border Patrol agent on horseback looks down on a family of migrants attempting to cross into the United States from Mexico at a border crossing in Del Rio, Texas. The agent points at a man and yells, “This is why your country is shit, because you use your women for this!”
The agent then bucks his horse aggressively toward another group of migrants who scatter, including a young girl who nearly gets caught under the large animal’s hooves.
Though these migrants were Haitian, attempting to enter the United States through South America due to recent destabilizing events in their own country, the behavior of the agent was nothing new to those familiar with the treatment of Latin-American migrants who have crossed our southern border over the years. Nor must it have been surprising to people like Georgina Escobar, a playwright who was born and raised in another Texas border town, El Paso.
In fact, it’s these misperceptions around “immigration” in the United States — the idea that people migrating across our borders are some sort of transgressors — that Escobar aims to confront with her latest play, Migrant X, an outdoor production set to open at UNC Charlotte on Oct. 2.
That goal begins with the name: Migrant X, as opposed to Immigrant X.
“Immigrant is a socio-political term,” Escobar told Queen City Nerve. “You don’t say, ‘Those birds immigrated from here to there,’ you say they migrated. Migration involves movement, it involves growth, it involves this understanding of need-to; it’s not a want-to, it’s a need-to. Whereas immigration, because it’s in the political spectrum, it gets the rap of want-to or abuse of privilege and comes packed with that. I didn’t want to feed into the sociopolitical body politic of it all, but to really reinforce the fact that migration is natural and try to investigate our relationship with it.”
The production is a collaborative effort between Escobar and UNC Charlotte theatre professor CarlosAlexis Cruz, also the founder of the Charlotte-based Nouveau Sud Circus Project.
Migrant X mixes Escobar’s Latinx-futurist writing style with the physicality of a Cruz production.
“We started from the script and followed the blueprint of what [Escobar] has dictated for us, which she did so in conversation with us. The weight of the story is primarily told by those words and the gestures, which is sort of the opposite of the work that I’m usually known for,” said Cruz.
Yet the two found more commonalities than differences.
“We have a lot of similarities in terms of, she likes movement in her plays. I’m a movement-driven individual,” he continues. “She’s also very musical, she’s a percussionist herself. She writes with that sense of rhythm. We have that in common. In that sense, we found a common ground.”
A local story
Based on interviews and conversations that Escobar carried out in 2019 with Latinx UNC Charlotte students and faculty, along with members of Charlotte’s broader Latinx community, Migrant X tells the tale of a Charlotte-based baker whose business serves as a sanctuary for members of the community during a series of ICE raids.
If the tale sounds familiar, that’s because it’s based on a true Charlotte story. While Escobar incorporated some fantastical elements into the script, implementing a style that Cruz calls “magical realism” and Escobar describes as “sci-feme,” the story’s foundation is based on Manolo Betancur, the very real owner of Manolo’s Bakery on Central Avenue in east Charlotte.
After fighting off his own deportation order in 2006, Betancur became an outspoken advocate for Charlotte’s Latinx community. In 2018, when Sheriff Garry McFadden ended his department’s participation in the controversial 287g program, which partnered the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office with ICE, he signed the paperwork in Manolo’s Bakery.
In 2019, when impromptu ICE raids were occurring at homes and small businesses around Charlotte and the Carolinas, Betancur refused to back down, speaking out publicly even as ICE visited his own business in search of one of his employees.
Betancur was one of the community members Escobar spoke with during her trip to Charlotte later that year, and he left an indelible impression on her.
“Manolo was the most narrative-driven in the sense that that’s why I decided to put him more prominently in the piece, because I found his story to be the one that could function as a grounding point and a localizing point for your community,” she said, “and then let the others like the students and the committee that I talked to kind of just percolate into the world as sensibilities and not exact depictions of self.”
That, in turn, led to a conundrum for Carlos, who was tasked with casting the play back on campus.
“It’s rare, especially in theatre, to find not only older students, but an older Latinx student; that’s a tough call,” Cruz said. “I was nervous that I was going to have to play that part.”
Then he had a discussion with fellow professor Susana Cisneros, who made a suggestion that to her seemed logical, but to Cruz seemed outside the realm of possibility.
“She was like, ‘Have you thought about asking Manolo himself?’” he recalled. “I was like, ‘What?’ I would never ask somebody to play themself in a play. The level of oddity for that is immense.”
Cisneros insisted it would be a good idea, so Cruz agreed to meet with Betancur at his other business, Artisen Gelato in Matthews. The baker was onboard from the jump.
Now Cruz is excited about what Betancur brings to the production, as well as the way he’s stepped up his acting chops during the relatively short rehearsal period.
“Just the fact that somebody who has been so central here that everybody knows … that person is in the play here, bringing so much truthfulness not only to the project but also to the work with the students,” he told Queen City Nerve. “We expand and erase the barrier between the artist and the community and allow the space for a community activist to have a space to literally tell the stories in first-person.”
That mission extends beyond just Betancur, as Cruz also moved outside the usual protocol for student productions, casting two alumni and two non-theatre majors in the play. This was because he prioritized lived experience over traditional casting practices.
“We wanted to have that level of truthfulness, speaking from the Latinx perspective, and closer to the DACA reality and what it is to be a student with that difficulty,” Cruz said. “I often say in my plays and productions with Nouveau Sud: The stories, they’re almost better told in first person. If the artist that is telling you the story has lived similar experiences, the level of truthfulness, you cannot compare that to anything else.”
What’s in a name
Migrant X was borne of a new student-led movement within the university to uplift Latinx voices on campus.
A group of Latinx students in 2018-19 called for more stories that represent their communities, and the university tapped Cruz to spearhead a new project.
Though he had already written and directed three student productions during his tenure at the university, he decided a collaborative effort would work best for the new venture.
While considering his options, he remembered Georgina Escobar, who had interviewed him while working as a freelancer for American Theatre magazine back when Cruz was working with Milagro, a renowned Latinx theatre company based in Portland, Oregon.
Escobar was intrigued to accept the project, but first she wanted to find out why Cruz didn’t simply take the lead.
After all, he was asking her to write a localized tale about a city where he lived but she knew nothing about.
Cruz was already working on his Nouveau Sud project, La Bestia, a story about migration that he could just as well have turned into a student production.
“I think there was this need to find a writer who could break up the narrative a bit more and not just go with the story about a journey, which is what I believe La Bestia really is,” Escobar said. “[Migrant X] is less the story about a journey, and more the story about algebraic components; how do you solve for X? What makes us this? What does this journey mean? I think that’s why I said yes. I said, ‘OK, we’re different voices, we’re different creators and there’s obviously a want to investigate this from different angles and I can help unpack that in this science-fiction way.’”
Escobar’s algebraic approach to storytelling, the sci-feme style that aims to look past social constructs and break them down into biomimicry, is just one way in which the X from the title comes into play in the production.
“It was very important for me to talk about how we intersect — X marks the spot, that cross section — and really investigate what the X means in Latinx, in crossing borders, in intersectionality, in algebraic terms,” she said. “So I took that approach of saying, we’re all more connected than we think we are if we look at our journeys as those that we go through with our feet and the terrains and the spaces that we walk through and how we walk through them.”
Cruz himself received an education on the term Latinx from Georgina. The term is most often thought of simply as a gender-neutral identifier for Latino, and he had known it to be a contentious term among some Hispanic people (“Is it an oversimplifying term? Is it proper Spanish?”).
But as a Puerto Rican who has worked closely with Latin Americans from different countries and communities throughout his career, Cruz came to appreciate how Latinx can act to connect communities throughout the diaspora.
“What I have learned directly from Georgina is the X is a variable that represents many things; it can be gender neutral, but it can also cross cultures,” he said.
This was just one example of how his working relationship with Escobar, though limited mostly to phone calls, was a fulfilling experience.
“Encountering Latinx artists that have a certain affinity or similar intentions and interests, it’s almost like a sigh of relief,” he said. “We can speak Spanish and click on a different level than we would do with other artists in this country. I think we have that.”
It was also a chance for him to step up for his community in response to his own students’ calls for representation, even if he was met with a pandemic while trying to do so.
Migrant X was originally slated for spring 2020, and has been pushed back three times since, semester by semester. While this gave him and Escobar more time to flesh out changes to the script and hone in on ideas for a sharper focus, it also brought about wholly new issues.
For example, when you push a student production back from spring to fall, some of the cast members may be graduating before the new run dates. When you push it back three times, the majority of the cast is most likely going to be gone by the time the show runs.
“The unfortunate thing is the students that dreamt this possibility, to have the first Latinx show that has been done in this department, because of the nature of universities and the time that it takes to get something going, they’re not necessarily living it,” Cruz explained. “The students that requested to do this piece already graduated and moved on and they’re somewhere else.”
In the end, Cruz was able to keep on two students who graduated while the show was going through delays. One is a student whom Escobar interviewed back in 2019 and another is Isabel Gonzalez, one of the students who made the original call for more Latinx representation in UNC Charlotte’s theatre department.
Despite the stress of the two-year process, Cruz is excited to finally see it come to fruition. It reminds one of the old theatre expression: The show must go on. But of course, as he’s wont to do, Cruz has created his own version.
“Things get nerve-wracking and everybody’s all stressed out, but I always say, ‘At the end of the day, the curtain will rise nonetheless.’”
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.