Child Migrants' Harrowing Journey Brought To Life On Stage

Photo credit: Steven Gunther
Photo credit: Steven Gunther

Many of the kids who left Central America for the U.S. two years ago are still waiting to see if they’ll be granted asylum. Tens of thousands came on foot, escaping gang violence, hoping if they got here they would get to stay.
The ones who made the journey without their parents have been called unaccompanied minors, child migrants or asylum seekers. A new play, Shelter, gives them names and tells their stories.
In one of the scenes — or chapters, as they’re called in the play — Mariana, Sandra and Eloisa are bunking together in a government funded shelter somewhere in the U.S. They just met. Sandra is from El Salvador, Mariana from Honduras and Eloisa from Guatemala. They can’t sleep, so they’re exchanging horror stories about their journeys and what it was like back home.
Eloisa tells the other girls about the violence that drove her from her town. “One day, our mayor found a head — a human head — at his doorstep,” she says. “That was it, my mother packed our things the next day.” Sandra replies, “I’ve seen worse than that.”
Actor Moriah Martel, who plays Eloisa, says that after a year of research and preparation, getting into character is still really challenging.
“Falling off trains in the middle of the night, losing arms, or having a severed head on the doorstep or making it to the border and being sent right back,” she says, listing all the things that so many of these kids have endured. “There are so many aspects of it that feel larger than life.”

Marissa Chibas wrote Shelter based on interviews with academics studying the Central American child migrant crisis and kids who made the dangerous trek. Marissa Chibas hide caption
toggle caption Marissa Chibas

Marissa Chibas wrote Shelter based on interviews with academics studying the Central American child migrant crisis and kids who made the dangerous trek.

Marissa Chibas

Martel is an undergraduate student at California’s Institute of the Arts — CalArts — where the play was created. It’s the brainchild of Marissa Chibas who founded Duende CalArts to create bilingual, bicultural theater in collaboration with Latino and Latin American artists.
Chibas says she saw blog posts about the surge of unaccompanied minors even before the mainstream media latched onto the story, and felt compelled to tell it from the kids’ perspectives. She visited a shelter in San Diego and talked with the volunteers and kids there. Choking back tears, she says she couldn’t help imagining her own 12 year-old in their shoes. “Oh my god, this could be my son,” she recalls. “What kind of desperation would I have to be in that I would have to send my son on this dangerous journey?”
Chibas also interviewed teens who made the dangerous journey and are now attending high school in Los Angeles at the School of History and Dramatic Arts. She invited some of those students to workshop the play so that actors, like Martel, could meet the real people these “larger than life” things were happening to.
Jasmin, from El Salvador, was one of those people and Chibas used a lot of her story as inspiration for Shelter. (Jasmin’s last name is being withheld for her safety.) She’s waiting to see if she’ll be granted asylum and if not, she’ll be sent back to face the tormentors she left back home.
Jasmin says she came to the U.S. because a girl in school kept harassing her to join a gang. When she refused, the girl threatened to kill her, and those aren’t empty threats in El Salvador. Kids who refuse gang initiation are retaliated against and can end up in “black bags” as Jasmin puts it. So, her mom found a group leaving for the U.S…..
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