Originally published by The New York Times
Snow flurries swirled against the window, but the atmosphere inside a Manhattan rehearsal room on a recent Saturday afternoon was comparatively balmy, warmed by the insistent triple meter of son jarocho, folk music from the Gulf of Mexico. Six actors, led by Sinuhé Padilla, a musician who specializes in the style, were working through a climactic moment in “Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes),” a new play about immigration by Andrea Thome that will be produced at venues in all five New York City boroughs, starting at La MaMa on Feb. 6.
As the performers strummed lean Mexican mini-guitars called jaranas and stomped their feet on a flattened rehearsal table (a stand-in for the bespoke tarima that will be used in performances), they also reached some dramatic epiphanies.
This was the moment in the play when their characters, all of them immigrants with varying degrees of documentation, cut loose after a night of shared anxieties and hopes — about intermittent contact with far-flung family members, about the looming threat of raids by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), about simply making it through another day in a nation that seems increasingly hostile to their presence.
“I want to kiss her after that,” said Silvia Dionicio, whose character, Rafaela, has been lightly flirting with Pili, played by Frances Ines Rodriguez, throughout the show. Rafaela just danced on the tarima opposite Pili, singing a verse in English about feeling abandoned by her mother, with Pili mirroring it back to her in Spanish. Why not seal their rapport with a smooch?
The play’s director, Jose Zayas, encouraged Dionicio to try it in the next run-through, and it worked, sending Rodriguez into an adorable impromptu swoon.
“Fandango” has emerged from Uncommon Voices, a new-works program of the company En Garde Arts, which staged site-specific productions throughout New York City in the 1980s, but now, under its longtime artistic director Anne Hamburger, has transitioned to works with a social-justice emphasis and a documentary theater aesthetic.
Like “Basetrack Live,” a 2014 En Garde show built from the testimonies of United States Marines returning from service in Afghanistan, “Fandango” began as verbatim theater, with actors reading firsthand accounts Thome gathered from immigrants.
Thome, whose 2013 play “Pinkolandia” told the tale of her own Chilean/German heritage, first reached out to friends and acquaintances. Her sources grew to include a horse groomer from upstate New York who showed her an ankle monitor he is required to wear, and a deli manager in Manhattan who first came on foot to the United States as a teenager, and in the decades since has managed to send enough money back to Guerrero, a state in Mexico, for her mother to buy a house there — but whose undocumented status means she cannot return for a visit.
Hardship was only half of the stories Thome encountered, though. The immigrants she knew and met also spoke with pride of the lives they’ve built and bonds they’ve formed in the United States. That same deli manager, for instance, who is the basis for the character Mariposa, said in an interview that she still plans one day to visit her mother, own a red sports car, and, most importantly, have a child of her own. She’s even picked out a name: Esperanza, Spanish for “hope.” (She declined to give her name for this article.)
Thome was particularly moved, she said in an interview, by the “courage of that act of imagination people undertake when they emigrate, where they say, ‘I’m going to throw everything away, I have no idea who I am going to be.’ It’s mind-blowing and beautiful, and so creative.”
Searching for a way to reflect that creativity, Thome hit upon the idea of putting a group of immigrants, lightly fictionalized from the interviews she’d done, together at a fandango, a sort of Mexican hootenanny where everyone takes part in stomping, strumming, and trading improvised sung verses called décimas.
Padilla, who is composing an original score for the show and who leads a regular Monday night jarocho workshop/jam at City Lore in the East Village, confirmed that a fandango is a plausible meeting place for a group like this, since “60 or 70 percent of the people in fandangos in the U.S. are immigrants.”
Real-life fandangos can stretch into the wee hours, even go on for days. While performances of “Fandango” are not planned to reach such lengths, they will conclude with an extended musical celebration which audience members are welcome to join.
The show’s producers have even promised to waive admission for any patron who shows up with a jarana. (After La MaMa, “Fandango” will play at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Queens, Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island, Lehman Stages and the Point in the Bronx, and Irondale Center in Brooklyn.)
But this is a party with a point, and with an unmistakable political valence in a time when our nation’s immigration debate has risen to a boil of nativism on one side and activism on the other, with immigrants themselves left to struggle for a foothold. (It’s hardly the only critical theatrical representation of United States immigration policy: Waterwell’s “The Courtroom” and “Sanctuary City,” opening next month at New York Theater Workshop, are two more among many.)
In the “Fandango” rehearsal room that recent Saturday, the celebratory mood gave way to intimate reflection as the performers put down their instruments and spoke about their own relationship to the play and its stories.
Jen Anaya, who plays Mariposa, the character based on the deli manager, grew up in Arizona as the granddaughter of braceros, Mexican farm laborers first allowed to work in the United States in the 1940s, then later expelled. “My father was kicked out while my mom was pregnant with me,” said Anaya, who described reading the script for the first time and “sobbing in the subway.”
A few cast members recalled tourist visas employed as shortcuts to residency. Roberto Tolentino, who plays a sort of narrator figure, Johan, said his grandmother, though she had a home and a job in the United States, had to resort to an illegal border crossing to get back to them when her tourist visa was torn up by a border agent and she was sent back to Mexico.
Carlo Albán, who plays the thoughtful Rogelio, came from Ecuador when he was 7 with his entire family, who overstayed their tourist visas in hopes that stateside family members would sponsor them. Complications ensued, and though it was too long ago for him to qualify for DACA, Albán managed to have a thriving career in the America while undocumented, including a yearslong stint as a youngster on “Sesame Street.” He only achieved citizenship in his late 20s.
Andres Quintero, who plays the ankle-monitored horse groomer, Elvin, testified to the steep challenges of even immigrating “legally.” He and his family came from Venezuela when he was 13, but because they were sponsored by a sibling rather than a parent, they had to wait for 10 years, paying taxes and avoiding travel, before being granted citizenship.
“The knowledge the average person has about this issue is so basic,” he said. Gesturing to the street outside, he added, “We live in New York City, and we don’t think this is happening here. But it’s happening right down the street.”