The sand I know best rings Lake Michigan and gives me a place to put my beach chair on a summer afternoon. The sand in Teatro Línea de Sombra’s Amarillo is life, death, and oblivion. Filling the stage over the course of the Mexican troupe’s powerful 70-minute piece, it signifies the Chihuahuan Desert, the border territory through which thousands of undocumented immigrants trek each year hoping to reach the United States.
Devised by its six cast members, directed by Jorge A. Vargas, and presented here by Chicago Shakespeare Theater as part of the first Chicago International Latino Theater Festival, Amarillo is multimedia and multidisciplinary, combining clips from preexisting documentaries with poetic, musical, dancerly live performance (often seen on live video) to get at what the very public crisis of clandestine immigration looks and feels like from the southern side of El Norte. The show even turns into an information clearinghouse at times, identifying the sources of the clips we see, for instance, or telling us about Art Camp, aka Artesanas Campesinas (“an organization of peasant craftswomen created to manufacture silver jewelry”), or referring us to a Web address for the full text of a letter excerpted in the script.
Naturally, there’s a wall. Stretching across the upstage limit of the set, it functions as both a projection screen and fetish object. A locus of fervent and thwarted dreams. A surface against which people continually throw themselves.
A young man (Raúl Mendoza) sits with his back to it at the outset, wearing jeans, running shoes, a hoodie, and a baseball cap—the international uniform of the uprooted everyman. Entering the desert will kill him even if he survives it, since the cost of an illegal crossing is always one’s identity. “I’m nobody,” he tells us in Spanish (translated into English via supertitles), but sounding like Tom Joad’s despondent brother. “My name is Luis, Pedro, Mercedes, Henrietta, I am Omar, I am Angeles, I am Yaneth. My name is José, Emanuel y Santiago. I am 17, 21, 48, 23, 12, 54, 29, 31, 25 years old. I was born in Ojinaga, in Lerdo, in Torreón, in San Luis Potosí, in Zuazua. . . . I always wear a hat, a bandanna, a cap, a sweatshirt. I went to Amarillo. I am dehydrated. I got lost in the desert. I said I would return and I have not yet arrived.”
Later on he differentiates into Pedro, a teenager known for his pig-butchering skills, who comes to a birthday party, slaughters the roasting pig, and wins the heart of the birthday girl’s sister—all this and more handled in lyrical yet unpretentious passages of dance or near dance, often backed by the mesmeric, wonderfully unexpected throat singing of Jesús Cuevas. But Pedro joins the nameless/multinamed masses who head for Amarillo claiming that they’ll return. As Luís Alberto Urrea did in his best-known novel, Into the Beautiful North (2009), Amarillo makes a point of evoking the dislocation and forced adaptation caused by so many men leaving home. The women of the cast (Alicia Laguna, María Luna, Vianey Salinas, and Antígona González) find work to feed their families and write letters asking the U.S. government to deport their husbands. They wait and get sick of waiting. In one awful passage, we hear an actual letter from a woman who works with Art Camp. “When you left for Chicago, I was pregnant,” she writes. “I gave birth by myself, at the Tecapulco Health Center. That day you called me and told me that you’d be back soon, but it was the last time I heard from you. . . . This is not a farewell letter. . . . It is a letter to say that I work too much and see my daughter too little, but our home is standing without you . . . “
Of course, many women also elect to cross the border—that point is made too. And all the while the sand accumulates. It pours from holes in a punctured pinata, rains down from bags suspended above the stage like a flock of birds headed where else but north. In Amarillo the desert is an ocean, a grave, a place to run out of water and luck, to be robbed and abandoned by a coyote, to leave your bones. Most of all, it’s the place where people go to leave themselves. v