Alice Da Cunha and Mari Marroquin in La Ruta

Some writers write to explain. Others write to entertain, Isaac Gomez, the 27-year-old author of La Ruta, now receiving its world premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre, writes because he can’t not write; writing is how he finds words for as yet unnamed, unexpressed ideas and feelings.

“I was always a writer,” he says. “I kept a journal and in middle school, I did a stage adaptation of [Barbara Robinson’s 1971 comic young adult novel] The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” But growing up in a working class Mexican-American family in El Paso, Texas—his mother worked at a Wal-Mart and his father worked construction—Gomez had no idea writing, let alone playwriting, could be a full-time profession. So instead, he turned his attention to acting.

When Gomez was a student at the University of Texas at El Paso, a friend committed suicide by jumping off a garage roof. The suicide affected Gomez deeply.

“That really broke my spirit,” Gomez says. “The only way I could cope with all of the feelings was to write about it.” His writing turned into a play, and in the process he found his vocation. Today his plays have been workshopped or produced at theaters around the country, including the Goodman, Victory Gardens, Chicago Dramatists, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Gomez has been working on La Ruta sporadically since his senior year of college. “It was my first formal play,” he says. It’s set on the U.S.-Mexico border where he grew up and focuses on the plight of las desaparecidas, the missing women of Juarez who were abducted and murdered on their way to and from work in the maquiladoras, factories set up by foreign, often U.S.-based, companies in Juarez that were notorious for low-wages and poor working conditions.

Gomez became interested in las desaparecidas when a friend at school asked him what he knew about the abducted and murdered women and he had to admit he knew nothing. He was ashamed of his ignorance because he had grown up in the El Paso-Juarez area and even had cousins who lived in Juarez, so he began researching. The more he researched, the more obsessed he became. He interviewed women who worked in the maquiladoras, family members of women who had been killed, and a newspaper editor in Juarez who had connections to the drug cartels, trying to put it all together.

Gomez ended up writing two pieces based on his research: La Ruta, which he describes as “a creative reimagining based on the interviews I collected,” and an one-woman show called The Way She Spoke the follows his journeytalking with people in Juarez and El Paso and features their stories in raw and unedited form.

“Writing for me comes from trying to understand,” he explains, “When I write there is something in the pit of my stomach, something I am trying to shake out. Writing for me is a very cathartic experience.”   v