A young woman stands holding an infant with a screen projection of lightning behind her. A group of musicians sits in a pit on the stage before her. The scene is drenched in blue light.
Somewhere Over the Border at Teatro Vista Credit: Joel Maisonet

Six years ago, Brian Quijada and Teatro Vista teamed up to present Quijada’s solo show, Where Did We Sit on the Bus?, an endearing and poignant portrait of growing up in the Chicago suburbs as the child of Salvadoran immigrants. The title of that show came from a question young Brian had for his third-grade teacher after learning the story of Rosa Parks: Where did Brown people like his family fit into America’s history with race and oppression? His teacher’s response (“They weren’t around”) is emblematic of the erasure of Latine history from our cultural narrative. Quijada’s story, filled with hip-hop, loops, and poetry, combined his search to understand more about his heritage and his working-class parents’ struggles with his desire for his family to embrace his artistic dreams. 

Somewhere Over the Border
Through 6/12: Wed-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM; Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park, teatrovista.org, $49.50 (Ten $15 Teatro for All tickets available each performance on first come, first served basis).

Now Teatro Vista returns to live performance under the new artistic leadership of Lorena Diaz and Wendy Mateo with the world premiere of Quijada’s latest, Somewhere Over the Border. But this time, Quijada dives into the story of his mother and her dangerous crossing from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico to the U.S. in the late 1970s, just as the terrible civil war in her home country was ramping up. Using the framework of The Wizard of Oz and a score (also composed by Quijada) that combines cumbia, hip-hop, Mexican boleros, and pop, it’s an exhilarating, smart, and soulful show that wears its parallels to L. Frank Baum’s tale well. (Though it’s worth noting that Baum was a racist who called for the genocide of Native Americans.)

Reina (Gabriela Moscoso) is a 17-year-old single mother in Chanmico, El Salvador, living with her mother, Julia (Claudia Quesada), and her brothers, including good-natured Adán (Tommy Rivera-Vega). (As the narrator, Quijada points out, “It just so happens that father figures don’t figure into this story.”) As Reina struggles to work on the family farm and at multiple jobs in town, she dreams, as so many immigrants have before her, of finding a better world in the U.S. for herself and her infant son, Fernando. When she finds out that she can pay a “coyote” 1,500 Mexican pesos for allegedly safe passage, she jumps at the chance, even though it means leaving her baby behind.

During her bus journeys to Tijuana, she meets a Mexican farmer, Cruz (Rivera-Vega), who wants to study advanced agricultural techniques; a brokenhearted innkeeper, Silvano (Andrés Enriquez), who decides to go in search of his wife and children in Pittsburgh; and a nun, Leona (Amanda Raquel Martinez), who really wants to be a rock star—if only she can summon up the courage to leave the convent. So you see where this is going.

They’re not so much easing on down the road as struggling to stay out of view of police and other officials. And the final crossing itself provides a snapshot of just how fraught and traumatic the experience is. But Quijada’s musical, directed with fire and precision by Denise Yvette Serna and filled with exuberant performances, also celebrates the same partners-in-adventure camaraderie as The Wiz. In its skillful reimagining of a familiar cinematic tale, it also reminded me of 16th Street Theater’s 2017 staging of Into the Beautiful North, Karen Zacarías’s adaptation of Chicagoan Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel about a young girl in Mexico whose town is being taken over by cartels. Inspired by multiple viewings of The Magnificent Seven, she decides to go north and find seven heroes to come back and kick some ass. 

The combination of fantasy and reality plays out with joy and sometimes heartache in Quijada’s songs, played by himself (on guitar) and three other terrific musicians (Thee Ricky Harris is music director.) Yvonne Miranda’s simple but evocative set features a stacking series of round platforms, with a pit in the center for the musicians and, yes, a yellow road painted on top, illuminated by Liviu Pasare’s projections of rainbows and desert landscapes.

But the great gift of Quijada’s show is that it never loses itself in the Oz tropes. We see the similarities, of course—but what we mostly see are people desperate to find a way to live with dignity and pursue their dreams. There is hope, disappointment, uncertainty, and guilt for Reina. The latter mostly because she knows that she won’t see her little boy for a long time, and that she has left her own mother to raise Fernando amid the growing storm clouds of war and oppression. Quijada doesn’t delve deeply into the politics that tore his parents’ country apart. Instead, he lets Reina and her friends and family speak (and sing) for themselves. 

The show opens and closes with “Everyday Towns,” a paean to the little places that people live in, and sometimes must leave in order to find peace and prosperity (though Reina’s story makes it clear that neither of those things is guaranteed even for those who survive the crossing). Somewhere Over the Border offers one woman’s story, but the love and humor and warmth that Quijada brings to Reina’s tale stand as a defiant rejoinder to the xenophobic forces that dehumanize and criminalize Brown people at our border and in our own everyday towns.