September 18, 2008

Real-Life Mystery Adds Mystical Element

By Lisa Bornstein

It's a reality of the world that girls go missing.

In that regard, Ciudad Juarez is more real than most places.

The Mexican border town facing El Paso became the home to maquiladoras, or factories, of U.S. companies after NAFTA opened the door. Young women flooded from the countryside to work in them. And in the past 15 years, more than 400 have been murdered, according to estimates.

The murders go unsolved. Sometimes the bodies are found; often the women are never seen again.

San Francisco writer Marisela Trevino Orta was horrified and fascinated. The ongoing, unsolved crisis became the subject of her first play, Braided Sorrow, which premieres tonight at El Centro Su Teatro.

Orta learned about the Juarez murders from an National Public Radio broadcast in 2004. She was working as the resident poet of a social-justice theater company in California, one made up of Latin American immigrants.

"I was living here in San Francisco and I was working on this play, so I didn't have the opportunity to go to Juarez, but I had the opportunity to go to El Paso several times," says the Texas native. "When we would go, everyone would talk about, 'Don't cross the border, don't go to Juarez.' "

Orta remembered La Llorona, "the crying woman," a legend intrinsic to most Latin American cultures.

"For many people, including me, La Llorona is a scary ghost story," Orta says. "She's not a sympathetic individual. If you go near the river at night, she'll drag you down into it and drown you. She drowned her own children, that's her curse."

Parents put the story to their own uses. "It's a cautionary tale so that children would not go near water."

Orta interweaves La Llorona with the current violence on the edge of the Rio Grande. The play's title refers to the character Alma, who cuts her braid, as well as to its non-linear nature. She also recalled old washing machines, with rollers to wring out the clothing.

"My mother told me this story about how some woman, her hair got caught in it," Orta says. "So it was this urban legend of a woman's hair, something that represents her femininity and sexuality, getting caught, and it could be dangerous. It becomes a liability for her."

Braided Sorrow won the University of California Irvine Chicano/ Latino Literary Prize. One of the judges was Anthony J. Garcia, El Centro Su Teatro artistic director. He offered a premiere and, during workshops this summer, Orta learned a little bit about putting on a play.

"(I wrote it) before I knew anything about the challenges of theater, the economics behind hiring a huge cast," she says. "Everyone tells me, 'You should really have smaller casts.' "

She also learned from the Denver actors.

"Almost all the actors either were from Juarez or had family in Juarez. That was really powerful, to hear the stories. What I walked away (with) from that week is there's a sort of sense of acceptance for the violence and the death, that this is the way things are."

The motivation behind the murders remains murky.

"It can't just all be one person, or a conspiracy. I think there are multiple reasons why these women are being targeted," Orta says.

"I think it's more of a symptom of the city itself, that there's something very wrong with that city. We were talking about this when I was in Denver with the actors.

"Someone put it really well, that it has to do with this bigger symptom of this festering city. Perhaps the global economy has created a super-city, a super-dangerous city that uses people up."


Braided Sorrow

* When and where: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8:05 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through Oct. 18, El Centro Su Teatro, 4725 High St.

* Cost: $15 to $18

* Information: 303-296-0219

Originally published by Lisa Bornstein, Rocky Mountain News.

(c) 2008 Rocky Mountain News. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.