Reality 2.0

Elizabeth Perez - one of the creative leaders at Artist Ink - demonstrates the SM2 app at the Cesar Chavez Library.

The kids participating in the Salinas-based creative collective Artist Ink have an idea of what people think of East Salinas, a neighborhood where many of their participants live. They know people – even some of their neighbors on the Monterey Peninsula, just a half-hour drive away – harbor harmful stereotypes, like believing the streets are a dangerous place ravaged by gangbangers. What follows, perhaps, is the notion that residents are too apathetic to do anything about it.

But kids like Bryan Rodriguez, Elizabeth Perez and Ingrid Espinoza, who all live in East Salinas and are creative leaders at Artist Ink, know that their story isn’t quite simple. So they decided to tell it themselves.

“When people hear I’m from Salinas, I know what they’re thinking,” says Espinoza, an incoming sophomore at Alisal High School. “You can see it on their face.”

Artist Ink debuted their play Salinas Movement Project at Alisal Center for Fine Arts in March of 2017. It was a direct response to the election of President Donald Trump, whose immigration policies stoked fear in and around Salinas, where the population is about three-quarters Latino. It’s also a young community, where more than 40 percent of residents are under age 20, according to U.S. Census data.

The Salinas Movement Project put a spotlight on real experiences of residents. It’s not one story, but a collection of stories that are shared by the kids who live there. There are stories about police profiling, how immigration policies affect families, labor activism and organization, and more.

The play also has an interactive element. In some parts, the actors break the fourth wall and ask audience members to send in text messages with ideas for what a character should do next: cooperate fully? Recite their rights? Both are options.

The play has been performed and toured all around Monterey County and it has gotten positive feedback from audiences. But over two years, the group starting thinking about other ways to tell the stories. “Not everybody is into plays,” says Perez, a graduate of Alisal High School. While the play pushed artistic boundaries by inviting audience participation through technology, she thinks it wasn’t for everyone – and besides, reaching people with a theatrical production requires assembling a live audience.

“They began wondering, what was the next step was for this play?” says Emily Morales, founder and artistic director of Artist Ink. “The idea for an app was the next step.”

The app, dubbed Salinas Movement Project 2, or SM2, is an augmented reality game – thinkPokémon Go or Ingress for comparison.

“We want people to know that we’re not helpless.”

The virtual reality games continues the storylines of the characters in the original play.

It also utilizes data collected in the Salinas Youth Voice Report, a 2016 analysis of “what it is like to be a youth in Salinas,” initiated by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. As part of the Youth Voice Report, participants envisioned how they would portray Salinas on Instagram: hard-working farmworker parents and agriculture ranked high. Respondents called for safer communities with more opportunities for youth.

The data from that report underlies the original Salinas Movement Project. “The numbers kind of confirmed what we were going through,” says Rodriguez, an Alisal High graduate. “It made it human,” Rodriguez says.

SM2 is expected to launch some time this year, and players will be able to use tablets or phones to play, then will roam the Cesar Chavez Library. On their screens they’ll see an overlaid reality, helping them navigate their way through landmarks, find collectible objects, and narrate stories integrating data from the Salinas Youth Voice Report.

These days, members meet up in their downtown Salinas offices to focus on creating this app. Like the play, they plan to include options (and solutions) for players. “We want to let people know they can do something after reading these stories,” Espinoza says.

Morales, their artistic director, gives an example of options for what you can do if a cop pulls you over. “Sometimes the solution is as simple as knowing your rights,” she says. “So many times people think they can’t do anything because these are authority figures.”

The developers also want to make a list of resources and organizations that can help mobilize the community to help solve problems, or at least build solidarity so policymakers acknowledge them.

But for now, they’re working with a team of developers hoping to get their game up by the end of this year. “We want people to know that we’re not helpless and that we have to make the change ourselves,” Perez says.

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