Dangerous Art

Ricardo Salinas of Culture Clash in a scene from Placas, which is a Spanglish word that can refer to license plates, nicknames and graffiti tags.

Poet and playwright Paul S. Flores titled his newest play Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo. Like other documentary plays based on factual source material, it melts reality and art together. But with Placas, a play touring the country and coming to Salinas, the subject lured its creator into real-life danger.

Flores has been part of an energetic wave of young, activated, savvy Chicano and Latino playwrights and performers. He started doing theater in the mid-to-late 1990s, entering San Francisco State University’s MFA in Creative Writing program in 1995 and co-founding an agit-prop poetry group called Los Delicados. His first theater production was a 2001 piece called Decipher, staged at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

“It was one of the first hip-hop theater pieces in San Francisco,” Flores says. He started performing at showcases like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in 2002 and Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry in 2004. Key apprenticeships followed: with Kamilah Forbes, the director of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival in New York City; Tony Garcia from El Centro Sud Teatro in Colorado, who commissioned Flores’ Fear of a Brown Planet, about government power; Brian Freeman of San Francisco Mime Troupe and Pomo Afro Homos (post-modern African-American homosexuals) who directed Flores’ You’re Going to Cry, about gentrification.

But Placas took Flores, raised in Chula Vista between San Diego and Tijuana, to another level. He was approached by the Central American Resource Center to do a story. They put him in touch with Alex Sanchez, a Salvadoran ex-gang member who now works as a peacemaker through his L.A.-based Homies Unidos, who introduced him to Mara Salvatrucha, aka MS 13, aka Salvadoran Army Ants.

“Alex brought me into the underground gang world,” Flores says. “They brought me into a room. ‘You’re here cuz of Alex’s word, but we want to know what you’re doing.’ They told me the story of Christian Poveda.”

Poveda was a Latino French photojournalist who made a documentary about Mara 18 gang members called La Vida Loca, which was released to critical acclaim. Months later, Poveda went back to El Salvador, but allegedly he was labeled a police informant.

“Someone shot him in the head four times,” Flores says. “[The gang members] were telling me that once I started this process, they wouldn’t be able to control what happens. I realized I wasn’t in San Francisco anymore.”

The gang talked to Flores about homies who had been killed or crippled and about taking care of their families, about the civil war and the poverty of their country, about immigration and their own kids. They get jumped into the gang young, and then have regrets about their tattoos (including on the face) that imprison them to “the crazy life.” The play is about a Salvadoran man named Fausto, middle-aged and marked with Sureño number 13 tattoos when he’s released from prison, and living in Norteño territory of Northern California and wanting to reconstruct his life, remove his gang-affiliated tattoos and save his teen son from gang life.

“I had to meet them in scary places,” Flores continues. “In whole neighborhoods dominated by one gang, gang symbols everywhere. Once I got the pass, it was great. Until then, I was thinking who’s going to rob me? Jump me?”

Back in the States, the hazards didn’t abate. His consultant, Alex Sanchez, got indicted by the FBI for conspiracy to commit murder and violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Sanchez had been called by the gang to mediate a problem and during that bi-coastal sit-down, threats were levied. The man who made the threats turned up dead. The phone call had been recorded. The FBI launched Operation Devil Horns to take the gang apart, which made Flores’ videotape on Sanchez and his friends valuable.

“I thought the FBI was going to come after me,” Flores says. “I gave it to a reporter. I gave it away for Constitutional protection. I had most of it written down; I thought I could claim artistic license.”

Now Flores’ interviews and research could help the feds. Sanchez awaited trial in jail for nine months while work on the play stalled. Then, someone else confessed. Sanchez was freed and Flores finished the script in the summer of 2012.

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“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he says.

The play is co-developed and directed by Michael John Garces. Salinas’ own Baktun 12 member and playwright of the reAlisal series, Luis “Xago” Juarez, plays a gang member.

Placas is bilingual, about 30 percent in Spanish (more specifically, Salvadoran lingo), but Flores says they use “language strategies” like gestures and repeating things in English, that make things clear.

“There are some frightening moments, but there’s levity for comic relief,” he says. “This is not a play about the Mara Salvatrucha. It’s about a family trying to move forward with honor and respect, a father trying to be responsible and a son trying to find his way.”

PLACAS: THE MOST DANGEROUS TATTOO is excerpted and talked about 6pm Thursday at Alisal Center for the Fine Arts, 1330 E. Alisal St., Salinas. Shows come 8pm Friday and Saturday at Alisal High School’s Mullins Theatre, 777 Williams Road, Salinas. Free; must reserve; two tickets per order at www.BrownPaperTickets.com/event/603046

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