After growing up in New York and spending the past 20 years in Milwaukee, Tom Bruno was looking forward to learning more about his new state of California when he moved here two years ago.
But what he found in his mailbox at Orange Coast College one day clued him on something about the Golden State that he’d never heard of, but echoes of which still powerfully reverberate today: the Bracero Program, a 20-year agreement between the U.S. and Mexican government in which Mexican migrant workers were allowed to work, many in California.
It’s the subject of a world premiere play by Salinas-based writer Michael Roddy, One More Day/Un Dia Mas, which concludes its run this weekend at OCC.
“The manuscript was in the mailbox one day and the playwright said he was looking for a company to do a full production,” says Bruno, who began teaching theater at OCC two years ago. “I thought, ‘fabulous.’ It is exactly what I wanted to do, to learn more about the (California) culture and life. And I knew nothing about the whole Bracero movement.”
The piece struck Bruno as the kind of historical story that isn’t talked about that much (except for the millions of Mexican-Americans who can trace their lineage to one of those Bracero workers, of course) but it was also uncomfortably timely.
“With all the stuff in the election going on, and people putting down Mexican workers…and people like Trump making blanket statements about how they’re all dishonest crooks…it just seemed so timely to do a piece like this, to give these voices a chance to be heard.”
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The 75-minute play is set in present-day Salinas and in memory between 1942, when the program began, and 1964, when it ended. Some scenes are in Mexico, the U.S.-Mexican border and in the fields, and the story is basically a grandfather talking to his grandson and telling him his story.
“It’s really a primer on the whole bracero program,” Bruno says.
The program’s history is outlined, including strikes and controversy, as well as the personal stories of some involved. Also addressed are some of the more infamous incidents, such as a 1948 plane crash that killed 32 people, mostly Mexican farm laborers, outside of Coalinga, which inspired a Woody Guthrie song, and a 1963 accident in which a freight train smashed into a bus carrying migrant farmworkers, killing 32. The latter incident played a huge role in the termination of the program in 1964 and is credited by many (like our friends at Wikipedia—yes, it’s footnoted!!!!) as helping to launch the Chicano civil rights movement.
“I hope audiences walk away like I want to walk away after a show: thinking that I want to learn more about this,” says Bruno. “(Additionally), while politicians might make these blanket statements about people and cultures, (I hope audiences) see the individuality of the human experience through these stories and that these statistics become flesh and blood, they become our own stories, our relatives, the people we care about. And ultimately, hopefully, we’re making a better world by showing that.”
OCC Drama Lab Theatre, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa, (714) 432-5880. Fri.-Sun., 7:30 p.m. $8-$10. Thru March 27. www.occtickets.com