PLACAS Shows the Parallels Between Street Gang Civil War and Greek Tragedy

Seventeen times over the past several years, Ric Salinas has been forced to wear long-sleeved shirts, even in the cruel February heat of Southern California. It’s not that Salinas, one of the three pillars that the Chicano comedy troupe Culture Clash is built upon, is afflicted with cold intolerance: he just doesn’t know if his fully tatted-up arms are going to be in the wrong place at the right time.

“I have to wear long sleeves even in this hot weather,” Salinas said earlier this week during an unseasonable heat wave in Southern California. “Happens every year. I got to cover up. Someone may see me in the wrong place.”

The tattoos, which sport affiliation to the notorious Salvadoran gang MS-13, are temporary, part of Salinas’ costume (it takes five to six hours for every run to apply them) when he performs in PLACAS: The World’s Most Dangerous Tattoo. But like everything in the show, from its subject person to the gritty dialogue of the street, those colors are authentic. So, sporting MS-13 colors and being spotted by a rival gang member could lead to a serious case of misidentification.

A literal connection with the colors and insignias of gang tattoos is just one of the many things Salinas, who plays the lead role of Fausto in Placas (Spanish for tattoo), has learned since getting involved in the play. Paul Flores, an acclaimed spoken-word artist and writer interviewed more than 100 gang members, parents and intervention workers in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and El Salvador, and loosely based Salinas’ character on the experiences of ex-gang member Alex Sanchez, founder of Homies Unidos, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that works on gang intervention and violence prevention, including tattoo removal, a process that is as mental and spiritual as it is physical. This is the first time the play’s been produced in Orange County (in conjunction with Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities Collaborative Organizations and the Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble), and while the play is rooted in the rise of Salvadoran street gangs in the 1980s, Salinas says it offers a more universal message.

“It’s set against the backdrop of Salvadoran and Chicano gangs in Los Angeles, and the civil war in El Salvador, but what (Flores) really wrote was a Greek tragedy,” Salinas says. “This story was told 2,000 years ago. It’s a play about redemption and the love between a father and a son and the consequences of actions.”

But it’s also a play directly focused at telling the story of one man’s struggles in gang life as a way to help steer others from the lifestyle. And part of that is Sanchez, who travels with the play in every city, and who conducts healing circles afterward.

“We’ve played in Washington D.C. New York and Denver, like real theater towns, but we’ve (also) played in front of mostly Latino audiences, places like Fresno Stockton and Merced, where many of the people are first-time theater goers,” Salinas says. “It’s a trip… It’s definitely a piece that appeals to aging gang members who are trying to heal, but I’ve also seen a lot of middle school and high school kids, kids who are probably going down the wrong path, in these healing circles. These young people open up and talk and that’s deep, man. It’s using an art form as a platform for healing and really finding some results.”

Salinas, who was born in El Salvador and raised in San Francisco’s Mission District, sees eerie similarities between he and Sanchez, who grew up in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park neighborhood.

“The similiarities in our life stories are abounding. His upbringing was very similar to mine, except I just happened to take a different path.”
Both lived in urbanized areas in the 1980s, when, in no small thanks to covert and overt action by the Reagan administration, a civil war in El Salvador resulted in a flood of refugees pouring into the Bay Area and Los Angeles. While Salinas merely observed (and was nearly killed in front of his home in the Mission while trying to prevent gang violence) Sanchez enlisted. And when he and others were kicked out of the U.S. for their gang involvement, they served as a bizarre-world Coca Cola, an export from America back to El Salvador with dire results.

“What you had happening was all these kids, really, who were growing up with no supervision, really growing up on the streets and having to find a new family, which were the Chicano gangs and the Mexican Mafia,” Salinas says. “And then a lot of them started being deported back to El Salvador and that is what led to the gangs in El Salvador becoming a huge epidemic.”

While Placas is a gritty, bi-lingual drama, albeit one with a definite message of hope, Salinas hasn’t entirely abandoned his Culture Clash roots (don’t worry: the troupe is still together; in fact, it’s working on an adaptation of Aristophanes’ Frogs that may wind up at South Coast Repertory next year, Salinas says). He says he’s sprinkled the material with bits of humor but he’s also found that unlike the wildly frenetic energy of a CC show he’s been forced to “be more polite and patient with the people I’m working with. More disciplined, I guess you could say.”

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m. $10. Santa Ana resident and students at UCI are free with ID.

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