RIC SALINAS OF CULTURE CLASH IN NEW PLAY TITLED “PLACAS”
The culture and customs of the Salvadoran community are at the heart of a new play featuring the mercurial actor Ric Salinas who is best known for his work as a member of the satirical troupe Culture Clash. In this case Salinas goes it alone, that is to say without his usual partners Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya, in a new play that’s currently on a national tour. The play is “Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo,” written by Paul Flores and directed by Michael John Garces.
Among other things, the play reminds us of the similarities – and the unquestionable differences – between salvadoreños and Chicanos in the United States. “Most people think I’m a Chicano, because of my work with Culture Clash,” Salinas tells me. “But I’m salvadoreño – I was born in El Salvador. I like to say I’m Chicano by osmosis, because I basically grew up with Chicanos in California.”
The histories of the two communities are similar, of course, but demonstrably distinct. Speaking broadly, politically tempered Chicanos regard the American Southwest as essentially “occupied Mexico.” For Chicanos, it’s been a matter of “us against the gringo power structure.” Starting with our antepasados from Mexico, we have been here for a long, long time. Our political struggles continue, and our experience has been enriched by the history, culture and perspective rooted in our Mexican past (and present). Salvadorans are a different story.
Arriving in the United States in the 1980s as refugees from civil wars and chaos, Salvadorans were key to changing the Latino landscape here. Those wars and dislocation were abetted, of course, by United States imperialistic military adventures in Central America. The influx of Salvadoran refugees helped Chicanos to broaden their perspective about the international dimensions of the struggles ignited by the Chicano Movement. It became a bigger, more comprehensive “us Latinos against an oppressive imperialistic power structure.” We were not just fighting City Hall anymore. Our collective struggle was broader.
So, salvadoreños began arriving here in large numbers. And they ain’t going back. Therefore, a process of accommodation to this new reality began among Chicanos and (mexicanos who continue to arrive in the United States). We Chicanos/Mexicans have discovered pupusas. We’ve accommodated to subtle differences in language, both in Spanish and what we could call different kinds of “Spanglish.” To Mexicans and Chicanos “pisto” is booze. To salvadoreños pisto is money. (That’s “feria” in caló.) Salvadorans don’t eat jalapeños, nor other spicy chiles, for that matter. And we Chicanos keep asking, “Just what is that “cortido” thing?
Mexicans ask people to be quiet by using the word “callate” (pronounced CAH yah teh). Salvadorans pronounce it “cah YAH teh.” Mysteriously, the emphasis is on the “wrong” syllable. Chicanos and Mexicans say “sientate” (SEE yen ta teh), but salvadoreños say “see yen TAH the.” Tomato, tomahto – let’s call the whole thing off.
We’ve all learned to accommodate to such things. But there are, of course, more significant differences between us. It’s an ongoing effort to achieve agreement or at least reconciliation and mutual respect regarding certain social and political issues. That process continues.
And it’s within that context that this new play with Ric Salinas is being presented. The play titled “Placas” has been presented across the country, from Washington D.C. to the Bay Area to Los Angeles. Performances on the east coast, including New York, are around the corner. Salinas plays the character Fausto Carbajal, a hardened veteran member of the Marasalvatrucha gang. For a number of reasons, he has decided to leave the world of the gangs and head his life in a different direction. The first step involves the surgical removal of his placas – his tattoos. It’s a painful process that involves laser surgery. But getting out of a gang is much more complex than just removing your tattoos. It’s a matter of changing your identity. And it involves a complex social, emotional and psychological dynamic, and that’s the grist for the action of the play. “So, it’s not only about the physical removal of your tattoos,” says Salinas. “It’s also the removal of your past to some extent and so it has lots of implications.”
Salinas tells me he’s excited about participating in the play. “This play is one of the very first plays that deals intimately with the Salvadoran community, the salvadoreño culture, and I’m very pleased about that,” he says. “The story is sort of like a Greek tragedy, it takes place in the salvadoreño community but it is really a universal story.”
It is a story about redemption, reconciliation – and about hope.
The character Salinas portrays in “Placas” is loosely based on the life of an actual gang member who went through the process of tattoo removal and the challenge of turning his life around, Alex Sanchez. Sanchez now counsels young people about alternatives to street gang life. Part of the conflict in the play centers on Salinas’ character’s efforts to convince his teenaged son to abandon the gang life. It isn’t easy.
Gangs, and the reasons they have an allure to working class young people, are certainly much more complex than the stereotyped treatment we usually see in mainstream entertainment media. This play attempts to grapple with some of the genuine complexities associated with gangs in our Latino communities. Salinas tells me, “I wanted to do this story because we show there’s a lot of regret about joining gangs, a lot of them want to get out and this story shows you many sides of the dilemma.” Salinas adds with a laugh, “Hey, I’m biased, I’m in this play, but I know that it’s a very good play. It can move people, you know when it works art can really soar and I think we’ve achieved that.”
And by the way, it wouldn’t be a Ric Salinas performance if there weren’t some devilishly dark humor in it. There is.
Luís Torres is the author of the book “Doña Julia’s Children: The Life and Legacy of Educational Reformer Vahac Mardirosian” available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com)