NET/TEN Shareback: Pangea World Theater, José Torres-Tama & Raquel Almazan - Documenting the Undocumented

2013-14 Exchange Grant Recipients

Director Dipankar Muhkerjee of Pangea World Theater (Minneapolis, MN) led an immigrants’ theater exchange with performance artist José Torres-Tama of ArteFuturo Productions (New Orleans, LA) and playwright Raquel Almazan of La Lucha Arts Group (Astoria, NY) to explore the aesthetics of transforming filmed interviews into a performance script, exploring the parallel persecution of Latino and Middle Eastern immigrants in post-9/11 United States.


I have been concentrating mostly on documenting the stories of Latina/no immigrants since 2010, but with the support of the NET Exchange Grant, the work expanded to include Muslim, Arab, African, Somali, and Hmong immigrants to explore the parallel struggles of diverse immigrant communities in the post-9/11 landscape.

This “Shareback” will offer some strategies to observe and consider when documenting a people that have mostly worked “under the table” and lived “in the shadows” because of their tenuous status.

For this to resonate with NET members who may look at it and for it to serve the field best, it is important to understand this backdrop of the Immigrantion crisis in New Orleans post-Katrina, and another section will offer the national landscape under Obama’s administration and his brutal deportation apparatus.

- José Torres Tama


Documenting the UndocumentedHonoring Stories of a People Under Persecution in an Era of Anti-immigrant Hysteria Gripping the USA

Click here to download the full article with context about the project, the artists, and the polictical landscape.


Trust Is the Most Important Ingredient

Trust is the most important ingredient for the development of any interview process for consideration when engaging the Latina/no immigrant and diverse undocumented community.  If you cannot build trust, it is most likely that a person keeping a low profile because of their status will not grant you an interview, especially one that will be filmed.

Just because I am a Latino man does not mean that a Latina/no immigrant will immediately divulge their life story to me, especially if they see a camera.  When I first explored the “interview” process in the streets of New Orleans in the immediate months and years after the storm, I simply talked to reconstruction workers at construction sites.  I would strike up a conversation in Spanish, of course, asking them where they were from.  After some engagement, I would ask them if they would not mind if I took a picture of them working. 

In the early post-Katrina years, I was using only a digital still camera, and if they agreed, I took a photo of them at the construction site.  Afterwards, I would go to a nearby coffee shop and write from memory any story they might have shared about their working and living conditions. 

My entry point for any response about their working conditions was simply my stating that I hope they were being paid properly, and most reported that they were not.  They revealed that their working conditions were often abhorrent and less than what they were promised, and continuously they struggled to get paid the wages they were promised as well. 

In the immediate years after Katrina, the prevailing narrative for immigrant workers was that they were regularly cheated by ruthless contractors, and contractor bosses often called Immigration Agents instead of paying out the promised wages to workers they “hired”.  As I developed my first piece based on the interview process, ALIENS, IMMIGRANTS & OTHER EVILDOERS, the wage theft issues became a driving thematic concern as did the abhorrent working conditions most immigrants were subjected to.  

When I moved towards the filmed interviews, I would often go to day laborers’ pick up points a number of times to talk to the immigrant workforce about my idea to document their stories to develop a theater project for it.  Most of the time, theater was something totally foreign to their vocabulary, but because I continuously returned to those labor pick-up points after a few visits some agreed, and I developed my first interviews out in the open air of the streets of New Orleans. 

A major success was when some of the immigrants I interviewed on the streets actually made it to the Ashé Cultural Arts Center for the ALIENS solo performance debut in New Orleans back in September of 2010

Spanish Translated Materials to Give Out About Project Goals

For the Latina/no immigrant community it is vital to have any written materials that you will offer about your projects and the interview process translated into Spanish, including any release form that you may have when an interview takes place. 

This form needs to be very clear that the interview will be honored in the most respectful way. Also, if the interviewee is not comfortable with the camera on their face, then, their voice can be recorded or the face made blurry to not to reveal their true identity because of their undocumented status and real fears of being deported. 

Immigrants who have not become activists and “come out” themselves publicly are working in the shadows and generally live with the every day real fear of deportation.  The utmost care has to be considered because of this real harsh reality.  Early on some immigrant interviews I did on the streets were with immigrants turning their faces away from the camera and/or covering most of their face with a baseball cap. 

I was most successful when I became part of the voluntary support staff for an immigrant Latino activist and friend who put together a program to feed day laborers every Sunday at a major urban intersection that had become day laborers’ pick up points.  

Spanish Language as a Major Cultural Barrier

Even this early process without a film camera was possible for me because I speak Spanish fluently, and if one does not have this specific language skill, there will be less success because the Latina/no immigrant community is a Spanish speaking one.  Rarely do I find working immigrants who speak English. 

Now, I am talking about the older immigrant Latina/no community who has generally migrated to the U.S. and risked their lives and even humanity in search of work.  I am not referring to young DREAMERS who were raised here most of their lives since early childhood and are completely bilingual.

The lack of Spanish language skills will be a barrier.  If you speak English only, I would suggest learning even basic Spanish, and/or consider working with a translator.

Going to Where They Are Most Comfortable for the Filmed Interviews & Renting a Car for this Process

As noted before, trust is the most important ingredient, and for the Minneapolis project, I had a rented car that allowed me the mobility of going to the homes of a couple of immigrant workers, who felt most comfortable there.  Developing the interview process in a place of great comfort is also of most importance, and a valuable interview with an immigrant worker from the Sheraton Hotel we stayed at was developed at her house.

For the NET Exchange, Raquel Almazan and I were mostly housed at the Midtown Sheraton in Minneapolis, and half of the cleaning ladies were immigrant women from Ecuador.  Because I, too, am from Ecuador, I would just speak to them naturally and ask them about their lives here, especially in the mostly cold climate of Minneapolis. 

Some workers would just talk to me about their lives over a ten-minute period while in the hallway in between cleaning rooms, and I would absorb the details, recording them in my computer once I got back to my room.

Having stayed at the Sheraton twice during the two separate one-week residencies, I was most successful the 2nd time after befriending some of the women by name.  In one instance, I offered one of the ladies the poem I wrote about two women named Maria, who both came from the same small town outside of Cuenca, a city in the mountainous area of the country.  I let them know that I had turned their life stories of longing for their children left behind into a bilingual poem that was going to be performed as part of the theater show.

Spacing the Interviews with Some Time to “Come Down” from the Recollection of Stories that Are Often Dramatic & Emotionally Packed

It is of great importance to consider having a little time and space between the interviews. We learned this the hard way when some folks came in late to the interview, and that ran into someone else’s time.  Meanwhile the interviewee had shared such a deep traumatic memory of crossing the border and/or of missing parents who were deported, and were in a deep state of emotional stress and tears flowing.

Some were retelling such tales for the first time in many years, and at times, it was absolutely draining emotionally for the interviewee and for us to hear and bear witness.  Quite often, Raquel and I found ourselves in tears as well, or on the verge of tears with the person being interviewed, who was also emotionally spent in the recollection of a brutal story at the border and encounters with Immigration Agents who treated them like terrorists. 

Have some water prepared and tissues nearby to emotionally support them and their emotional release.  Often, the interview process has them relive a traumatic situation that had been buried deep in the crevices where dark memories are stored.

Be grateful and compassionate that you are bearing witness to a person who has experienced harsh trauma, and sometimes they are young people and adults who have been equally scarred by their experience of crossing a border without papers.

The retelling of these stories to someone who has demonstrated genuine interest in hearing their personal journey is often a major cathartic experience for the person being interviewed, and it will be for you, as you become part of their story as a witness to their epic human truth.

Want to read more? Click here to download the full article with context about the project, the artists, and the polictical landscape.



Butoh workshop conducted by Raquel Almazan for Pangea World Theater ensemble members to explore trauma and ensemble building.


Interview with José Torres-Tama

HowlRound Journal (August 2015): Latinos and the Rebirth of Post-Katrina New Orleans

HowlRound Journal (December 2015): Staging the Anti-Immigrant Hysteria

Alternate ROOTS (June 2015): Teatro Sin Fronteras: Shifting Narratives to Include Latina/os in the Rebirth of Post-Katrina New Oreleans

De-Colonialize the Body - a short essay by Raquel Almazan


José Torres-Tama
& ArteFuturo Productions
1329 Saint Rich Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70117

Pangea World Theater

Raquel Almazan

Posted by: 
Tuesday, November 17, 2015

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