“A Perfect Union”: Just Like Us Hits Home

By: Jocelyn Contreras

A bright pearl light shone on Tom Tancredo as he gave his speech of anti-immigration with an ending chant of people yelling “Send them back, send them back, send them back.” You can see the actor, Amilcar Jauregui, playing Tancredo, torn apart between the values and his personal beliefs to that of the person he acted. As the chant continued, muffled sighs of disappointment in the audience, forced retraction of tears along with the underlying anger boiled beneath the skin of the audience it resonated with; to the people with family members or friends with an undocumented status or to them personally — to you. It hurt. It hit home.

“Just Like Us” introduced the recurring question, what makes us American? A question that needs to be addressed after President Donald Trump announced in early September the plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). Playwright, Karen Zacarias responded with a movement entirely of her own. Zacarias opened the rights to her 2013 play “Just Like Us” for any institution and school to use, to share, and to educate. Fast forward a month later, and DACA’s renewal has changed. The immense fear and ostracization of young kids and families alike through a piece of paper was intended in the play. Brown Bag Theatre Co brought the movement to UC Irvine performed October 20th at 6 pm and on the 21st at 2 pm at the Little Theatre in Humanities Hall 161, for a message driven play that reminds us of the humanity of undocumented persons through the lives 4 Latina girls. The first two are undocumented and the last two are residents of the states: Marisela played by Cynthia Ruiz, Yadira played by Heather Echeverria, Clara played by Desiree Zarate, and Elissa played by Erika Clark. The play unraveled the relationship between the girls as they apply to college and two have a complex obstacle to even apply even if they are excelling students.

The play was based on “Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America” by Helen Thorpe, who was also a character in the play. Directed by Victoria Yvette Zepeda, Act I began with the girls getting ready for the prom. From the beginning, cultural differences are perceived when Marisela’s father interrupts and claims he is going. A comedic sense is brought to life in the reading to let the heaviness of the reality sink in and, yet, it is still difficult to see. We see Clara and Elissa get into two separate colleges with scholarships while Marisela and Yadira find it difficult to accept the fact that they might not be able to go to college. Two American girls can gain a higher education and two studious girls cannot due to a paper that defines their identity, even though it shouldn’t. We see the hardships of their status and the unimaginable truths behind the hate driven anti-immigration protests. It adds unnecessary stress and fear to these girls.

A fear that had come true for Yadira was her mother being deported for using a false ID to work. This separation would cost Yadira her education and safety from her and her 13-year-old sister’s  step-father, a common and prevalent reality in the U.S. today. As the mother was separated from Yadira and her sister, she cried, “Cuidanse” translated to “Take care of one another”. The scene had left one of the audience members sobbing as Yadira’s sister yelled, “No te vayas” (“Don’t leave.”) This play has humanized the lives of undocumented students and families, who are just trying to live a comfortable and secure life quietly. Marisela’s parents worked ten times harder for meagre pay and wanted the best for their children: a dream to live. A dream of accomplishing a higher education that should be possible for anyone.  

Through their journey and complexities of getting into college, Elissa had separated from the group and the rest of the girls attended university together. As Helen followed them to report, it became evident that Helen, a white woman, had always seen both Mexican culture and the American culture as two separate spheres. One sphere with plans to become independent, she viewed this as the American way of living, while she viewed the other sphere, the girls’ Mexican culture, as a separate sphere where girls become mothers at a young age.

However, Helen was kind and became a part of their lives, so Helen reacted with disappointment in ACT II of the play when Marisela announced she was pregnant after her college graduation. Helen had reacted the way she did because she believed that being a mother was going to deter Marisela’s education, law school. Marisela, furious and hurt, said, “You get to decide what about me is foreign, Mexican, and what about me is not.” The audience had forgotten how embedded these ideas of borders and the difference between “us” and “them” was profound in even the most compassionate people. It was a surprise.

It meant so much to finally hear it, to finally have one of the girls ask, who do you think we are? The answer was already on our lips, they’re American and Mexican, it’s not two separate spheres: it’s just one. Marisela was an embodiment of Mexican culture and American culture, but it was her  dreams and personality that made her, regardless from where she was born or where she grew up. It was a magnificent play that changed perspectives and humanized a people where documents couldn’t. This was a play for the people whose voices are never heard even in Irvine.