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Day laborers take the stage

Members of the Teatro Jornalero -- or Day-Laborer Threatre -- perform.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal:This is apparently immigration week at the White House. President Obama's been meeting with labor leaders and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus the past couple of days, and he's schedule to give a big immigration policy speech tomorrow.

Whatever the political debate about who should be allowed to come to the United States, the reality is that millions of undocumented workers are already here, most of them Hispanic. They are an enormous labor pool, day labor in many cases, hanging around home-supply stores waiting for work. Their experiences have become fodder for an unusual theater project plays by day laborers for day laborers.

Marketplace's Jeff Tyler reports.


Jeff Tyler: At nine on a Wednesday morning, guys looking for work crowd the job center in a Home Depot parking lot. On this unlikely stage, the actors are sometimes drowned out by noisy trucks.

Men talking in Spanish, sounds of trucks beeping

Normally, the actors work as day laborers themselves. But they sacrifice half a day's wages in order to perform with the Teatro Jornalero, or Day-Laborer Theater. It tours with new material about four times a year, performing at a dozen local job centers like this one.

The skits are packed with lessons. Even before Arizona passed its tough, new law, the theater group was educating people about labor laws, immigrant rights and other issues. One recent skit focused on the census, trying to counter misperceptions of it.

People laughing

The theater group was founded two years ago. It gets some money from the Ford Foundation, which pays for an artistic director and bus passes for performers. But otherwise, actors like 58-year old Luis Sanchez get paid... well, nothing.

Luis Sanchez: No, we don't make any money. Just to perform is gratifying.

Men rehearsing a play

Sometimes, the need to find paid work takes precedence. So all the actors understudy each others's roles.

Ethan Sawyer is project director for the Day-Laborer Theater.

Ethan Sawyer: The actors are kind of trained to be able to step in for one another. So that on any given performance day, Person X doesn't show up, Person Y can sort of go, OK, and step in, and learn the role really fast. So the show can go on.

Improvisation is also a crucial skill for a day laborer.

Xico Paredes Orasco: I do everything. I work as an electrician, as a carpenter, and I'll even take dead animals out from under houses.

That's 33-year old Xico Paredes Orasco. To get to rehearsals in downtown Los Angeles, he travels by bus two hours -- each way. Like the others, Xico was recruited from a day-labor site. He has no formal theater training. Back in Mexico, he was in the army.

Orasco: Every person who comes here to the United States, we leave our lives behind. Our future changes overnight. Here, all of our learning and our education, it's not worth as much.

Before coming to the U.S., Juan Jose Mangani was a union president and a technician at a telecom company in El Salvador. Now, as the group's artistic director, Mangani is proud to educate new immigrants -- and, at school performances, their kids.

Juan Jose Mangani: We perform for kids and have been able to change perceptions about how their parents are. You know, a lot of kids that we perform with, their parents are day-laborers. And some of them have said to us, "Wow. I understand what my parents go through every day now.

That's Ethan Sawyer translating. He says the shows get good reviews from day laborers.

Sawyer: One woman said, "This is a kind of therapy for me, because I'm here all day, waiting at this Home Depot. And being able to laugh, if just for a second, and forget all my cares, is wonderful.

For the performers, the theater is rewarding in ways that manual labor is not. Again, Luis Sanchez.

Sanchez: It's been a kind of spiritual therapy for me. And, I think, for other members too.

Doing jobs no one else wants, day laborers can often feel invisible. You can imagine how rewarding it must feel to finally get some recognition.

Applause

In Los Angeles, I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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