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Sunday, March 15, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Acting Out A Solution -- Group Uses `Street Theater' To Empower Migrant Latino Men

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Two men on a park bench are trading stories in Spanish when one tosses an empty coffee cup on the ground.

"Hey!"

A police officer rushes up, brandishing his nightstick. The men look up, startled, as the officer starts swinging.

"Pick that up!" he orders. Then: "You from Mexico? Are you Mexican?"

"Que? Que?" the men respond, fending off the blows. What? What?

"Let me see your papers! Your ID!"

One of them opens his wallet and hands over a few folded papers.

The officer looks them over. "These are fake!" he says. The man begins to run but is buried under a flurry of nightstick blows that sound suspiciously like the squeals of a rubber duck.

It's a brisk Friday morning in Pioneer Square. The park bench is nothing more than a couple of metal folding chairs in the sunlit chapel of a downtown homeless shelter, the nightstick nothing more than a prop, the men amateur actors.

Outside in the cloudy cold, delivery vans whir near the doors of the soup kitchen. Inside, ears still ringing from a minister's sunrise exhortations, a dozen Spanish-speaking men are buzzing in the wake of this week's "street theater" workshop by CASA Latina.

King County estimates cite 3,000 to 5,000 homeless people in Seattle at any one time; CASA Latina says up to 20 percent of that transient population is Latino. Many speak little or no English, a crippling factor for an already underserved population. This is the crisis CASA Latina has made its mission. (CASA stands for Centro de Ayuda Solidaria a los Amigos, or Solidarity Help Center for Friends.)

The agency uses conventional tools, such as day and evening English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) classes, several times a week. It sets up a weekly information table downtown. But its most innovative efforts are its "street theater" workshops, meant less to entertain than to educate and empower.

In the shelter on Second Avenue, CASA Latina's Jakob Gearheard, who played the role of police officer, asks the men: "OK, what was wrong with what happened?"

The purpose is to inspire discussion, and the fire has been lit. If the men haven't lived the situation themselves, they know someone who has. They lean forward in their chairs with lots of questions and the unvarnished look of society's fringe.

Can the officer ask those things? What do you have to show him? Why shouldn't the man have run?

It's common knowledge among them that legal or not, they can end up detained by authorities if they don't respond correctly in such a situation. Give an officer a reason to think you're here illegally - by running away, for example - and you could wind up losing crucial days of work.

As the men disperse, Gearheard and volunteer Jaime Mendez tell a fervent few where to find more information about their rights. CASA Latina's goal has been met: Discussion. Education. Empowerment.

It's called Theater of the Oppressed, a method popularized some 40 years ago by Brazilian director and activist Augusto Boal. Now widely practiced in South and Central America, it came about after peasants of a northern Brazilian village, incited to near revolution by Boal's political theater, pleaded with the players to take their arms and join their blood-spilling cause.

Boal had to explain that the guns and oratory were just props and script, that he and the others were only actors. He felt like a fraud. Vowing he would never again ask people to do something he wasn't willing to do himself, he turned political theater into what he called "theater as politics."

Theater of the Oppressed skits deal with problem situations familiar to audience members. In them, the protagonist fails. In its fully realized form, spectators are encouraged to re-enact the sketches in ways they believe will resolve the problem.

Facilitators use the method to play off the experiences of their audiences to find solutions.

"I think this work is the most powerful single tool I have ever seen to effect change," says Marc Weinblatt, artistic director of Seattle Public Theater, which embraces Boal's techniques in its core philosophy. "People don't just sit around talking about ideas. They actually do them."

The early 1990s brought a wave of Latino immigration to Seattle. Alaska fishing companies based here, fearful that the unproductive summer of the year before would fail to attract the seasonal help they relied on, advertised for labor in California Spanish-language newspapers.

"A lot of people came up, but there weren't a lot of jobs waiting for them," says Hilary Stern, CASA Latina's executive director, who first saw Theater of the Oppressed techniques while working in Nicaragua.

The boats left the unlucky behind, she says. The number of Latinos in Seattle without a place of their own ballooned. Those unable to speak English or cope with unfamiliar bureaucracies found social services as elusive as a steady paycheck.

In 1994, CASA Latina answered the call, meowing in with a $25,000 budget. These days it has two full-time staffers and a $135,000 purse stocked by government sources, United Way, private foundations and individual donors. It offers a small-business education program as well as ESL classes at the Millionair Club labor center and Gethsemane Lutheran Church.

Its clients, primarily male, average 30 years of age. Many live in overcrowded apartments with friends or relatives. Others drift between shelters and the streets or stake out spots in dumpy makeshift camps off the beaten paths of downtown.

About half have been in the United States several years or more. Most are in Seattle for the first time, looking for construction, fishing, restaurant work or anything they can find. If you're curious about their legal status, you're asking a question CASA Latina doesn't ask of its clients.

But most know too little English to find work via labor centers like the Millionair Club. Many wait instead at a Belltown site known as a pickup point for people willing to pay a day's wages.

"It's risky for them," Stern says. "Sometimes they work and don't get paid. Or the check bounces. I just heard about six guys who worked a day in construction; on the way back their employer stopped at a gas station and they all got out to get sodas, and the employer just took off without paying them."

Many Latino day laborers don't know they can file for lost wages. That's one reason workshops include among the repertoire a session on workers' rights, which are often followed by men making appointments with CASA Latina for help in filling out the necessary forms. Other topics include issues familiar to those who attend - health care, survival tips, the importance of learning English.

The workshops deliver new insights within acted-out experiences. It's often the response of one's peers to the situation being portrayed that hits home.

For instance, the program recently added workshops on teacher harassment because some ESL students were more interested in flirting with instructors than learning.

"We seem to need to do it every every months now," Stern says. "Jake plays the student. He takes every bad example we've ever had and pulls it all together in one really obnoxious person.

"It's the most effective way of getting people to understand it's not acceptable. It can't just be us being authority figures up here saying, `You have to respect the teacher.' When it's their own peers telling them it's bad, that they can't learn, it stops them. At least for a while."

Juan Granadoz, who moved to Seattle three years ago, has made CASA Latina's ESL classes work to his benefit. The 46-year-old now earns a living finding day jobs in painting or gardening.

"I was in Texas for 28 years. Everybody spoke Spanish there. I didn't need to learn English," he says.

The Northwest was a different story. Unfamiliar territory. Granadoz says the theater workshops teach the men how to deal with tricky situations and avoid disaster. "It's a very good way to work with us," he says. "They try to show us what happens in the streets."

The program began modestly, with a one-year grant from United Way at a site on First Hill.

"They had movies in Spanish there," Stern says. "We were the intermission."

It was a tough crowd. Some didn't care to listen. The drunks, especially.

The program has come a long way since. Sessions are conducted weekly at the Union Gospel Mission and at the Seattle Public Library, where many homeless find warmth and safety among the shelves. Now audiences not only listen, they come back for more. Gearheard compares a good session to a daytime talk show.

"When it's going really good," he says, "I feel like I'm just passing the mike."

The facilitators begin with theater games to loosen up participants, then work up to the role-playing.

"I never know exactly what I'm going to do, because I never know what they're going to do," says Gearheard. With a new job in Peru, he'll be handing the program's reins over to Jaime Mendez.

Stern says the program allows people with irregular schedules to learn without feeling pressured. "There's no homework," she says. "We don't kick them out if they don't attend, or yell if they come late. It's education as liberation. They learn to distinguish between what they can change and what they can't."

Says Weinblatt of Seattle Public Theater: "If nothing else, this work opens up possibilities and gets people to believe they can make a difference in their own lives."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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