After Alejandra Cardenas was shot that terrible night at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, July 20, 2012, many thoughts and images raced through her head. The tear gas, followed by the screaming. The shotgun pellets fired into her leg. The terrible scenes she saw as her boyfriend carried her out of the theater — "I don't think I could ever explain what I saw in those 30 seconds running toward the door."
But when ambulance workers put her on a stretcher outside the theater, Cardenas, a recent high school graduate, could only verbalize one thing: "Don't take me to the hospital." She didn't have health insurance. She was undocumented. She pleaded, "I'll figure it out on my own."
For years, Cardenas' family had struggled to achieve legal status. They'd come over from Zacatecas, Mexico, when she was 4, and her father found work as a cook in a Denver-area restaurant. Later, Cardenas got a job at the mall using fake identification — and was planning, somehow, to find a way to attend Colorado State, even if it meant paying the $50,000 out-of-state tuition. But despite thousands of dollars to lawyers and years of anxiously hoping and praying, no path to citizenship presented itself.
Ironically, that tragic night at the movie theater led to salvation. Cardenas ultimately accepted that ride to the hospital. And as she recovered from her wounds, a friend mentioned that she might be eligible for a U-visa, given to immigrants who are victims of crime. She called lawyer after lawyer until she found one to take her case pro bono.
Today, Cardenas is a third-year student at Colorado State — paying in-state tuition and enjoying legal status. She's studying social work with a minor in criminal justice. "Instead of making me passionate about gun control, the experience made me passionate for immigration reform," she says. "Why was my first concern for my legal status? So many immigrants are afraid to go to the police because of fear. I was really conscious of that when that happened to me."
It's a riveting story, and just one of eight that will be featured in a special, one-night-only performance at USC this Thursday, Oct. 16. The brainchild of former L.A.-based actor Antonio Mercado, who now lives in Denver, Dreaming Sin Fronteras made its Denver premiere in March and is now kicking off a series of performances across the Southwest.
The production mixes music from popular Latin artists with true stories from "dreamers" like Cardenas — brought here as kids, they grew up in America and considered themselves American, only to learn that the country they called home had a big problem with their immigration status. Actors tell the stories, but the narratives are only too real.
Mercado says he was inspired to tell the undocumented students' stories after his work as a teacher at Denver North High School, where he landed shortly after leaving Los Angeles in the wake of his mother's death. "The school was 95 percent Latino, and had a 25 percent graduation rate," he recalls. "But I was struck by the amount of students who were undocumented. They had 4.0 GPAs and were stellar students, but when it came time to graduate, they didn't know what they were going to do. ... I wanted to find a way to dramatize their stories."
More than a traditional piece of theater, the production is "part play, part concert," Mercado says. Shawn King of Devotchka and Raul Pacheco of Ozomatli composed the music, and will perform with special guests Luz Mendoza (Y La Bamba), Stephen Brackett (Flobots), Ceci Bastida (Tijuana NO), Ulises Bella (Ozomatli) and Nick Urata, with storytellers including Stephanie Beatriz of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Jose Julian of A Better Life.
Cardenas says she's been impressed by the way the production weaves together so many different stories — from the struggles of day-to-day life without the right papers to her dramatic tale of violence and good fortune. "I don't think people realize how complex this all is," she says. "We all have different reasons, and we're all trying to do different things. He's trying to let everyone know: You need to open your eyes. These people are humans, they have rights, and they need consideration."
Dreaming Sin Fronteras appears one night only in L.A. at USC Bovard Auditorium, 3551 Trousdale Parkway, University Park. It's free, but an RSVP is required via firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Sarah Fenske on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: