Mercedes Floresislas may not know how to cook, but her new play Tamales de Puerco, running through April 28, otherwise cuts awfully close to home. The unusual trilingual production at Boyle Heights' Casa 0101 Theater uses English, Spanish and American Sign Language to piece together the story of Norma, an illegal immigrant who escapes domestic abuse, learns to navigate the world for her deaf son and lightens her troubles with a surprising helping of humor and some spicy tamales.
In real life, Floresislas also managed to earn a college degree at UCLA — while homeless and raising a deaf son — and eventually became a social worker specializing in deaf patients. She spoke with us about “channeling” her characters, learning dirty sign language and the best place to be homeless in L.A.
How old was your son when you first got a diagnosis?
He was already two and a half. Prior to that I went to specialists and they told me the silliest things you've ever heard: “He's got a little Down's Syndrome” or “He's just lazy.” No, he was deaf. That's all he was.
In the play, your character, Norma, is an illegal immigrant undergoing domestic abuse while she's trying to raise her son. Was that true for you too?
I was illegal at the time. I came from Guadalajara, Mexico when I was 15. My ex-husband was trying to get Immigration to deport me so he could keep my son. I did sustain physical damage to where I was able to qualify for my immigration status through the Violence Against Women Act. The abuse was — the worst parts were not seen. The threats to call Immigration, to tell my employers that I was undocumented. The economic abuse. He actually sent a letter to Immigration letting them know I was doing all kinds of illegal activities. In my case, it worked against him.
How were you supporting yourself?
I was working as a cocktail waitress for a while. By the time I left [my husband], I had to go pretty much underground. My mom made me stay with her for a few weeks, and then she kicked me out. I had odd jobs. I worked as a translator. I worked for my previous employers who were lawyers. I waitressed a whole lot. If you waitress, they don't ask for your green card immediately, because the turnover is so high.
Any one of those things would have been enough. Did you have any support? In the play Norma has her friend Tana.
No, I actually had nobody. I had a friend, who then became my husband; he was good for emotional support. But by the time [my son] was diagnosed, I was so ready to check out. I was ready to commit suicide because I didn't see a way out. After I became a therapist, hearing those stories from my deaf clients — they would blame themselves for anything. “Mom died because I'm deaf,” or “It was my fault Mom went away.”
Now that I see the play, I can see how my guilt is all over Karla's character. Karla is a deaf woman and an over-achiever, and thought her mom didn't want her because she was deaf. If I had gone ahead and committed suicide while I was still in that abusive relationship, it would have been a story like that for my son.
How did you connect with Josefina Lopez, the artistic director of Casa 0101 and screenwriter for Real Women Have Curves?
My son wanted to be an actor, but he really thought he couldn't do it because he had never seen a deaf Mexican on TV. I was working as a substance abuse counselor for the deaf and hard of hearing and one story would not let me sleep at night for months. I ran across an ad with Josefina's [writing] workshop. I had heard of Josefina almost 20 years before that. So when I came across this little tiny paper, I knew it. That was a sign for me. I went to Josefina's class, I was listening to other people write their stories. It was almost like I was channeling my play. The dialogue didn't make sense at times, but she said, “Write it down.” Nine months later I had a table read. A year later I had a workshop production. And here we are.
It sounded like you were pretty anxious at times about the writing process.
It wasn't my ability to write that I was doubting. It was seeing my monsters and my demons on paper. As I was writing, it was almost like I was channeling. I was having a dialogue with these characters. At one point I became very depressed. I told Josefina, I'm quitting, I can't do this. I wasn't able to write for a few weeks.
Is it easier now that you're a therapist to understand the psychology of abusers? Does it give you distance from your own experience?
In 2008 I had to play the role of Norma for the workshop production. Being there and having to play the abuse was really difficult. But I saw my part in it. I saw how I colluded. I saw how I was willing to get smaller and smaller. And now, it's completely different. My son is 17, and he's in the play. I'm in a really nice place in my life right now — just to see how things worked out for my boy. It's a good thing I stuck around.
Is your ex-husband permanently out of the picture then?
No, he's not out of the picture. I did have to digest all that stuff, including him. In a way, I did kind of cook and eat the tamales, but it was nurturing for me. One of the beautiful people in the deaf community told me when my son looks at himself in the mirror, he doesn't see me — he sees his father. So I have to somehow bring his father into the deaf community and have him be there for him. His father is able to communicate at least through spelling. If he doesn't know a sign he'll just spell it out, and that's good enough.
So your college degree — were you going to school around this same time?
You bet. If you're ever homeless, UCLA is the best place to be. It's very clean, there's always some student activity going on. You're there at two or three in the morning, nobody bothers you because there are so students around. There is always a lecture hall open.
Did you bring your son to classes?
He would go with me. The teacher always complimented me that he was so quiet. Thank you, I guess.
Was your son able to sign at that point?
No, but we were doing the home signs. He was probably 6 or 7 at the time. I was learning through books, and we were pretty much miming everything.
How did your son finally connect with someone to learn ASL? In the play Norma goes to AA.
First I learned through books, then church, and then at one point he started asking me, “Mom, I think the kids are saying this to me.” He would write down the words they would call him. They would actually write down the words on paper and give him pieces of paper. He didn't know what they meant. One of them was — excuse me — “motherfucker.” It was hard for me to figure out how to tell that word to an 8 year-old, first of all, and to assign the meaning to that one sign. I started asking people, “Teach me this, teach me this.” They were kind of self-righteous about it. “No! You don't want to teach bad words.” By then I was already in a program to be a substance abuse counselor, and I heard about AA meetings for the deaf. So I went, and oh my God, the beautiful things I learned. All the bad words I could tell you, but more really sad stories of isolation. The effect of being lonely in a family. All the drug signs that you can imagine, all the variations of sex you can imagine.
Probably not all things you wanted to come home and teach your son.
No, but it's good to know it. You need to sign or a word to anchor meaning to it. If he ever had a question, I knew I could anchor an explanation to a sign or a word. Probably by the time he was 9, he was signing much faster than I was. He became much more comfortable with his deaf peers. I had to go to school.
Your son is 17 now? What's his next step?
He's graduating this summer. He has already enrolled for junior college. He wants to become a math teacher. He's very good at numbers.
What inspired you to get into counseling?
Right now I'm working with chronically mentally ill and homeless in Hollywood. Prior to that I was working with sex offenders because there is a greater degree of sex offenses among the deaf than hearing. As I became more and more aware of deaf-related issues, I saw the discrepancy, from mental health, to jobs or work equality. That motivated me not just to become a therapist, but to become a social worker and to effect some change in the system.