A shot from inside La Ruta. (Credit: Lia Chang)
I got lost outside of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine this past weekend, eager to attend The Working Theater’s La Ruta—a play created in collaboration with the Magnum Foundation that dramatizes the plight of border crossers and their smugglers on a cargo truck headed from Mexico to the United States. Laminated signs outside the church pointed to a dimly lit driveway, where a woman pointed a flashlight on me, making it impossible for me to see ahead. Audience members were crammed into a tent where Raula, a smuggler played by Sheila Tapia, quickly unsettles whatever comfort you might find. Raula previews some of the potential dangers as the audience learns that we, too, are migrants on this road—but reminds us that everything on this trip happens on a need to know basis.
The audience is then rushed over to a large white truck, boarding through a side door while Raula barks orders. Any hesitation is corrected—while taking seats on cardboard boxes, I switched with someone while Raula immediately shouted, “What is this? Musical chairs? Figure it out already!” If it wasn’t already clear a few minutes into the performance, feeling disoriented and ill-at-ease about what’s happening is exactly the point.
As lawmakers prepare to mark up the massive comprehensive immigration bill in a little less than two weeks, everyone seems to be talking about immigration, or at least have an opinion about it. While some have been thoughtful in their approach, others have indicated how little they know about what it might mean to cross the border.
At last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Arizona’s Jeff Flake joked about a woman he saw being apprehended as she attempted to cross the southern border during a recent trip with some of the Gang of Eight lawmakers authoring the comprehensive immigration bill. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano laughed—but the bad joke didn’t end there. New York’s Chuck Schumer revived it during a breakfast conference about the bill, recalling that “The lady that we saw at the border heard my New York accent, thought she was already in New York.” If the bill’s leading Democrat can trivialize something as harrowing as crossing the border, and demean a migrant’s ability to distinguish a place like the desert from a skyscraper city into a crude joke, it might mean that the public has a long way to go in understanding how and why people cross.