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Artists Collaborate with Houston’s Central American Community for Premiere Performance

Writer-performers Elia Arce and Rubén Martínez bring Little Central America, 1984 to Houston.
Writer-performers Elia Arce and Rubén Martínez bring Little Central America, 1984 to Houston. Photo by Maria Vilma Duran
In southwest Houston, just outside of Loop 610 and south of US 59, you’ll find Gulfton.

Dubbed Super Neighborhood 27, Gulfton “is home to many recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America” and, on December 17 and 18, you can hear some of their stories when writer-performers Elia Arce and Rubén Martínez bring Little Central America, 1984 to town.

Martínez traces the inception of Little Central America, 1984 – which delves into the formation of “Little Central Americas” across the U.S. by those displaced by civil war in Guatemala and El Salvador – back three years, to 2019 when his mother, poet and psychologist Vilma Angulo, passed away.

“She’s the main inspiration of my life,” says Martínez.

Because of Angulo, an immigrant from El Salvador, Martínez spent time in Central America growing up, witnessing the civil wars as a young adult, and then, growing up in Los Angeles, seeing the arrival of refugees in the 1980s.

“When my mother passed away, it really was a period of reflection for me about her legacy,” says Martínez, particularly noting her time as a psychologist to refugees. “Reflecting on all that experience really was the starting point for me to want to revisit that period of time, the 1980s, and the Central American refugees arriving in the United States.”

Martínez shared his ideas with Arce, a frequent collaborator since they met almost 40 years ago, and invited Arce to be a co-writer and the director of the show.

Arce, who is originally from Costa Rica, arrived in Los Angeles in 1985 to study film and was introduced to Martínez by Manlio Argueta. Both involved in the solidarity movement, Arce and Martínez soon collaborated for their first project, a tribute to Roque Dalton performed in the basement of the Echo Park Methodist Church.

Cut to 2019, and the two returned to the Echo Park Methodist Church, this time to present a work-in-progress version of Little Central America, 1984. But this time, they performed in the church itself, not the basement.

“We did it there because that is the church that declared itself a sanctuary in Los Angeles,” says Arce.

In Houston, the premiere of Little Central America, 1984 will be performed in one of the city’s own sanctuaries, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston.

“Many churches that served as sanctuaries in the 1980s have again been called upon to deal with the huge influx of unaccompanied minors and others from Central America, and the violence that goes back now several years…This is kind of like a traumatic déjà vu for people who were refugees in the 1980s,” says Martínez. “But we’re also acknowledging and honoring the people who stepped up in the 1980s to receive the refugees, often in defiance of federal law at that time, and the people who are doing so again today.”

Little Central America, 1984 is comprised of two elements: a performance and an honoring ceremony.

The performance will feature local community members alongside Arce and Martínez as they utilize poetry, a spoken word narrative thread, testimonials, and live music from musicians from David Dove’s Nameless Sound community to tell their stories.

Martínez says it comes naturally to work in different aesthetic modes, both because of his pursuits as a journalist, poet and multimedia artist, and also because his family is “steeped in refugee history” and the tradition of variedades, Spanish-language variety shows that his grandparents, essentially refugees from the Mexican Revolution, performed in a century ago.

Similarly, Arce, who has a background in theater, film and dance, says using different modes of expression is “a language that I have been working in for many years,” adding, “I just feel like something, when it’s this big, usually it just organically calls for different genres to work together.”

Though there is a “specific skeleton” to the structure of the performance, Arce says it’s important that the audience feels “it’s their story that is being told in each city.”

“We tell the story from our points of view – where I was in the ‘80s when this happened, where Ruben was in the ‘80s when this happened, when the Central American wars occurred – and different people will be incorporated in each city that we go to,” says Arce. “In that way, we make the show about the place that we are at, [and] it’s not just the city itself. We honor the people that were involved in this movement locally so that the people from the community recognize their own activists and have the opportunity to honor them.”

The line, however, between honoree and performer can be blurred as exemplified by Teodoro Aguiluz, the executive director of Houston’s Central American Resource Center (CRECEN).

“First, we thought of him as being one of the people who are being honored,” says Martínez. “But then we realized that he was also somebody who could give testimony, because he himself arrived in this country as a result of the wars in Central America. When we talked to him, it became obvious that he had a story to tell, so now he’s both being honored and telling his story.”

The executive director of the Central American Collective, María Vilma Durán, went from local producer of Little Central America, 1984 to performer, too. Allison Saenz, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Houston, also went from scholar supporting the production with her research Houston’s Little Central America to performer.

Despite its difficulties, Arce believes that incorporating local community members, some of whom have never performed before, allows audiences to recognize their own stories as being represented.

“There’s always trauma that accompanies…these themes, so it becomes a catalyst for the performer to be able to tell their story,” says Arce. “At the beginning, usually people don’t want to tell their story, then they want to tell their story, and when I have somebody else telling their story on stage, they realize that they want to tell it themselves.”

“All these subjects are terribly painful, all the stories that we’ve told across all these years…pain is at the heart of this experience,” says Martínez. “[But] we don’t do it because we want to dwell in darkness, we do it because we want to dwell in the light. Little Central America to me is not a story of loss and violence. It’s a story of a community surviving and even thriving. The community here in Houston, Gulfton, is like Pico-Union in Los Angeles, it’s like Mount Pleasant in Washington, D.C. These are communities that have survived and thrived after these experiences of violence.”

Little Central America, 1984 will be co-presented by DiverseWorks and Circuit Network at 7 p.m. on Saturday, December 17, and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, December 18, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, 5200 Fannin. For more information, call 713-223-8346 or visit diverseworks.org. Pay-what-you-wish with a suggested price of $25.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.