An unconventional form of theater that took its audience away from the stage and into neighborhoods stigmatized by drugs and violence became an unexpected hit during its nearly two month run in the Mexican border city of Juárez.
"Safari" is a theater concept begun by a Dutch artist named Adelheid Roosen who wanted to break stereotypes surrounding a Muslim community in Amsterdam. Performances took places in the homes of people who lived in that community and were based off their own true stories. Last year, Roosen put on "Safari en Tepito" in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Mexico City.
Preparations for "Safari en Juárez" also began last year, when community organizers began introducing local actors to people who lived in a series of poor working class neighborhoods on a mountaintop inscribed with the words, "The Bible is the Truth. Read it." Outsiders often write off these neighborhoods as inhospitable and dangerous.
Once a connection had been established, six households within the neighborhoods "adopted" six actors for two weeks. The actors lived in the homes and shadowed one person full time to get a sense of what their lives were like. From that intimate interaction and a subsequent interview, writers put together a script.
By the final weekend of "Safari," all shows had been sold out for at least three weeks. Even Chihuahua's new governor attended a showing.
On the last Saturday performance, an eager audience waited outside la Cucaracha Bar near the foot of the international bridge in downtown Juárez. This was the point of departure and where they would meet actress Lupita de la Mora.
After introductions and an initial conversation, de la Mora lead her audience to a van which would transport the group to their first stop in a neighborhood named after Mexican president Plutarco Elías Calles. Six other groups like this, who met at other points throughout the city, would be simultaneously departing to their own destinations. Some audiences included people who came from the United States.
When they arrived, a pair of skateboarders zoomed past de la Mora's audience as they exited the van and filed into the small square kitchen of Pati Diaz. Diaz is not an actress, she lives in the neighborhood and works as a maid. Diaz was de la Mora's host during the preparatory stages of "Safari."
"Welcome, to Pati's house," de la Mora told the audience, which was seated in assorted chairs backed up against the wall.
De la Mora began by mopping the concrete kitchen floor. She told the audience how Diaz had a daughter-in-law who went missing during the wave of drug violence that first hit Juárez in 2008. The young woman's bones were later found scattered in the desert. It's a story often repeated in newspapers and now the audience confronted it face to face. The scene even included Diaz's 5-year-old grandson whom she was left to care for after his mother's death.
"One day my grandson handed me a cell phone and asked me to call his mother," said Diaz. "He wanted to met her. Well, with a lump in my throat I told him I could do that. I told him, 'Your mom is a star in the sky.'"
Throughout the scene de la Mora and Diaz find common ground by sharing their own personal stories. The death of a daughter-in-law, the death of a mother, their relationship with their children and their dark complexion and full figures. They started out as strangers and were now friends.
By the end of the scene, tears streak the faces of some of the audience members.
On the way to another home, the audience moved on foot, drinking in the sights and sounds of the neighborhood. They passed a number of birthday parties with upbeat music and jumping balloons squeezed into tiny dirt patios. Suddenly a group of teenagers walked up and began rapping about their lives, like being labeled as criminals and trying to avoid the pressures of local gangs.
The next scene took place in a community of Raramuris, an indigenous people native to the state of Chihuahua. There the audience switched places with another group and followed a new actor, Daniel Giménez Cacho.
Giménez Cacho's family fled to Mexico during the Spanish Civil War. He began his scene by pretending to be conquistador strutting into foreign territory on a horse. The audience followed him into the home of Rosalinda Guadalajara, the governor of this particular Raramuri community. In the scene, she and Giménez Cacho worked through 500 years worth of tension between their respective ancestors. Through insults and jokes they also come to find common ground in their experiences of exile and loss.
Maribel de Anda, another "Safari" actress, reflected on her encounters with a widower who adopted her for a scene.
"They become a mirror and you become a mirror to them as well," she said. "We found that in going to find another, you find yourself. That is one of the most important things that I have learned in this experience."
By the end of Safari, the audience gets a taste of what daily life is like for the people who live in the neighborhoods they visit. At one point they jump on the motorcycles of a local biker club and ride a city bus that locals use as daily transportation.
"Before this we would never think of coming here at any time of day. We were scared of coming," said Haide Ledon, who lives in a gated Juárez community and has a good paying job at a factory that makes break pads. "We thought it was dangerous, we thought we were going to be robbed. We had this misimpression."
Instead Ledon said she interacted with locals and saw how they worked together as a community to create a day care for single moms, a dance troupe for young people and pushed for the city to collect their trash. Ledon's sister, Sylvia, was equally impressed.
"You find very nice people here that work everyday to find their way through life," she said. "So if they can do it, everybody can do it."