LOS ANGELES – Most days, they are construction workers and painters and maids.
But twice a year, this group of day laborers morphs into actors in a traveling street theater troupe that performs at the very job centers where they and others gather to seek work across Southern California.
Blending at-times bawdy humor with a serious message about employer abuses, the Los Angeles-based Day Laborer Theater Without Borders has helped teach illegal immigrants with little education or knowledge of the law about their rights in this country.
Some who push for tougher border enforcement questioned whether the effort encourages illegal immigration. But advocates say the group and others like it elsewhere in the U.S. have done more to educate and empower workers than lectures or handouts ever could.
"When they take it to the streets, to the corners, they use the language that day laborers use because they know it," said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, which helps fund the theater troupe. "The minute they start doing that, people gather around just like that."
The troupe had its start three years ago when day laborers found themselves at the heart of a heated national debate over illegal immigration. Now, the group is helping other troupes get going in San Francisco and Maryland, while a similar group already exists in New Orleans.
On a recent weekday morning, three dozen day laborers waiting for construction gigs at a hiring site in Los Angeles filed inside and grabbed seats on folding chairs to watch the troupe's first performance of a two-week summer tour.
The first skit was called "Modern Slavery." Two actors wearing blue uniforms hurried to the front of the hiring center, where space had been set aside for a makeshift stage. Cracking jokes rife with sexual innuendo and slang, the pair complained about the conditions at their office-cleaning job where an abusive boss tried to get his female subordinate to do more than just wash floors.
Played by another laborer, the English-barking suit-wearing boss admired the woman from behind while she scrubbed the floor — drawing laughter from the nearly all-male audience. But when he propositioned her and threatened to call immigration if she dared report him to police, the workers watching the show grew more serious.
Actors said the story line, crafted jointly during rehearsals, drew from their own experiences — which is why workers could relate to it.
"Most of us who come here, not many have schooling," said 62-year-old Prospero Leon, a painter from Guatemala whose face lit up during the comedic parts of the performance. "They're interested in knowing their rights."
The idea for the theater group dates back to a 2007 production about the experiences of day laborers entitled "Los Illegals" by the Cornerstone Theater Company, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps build community theater. Several workers acted in the play written by Cornerstone's artistic director Michael John Garces, and one of them later adapted the script for an ad-hoc performance at a conference of day laborers near Washington D.C.
That set the stage for the formation of a theater troupe by and for day laborers under the tutelage of Salvadoran immigrant worker-turned-artistic director, Juan Jose Magandi. In the 1990s, day laborers had mounted a similar traveling theater group but struggled with logistical problems and the cast disbanded.
"In our countries, the theater is from very elitist movements," Magandi said. "We try to do theater from below — that's why we use their vocabulary, their style and we share their experiences."
Garces, who advises the current group and has helped bring acting and voice experts to train laborers as volunteer actors, said the tradition of street theater in Latin America and the fiery speeches and border-watching groups active in the immigration debate made theater a perfect fit for the subject.
Alvarado, of the national day laborer organization, said the feedback from audiences has been anecdotal but positive. The troupe has been funded by the organization and grants from groups such as the Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations to the tune of roughly $80,000 a year.
One person is paid to help run the troupe and actors are given $75 a month for bus passes to get to rehearsals and a $50 stipend for days when they perform, said Lorena Moran, the group's associate artistic director.
Roughly half a dozen actors will perform two different plays at 10 different job centers through July 29. The group rehearses twice a week for three or four months leading up to each tour.
Some advocates for tougher immigration enforcement questioned whether the effort might be going too far, arguing such performances shouldn't encourage workers to flout the law.
"It's always good for people to know their rights, but we also have to be careful we're not going anything to encourage illegal immigration," said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.
In Los Angeles, organizers said the plays can be therapeutic for workers who are often reluctant to share their experiences of employer abuse, discrimination and loneliness. The skits have also lifted the spirits of those who have joined the troupe's rotating cast, which currently has about a dozen members, though they don't all perform on every tour.
Moran said the group saved her from falling into depression after she came to the U.S. from Guatemala. She was working construction gigs she landed outside Home Depot, often the only woman on a job.
"The theater is what brought me back to life," said Moran, a 39-year-old college graduate who started as a volunteer actor and is now paid to administer the group full-time.
Juan Romero, 49, said he was shy before he joined the cast, though he always liked to sing and write poetry. Now, the Salvadoran immigrant bellows out his roles with ease — and he thinks that confidence has also translated to his real life as a gardener and construction worker.
During the recent performance in Los Angeles, Romero played the immigrant laborer whose wife was being harassed by the couple's boss. When his character learned what was really going on, he stood up for her, even though they lost their jobs in the process.
"The message we relay is that we're day laborers, and we have rights," Romero said. "We can't let ourselves get trampled by other people, no matter how poor we are."