More than ink

Mission gangs and tattoos are the stuff of a dynamic experiment in theater activism, as Paul S. Flores' Placas moves from page to stage

Culture Clash co-founder Ric Salinas stars in Placas as Fausto, a former gang member seeking redemption

THEATER In 2009, Paul S. Flores was at work on his new play, Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo, in consultation with Alex Sanchez, founder of Homies Unidos, when a call came from Denver that brought everything to a standstill.

Federal agents were then cracking down nationwide on Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13), the notorious Salvadoran gang that arose in 1980s Los Angeles among refugees of El Salvador's US-fueled civil war and later spread in a loose network across North and Central America. Locally, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had launched Operation Devil Horns on the Mission District's 20th Street contingent. In Denver, flummoxed MS members called Sanchez (a staunch, internationally-respected Salvadoran-born peace activist whose former MS affiliation made him a natural confidant to some) with news of the raids.

Flores, whose play concerns a Salvadoran family impacted by gang life in the Mission, had already interviewed over 60 active and non-active MS members in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and El Salvador. No easy feat, it required a strict adherence to gang protocol, respecting the conditions set by the subjects for their cooperation.

"I had to hide all my video," remembers Flores. "I had to give it to the reporter [who was helping us] so he could hold it under First Amendment rights — because I didn't want anybody coming to my house looking for evidence on any of these guys. It's not like they were telling me who they killed or who they robbed, but these were active and non-active gang members. If you wanted to find out who was who, you could have looked at my videos."

The crisis passed, and Flores went back to work. But the moment speaks to the international context and complexity of the subject he had set out to dramatize.

In fact, the project, which did not originate with the playwright, was always rooted in the concerns of the local Latino community (particularly its Salvadoran population) as well as larger socio-economic and political realities. The idea for a play about Mission gangs came from Ana Pérez — executive director of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), an organization devoted to immigrant family rights and well-being in the Bay Area — soon after the 2008 Bologna family killings in San Francisco's Excelsior District, which were linked to MS-13 members. Pérez brought the idea to Andrew Wood, executive director of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, who agreed to help produce it (with Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts coming in as third co-producer). Together they recruited Flores to write it.

Flores isn't Salvadoran, he's of Cuban and Mexican extraction, but as a longtime community and youth violence prevention activist as well as prominent Latino artist (a writer-poet well known for, among other things, his work as co-founder of Youth Speaks), he was clearly the most knowledgeable and expert person around. A Mission denizen since 1995, his work in juvenile hall and counseling centers already connected him to the marginalized and at-risk youth of the neighborhood. And his artistic work specifically bridged youth culture and political theater. Placas — a title referring to barrio slang for tattoos, graffiti tags, or a nickname — would be his sixth full-length theatrical production. Still, Flores admits he had no idea what he was getting into.

"I never thought I'd get in this deep, to being in El Salvador in a prison talking to MS members and getting their permission to interview them. That was very cool," he says respectfully. "Then realizing what was at stake. Having to meet in secret with these guys, having to pay them to interview them — people's lives were at stake."

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