Back: Fidel Gomez, Luis "Xago" Juarez; Foreground: Sarita Ocon, Xavi Moreno (on ground), Carolyn Zeller (in hoodie). (Paul S. Flores)
For natives of El Salvador, life in gangs is a lot more nuanced and complex than stereotypes will lead you to believe. Often, Salvadoreños in gangs are wrongfully categorized under the umbrella of the Chicano gangster we’ve come to know in movies such as American Me and Blood In, Blood Out. Not only is that sort of typecasting a disservice to an entire community of people, but it is also a missed opportunity to gain a better understanding of an important social issue that is prevalent in many major metropolitan regions of the United States.
“PLACAS: The Most Dangerous Tattoo” not only highlights the intricacies of life in the Mara Salvatrucha (a gang of about 70,000 that originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s and operates in many parts of Latin America and the United States, also known as MS13), but also tackles the issues of generational gang membership and the difficulty of severing ties with the gang life.
“PLACAS” is produced by Paul Flores and directed by Michael John Garces and is only playing this weekend at the Los Angeles Theater Center.
Ricardo Salinas leads a small, but versatile cast as Fausto Carbajal—better known by his gang moniker, Placas (barrio slang for tattoos)—an immigrant who fled war-torn El Salvador in the early 1980s and landed in San Francisco. He spends the better part of his adult life in prison as a sureño (a Southern California-based gang) or facing deportation back to El Salvador. Placas has one son, Edgar, for whom he could never be there for due to his aforementioned circumstances.
The entire play chronicles Placas’ struggle to atone. After struggling to find employment after prison because of his tattoos, he finds work as a jornalero hanging sheetrock to provide what he can for Edgar, who is unreceptive to his biological father. Placas even tries to have his tattoos laser-removed to be better suited for employment and to be able to visit his son, who lives in the norteño part of town.
Edgar is eager to become a norteño because the norteños were the only ones that reared him growing up. Because Edgar lives in such a rough part of town where there is little hope to advance, the gang life gives him illusions of grandeur. Edgar is so committed to the idea of becoming a “legend” among the norteños that he initially takes the blame for owning a gun that was used in a shooting in order to protect one of the gang’s elders who was the closest thing Edgar had to a father figure growing up.
But “PLACAS” is not as serious and dark as the topic of gang culture tends to be. There is plenty of comedy woven into the script in the form of Salvadoran slang and the generational chasms often seen in Latino families who migrate to the United States.
“PLACAS” is presented by the San Francisco International Arts Festival and will include tour dates in Washingon D.C. New York, and Denver. Ticket prices range from $15-40 and can be purchased over the phone at 866-811-4111 or at the Los Angeles Theater Center, located on 514 S. Spring St. in Los Angeles.