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LAST CHANCE TO SEE Soledad @ CASA 0101, 2009 E. 1st Street, LA, CA 90033. Friday & Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm. $15.00 general. $12.00 Students/Seniors. $8.00 Boyle Heights residents.

Friday night I left San Pedro for Santa Monica to pick up my 17-year old niece Dulce at the  apartment she shares with her parents, 5 birds, and Peruvian refugee Chouchou the Chinchilla. Driving East towards Boyle Heights on a congested 10 freeway, Dulce had plenty of time to review for me this season’s Hollywood blockbusters, ask about my summer dating and punctuate my PG-13 confessions with a “Was that a hook up or a fling?” When Dulce fills me in on what a “hook-up” means in high school lingo, I gasp. “You teenage people are cold!”

Dulce breaks into her trademark luminous and yes, sweet smile. As she speaks so assertively and without any trace of an accent, I remember the first time I met Dulce, when she was 7 and had just made a final move from Mexico to Santa Monica. At the time we communicated with grins and sign language only, since English was not yet her second language. Today she’s my harshest teacher, corrects my accent every chance she gets and laughed hysterically just the other day when I said “Trick and Treat” instead of “Trick or Treat” as if she was one of the Founding Mothers.

I must confess I secretly enjoyed abducting Dulce from the self-protective and unchallenging world of MySpace, mainstream Hollywood culture, and Third Street Promenade into the neighborhood of Boyle Heights and its little powerhouse of a community theater called Casa 0101.

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Downtown at dusk, from E. 1st Street, Boyle Heights. Photo by Dulce B.

“Soledad” (Solitude) is Janine Salinas’ new play about a 15-year old girl named Soledad (Vicky Villalvazo,) the daughter of Chilean immigrants Patty (Virginia Pereira,) and Cesar (Oscar Basulto). Soledad with older sister Ines (Chrissy Torres) in tow, moved to America when she was 5, and dreams of becoming a writer. Throughout the play, Soledad holds on to her journal of poetry like a ship wrecked to a buoy, weathering the storm that her innocent aspiration unleashes on a family struggling to assimilate into an American life of low wages and lack of purpose.

With her mother’s support, Soledad slowly but surely gathers strength and confidence in her ability to realize her vision. With or without her family’s consent, the passionate writer literally gives voice to Ines, Patty, Cesar and Luz (Christine Mantilla,) the oldest daugther who stayed behind in Chile to fight for the revolution and give birth to her daughter Esperanza (Cosima Cabrera.) As Soledad begins to unravel their secrets in her journal, each character confides in us what they cannot share with their own. In Chile, Soledad’s parents were fighting for freedom and were well known in their community. But their revolutionary activities could have cost their daughters’ lives. In America they are nameless, unrecognizable and poor, but safe from harm.

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Soledad (Vicky Villalvazo) and her mami (Virginia Pereira.)

Yet harm comes to the family from within…

“Soledad,” which echoes “Real Women have Curves” in its opening scene, quickly comes into its own and exposes the powerful divisions and allegiances between sisters (Ines’ dream of a better life is to marry a gringo,) parent and child, husband and wife. Lost and burgeoning dreams collapse into one another amidst generational and cultural clashes and inexpressed resentment and guilt. The play alternates between life in Chile, a brutal dictatorship where Soledad’s revolutionary parents had a purpose, and America, a land of degradation for Patty and Cesar where Soledad ironically wages at home the same battle for freedom of expression her parents fought in their native land.

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Soledad (Vicky Villalvazo) holding on to her dreams with sister Luz (Christine Mantilla) and soldier (Federico Patino.)

“Soledad” is directed with imagination and passion by Casa 0101’s Artistic Director Eddie Padilla (TACO interview) who also designed the sets. Here’s what 17-year old Dulce had to say: “The play was very well structured and well performed. I found myself actually believing I was in Chile. The main character, Soledad, was superb. I loved her role as a young girl who isn’t aware of how gravely dangerous the family situation is in Chile and who knows everybody’s secrets. The actors who played the parents should have made an effort to create an accent for their characters. (In the play one of the parents asks Ines if she is ashamed of their accents.) I didn’t find a purpose for the soldiers standing in the background. I felt like they could have done something that still reminded you that the war was going on but not have soldiers standing at the corner watching straight ahead. I found I could identify most with Soledad although my story wasn’t as exciting as hers. I traveled to and from separate worlds because my mother was here in the US and my family was in Mexixco and it happened ever since I was 3 years old, probably smaller. There was no wars where my family lived in Mexico. There were no riots, no dictators. Simply a peaceful community in which I grew up and left behind me. I am also similar with Soledad because she wants to pursue a career as an artist and writer and what better way to achieve that than to go to a great college here in the U.S. the land of “supposedly” opportunities.”

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Cesar (Oscar Basulto) and Patty (Virginia Pereira) and soldier.

What hit home for me was a harrowing scene in which freedom fighter Luz gives in to terror as she pictures what the Chilean army will do to her and her husband if they were found. Growing up in Paris surrounded by the ghosts of Nazi occupation during World War II, I often agonized over whether I would have had the courage to join the underground Resistance and risk torture and death if captured by the Gestapo, the infamous Nazi secret state police. Maybe because of this acute awareness of what some people had to go through to liberate us from Hitler, I’ve never been able to see a horror movie. I can’t seem to forget that while for some people horror is entertaining, for others being gruesomely tortured and murdered is a reality, one of the possible consequences of resisting oppression.

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Freedom fighters Luz (Christine Mantilla) and husband Pablo (Amador Plascencia Jr.)

“Soledad” reminds us that in a city where we sport T-shirts and baseball caps celebrating the lives of Ghandi, Che Guevara, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr., thousands of anonymous freedom fighters are fighting or have fought the righteous cause at a tremendous personal cost. “Soledad” makes sure that next time we come in contact with an accented janitor or maid, we pause and wonder about the sacrifices we never had to make.

For current information on the state of human rights defenders across the world, and opportunities to act on their behalf, go to www.amnesty.org.

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