For Julian Sandoval, the play "Shelter" is more than just a story of children flooding into the U.S. by the tens of thousands from Latin America in search of safe sanctuary. It's personal.
The young actor's mother immigrated to the U.S. illegally years ago, fleeing the violence of her native El Salvador after seeing a cousin hacked to death by soldiers with machetes during the country's civil war. She would become a legal resident under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and eventually a U.S. citizen.
"It's something that impacts me directly every time I do it," the 26-year-old drama student said following a recent performance of "Shelter" at the Central American Resource Center in downtown Los Angeles.
For two hours he'd been joined by six actors on a sparse stage filled with large boxes and blocks, illuminated by flashing strobe lights and filled with rattling sounds, all created to mimic the perilous 2,000-mile journey across Mexico's midsection that thousands of unaccompanied children make each year when they climb aboard La Bestia (Spanish for The Beast), the freight train that will carry them north to the United States and, maybe, to new lives.
"I see myself doing the things I'm not allowed to do back home — like be an architect," one shouts from the darkness as the train rattles on. "I'm going to build buildings that don't fall down in an earthquake."
Others dreams are more modest — saving up to buy a motorcycle or not being threatened with death because you're gay.
But first the group must dodge robbers, rapists, extortionists and others who prey upon the train's riders. They must not fall under its wheels and die as one does during the journey. Farther down the line they must avoid Mexican authorities waiting to turn them back and, finally, find a way across the border to an immigration center where they can ask for asylum.
More than 30,000 children, including many younger than 12, did just that last year, according to the federal government's Office of Refugee Resettlement.
It's a number that is particularly personal to playwright Marissa Chibas, who teaches theater at California Institute of the Arts and who recruited the young actors from the university's bi-lingual Duende CalArts program that seeks to produce innovative Latino-oriented theater.
"I think there's been a lot of focus on percentages and numbers but not on the actual human stories. Like why these kids are leaving or what kind of violence they are facing or what kind of risks they are taking," says Chibas, who interviewed several children who rode the train and now attend high school in Southern California. And who, when soliciting actors, looked among her students for those with their own connections to people with similar stories.
"When I was 14 my aunt and her two daughters, my cousins, came to New York and applied for political asylum," said recent CalArts drama graduate Cynthia Callejas of Colombia. After 10 years their applications were denied and they recently returned.
CalArts senior Emilio Garcia-Sanchez, recounts family stories of relatives crossing over and being deported before his grandmother eventually obtained a visa and his family settled in the United States. "Not only is this story of these children important, but it's personal to me too," he said.
Chibas, whose previous works include the one-woman show "Daughter of a Cuban Revolutionary," is herself the child of Raul Chibas, who co-wrote the Sierra Manifesto with Fidel Castro that called for replacing Cuba's dictatorship with a constitutional democracy.
After Castro seized power instead, Chibas boarded his own La Bestia, a 17-foot catamaran he commandeered and sailed to Florida.
"He realized early on that if he stayed in Cuba he was going to be killed or imprisoned," said his daughter, adding it was that background that attracted her to reports she kept seeing the past couple of years of tens of thousands of children fleeing violence in countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
"Shelter," which recently concluded a run in East Los Angeles' Lincoln Park (where a shipping container was used to replicate the train) now goes on the road. A June 22 performance is scheduled at the Theater Communications Group's national conference in Washington, D.C., with other performances being scheduled around the young actors' schedules.
Callejas hopes it will inspire policymakers and political leaders to address the issue of child immigration and perhaps find a solution that benefits both the children and the country they want to be part of.
"I think theater has a unique capacity to create empathy because you are not only communicating thoughts, you are communicating emotions as well," she said. "Influential people might see this and be inspired to come up with solutions. Because that's what we do as actors, right? We're not lawyers or doctors, we're theater artists. This is how we help the world."