New Play Takes on SF Gang Life, Redemption
KQED's CY MUSIKER: "Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo" is a new play by Paul Flores. It tells the story of immigrants who came to San Francisco from El Salvador and other Central American countries in the 1980s, and how some of those immigrants formed violent street gangs.
The play stars Ric Salinas -- famous for his work with the comedy troupe Culture Clash. But "Placas" is no comedy. Salinas plays a gang member named Fausto Carbajal.
RIC SALINAS (AS FAUSTO CARBAJAL): It was the Mayas who invented the zero. Short, dark Indios staring at the stars above the Yucatan. Thousands of years ago decided it all came from nothing. To the Mayas zero was God. How about the number one? Americans believe that everything starts with the number one. One is the most important ... first of the month, first kiss, first born, first kill, first toke, first tear. One nation under God.
MUSIKER: Ric Salinas in the role of Fausto Carbajal. The character is just out of state prison -- and has to have his many gang tattoos -- his placas -- removed as part of his probation. I asked Salinas what the tattoos mean to Carbajal.
SALINAS: You know, it's a process that many are going through this. It's also a metaphor for shedding your past.
MUSIKER: But it means cutting ties to everything he's known ... to his support network, his friends, his close friends.
SALINAS: It's true. I mean that's their family, very much as in like the Italian gangs. La Cosa Nostra, you know. But by doing that, he's trying to get a second chance in life, and that's what this play is about -- redemption and trying to change an aspect of a life that was vicious and cruel and dark, and he's trying to come out. And the main reason he's doing it also, is while he was locked up for those nine years, all he thought about was his son that he abandoned. And so now the son is 17 years old, and he's seen his father become a father for the first time. And the worst part, his son belongs to a rival gang. And, just to add more to this drama, and this is based off Paul Flores, who wrote this -- it's based off interviews that he did -- not only is his son some part of a rival gang, but the mother of this boy, she's also part of yet another gang.
MUSIKER: You yourself are a Salvadoran immigrant, grew up in San Francisco's Mission District, and your life was touched by gang violence. I wonder if you could tell us what happened.
SALINAS: Well, you know, it's a lot of parallels with this story, except mine are what would be considered the positive aspects of Salvadoran life. But my parents came up here for a better life, and I grew up in the Mission, and unfortunately, during the early '90s, it was the crack epidemic, and I lived near the projects near 25th and Harrison. Some young kid was just getting beat up viciously, and I just couldn't see that, and I went in there and stopped it. And the gang at that point, they did not appreciate what I did, and so the last words I heard were, "Oh, so you want to get involved?" And a young man pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and blasted me from about 12 feet away. So, luckily San Francisco General Hospital was down the street and they saved my life.
MUSIKER: And did that give you any hesitation -- that experience make you think maybe I don't want to portray this gang member because maybe it'll bring back memories.
SALINAS: In thought, I think I could handle it. We went for a photo shoot, and somebody suggested, "What if we do a photo where you get shot?" And I went ... oh, why don't we go check it out? As soon as we got to that spot on 25th and Harrison, my palms started to sweat, my body froze, and I said no, I don't think I could do it.
For this play it's a different story, it's not the same. I'm not connected to it, so I think I could do this. But to try to help those few -- that's the reason I chose this part and why I'm here in this play, because I know we might be able to get through to someone through art.
MUSIKER: "Placas" continues at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco through Sept. 16.