Immigration advocacy meets the stage: How the managing attorney for HIAS in Philadelphia put together a coalition of a dozen organizations in order to bring an immigration-themed performance to the area.
Usually, when someone leaves a play they enjoyed, they talk about what parts they liked best, maybe send a tweet encouraging followers to go see it, or simply replay their favorite parts mentally while on their way to dinner.
Not Philippe Weisz. Weisz, the managing attorney for HIAS in Philadelphia, recalls that as soon as he and a colleague exited a performance last year of De Novo, “we began talking about how amazing it would be to bring it to Philadelphia — it would be a great way to show what we do day in and day out at the agency, as well as to shed light on the difficulties immigrants, particularly immigrant youths, face in the United States.”
That last point is particularly salient. De Novo, which takes its title from the Latin phrase meaning “from the beginning” (and which, as a de novo trial, is a feature of the American legal system), is a live docudrama of the failed immigration appeal of Edgar Chocoy, a 16-year-old Guatemalan who petitioned to stay in the United States based on his fear that he would be killed by the gang he quit when he fled Guatemala.
His appeal was denied in March 2004 and 17 days after being deported, he was murdered in his hometown of Villanueva, on the outskirts of Guatemala City.
“When you’re petitioning for asylum,” says Jeffrey Solomon, the playwright of De Novo, which will be produced locally on Dec. 8 and 9, “your success is really based on how well you can tell your story to the court. In many cases, all the evidence you have is your story. You’ve got to be persuasive.”
Solomon is the founder and co-artistic director of the New York-based theatrical company, Houses on the Moon, which produces the play. He looks at the play as a second chance to make the case for Chocoy, whose attempts to break free of the Guatemalan gang he joined as a preteen ultimately led to him entering the U.S. illegally.
Chocoy’s case, his life and his death became the focus of the play due to the advocacy of his mother, Marguerita, and his lawyer, Kim Salinas. But Solomon is quick to point out that the boy’s situation was far from unique. “When we put out a request to human rights organizations and legal organizations for cases that were worthy of a second hearing, we received hundreds of responses — most of them about women and unaccompanied minors.”
His case may not be unique, but Chocoy’s story stuns nonetheless. His mother left him with his grandfather when he was still a baby so that she could go to the United States to try to earn a better life for her family. To her, the decision was the only rational one, according to Solomon.
“The way she put it was: ‘In Guatemala, you buy for one but not the other’ — if you buy for one child, the other child goes hungry.” After fleeing his country, Chocoy moved in with his mother in Los Angeles. He ultimately wound up getting conscripted by the local chapter of his Guatemalan gang as an armed lookout, until being arrested, when his legal ordeal began.
This is the time that the play deals with, thanks not only to the massive legal record, but also to a trove of letters that Chocoy sent to his mother that chronicled his experience in the detention center. The result, Solomon says, is a “just the facts, ma’am” approach that resists any Manichean view of the immigration process. “We aren’t trying to present some kind of heavy-handed moral here; we’re just trying to truthfully tell the story of someone who is invisible to a lot of us.”
To do that story justice required a lot of research — over a year’s worth, according to Solomon. “Our process for all of our work is based on a long research period and partnerships with as many community groups as possible.”
Weisz intimately understands the intricacies of working with multiple groups. In order to bring De Novo to Philadelphia, he put together a coalition of a dozen organizations over an eight-month span, including AJC Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey, Greater Philadelphia Jewish Coalition on Immigration and Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, to satisfy the Independence Foundation’s requirements for matching funds for the performances.
For Weisz, the chance to reach an entirely different audience than the one that usually shows up for HIAS events at synagogues and community events through HIAS’ first sponsorship of a play makes all of his efforts worthwhile, and could provide a template for future outreach.
“We are really looking to the arts as a new tool of communication,” he says, one that “offers us a whole new opportunity to reach out to new constituencies that might otherwise not come out to hear our attorneys speak.”
Just as important to him and the other coalition members is the chance to expose audience members to the legal struggles facing immigrants. “We share a history: There’s no doubt that our experiences as a Jewish community, the challenges we faced as immigrants were exactly the same as the challenges that the Latino community faces today.”
IF YOU GO
Dec. 8 and 9 at Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5
825 Walnut St., Philadelphia
For information on times and tickets: http://hiaspa.org/events/de-novo