Children of local TPS holders use theatre to tell their story

BRAINTREE -- With their parents in danger of deportation, 13 American-born children of Salvadorans with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) have teamed up with a Boston-based theatre company to advocate for their families.

"The Last Dream: Stories Created and Performed by the Children of TPS," directed by Jared Wright and Donya Pooli of Boston Experimental Theatre, is a devising based on the experiences of the actors, whose ages range from 9 to 17. Through monologues, stories about their parents, and scenes from their own lives, the children illustrate how they are being impacted by the possibility that their parents could lose the protected status that long ago stopped feeling temporary.

"It feels good because I'll be expressing myself and showing a situation that we are in right now, and the word is getting out there that we need people to support us for TPS," cast member Brian Pineda, 13, told the Pilot.

TPS grants legal residency to immigrants from countries suffering from extreme circumstances, such as armed conflict or natural disasters. It must be renewed periodically, and repeated extensions can make it seem permanent. Following an earthquake in El Salvador in 2001, TPS has enabled over 200,000 Salvadorans to live in the United States, where they have established careers and raised families.

In January 2018, the Trump administration announced that TPS would expire for several countries over the course of 2019. Salvadorans with TPS would lose their status in September 2019. Those with children born in the U.S. would have to choose between leaving them behind in the U.S. or bringing them to a country still suffering from high rates of poverty and violence.

Wright, a member of Boston Experimental Theatre, came into contact with some Salvadoran TPS families in July 2018, wanting to find a way to help them. After meeting the families and hearing the perspectives of the children, members of B.E.T. had the idea to create a play about their families.

"I honestly think it was an amazing idea because people know what TPS is but they don't really know our stories and the families behind TPS and what would happen to us if they cancelled TPS. So, it was a way to introduce our story," cast member Angela Palma, 13, told the Pilot.

Their story resonated with B.E.T. founder Vahdat Yeganeh, who produced "The Last Dream." He was born in Iran and came to the U.S. as a refugee.

"It was very disappointing when I learned that these U.S.-born children do not have the same opportunity in this country, in the United States of America, as I had as a refugee," Yeganeh said in a phone interview with the Pilot.

Yeganeh said he, Wright, and Pooli did not think they should write the script and have the children perform it.

"The biggest thing that I realized as the producer of this show was I don't know much about the culture of these families. I didn't know much about their life situations," Yeganeh said.

They decided to devise the play through a series of workshops. The children told the theatre artists about their families, daily routines, fears and anxieties. Based on this content, Yeganeh, Wright, and Pooli would write part of the script, which they then showed and discussed with the cast. The children also brought drawings and paintings that inspired the show's set design by art director Emily Wright.

Since none of the children had prior acting experience, B.E.T. used theatre games and exercises to teach them acting techniques.

"It was a great learning experience for us, after about 10 years working in professional theatre on a devised drama, seeing how successful it was working with non-actors and non-professionals applying the exact same technique," Yeganeh said.

"The Last Dream" debuted at Boston University in September 2018 and had a second performance at Harvard University in November 2018.

"I've had to put myself out of the mind that someone would judge me or something. I'm able to become vulnerable onstage and just be comfortable, because everybody who's in the play is people I've grown up with," Jacqueline Landaverde, 17, said. She and her three younger sisters are in the cast.

Many of the cast members are active in their parishes. Angela Palma and the Landaverde sisters are altar servers at St. Benedict Parish in Somerville. The Landaverde sisters also sing in the choir and help in Sunday school. The cast always prays before performing.

Jose Palma, Angela's father and the coordinator of the Massachusetts TPS Committee, invited the cast to perform at the TPS Peoples Summit in Washington, D.C., last month.

In Washington, they were able to hold performances in three different venues. On Feb. 10, they performed "The Last Dream" for the summit attendees. The second performance, organized by Representative Ayanna Pressley, was held Feb. 11 for members of Congress and their staffs.

"It was a big accomplishment. We really didn't think we would be able to be inside Congress and perform there so that was really inspiring," Jacqueline Landaverde said.

Angela Palma thought the Congress members and their staffs were "very touched."

"They had tears in their eyes, and after the play they would tell us, 'We're going to do our best to help you guys,'" she said.

The cast performed one more time on Feb. 13 at Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Maryland, which allowed the use of their theater free of charge.

"The reaction was phenomenal, from Boston to D.C.," Yeganeh said.

"I hope that we raised awareness that we can't be separated from our families because it's a human right to be with your family and that's basically what we tried to tell people with this play," Angela Palma said.

On Oct. 3, 2018, a U.S. District Court judge issued a ruling that temporarily blocked the Trump administration's cancellation of TPS for El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Sudan. That same month, a delegation of 11 Salvadoran TPS holders' children, including five in the cast of "The Last Dream," traveled to the Vatican and spoke with Pope Francis during one of his public audiences, asking for his support. On March 1, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would extend TPS until January 2020 due to ongoing litigation.

Jose Palma said people can help by calling their representatives, donating to the TPS Committee, and creating opportunities for education on TPS in their communities.

"For anyone in any church, opening the space to have conversations about TPS, like (an) education opportunity for the members, is something that is also very important," he said.