News & Politics

A Columbia Heights Theater Camp Helps DACA Recipients Tell Their Stories

Why Gala Hispanic Theatre's Paso Nuevo is a vital outlet for young residents.

GALA’s Mauricio Pita brings people together through the stage. Photograph by Antonio Hernandez.

At first glance, Jenny doesn’t look like a star. The 15-year-old DC resident speaks quietly to strangers and smiles at the floor when she’s nervous. But when she took the stage recently at a fundraiser for GALA Hispanic Theatre’s education program, Paso Nuevo, hundreds of people in the audience were riveted.

Jenny is one of about 50 teen­agers who attend Paso Nuevo each year. (The camp asked that we not use students’ last names.) Most are Spanish speakers native to Central American countries. About 80 percent are DACA recipients, meaning they were brought illegally to the US as children. Their status here teeters in perpetual jeopardy.

The Spanish-language monologue Jenny delivered was something she wrote during one of Paso Nuevo’s free bilingual classes. Without a stumble, she recounted the story of her father’s deportation from Washington to Guatemala two years ago. “The world of my childhood was a single color—the color of spring,” she told the audience in Spanish. “Little by little, my world separated in two.” But she would not stop loving her father, she said, even from far away. A heavy silence lingered after she finished. Then applause.

For 25 years, the program in Columbia Heights has taught students how to write, act, and produce a small show. The teens’ work is so skillful that in 2012, then–First Lady Michelle Obama set up a performance at the White House and presented Paso Nuevo with a $10,000 grant from the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. Most of the $150,000-plus annual budget comes from arts grants, and funding the program can be a struggle.

Paso Nuevo is more than just a place to create, especially given the rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric. Students can voice stresses that otherwise have no outlet: a family conflict, a school bully, a sense of getting stuck in the cracks between English and Spanish. And since Trump’s election, Paso Nuevo’s students have feared not only racial profiling but also deportation and separation from their families. “Not many people hear my story,” says Christell, a 13-year-old who performed at the fundraiser. “I just want people to see who I am.”

Every semester begins with participants discussing their lives to find common threads. “We start to understand that though our experiences may be different, we’re not alone,” says Mauricio Pita, GALA’s director of education. Students then translate their fears and hopes into an emotional performance piece. “People think writing is boring,” Jenny says. “They think essays—like in school—are writing. But those people should experience theater.”

This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Washingtonian.