My name is Brian Garcia. I am a recent graduate from the University of Michigan in Interdisciplinary Performance focusing on the intersection of Latinx/queer identities and mental health. My interest in the Prison Creative Arts Project stems from a desire to integrate art making practices into social activist spaces. Over the past week I have been a part of an exchange program between the University of Michigan and UDESC (the state university of Santa Catarina) in Florianopolis, Brazil during which we participated in a two-day intensive workshop festival centered on a focus of “teatro na communidade” or “community theatre.” My participation in the workshops was only part of the experience as listening to and comparing my liberal arts BFA education with that of the UDESC students shed light on both similarities and the importance of difference in our shared vocabulary of social oppression.
Within the relatively liberal community of art students at UDESC, I found myself meeting many students who oddly uttered similar rhetoric surrounding struggles with homophobia, transphobia, gender-identity, racism and oppression. One of these students was a self-identified cisgendered heterosexual man who studies theatre at UDESC. After realizing how similar our theatre curriculums were, we shared our perspectives of art in social movements. He told me how growing up in the state of Rio Grande do Sol – what was described multiple times as the Texas of Brazil- shaped his view of the world. As we spoke more, however, this student began to confide in me a more personal story about his cousin’s murder to gun violence by police. The incident reconfigured his art making and he intends to incorporate it into his senior thesis performance. Unlike his work in UDESC, this piece was not a scripted performance but closer to my familiar realm of “performance art” – to be performed in a small theatre free from the restrictions of the University.
As we sat in a restaurant late at night, he described to me his ideal performance piece for his senior thesis. He shared that he wanted to illustrate the ways in which those who were sworn to protect and help him killed his cousin. In order to show his unity in blood to him he imagines himself on stage literally drawing his own blood in front of a live audience. To get at how these well-intentioned people actually can cause more harm than good, he envisions a moment in which the performer cuts the tube drawing blood and bleeds out on stage. Ultimately, he suspects that someone in the audience would try to help stop the bleeding – an act that could potentially cause more difficulties in rescuing the performer if not fatal harm. All of this, he describes, stems from a desire to use his privileged status in skin color, gender and sexuality to leverage a conversation from that of a savior mentality to the high mortality of police gun violence.
Unfortunately, this story was not the only personal story of stray bullet deaths that was shared with us during our time in Florianopolis. Despite the United States’ constant media attention on the current political display between candidates for the presidency, gun violence and police brutality also affect my country at alarming rates. Another similarity I found between this proposal and my own lived experience is the manner in which close family deaths have influenced our thesis work. Together we enthusiastically spoke of a desire to illustrate institutionalized pain connected through familial relationships, a desire to leverage privileged identities through theatre, a desire to open up dialogue through performance. Most importantly however, this student’s description of his work pointed to a more fascinating aspect of what I suspect might become more pertinent in our work continuing in Rio: The ability to affirm and listen to someone’s story, recognize similarities, while also understanding that it is not your own.
Let me take a moment here to sidetrack to a different moment during the festival involving the same student. During the question and answer portion of our group’s talk to the rest of the participants at the festival, this student posed a question of how race impacts the work we do in prison considering the alarmingly high rate of people of color in prisons both in Brazil and the US. To be asked what racism is like in your country is like being asked to explain how gravity works. You don’t really know how to fully explain it because it exists beyond the extent of our current vocabulary yet we still feel it day by day. The daunting task to explain this seems greater with an actual language barrier and time restraints thrown in. The truth is anybody on a panel can give you an in depth analysis of the intricacies of race relations in their work or scholarship. So often has the institution of the University of Michigan taught me to spend time crafting unique answers that fit neatly into our current political and social understanding of oppression – however, I believe that this does not and will not ever fully reach the level of an answer that such a question merits.
So, to go back to the moment that this same white student explained to me his ideal performance: While the specificity of the student’s situation leading to the creation of this performance is unique to himself as the performer (his autobiographical experience, his self-described held identities, etc.), the story of his cousin’s death and the manner by which it is performed on stage function as artifacts of the communities that allowed this event to happen. The unique power of theatre lies here: to allow me as a foreigner to both connect and understand these experiences as not my own between the boundary of language is to connect in solidarity with the struggles of a country that is not my own. However, to both see how the passing of a loved one has influenced our work and at the same time sit in the reality that this is not my story is what theater helps me imagine. Particularly in a world in which I am constantly navigating the identities of a foreigner in my own country and a representative of colonial power abroad – it is pertinent I dance with these complexities before I step into a prison in a country that is not my own.
I often feel afraid of graduating and entering a world that continuously feels smaller and smaller. A world that no matter where I turn seems to not have a space that was not tainted by colonial super powers. A world that tries to convince me that my indigenous roots were meant to be expelled, that the colonizer’s ancestry I hold should rise supreme – a world that fuels this internal ancestral conflict and essentially holds no true “home” for me. But, it is this ability to hold an impossible duality of recognition and complete inability to truly understand the story of another that is so beautiful about the moment of sharing artistic work with a Brazilian theatre student in Florianopolis. Despite our figurative and literal differences in language, we are able to share a piece of each other’s suffering while imagining worlds of possibilities and it is this that makes me desire less of a home and more of a community through “teatro na communidade.”