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'Placas': How a former MS-13 gang member inspired a play about starting over




Actor Ric Salinas in the play,
Actor Ric Salinas in the play, "Placas: The Most Dangerous Tatoo."
John Liu

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On a recent evening at South Coast Repertory theater, actors take the stage to tell the redemptive story of one man’s escape from Mara Salvatrucha — one of the world’s largest and most brutal street gangs.

With its roots in L.A. and meteoric rise in El Salvador, MS-13, as the gang is known, has been the subject of numerous documentary films, such as National Geographic's "World's Most Dangerous Gang."

But what about the stories of gang members who want to break away and start over? Former MS-13 member Alex Sanchez remembers what it was like to make that transition.

I remember those moments when I was tested by the gang, when I was tested by law enforcement and I was tested by my own mother because she didn’t believe that I had changed.

Sanchez, is now the executive director of Homies Unidos, an organization that provides gang prevention services in Los Angeles and El Salvador. His story inspired the play, “Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo,” which opens on Feb. 18 at CASA 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights.

SANCHEZ: My story was about me trying to survive the death squads that were trying to kill me, but also that I needed to be a father to my son, and that was the motivating factor for me to keep living.

“Placas,”which is barrio slang for body tattoos, made its premiere at the San Francisco International Arts Festival in 2012 and has since toured the country. It uses the theme of tattoo removal as a way to erase the mark of gang-life, and follows the story of Fausto, a Salvadoran ex-gang member living in San Francisco’s Mission District who struggles to start over and re-connect with his son.

In the production, Fausto is played by Ric Salinas, an original member of the socially-minded comedy-theater troupe, Culture Clash. Salinas, who was born in El Salvador, says he was hesitant to accept the role of Fausto because he didn’t want to be involved in a stereotypical story about Salvadoran gang life. But he reconsidered when he read the script.

SALINAS: It’s about a father and a son — about loss, about regret, about a past that needs to be shed. So when I do this performance and I look out in the audience and there’s young African American men, there’s Asian men, there’s even Anglos — they [can] relate to it.

“Placas’” playwright Paul Flores conducted more than 100 interviews in El Salvador and the U.S. with former and active members of various gangs, their families and social workers. Flores remembers one encounter with 18th Street gang members in El Salvador.

FLORES: I would say these were positive folks, but they were connected to the gang. [They] put me in the middle of a circle and told me they had seen people like me before, photographers who want to take pictures of their tattoos [and] document how depraved and violent they are, just so they could get famous off of it. And I told them my job was to ask what they would like to tell the world about [themselves]. And then they said, O.K., yeah. We need to have a voice.

“Placas” director Fidel Gomez says he wants the play to be a tool to reflect populations that don’t usually see themselves onstage:

GOMEZ: What got me in, and what’s keeping me in, is really the work [the play] does for the community — a community that doesn’t get to see theater about themselves and may use this as a gateway to open up about change, about dealing with trauma, about family relationships.  

And playwright Flores wants those communities to see how the arts can promote healing in a violent world.

FLORES: Violence is really common in the United States and how we deal with it will really determine the future of our community’s ability to sustain itself. So I think that culture can help our communities. That helps us see ourselves in a positive, humanistic light.

"Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo" will be performed Thursdays through Sundays from Feb. 18-28 at CASA 0101 in Boyle Heights.



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