“Facebook is a Hell for Happy People:” GALA Theater’s Latest Work

La Foto: A Selfie Affair is a humorous and entertaining play that touches upon modern themes of technology, privacy, and internet relationships. The selfie, that ubiquitous and vain yet satisfying picture, is the catalyst for a series of events that ends a marriage, drives a daughter to leave her school in shame, and ruins a friendship.

Laura, performed by the ever fabulous Luz Nicolas, copes with her age a

nd solitude by reconnecting with an old boyfriend. A 48-year-old single mother, Laura courts Denis, played by Carlos Castillo, via Facebook where they reminisce about nostalgic memories before exchanging romantic overtures. A confused or perhaps reckless Denis dithers between his desire to leave his wife Thais, played by Maria Peyramaure, to pursue an exciting relationship with

Laura or maintain his devotion to his family.

The play centers its focus on Laura and Denis, and the fallout from a risqué selfie meant to coax Denis into a decision. As the picture of Laura goes viral and their families react, the play explores the psychological undertones manifested through the use of technology. Laura is driven by a sudden sensitivity about her appearance and her loneliness; she looks for romance online, she changes her wardrobe to look younger and she carefully photo shops her selfies before sending them to interested suitors.

Denis entertains Laura’s proposition not simply out of romantic idealism but to soothe his insecurities. After Thais asks Denis for a divorce, Denis attempts to explain himself to his son Frank, interpreted by Jose Gonzalez. Denis recounts his efforts to also enhance his physical appearance through weight lifting. He invested enormous time and effort to shape his body and appear powerful and masculine but in the end, succeeds only in growing ‘man boobs’.

Director Abel Lopez employs a dark and nervous humor throughout the play. Mr. Lopez creates tense moments that switch between comedy, drama, and absurdi

ty. During a dramatic argument between Denis and Thais, the ‘machista’ Denis finally comes clean about his interactions with Laura and her selfies. In an attempt to explain himself, Denis declares that “Facebook es el infierno de los felices.” (Facebook is a hell of happy people) The line garnered nervous laughter from the audience. It was the most poignant moment in the play and one whose spirit was at the core of

its message.

Facebook is indeed a hell for happy people. Denis’ obvious irrationality and denial of any wrongdoing is the uneasy facade through which his profound insight is delivered. The characters in the play

embody the psychological affects that are born out of today’s uses of technology. We don’t like how we look so we place filters on our pictures, we’re unhappy with our marriage so we flirt with an old flame on Facebook, we see only the happy, positive, and “good” captured on social media and we compare these experiences to our own, we suppress the yin and obsess over the yang. As a result, we create a distorted reality, one where everyone appears happy but no one feels whole: a hell for happy people.

Choppy at times, the flow of the play mirrored a typical online experience with short, uneasy, and visually sleek scenes. The set, aligned by tall canvas like panels, reminded me more of a minimalist themed website powered by WordPress than a home, a high-school or a grocery store. Through this lens, the play felt like a series of Instagram videos sliced together into one long “Instastory.” It served as a subtle reminder of the detachment with which we navigate the world. With smartphones a reach away, a serene and melancholic moment is interrupted by an impulse to “snap” a video and share it with the world. We no longer own unique moments but are instead nudged through push notifications to share our experience with the world.

While the play focused more on the fallout from the selfie, it was these themes of insecurity, mortality, and family, and how these are affected by technology that gave the play meaning. As technology becomes more available and more powerful, we’re reminded of the human sensibilities that give depth to our experiences. Passion, melancholy, and reflection are more important now than ever and yet fall by the wayside as capitalist coders and website designers compete for our attention.

This post originally appeared on the Metro Diversity blog here

You can find more information or reserve your seats for the show at www.galatheatre.org or by phone at 202-234-7174. Performing now thru February 25th

Getting Down In The Heights Latin Style

This post originally appeared on Metro Diversity on April 26th, 2017. 

In The Heights En Español, directed by Luis Salgado, is a bilingual adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mid-2000’s original musical. Colorful, humorous, and at times somber, the play centers around the struggles and romances of a primarily Latino community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Usnavi (played by Juan Luis Espinal) shoulders the legacy of his parents: a convenience store in “the barrio,” while looking after his younger cousin and his dear “abuela.” Meanwhile Nina (played by Laura Lebron) returns from Stanford to tell her parents that she lost her university scholarship. Once considered a star student, Nina deals with the guilt of having disappointed her parents and her community. Nina and Usnavi grapple with these issues while simultaneously pursuing their respective romantic passions. Usnavi musters up the courage to talk to “popular girl” Vanessa (played by Veronica Alvarez) who works at a beauty salon. Nina develops affection for Benny (Vaughn Ryan Midder), an African-American employee at Nina’s father’s Taxi/Limousine service.

The play incorporates many of the traditional Latino character types: Nina’s mother Camila (played by Shadia Fairuz) is the wise and strong Latina mother, Abuela Claudia (played by Michelle Rios) plays the spiritual, affable, and loving elder who provides guidance to Usnavi and Nina, and Nina’s father Kevin (played by Jose F. Capellan), is the proud machista father. These character types are positive depictions of Latinos which serves to break the common and unflattering depictions portrayed in mainstream media. At times, it’s positive intent felt more like a Disney production, clichéd and oversimplified, than nuanced social commentary. It does however touch upon anxieties that are very real to the Latino community today.

From left. Amaya Perea, Myriam Gadri, Luis Ramos, Vaughn Ruan Midder (back), Juan Luis Espinal, Héctor Flores Jr, Verónica Alvarez, Nathalia Raigosa. Photo Rose Campiglia

Perhaps the most poignant moment in the play came when Nina’s father, after hearing the news that Nina lost her scholarship in part because of how much she had to work to pay her tuition, expresses his disappointment… in himself. Kevin chides Nina with his disappointment before turning on himself. “Soy inutil, useless” Kevin says. He questions his ability to take care of his family, to be the best father he can be, and to honor what it means to be a man. These few minutes where Kevin explains his frustration, with himself, with no one, with everyone, nearly brought me to tears.

Kevin’s insecurity is not unique. Throughout the play, the collective feeling of insecurity is seldom explicitly articulated, but is present just beneath the surface. Poor Latino families, Latino immigrants and the subsequent generations, face difficult questions about assimilation into American society. How do we make a living without knowing the language or culture of this country? How do we navigate a system that wasn’t designed by or for Latinos? What kind of life must we lead in order to preserve our heritage yet integrate into an alien society?

The depth of Kevin’s failure is not produced by his inability to help Nina, it is formed in the subtle feelings of inferiority to the “gringo” American and the challenges inherent in obtaining the “American dream.” We see what is desired for that lifestyle; the suburban home, the family values, kids who go to college, and we face a reality in which obtaining that life is not as easy for the D

From left. Juan Luis Espinal, Scheherazade Quiroga and Verónica Alvarez. Photo Rose Campiglia

ominican business owner in Washington Heights as it is for the fourth-generation American professional living in suburban Washington DC. The insecurity felt by the Latino collective stems from a false equivalence in which the Latino wants to be like the gringo American but is living an entirely different experience than the gringo ever lived. Kevin’s feeling of uselessness is shared by the undocumented immigrant who works 60 hour weeks at $8 an hour but struggles to make ends meet, it’s shared by young Latinos who watch as their gringo classmates are showered with gifts and support from their parents while they save up money for a textbook by working at the grocery store after school, it’s felt by the Latina tamale vendor who sells her food to the newly arrived young professional couple who moved into the luxury apartment down the street, and it’s felt by the neighborhood drunk, who long ago lost faith and succumbed to despair.

“It’s about humanity,” Mr. Salgado explained in a Q&A after the play ended. At its core, In The Heights and Mr. Salgado are seeking to answer the questions of what it means to be Latino in the United States. But whereas in the mid-2000’s we could see this play as a celebration of our cultural roots and the innate “humanness” embedded within our core American principles, today we look at Mr. Miranda’s creation a bit differently; as a reminder of our fear of never truly becoming part of this country and the uselessness of our efforts to do so.

Sunday, Soup, and Community

Domingo was always on that corner. He would greet me from his stool while chewing tobacco and with a toothless smile, “como estamos Santiago?” Every day I would sit on the stool next to him and he’d tell me his life’s story. Domingo told me everything, from his proudest moments to his lowest. He’s an alcoholic and goes to AA meetings every week. He was an engineer in Puerto Cortez where he worked alongside several American engineers who were veterans of World War II. It wasn’t long before I exchanged some of my own stories, even if they didn’t compare in meaning. I could only talk to him for a few minutes at a time, and before long I had to interrupt him and ask him to tell me the rest the next day.

Walking through the streets of ‘El Progreso’ can be a jarring experience. The most popular reggeaton, bachata, and merengue songs ring through the streets. Taxi cab drivers tell their dirtiest jokes as they stand idle by their cars. Vendors yell about their newest bargain from store fronts. The crowded streets, the festive melodies, and the colorful characters project a feeling of excitement rather than a place of business.

Walking about the city center, I was always bound to run into a few people I knew. It was common to run into a client and her children, “Hola Santiago, como esta? Vaya pues, que Dios le bendiga!” We’d stop, greet, chat, and wish each other goodbye. Always a few minutes at a time.

There are a few “spots” I frequented. Chepe’s Restaurant, which was more of an open air cafeteria, served my favorite chicken soup. Even on a hot sunny day, chicken soup always hit the spot. Steamed carrots, broccoli, potatoes, cabbage, and juicy chicken all served together with a delicious broth… my mouth waters even now every time I think of it. I had it so often that Chepe knew my order by heart. “Vistes el Atletico?” he’d ask me. Chepe loves Atletico Madrid. While I slurped my soup he would tell me about their latest win.

On the opposite corner from Domingo is a small shoe repair shop. Gerson is its owner. It has one large window without a glass pane. On any day of the week you can find Gerson behind the counter, with his glasses on, a sewing needle and special tools at hand, hard at work on a shoe. The first time I went to his shop we shook hands and I was taken aback. His hands are huge. They are as big as a basketball player’s, his fingers are thick as cigars and rough like sand paper. “Y su familia como esta?” Gerson is a man of few words, but he always asked about my family.

It’s been a year and a half since I left Honduras. Except for a brief visit, I haven’t kept in touch with clients and neighbors. I don’t know if they think about me. I don’t know if my presence left an impression. The longer removed from Honduras, the less I remember about Domingo, my neighbors, and my clients.

Honduras is one of the most violent countries on earth and one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. It’s a Spanish speaking country, it’s soccer crazed, and it’s in the Caribbean, and thus very hot. If this is all you knew of Honduras, you could be forgiven for misunderstanding so much of what makes the country and its people unique.

Despite the fear and caution that the news can inspire, my experience endeared me to El Progreso. I found meaning in the serendipity of running into someone you know on the street and the satisfaction of dropping what you’re doing to catch up with a familiar face. There is a strong sense of community in that town.

Community is a collective attitude. What every one of those relationships, from Domingo to clients, had in common was mutual affection. By affection, I don’t mean of everlasting friendship, I mean of a level of curiosity and friendliness that comes with knowing someone well enough to be vulnerable with them. I mean the type of relationship that isn’t defined by status, competition, or transactions. I mean the connection you feel with someone with whom you share a space with and interact with on a daily basis over and over again. Essentially, community is defined by geography, but it’s also defined by some level of love.

When I left Honduras, I lost that community. Living in DC, I feel a different attitude in the collective conscience. There is more distrust, more isolation, more individual expectation and less collective culture. I worry that I’m losing perspective. I’m more distracted by technology and in constant need of stimulation from anything that will suppress my angst.

While in Honduras I felt a strong connection to the place and people. But, I’m mindful of the fact that I could never fully be a part of that community; my identity and privilege will always provide a certain degree of separation. Nonetheless, I still took part in this collective attitude of acceptance, free from judgment, driven by love, and defined by a common thread: the unspoken understanding of community.

Santiago Sueiro, Former Program Director of La Ceiba MFI
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Blade and Baleadas

When we arrived the whole family was waiting for us. Laura Isabel Luque, her sister Karina Luque, and Marina Eliza were in the kitchen cooking. The smell of cooked steak, with its herbs and spices, filled the air. As we approached several children greeted us, a lady sitting outside on her sewing machine got up to shake my hand. The three women in the kitchen quickly stopped what they were doing to greet us at the door.

Ana Lucia Galo, Eduar Isidro Reyes and I had lunch at Karina’s house on Saturday, September 21st. We are the La Ceiba team in Honduras. Laura and Karina invited us for lunch a week earlier. When I received the invitation, I was excited but skeptical. Part of me thought the lunch was planned with another motive. I thought perhaps the women wanted to receive larger loans than we had given.

Walking into the house, one cant help but feel comfortable despite its cement composition. The first room in the house is a large one that acts as the living room, the kitchen and the dining room. The walls are decorated with Winnie the Pooh pictures with Spanish sayings. The sayings contain a message of love and family. “What would you like to drink?” Laura offered us water, Pepsi, coffee or juice. “Coffee please.” Ana and Eduar asked for Pepsi.

Laura has worked with La Ceiba since January of 2013. She is a close neighbor of Elizabeth Discua, Maria Carcamo, and Tania Carcamo, all successful La Ceiba clients. Laura is a single mom with an eight-year-old boy. She has a L 1,250 ($62.50) loan with La Ceiba. In nine months, La Ceiba never asked how Laura pays her loans, and in that time, Laura received 11 loans and paid all of them back ahead of time. I was concerned because she originally asked for a larger loan than we could give her. Why does she want a larger loan? What kind of income does she have? Why does she keep inviting me to lunch?

“Lunch is ready.” We sat around the small wooden table adjacent to the living space and the kitchen. Despite its size, the table accommodated the six of us comfortably. Karina served us. We were having mini baleadas. On our plate we had four small handmade flour tortillas placed under diced steak, onions, tomatoes, lime and cilantro. It was a colorful display and a modest serving. We bid “salud” to the food and to our hosts and enjoyed the rich taste of the fresh ingredients.

Karina is a new La Ceiba client. I knew very little about Karina and her finances. Despite my efforts not to do so, I couldn’t help but observe Karina’s house from a lenders perspective. That is, the material things in her house served as indicators of economic wealth. Karina has a television and a fully furnished home. These are signs that Karina and her family have a high economic status. I didn’t want to take advantage of the invitation into Karinas home so I put those thoughts at bay.

“Santisima madre!” Everyone in the room chuckled at Ana’s outcries. We sat down to watch the movie of the day on TV: Blade: Vampire Hunter with Wesley Snipes and Jessica Biel. It was a bloody and violent movie. Every time a vampire was mercilessly decapitated, Ana would yell out in shock. “How is your family?” Laura asked in between decapitations. “Fine,” I responded. Where is your mom from? How did you learn to speak Spanish so well? Did you enjoy the food? Laura and Karina kept asking questions about me. They wanted to learn about me and my family.

Microfinance institutions (MFI’s) are taught not to trust clients. Its never stated explicitly but our operations, our products, our requirements all function under the assumption that clients, poor clients, are risky investments. And, since they often are not included into a formal credit scoring system, the MFI has to gather that information on its own. To do so, loan officers employ methods that seek “accurate information.” For example, loan officers might show up 30 minutes early to a meeting just to catch a client and their business off guard. A loan officer might show up unannounced to see how things are run when a client isn’t expecting her lender to visit. Loan officers will ask research-tested questions that seek to reveal the character of a client and afterwards will ask neighbors questions to verify information.

Eduar told the room a story. One day he was dropping off Laura’s loan. They met in front of Laura’s house. Eduar read the loan contract to Laura and handed her the check. In the exchange, Laura mishandled the check and dropped it in the mud. Eduar poked fun at Laura for being careless to which Laura responded, “I remember the first time you gave me my loan, you were so nervous you couldn’t speak!” Everyone laughed at the friendly banter. I felt as though I was in a locker room with my team, exchanging inside jokes after a hard fought game. “How are your friends at the University?” Laura already knew several of our La Ceiba students. Laura told me to tell the students hello and to invite them to baleadas.

“Santi, you all are invited to baleadas next week too!” Laura made sure to invite us all back to her sisters house. It was our cue to leave but I still hadn’t gotten asked about a larger loan or for a favor. In fact, for the duration of the reunion, we never once talked seriously about loans or finances. The topics of conversation were focused on friends and family. We were getting to know each other simultaneously. We were learning about each other’s history, our customs, our likes and dislikes, we were becoming friends. For that afternoon, for two hours on that Saturday, Laura, Karina and Marina were my friends and not my clients. They fed me, they cleaned up after me, they took care of me and I had nothing to offer them accept my good graces and my friendship. It was a genuinely good time, and I didn’t need to ask a neighbor to verify that.

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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More of my blog posts at: laceibamfi.org

(Originally posted to laceibamfi.org on September 25th, 2013)