Ms. Rosario, my Our Lady of Sorrows fifth grade teacher, put all 17 of us in a circle so we “can have a little chat about what’s bothering us.” She’d never done this before. I was a huge introvert who was more of a listener than a talker, so this made me anxious.
Claudette spoke about “not getting what she wanted for Christmas,” Lissette gloated about how “Michael Jordan was better than any Knick,” Diego delivered a sermon on how “Koch and his hoodlum cops made things harder for us in the streets,” and then it was my turn. I froze. 17 pairs of eyeballs staring at me”¦waiting. Ms Rosario, sensing my uneasiness, simply asked, “Juan, what’s wrong? Is there something bothering you? You can talk. What are you afraid of?”
In full dramatic-monologue form, I talked about an alcoholic husband who came home to find his wife and kids with another man. Alcoholic husband’s own kids chose their mother’s new lover over their now heartbroken-alcoholic father. So husband physically beats them all, chases his wife’s lover to the 2nd Avenue subway station and stabs him. I was in tears. Seventeen pairs of eyes were now 17 pairs of wide-eyed, jaw-dropped witnesses.
That story was about my father and mother, and her childhood sweetheart who would soon become my step-father. It had happened four years earlier.
Contrary to that moment, being an actor was the farthest goal from my mind. That moment in front of my friends scared me. They never looked at me the same way again. I was disappointed in myself, because I had lost control of my emotions and shared a secret that my mother made me promise not to tell. That was my childhood in the Lower East Side of New York City — full of secrets that are not supposed to be talked about, even though everyone knew them.
What am I afraid of? This question would hound me from then on.
Pursuing dreams was encouraged, as long as they were practical dreams. Till I was 17, not getting killed plagued my mind, because friends and members of my family had been murdered by this time. I just wanted to survive.
Then Willy Shakes came into my life. He showed me a world where kings, queens, fairies and donkeys spoke in verse the way Biz Markie, Slick Rick and Tribe Called Quest dropped rhymes.
This loisaida boy whose parents emigrated from Colombia took himself to Le Moyne College upstate in Syracuse, NY. There, I learned what a theater community was all about. My experience at that little Jesuit college gave me enough hope to see a glimmer of a future for me. Having a future meant putting more distance between me and my family. That hope led me to Chicago.
In Chicago, I was re-introduced to my childhood through the lens of modern playwrights Jose Rivera, Octavio Solis, Luis Alfaro, Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams and Migdalia Cruz.Â They illuminated the struggles of family, finding beauty in the language of the working class and embracing all of the violence that plagues those fighting to be free.
I decided to do the unthinkable and move back home. The apartment I grew up in seemed smaller, and I felt the same anxiety that I had as a child. I was an outsider in my own neighborhood, which had become a hotbed for hipsters. Then my step-father suddenly passed away. I came to the realization that the men in my family didn’t reach the age of 33. I was rattling my brain with the question of pre-destiny verses free will.
“What are you afraid of?”
I wanted to write. That was certain. So I began to write what made me smile with nostalgia. I began to write what made me shake with fear. I wrote about about my family, neighborhood, mom’s empanadas and my dreams.
I was afraid that my colleagues would never hire me again, my friends would be ashamed of me and that my family would disown me.
My family came to the first performance of Empanada for a Dream and it upset them. But, over time, we have begun a new dialogue about events that have plagued our family.
When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was escape. I never thought that by simply telling my story, I would”¦on stage. I can’t escape my fears, but I can face them. All I need to do is talk. These are stories that only I can tell.
Empanada for a Dream, presented by Latino Theater Company. Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Opens Thursday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through November 18. Tickets: $20-$34. thelatc.org. 866-811-4111.
***All Empanada for a Dream production photos by Chantel Lucier
Juan Francisco Villa-Juan is a 2012 ITB Patrick Lee Award winner for outstanding solo performance, 2012 NY IT Award nominee for solo performance, original full-length script and performance art for his NYC Ballybeg-terraNOVA run of Empanada for a Dream. He just completed a run of Empanada for a Dream in Chicago for the Yo Solo Fest. Chicago credits include the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Rivendell, SALSATION, 16th Street Theater, and Teatro Vista. NYC credits include Rattlestick, Mabou Mines, INTAR, terraNOVA Collective, Rising Circle, Monarch, HERO, Lark, Collaboration Town, BAX,59E59, and La Mama. He is an ensemble member of Teatro Vista in Chicago and InViolet in NYC. His plays el dragon del village, gen-tried, he will rise and don chipotle are currently being developed. He is a member of AEA-SAG/AFTRA. Juan is a graduate of Maggie Flanigan’s Conservatory in NYC. www.juanfranciscovilla.com.