GALA to present ‘Little Central America, 1984’ about Sanctuary Movement

Poetry, live music, and testimonials tell a story of faith communities opening their doors to refugees—often in defiance of federal law.

GALA Hispanic Theatre opens its 48th anniversary season with the DC premiere of Little Central America, 1984, written and performed by Elia Arce and Rubén Martínez. Presented in English with some Spanish, the show explores “Little Central Americas” in the United States, which were growing well before the 1980s. These communities were strengthened by a new wave of refugees fleeing from civil wars in the late 20th century. Directed by Arce, Little Central America, 1984 runs July 21 and July 22, 2023, at 8 pm, and July 23 at 10:30 am at one of the District’s own sanctuaries, All Souls Church Unitarian, located at 1500 Harvard Street NW, Washington, DC.

Little Central America, 1984 uses poetry, live music, and testimonials to recreate an era when the conflicts in Guatemala and El Salvador displaced over one million people. The crisis spawned transnational solidarity through the Sanctuary Movement, in which faith communities opened their doors to refugees, often in open defiance of federal law. The work presents this American and Central American story to bring attention to a forgotten chapter in our history and to shed light on the violence and trauma that serves as the context for today’s refugee crisis—violence that Little Central America, 1984 approaches with the healing salve of art.

Little Central America is about making connections—across generations, across regions of the country,” says Rubén Martínez, who conceived the production and is co-writer and performer. “The ideal of sanctuary is what ties it all together, a notion with roots that go all the way back to antiquity. When people say ’safe space’ today, they are invoking some of that ideal.”

The performance will culminate with a ceremony honoring local Central American activists and the communities’ allies. The honorees played a role in the original Sanctuary Movement, have responded to the ongoing contemporary refugee crisis, or have simply played a key role in the formation of “Little Central America.” These include Quique Avilés, Kimberly Benavides, José Centeno-Meléndez, Lilo González, Arturo Griffiths, Verónica Meléndez, Ana Patricia Rodríguez, and Luis Peralta del Valle, among others. GALA’s late co-founder and Producing Artistic Director, Hugo Medrano, will also be recognized as a pivotal figure for Washington’s theater and Latinx communities. In 1976, he co-founded a foundational cultural institution in the city, GALA Hispanic Theatre, with his wife, Rebecca Medrano. On Friday, July 21, Little Central America, 1984 will posthumously honor his service to multiple communities and Rebecca Medrano will receive the honor.

Co-presented by GALA Hispanic Theatre and Circuit Network, Little Central America, 1984 is made possible with funding by the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Theater Project and supported by a National Performance Network (NPN) Artist Engagement Fund, with funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency). For more information, visit


Elia Arce and Rubén Martínez

Elia Arce (co-writer, performer, director) is an artist working in a wide variety of media, including installation, writing, experimental theater, social sculpture, and photo/video/sculptural and live performance. She has performed and taught in universities and art centers throughout the United States, Great Britain, Mexico, Brazil, Mali, Spain, Cuba, Canada, and Costa Rica. A critical study of Arce’s body of work was published in 2018 by the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at New York University. Currently, her work is being exhibited in Costa Rica at Museo del Banco Central, Museo de Arte Costarricense, and at Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo, a space for artists by artists. A dual citizen of the US and Costa Rica, Arce has received awards and fellowships from the Getty Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, National Performance Network, National Endowment Fund, Durfee Foundation, Ford Foundation, and the US Fulbright Program. She is based in both countries.

Rubén Martínez (creator, co-writer, performer) is a writer, performer, and teacher native of Los Angeles, and is the son and grandson of immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador. He is the author of Desert America: A Journey Across Our Most Divided Landscape and Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail, and other titles. Martínez is currently the host and writer of the web-based interview series “Excavating the Future,” a collaboration between PBS-affiliate KCET of Los Angeles and independent online magazine Capital & Main. He is also the creator and host of the VARIEDADES performance series, multidisciplinary performances that reveal hidden histories in Los Angeles and the borderlands. Two of these, The Ballad of Ricardo Flores Magón and VARIEDADES on Olvera Street, were filmed for broadcast by PBS-affiliate KCET. Martínez is the recipient of an Emmy Award, a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, and a Loeb Fellowship from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Joining writer-performers Elia Arce and Rubén Martínez in the cast are local artists and activists Quique Avilés and Lilo González, and educators, students, and community members with roots in the DMV and El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama.

All Souls Church Unitarian has played a vital role in Washington, DC, and the nation as a whole. Located at the intersection of 16th and Harvard Streets, the church straddles the Mt. Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Adams Morgan neighborhoods. In the words of All Souls’ former Senior Minister, Rev. Robert M. Hardies: “Our ancestors dreamed of a special kind of church of the free spirit, unfettered by dogma; a church of the free mind pursuing all truth, a church of the free person, resisting all bonds of oppression. For 200 years, since 1821, All Souls has served as a shelter of those dreams.” All Souls continues to strive for social justice.

Circuit Network was founded in 1984 by four contemporary solo choreographers seeking joint management services. By 1987, each of these artists had acquired the infrastructure to produce their home seasons and independently manage their organizations. Nola Mariano was hired to create a national touring program as part of the services Circuit offered. Over the past two decades Circuit has been instrumental in the successful careers of such well-known artists as Contraband, Culture Clash, Guillermo Gómez-Peña/La Pocha Nostra, and James Luna, booking national and international engagements, providing organizational development services, and working with represented artists and venues to produce events locally in San Francisco.


General admission tickets for Little Central America, 1984 are $25 each. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit or call (202) 234-7174.


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