GALA lifts up the Sanctuary Movement in ‘Little Central America, 1984’

A tribute to refugees from Central America during the 1980s and to people in the DMV who chose to stand by them.

The new headline on the GALA Hispanic Theater website reads: “Looking Back, Moving Forward…¡VIVA HUGO!!” The 2023/24 theater season is GALA’s first without its co-founder and artistic director, Hugo Medrano. Every community, tribe, or people needs to be able to tell the stories that remind them of who they are. For 47 years, under the auspices of GALA, Hugo and Rebecca Medrano provided a platform for sharing the stories of the multiple Latinx communities that developed in the DMV. The theater’s work gained urgency and usefulness as chaos in South and Central America — facilitated and provoked by the United States — displaced over one million people and caused many of its citizens to flee their homelands and seek sanctuary in the USA. Sanctuary — the concept and the reality of it — is at the heart of this work that GALA chose to open its new season.

Front: Quique Avilés; back: Jorge Pérez, Rubén Martínez, and Elia Arce in ‘Little Central America, 1984.’ Photo by Stan Weinstein.

The show is titled Little Central America, 1984 – A Sanctuary Then and Now. That is an apt description of the event. What the audience experienced was an homage both to the refugees from Central America during the 1980s and to the people in the DMV who rose to address the needs of these refugees by participating in a transnational effort that became known as the Sanctuary Movement. That effort consisted of faith communities opening their doors to refugees, often in open defiance of federal law.

Elia Arce and Rubén Martínez

The piece was conceived by Rubén Martínez, written by Elia Arce and Martínez, and directed by Arce. It uses visual projections, music, poetry, and testimonials to “reanimate” the reality and urgency of the Sanctuary Movement. Staged in All Souls Church — one of several churches in the DMV that declared themselves sanctuaries — this performance became a kind of memorial service — an opportunity for its audiences to pause, remember, grieve, and comfort each other as well as to celebrate past survival of Central Americans in the U.S. It also provided a moment of acknowledgment and encouragement for the new generation of activists that has risen to offer shelter once again to the new wave of refugees that continue to arrive from Central America. As one of the poems articulated: “We have lost before. And we have won before. We have been betrayed. But that does not diminish that we won.”

The songs and the poems underscored the interconnectedness of the present and future of Central America and the USA in ways that were both pointed and poignant. Some words that were particularly affecting include a song that states:

“There’s a place I’ve been told where the streets are paved with gold. And it’s just across the borderline.”

Some of the poems voiced the communally held grief and rage. For example:

“How many memories can a river hold?”

And some, like the following, voiced rage and accusation:

“We are here because you were there.”
“Our poor are your poor.”

Martínez played guitar and provided narration, and Arce supplied poetry and testimonials. They were backed up by musicians Jorge Perez (bass), Felix Carrera (trumpet) and Hermidez Benitez (percussion). And they were joined by a cast of familiar and notable Latinx artists/activists: singer Luci Murphy, poet Quique Avilés, Tim Fabrega, Jackeline Delancey, Darshell Najarro, Belen Delancey, Hinata Narrea Hernandez, Sonia Uanzor, Oneyda Hernandez, Mayra Mejia, Wanda Hernandez, and All Souls clergy member Reverend Louise Green. These are people from the community performing for the community. There was a congregational feel to the performance that served as an unspoken invitation to those gathered to give voice to their sense of belonging to this community. It allowed for a sense of fellowship that was made palpable as members of the audience would occasionally be moved to dance to music that evoked moments of solidarity and remembrance.

Video footage of the miles crossed by refugees to get into the United States — rivers, oceans, and highways — and footage of war in Central America, made me — a post-WWII Baby Boomer — think about how often I have seen the documentation of such destruction in Europe from WWII and how rarely I have been shown such images in Central America. It also made me wonder why that should be.

Toward the end of the performance, Arce asked Martínez: “Do you have hope? Or are you just nostalgiac?”

She then asked the audience to turn to their neighbors and answer the following question: What do you hope for? I offered: “Sanity.” My neighbor responded: “Peace.”

Each of the three performances culminated in a ceremony honoring local Central American activists and the Central American communities’ allies. Among the honorees are Quique Avilés, Kimberly Benavides, José Centeno-Meléndez, Lilo González, Arturo Griffiths, Veró Meléndez, Ana Patricia Rodríguez, Luis Peralta del Valle.

At the conclusion of the Friday night presentation, GALA’s late co-founder and Producing Artistic Director, Hugo Medrano, was posthumously recognized for his work as a pivotal figure for Washington’s theater and Latinx communities. His wife and partner Rebecca Medrano accepted the honor on his behalf.

Running Time: Approximately 100 minutes with no intermission.

Little Central America, 1984 – A Sanctuary Then and Now played July 21 to 23, 2023, presented by GALA Hispanic Theatre performing at All Souls Church Unitarian, 1500 Harvard Street NW, Washington, DC.

The playbill for Little Central America, 1984 can be downloaded here.

Little Central America, 1984
Written & performed by Elia Arce and Rubén Martínez

Lead performers: Elia Arce, Rubén Martínez
Performers: Tim Fabrega, Jackeline Delancey, Darshell Najarro, Belen Delancey, Hinata Narrea Hernandez, Sonia Uanzor, Quique Avilés, Oneyda Hernandez, Mayra Mejia, Wanda Hernandez, Luci Murphy, Reverend Louise Green.

Bass: Jorge Pérez
Trumpet: Felix Carrera
Percussion: Hermidez Benitez

Director: Elia Arce
Technical Director: Tom Dennison
Sound Design: Elia Arce
Sound engineer & Associate Sound Designer: Lance Perl
Musical Director: Camilio Montoya

GALA to present ‘Little Central America, 1984’ about Sanctuary Movement
(news story, June 28, 2023)
GALA Hispanic Theatre announces 2023/24 season (news story, July 5, 2023)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here