More Than Skin Deep

El Salvador, March 2009. Paul Flores, Marshall ’95, has come to Soyapango, San Salvador, to research his latest play by speaking with members of the Mara-18, a transnational street gang. Though he comes at the commission of several U.S. nonprofit organizations, and on the word of Alex Sanchez, a highly regarded gang member turned resource advocate, still, there is skepticism.

“They sat me in a room,” says Flores. “They closed all the doors and all the windows, drew all the blinds. They made a circle of chairs, about 18 of them, and they put me in the center. And they began to interrogate me about why I wanted to interview them.”

It wasn’t the first time an outsider had come to learn about the harsh reality of gang life in El Salvador. The members had already been the subject of La Vida Loca, an acclaimed documentary that made its creator, Christian Poveda, a notable name on the film festival circuit. Yet the documentary’s subjects were all but forgotten; they didn’t even receive a copy of the film.

PaulSFlores“They were upset,” says Flores. “They told me, ‘We’ve been sent people like you before. Documentarians, photographers—they take pictures of our tattoos, they record us in our neighborhoods, then take it back and put us in galleries and festivals. They get famous while we die.’

“So they asked me, ‘What are you going to do different, Paul?’ And I told them I had no intention of getting famous. I explained I was there to tell the story they wanted people to know about. I asked them, ‘What would you like to see told about you?’”

Their answers live at the heart of PLACAS: The Most Dangerous Tattoo, the result of Flores’ research into the lives of gang members, the plight of their families and even the perspective of their therapists. Flores spent years interviewing gang members throughout California and El Salvador—not exactly your typical method of artistic research. But Flores is not your typical artist. And for someone who came to the arts among UC San Diego’s climate of social activism in the ’90s, his commitment to cultural authenticity comes as no surprise.

Flores attended UC San Diego from 1993 to 1995 as a literature/writing major, first arriving at the university while still playing baseball for the Chicago Cubs organization. A Chula Vista, Calif., native, he was thrilled at the opportunity to attend a major university so close to his hometown. It was during his second year at UC San Diego when Flores decided to quit baseball in order to invest himself in writing. He attributes such a life-changing decision to the influence of lecturers Melvyn Frielicher and Victor Hernandez-Cruz, as well as his former professor, celebrated author Quincy Troupe.

“I always knew Paul was a talented poet, even right when I first met him,” says Troupe. “The most important piece of advice I give to my students is to stay true to where you’re from, drawing on your own experiences and ultimately developing your own language. And from what I’ve seen, Paul does that very well.”

“1994 became a defining year that would change my direction and purpose in life,” Flores says. One day while walking to class, he saw an on-campus rally against Proposition 187, a bill aimed at excluding illegal immigrants from California state services. The rally was led by fellow alum Harry Simon, ’95, M.A. ’09, at the time a member of the political organization Union Del Barrio and editor of the UC San Diego Chicano-oriented and student-run publication, Voz Fronteriza.

Flores witnessed Simon speaking passionately on the problems Proposition 187 would bring about for Latino immigrants: racism, economic scapegoating, deportation, segregation and oppression. “I felt immediately emotional and angry,” Flores says. “I wanted to get active.”

That’s exactly what he did.

Flores took action, joining other university students as well as Latino community activists to hold demonstrations at the San Ysidro Border against migrant deaths. From then on, his passion for social activism erupted, coupled with his first spoken-word performance on campus. “I became a spoken word poet, an artist and Latino community leader while at UCSD. Twenty years later, this is who I am today—in San Francisco and all over the world.”

Flores has produced a handful of dynamic plays in addition to PLACAS, yet none so far have made such an impact on the culture they depict. Titled after barrio slang for “body tattoos,” PLACAS addresses the hazards of gangs through the obstacles that arise in one man’s struggle to reunite his family following many hardships, including the civil war in El Salvador, immigration, deportation, prison and street violence. Throughout the course of his research, Flores interviewed more than 100 gang members, including those who sat him down for questioning in El Salvador.

“One of the most salient things I learned through that process is that everybody’s story is worth something, and should be acknowledged as such. Humility is important. When you’re working with these types of vulnerable communities, you really have to respect the subject that you’re working with. Just because you’re in the position of artist, you can never think you’re better than anyone.”

PLACAS_CleanThis was especially the case given the play’s primary inspiration, Alex Sanchez, executive director of the non-profit organization Homies Unidos and model for the play’s protagonist, Fausto, a.k.a. “Placas.” In April 2015, artist and subject alike visited campus when Flores and Sanchez appeared at UC San Diego’s Cesar Chavez Celebration to perform a reading of the play. “Bringing my play to UCSD 20 years after I graduated was such a joy, and a little surreal,” Flores says. “When Professor Elana Zilberg was able to secure funding to sponsor and present three events around PLACAS, I was so proud of my alma mater. I felt like the school cared about its alumni in the arts. I felt like the stories I told about Latinos struggling to thrive in the U.S. were validated at a whole different level.”

In many of the discussions surrounding the play, Flores discussed how cultural identity can be an asset in community organizing, and offered his story as an example of how UC San Diego can prepare graduates to lead community transformation and social justice campaigns. Many audience members who attended the reading expressed how grateful they were that a piece about Salvadorian culture had finally been written. Flores too believes in the power of culture as connection. “I want to use culture as a means of healing,” he says, noting the unique capacity of theater to effect change on a one-to-one basis with audience members.

“This play is not going to stop gang violence,” says Flores, acknowledging the limits of his medium. “But it could get some people in the audience to think about what’s at stake.”

Web Bonus: Word is Born

In addition to his theater arts, Flores has written and performed myriad successful poems. His powerful spoken word poem “Brown Dreams” from the former series Def Poetry on HBO tells the story of Francisco, a Mexican immigrant who was searching for his dream in the “land of the free,” but was doomed to a very different American reality. The spoken word has been viewed on YouTube more than 100,000 times, and continues to create critical conversation about military and race among U.S. youth.

Exposing the youth to the arts is important to Flores; according to him, this millennial generation holds more power than people think. Flores cofounded Youth Speaks in 1996 with a mission to create safe spaces for the uncensored and unadulterated presentation of youth voices. Since then, he has introduced the art of spoken word to youth nationwide. Flores helped develop “Brave New Voices” program within the Youth Speaks’ National Youth Poetry Slam, which takes place in a different city each year. In the Bay Area, Flores currently manages the Unity Council’s Latino Men & Boys Program, which provides young Latino males with the support to thrive academically, build healthier lives, find jobs as well as reduce violence.

Though he now resides in Northern California, Flores dreams of coming back to UC San Diego, to inspire others as he was likewise inspired. “After all those hours in writing workshops, looking out at Black’s Beach from the top floor windows of Warren College, listening to my accomplished professors talk about writing and art movements, I was determined to make meaningful work and bring it back to San Diego, full circle.”