tlf news Vol. xv, #1 March, 1994

Brothers Laughing in the Face of Despair

If it's true that the holidays are a time for being with family, then I was in the right spots as 1993 drew to a close. A few days after celebrating Christmas with my parents and siblings in Chicago, I travelled to El Progreso to bring in the new year with people who have become like brothers to me over the years -- the actors of teatro la fragua. I feel just as comfortable on the benches of the teatro in Honduras as I do on the sofa in my parents' living room; I am at home in both places.

This was my sixth trip to work with teatro la fragua but my first visit to Honduras in December and January. (The sight of a Christmas tree blinking at me as I entered the theatre building this time took me by surprise!) Over the years I've helped them with everything from designing posters to mopping the stage. I've travelled with the actors across Honduras and across the Midwest (when they did their first U.S. tour in 1990). I've had the privilege of directing them in plays and on retreats. I've shared their celebrations of birthdays, baptisms, and weddings. I know their girlfriends, wives, and children. I've had the honor of dining in their homes. Throughout it all, I have grown to know and to love these guys as family. Each is uniquely gifted and brings his own special talent to the work of the theatre.

At 38, Guillermo is the oldest of the actors and has been with the group the longest. His years of training have combined with natural talent to make him a superb actor. He has a great sense of timing and a great sense of humor which make him a delight to watch on the stage and fun to be with in person. My first visit to Honduras, when my Spanish was weak and I was new to everything, he patiently showed me around town and around the theatre. I'll never forget the one summer when, knowing that I wanted to try a local specialty, he used a make-shift slingshot to kill one of the large iguanas which roamed near the theatre. His mother then prepared the tasty treat for us in her home. Today Guillermo is providing food for many mouths: he is now the proud father of four boys.

Guillermo's brother Rigo (23) has also been with the group for a good number of years (he started when he was 15). He is an excellent dancer and recently was chosen to attend a month-long acting workshop in Havana. While not above joining in with the others on a joke, he is somewhat reserved and takes his work very seriously. Rigo also possesses a sensitivity and openness which are unusual in a culture where males tend to be guardedly macho. A couple of years ago I was shocked as well as moved when he brought to my attention something I had done which hurt him. This past visit, on my first morning at the theatre, I was attacked from behind by someone who jumped on my back and covered my eyes. To my surprise, it was Rigo.

Obdulio, 29, began with the group in 1984; but unlike most of the others, his time at the theatre has not been continuous. After working at tlf full-time for several years, he got a job on a cruiseship based in Cape Canaveral. He would return to Honduras for his yearly vacations and tem- porarily rejoin the group to play guitar. He returned to work full-time again at the beginning of 1992. Back in 1988, when we were giving an acting workshop to a youth group in Olanchito, I lent Obdulio a t-shirt. I remember his coming up to me later, a bit nervous and apologetic, explaining to me that in a weak moment of flirting he had given it away to a new female acquaintance! That seems long ago now that he is happily married and has a beautiful year-old daughter.

Dago, 26, is likely the group's most natural comic. In the middle of a rehearsal, on the road to a show, or during the regular Saturday morning theatre cleaning, he is ready to entertain with humor. After the final presentation of the Christmas show the whole company was gathered in a small room to celebrate the successful season. Dago spontaneously picked up a long strip of cardboard from a box of cookies we were eating, draped it over his shoulders as a stole, and, acting the part of a priest, broke into an impromptu comic routine that had us all in stitches!

Chito, 25, is small in stature, but he's a bundle of energy when he hits the stage. He started out at tlf wielding a machete to cut the grass, but the acting bug quickly attacked him. He takes his performing seriously and he is a man of strong faith. I still recall the joy of helping to prepare him for his baptism which Jack did about five years ago. A couple of years later, he and his wife Erica asked me to be the godfather of their daughter Carol, who will soon turn three.

Moncho, 29, probably has the most expressive face of all. His large, black eyes often convey the emotion of a scene with stunning clarity. He joined tlf after teaching carpentry in a vocational school, and his talents have often been useful in the construction of props and scenery. He is always the first to invite me to his home, and he has been very hospitable to other Americans who have worked with tlf. When not at the theatre, he can be found spending time with one or more of his three daughters.

Wil, 29, started with the group in 1981 as carpenter and was soon recruited as an actor. From 1984 to 1989 he worked in the cane fields; in 1990 he returned to tlf and is now active behind the scenes as business manager and treasurer. Aside from keeping the books and handing out paychecks, he is a very talented handyman who, depending on the day, might be found focusing lights, painting doors, or keeping the theatre's vehicles in working order (a full-time job in itself). He and his wife Xiomara run a small neighborhood grocery store attached to the home which they share with Wil, Jr., and his devilish sister Alicia.

Oscar, 24, is a very talented actor and dancer with a big heart. Out of all in the group I probably know him best. Together we have cooked meals, been harassed by the military, danced in the discos, searched the markets for souvenirs, solicited funds for the theatre from local merchants, and more than once talked until the wee hours over a couple of beers. He is very giving, often spending much of his free time running errands or doing other work for the theatre. A couple of years ago he married tlf 's secretary Rosa, herself a hardworking, very pleasant person. Last year Rosa's sister died suddenly, leaving a four-year-old son whom they are now raising as their own. It is typical of the love and generosity that is characteristic of them both.

There are new faces in the group, too. Oscar's brother Pedro (16) is among the beginners. Chungo (22), Walter (18), and Chepe (17) have also recently joined; and Saúl (25), an excellent guitarist, is a new addition to the musicians. After a month of being with these new guys, I feel like I know them pretty well too.

Probably the one thing that has brought all of us closest together is laughter. These men have the ability to see the humor in almost any situation; nothing is too serious to escape being the fuel for jokes. One example: early one morning, as we were preparing to leave to do a show in Guatemala, a disagreement between two of the actors turned physical. Having worked in an all-boys high school for three years, I found myself instinctively diving in to break it up. It turned out that egos were bruised more than anything else, but the event was grist for the humor mill; for the rest of the trip the whole company continuously chuckled as one after another retold the story as if they were announcers at ringside. When the song "Eye of the Tiger" (from one of the seemingly endless series of Rocky films) came on the radio, the entire van was up for grabs!

The humor comes in handy. Honduras is a place where everyday life is difficult. Education is lacking; few students finish high school and even fewer go on to attend the university. There is little free time as much of the day is spent doing household chores: cooking must often begin by gathering firewood and clothes are usually washed by hand on a rock in a nearby river. Poor, unpaved roads turn a simple drive across town into an ordeal, leaving both passengers and vehicle shaken by potholes and covered by a fine powder of earth. The common cold is a lot more common here: with no hot water to wash dishes, the same viruses are continuously passed around so that there is always someone who is sick and pharmacies do a booming business in outrageously-priced medicines. Jobs are scarce and decent-paying ones are even scarcer. The numerous billiard halls are filled from morning to night, eloquent evidence that many have simply given up the idea of ever accomplishing anything more than winning a little money playing pool. Rapid inflation makes buying food and clothing difficult and the purchase of non-essential items unthinkable. Life is hard in Honduras and somehow laughter makes it a little easier. No. It makes it bearable.

But the humor also serves another purpose. This is a country of contrasts. Horse-drawn carts share streets and highways with the latest model Mercedes-Benz. The pure, clean air of the mountains conflicts sharply with the choking fumes of city buses. The serene beauty of palm-lined beaches is in direct opposition to the disturbing ugliness of poverty-stricken villages. The bland beans and rice which make up much of the average diet are supplemented with an abundance of fresh melons, pineapples, and other fruits so flavorful they make the stuff found in U.S. supermarkets seem tasteless.

There is a relaxed simplicity about the laid-back Honduran lifestyle which is attractively peaceful; yet the amount of inefficiency and lack of organization one encounters in everything from government offices to the local cinema is enough to try the patience of a saint! It can even cost you your life: Rosa's sister was a victim of it. She suffered a head injury when she was knocked off her bike by a motorcycle. The local hospital did not have the equipment to treat her, so she was sent to the hospital in San Pedro Sula where it was available. Things there were so chaotic that she went unattended for many hours, slipped into a coma and died.

Added to the chaos is corruption, its ubiquitous presence creating some of the sharpest contradictions of all. In El Progreso actual mansions with manicured lawns stand only yards from shacks littered with trash. The many have no public park where children can play, yet the few who have access to public funds have the finest swingsets in their own backyards. The red tape involved could make you wait a year or more before getting a phone line in your home, but pay twice the usual 300-lempira fee to those in charge and it will be installed tomorrow. A monetary bribe to the right Honduran official can get you out of everything from a parking ticket to a murder charge.

Another contrast can be seen in the oppressiveness of harsh military rule. Although the police recently changed the design of their uniforms (they now look less like soldiers and more like ushers), they continue to tote the same threatening machine guns. The irony is that the finger on the trigger -- some of them actually carry the things this way! -- often belongs to a person not yet out of his teens who was probably pressed into service. Any unmarried, healthy male between the ages of 18 and 31 may be picked up at random anytime on the street and immediately enlisted. Those who try to escape risk getting shot.

The night before I was to return to the States, Jack and I walked to a nearby open-air restaurant where we had agreed to meet some of the actors for a small going-away supper. Shortly after we got there, Saúl and Chungo arrived at full speed on their bicycles, winded and a bit shaken. They had just been accosted by soldiers who were out "recruiting" for the army. The only reason they were let go was because one of them is a member of the Green Cross! Of course, even this scary incident was the subject of much laughter as we celebrated my impending departure.

One must laugh in the face of such sharp differences. It makes it easier to see the few positive things; they have a tendency to be overshadowed by the many negative ones.

In fact, that is a large part of what my Honduran brothers do: they give their audiences the chance to laugh, oftentimes by showing the ridiculous side of Honduran life, a life where the humor is not always very apparent.

And their shows offer a message which badly needs to be heard in a world where complacency and despair have robbed so many of any desire to work for change. Part of the recent Christmas program was a piece which the actors themselves wrote last year under the direction of Anita González. One character metaphorically complains that he is tired of falling down. He proceeds to work hard tending his garden, while his neighbor, overcome by apathy and laziness, refuses to lift a finger. Another character dreams of flying high. He can -- as long as he keeps looking up. If not, he sinks low and can see nothing. The message is subtle, simple, and powerful: Hondurans are tired of falling -- they want to fly. The show leaves one with a feeling that they can.

I am left with two emotions as I head back to the U.S.: I am sad and proud. I am sad that I leave my brothers in their world plagued by disorganization and a sense of hopelessness to which many have succumbed. I get to return to my world of hot showers and air-conditioned autos; they must stay and survive in theirs full of dust, corruption, and ushers with machine guns. I am sad, too, that I will be away from their joking and their laughter.

At the same time I am proud that they are there, continuing to struggle against the difficult forces which confront them; continuing to prove, if only by their own example, that Hondurans can laugh and work together. And in so doing they give hope to a people who so desperately need it.

--Gene Sessa, S.J.

Editor's P.S.: You can be a big part of it, too. Counting spouses and children, teatro la fragua is the primary provider of food, clothing, and shelter for 53 mouths and bodies, large and small. (That number doesn't take into account the numerous members of the "extended family" who inevitably descend on anyone who has a regular job in an area of some 70% unemployment). Grants cover most of our capital expenditures; but foundations are rarely willing to provide funds for operating expenses. Minimal or free admission prices plus local sponsorship of performances last year provided box-office income that more or less covered the cost of vehicle maintainance and gasoline. The account that backs up those paychecks that Wil hands out every fortnight depends completely on the generosity of an international circle of Amigos de teatro la fragua -- The Friends of teatro la fragua . To join that all-too-elite company, all you have to do is to insert a check in the accompanying envelop and mail it to:

teatro la fragua
c/o Jesuit Development Office
4517 West Pine Boulevard
St. Louis, Missouri 63108-2101

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