In Jose Cruz Gonzalez's mind, Santa Ana is a city haunted by the dead.
The playwright sees their ghosts watching from the cemeteries and rooftops: Klan members who patrolled local neighborhoods, men shouting their barrio names into the air, and la llorona, the weeping woman, playing tricks with refrigerator doors.
They preside over the city's unyielding landscape, its streets adorned by multicolored altars marking lost lives with school pictures and dollar store candles.
The ghosts, he writes, won't be found in Irvine or Costa Mesa. They haunt their own people in Santana.
For more than a year, Gonzalez has been getting to know the ghosts of this crowded, densely packed city in the heart of Orange County, mining its secrets through interviews with hundreds of residents.
A play, based on those interviews and commissioned by South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, is starting to take shape, and ghosts have found themselves in characters like a young boy named Andrés, who one day was playing in the street and never heard the truck barreling toward him.
Residents have opened up their lives, Gonzalez says. "I want to be able to show what they've shared in terms of their stories, stories of heartache, stories of love, stories of hope…the spirit of just picking themselves up and moving on."
"There's a huge responsibility in getting it right."
On a spring weekday, a few dozen spectators sat in a stuffy auditorium at KidWorks, a local organization that serves as a refuge for young people near the city's center.
Staving off the heat with small cups of water from an orange cooler, they watched a cast of performers read Gonzalez's play, their words punctuated by the thump of a ball from kids playing in the alley next door.
With an early draft completed, Gonzalez and his team — project director, theater director, community liaison, several teaching artists and others — have been staging readings to get feedback from residents.
Gonzalez, 57, sat in the audience, listening and taking notes. He is an outsider in this city, though he once imagined making it home. He was born in Calexico, raised by farmworker parents in the tiny Santa Cruz county town of Freedom and lived in Santa Ana for two years after graduate school.
He and his wife thought they'd stay, he said, until one day they came home to learn that their neighbor had robbed a bank, returned home, broken through the ceiling of their shared town home and hid in Gonzalez's home to escape the police. A standoff ensued and the man came out only when police tossed tear gas canisters though their windows.
"We left," he said. They now live in Cerritos. "We were just too shocked by the experience."
Nearly two years ago, he was tapped by South Coast Repertory to write a play about Santa Ana after the regional theater company obtained a grant designed to encourage it to take art out into the community, rather than wait for new audiences to come to them.
The theater's artistic director, Marc Masterson, had been looking for ways to connect the theater with Orange County's other communities. South Coast Repertory is in Costa Mesa, just across the street from Santa Ana.
The theater had a history of working with Latino artists. For 19 years, it ran a special program that fostered new work by Latino playwrights; the program was discontinued in 2004.
When Masterson arrived at the theater three years ago, he wanted to reconnect with surrounding neighborhoods.
"One of the things that art can do is to validate people's stories," he said. "Even if their words don't make it literally into the final project, everybody knows they've been listened to."
Once complete, the Santa Ana play won't be performed at the theater. Instead, it will be staged in the Santa Ana Civic Center, where dozens of homeless men and women are fixtures on the steps of county and city government.
Gonzalez imagines the play — which is called "The Long Road Today/El Largo Camino de Hoy" — transforming the city. Puppets will roam nearby rooftops, photographs will be projected on the sides of buildings, and there will be a miniature barrio with toy cars and street cats and dogs.
It is a play specifically for the city, and after a brief run in September its future is unclear.
"There's not necessarily an assumption that it will have a life after its creation," Masterson said. "It's possible that the work will speak to larger issues than the specific issues of Orange County or Santa Ana. But I think time will tell."
Before he could begin writing, Gonzalez had to convince locals to share some of their most intimate memories, their fears and hopes about their home.
Initially he consulted with Masterson.
"We didn't have any concept as to what the result of this project was going to be," Masterson said. "We wanted the community to help shape and guide that. We wanted to be active and good listeners. We didn't want to presuppose about what people wanted to hear."
Gonzalez also leaned on Moises Vazquez, who has lived in Santa Ana since he was 8 and works with low-income residents at Latino Health Access, a local nonprofit group. At their first meeting, Gonzalez asked Vazquez about his own experience coming to Santa Ana from a small town in rural Mexico.
Vazquez talked about how overwhelming the city was with its tightly packed buildings and a blanket of concrete that smothered the land. In Santa Ana, Vazquez told him, "My playground was a parking lot."
More than a year ago, Vazquez began to invite residents to local community centers. Food and day care were provided with the hope that their guests could get away from their busy lives, put aside reluctance and suspicion and share stories about their lives.
"It was a little tricky to explain," Vazquez recalled. "We told them, 'you know you can just come and maybe not share your stories but hear other people's stories.' That kind of helped," he said.
They got together every few weeks. Questions, such as "what places scare you" and "what places do you find beautiful," set residents at ease. And they began to speak up.
Several women told of their memories of walking Fourth Street in search of quinceañera dresses for their daughters, of how the narrow street with its fruit vendors, jewelry sellers and big-skirted dress shops reminded them of home.
A man whose family once owned the century-old Yost Theater downtown told Gonzalez of the time Mexican singer and film star Pedro Infante visited the theater and a gaggle of women lined the road, hoping for a kiss.
A woman told of struggling to understand her children, who spoke English, and decided to teach them Spanish using Loteria, the Mexican game of chance.
Something about this game of chance intrigued Gonzalez. Its characters became a way to structure the play, 16 short stories grouped into four sections based on the game, with the Devil, the Brave Man, the Lady and Death as guides.
The sections will be performed simultaneously and repeated four times so that members of the audience can view the play in different sequences, depending on a card they draw before curtain.
"You play the game with the cards you're dealt," the Brave Man says.
"You can't change your fate," Death responds.
"You can," says the Lady.
In Santa Ana, Gonzalez found a community, caught between inertia and change, anchored to its past while struggling to move forward and claim the new life it had been searching for.
As the stories rolled out, Gonzalez began to see a pattern to the narrative. Like Vazquez had decades before, he was struck by the lack of city parks and the parking lots that children used as playgrounds.
Slowly, Gonzalez saw his story emerging as he listened to women who took to selling pupusas to raise money for funeral costs after a child was killed by a driver. Or mothers who pushed for a local school playground to open after hours so children would have a safe place to play.
At one meeting, he met Melody Gonzalez, who told him that as she celebrated her 5th grade graduation her 3-year-old sister was killed by a driver while crossing the street outside her family's home.
The stories illuminated a chilling statistic. Santa Ana has one of the highest rates of pedestrian injuries caused by vehicles in the region, and the fatalities in particular left their mark in the city.
As he imagines the opening scene, he sees Salvador, a teenager just old enough to drive, heading home after a date that went longer than it should have. There's a police checkpoint ahead, and he panics. A red ball rolls into the road, and Andrés chases it.
Now another ghost, the child roams the city with his red ball in hand.
The neighbor women build an altar in the spot and sell tamales and pupusas to raise money for his funeral. As the play gets underway, Andrés' family — and Salvador's — are left to play the hand they were dealt in Santana.