Mexican actor Gabino Rodríguez spent five months in 2015 living under an assumed identity. For that period, he became Santiago Ramírez, a working-class delivery driver who had left Mexico City for Tijuana in the wake of a divorce. And for those five months he survived on a minimum-wage salary that he earned boxing clothes at a maquiladora.
His quarters consisted of a room in a family-run boarding house in a squatter colonia. His entertainment was a bar called Brisas, where he drank in the company of a crew of lonely working men who would take to the dance floor embracing nothing more than their beer.
That experience formed the basis of "Tijuana," an experimental staged work presented by the Mexican collective Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol (Lizards in the Sun) at the Skirball Cultural Center earlier this month as part of the Pacific Standard Time Festival: Live Art LA/LA, the performance component of the current Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions.
In recent years, a surge of interest in art driven by this type of social and political research has resulted in works that can feel like sitting through an undergrad lecture (or in the case of visual arts, placing a textbook on a wall).
"Tijuana" was entirely another story.
On a sparsely decorated stage, whose primary set piece consisted of a large painting of the border city, Rodríguez recounted — in Spanish, with English subtitles — the interwoven stories of what it means to survive on less than $5 per day while inhabiting another, wildly different persona.
The result was a work that was as much bracing sociological study as it was a psychological one — one that steers clear of romanticized poverty porn.
Certainly, a good part of the play's purpose is to relay the hard facts of what life is like for the millions of Mexicans who barely eke out a living on minimum wage. "Tijuana" is part of a series of "documentary theater" productions by Lagartijas (co-founded by Rodríguez and Luisa Pardo) that looks at what Mexican citizens might expect from their democracy — or what democracy might mean when those who set the policies aren't required to live them.
"People who determine the minimum wage," Rodríguez noted on stage, "don't ever have to live on minimum wage."
To that data, Rodríguez brings a keenly observant eye.
Dressed as the working-class Santiago Ramírez, the actor forthrightly recounted the nature of his environment and its privations: the history of the squatter settlement he inhabited and its divided social factions, his crushingly repetitive factory job, the dawn bus rides that deposited him at the factory before it opened. (To have taken a later bus would have required a connection and more money for bus fare.)
"Taking a cold shower once or twice or three times is no big deal," he noted early on. "When it's not the exception, but the rule, it takes on another dimension."
And there are myriad moments in daily life made more poignant by poverty. Rodríguez — or is it Ramírez? — dragged himself to the maquiladora with a blazing fever and put in a double shift out of fear of losing his job. He described his "primal desire" to buy a new pair of sneakers, sneakers that were pure fantasy on 70 Mexican pesos a day.
The actor's monologue was supplemented with deftly placed video and photographs that he had surreptitiously taken during his time in Tijuana — the interior of the church where he would while away time before the factory opened or the site of a hillside collapsing under a row of hastily built homes.
But "Tijuana" became most compelling in the moments in which Rodríguez recounted how he navigated his grueling five-month role as Santiago Ramírez.
In one sequence, he fantasized about sleeping with the boarding house owner's daughter. But then he realized the complications it would have entailed given that he's wasn't who he said he was. If he got her pregnant, he mused, "would I have to be Santiago Ramírez forever?"
As his time on the border came to a close, things began to grow deadly serious.
At one point, he lost his identification — leaving him with no evidence (and conflicting stories) of who he might be. A man in his colonia was accused of raping a woman and the residents quickly meted out brutal mob justice. Rodríguez, who has appeared in movies in Mexico, became frightened that if he was uncovered as an impostor, he would likewise meet a punitive fate.
"Tijuana" touches on issues of class, equity and economics. But it is ultimately a performance about a performance. As Rodríguez questions his own motives for wanting to take on the role of Santiago Ramírez, he asked: "Is it possible to represent another?"
In Rodriguez's case, the answer is yes. The actor is a captivating performer — able to convey the deeply human in unsentimental ways.
In one of the play's closing scenes, he wryly recounted his last weekend in Tijuana, spent in his customary perch at Brisas. After a few too many beers, he found himself lost in the music, grooving to cumbias all by himself on the dance floor. In that wistful moment, Rodríguez disappeared. In his place, we were left watching Santiago Ramírez.