Gang tattoos, or “placas” in barrio slang, indelibly communicate a statement of persona and affiliation to a group, a neighborhood and the world in general. They can be a thumb-in-the-eye statement of identity, a fuck-you statement of philosophical outlook, or, hidden beneath a shirt, an homage to a dead homie, or a sentimental expression of affection and loyalty to a lover or relative. They can be as subtle as three dots on the hand between thumb and forefinger, or a scream of loyalty emblazoned on a face. The drama masks of tragedy and comedy crafted in a barrio style speak to the expectations of life and loss. Expressed in Arabic or Roman numerals, the numbers 13 or XIII or X3 declares allegiance to a Sureño gang, (sur–south) which claims the color blue; XIV or 14 orX4 belong to the red-rag Norteños (norte–north). Why thirteen and fourteen? Legend has it that it all started in California prison gangs in the 1950s. M is the thirteenth letter of the alphabet and linked to the Mexican Mafia, and N, the fourteenth letter, stands for Nuestra Familia.
In Paul S. Flores’ play, Placas, a newly released ex-con, a Salvadoran immigrant and Mara Salvatruche (MS-13) gangster, Fausto Carbajál (Ric Salinas of Culture Clash), is determined to spare his son, Edgar (Xavi Moreno), a sullen, resentful teenager, from the life he has led with its brutality, gun shot wounds and separation from those he loves. In his effort to leave the gang life, Fausto has agreed to participate in a tattoo removal program. He wants a fresh start for a new life, so hard to do in the tensions and temptations of the barrio.
Young Edgar, after a run in with the law, is confined to the house by an ankle monitor. He has adopted the swaggering style of a street guy with gestures, rolling gate and manner of speaking borrowed from the Black gangs, right down to the use of “my niggah” as a term of endearment. More seriously, he has fallen in with a Norteño gang run by a loathsome opportunist named Scooby (Emiliano Torres) who wants Edgar to take the fall for a shooting he committed.
As played by Mr. Salinas, Fausto tries to contain the emotions that seethe within him. With his effortful, clipped way of speaking and strong physical presence, even when he expresses love for his wife, Claudia (Zilah Mendoza), and his desire to do the right thing and be a father to his son, the words have the opposite effect. Fausto runs into conflict with his bible-thumping brother Nelson who wants him to turn to God, and a vicious local cop (both roles played by Eric Aviles) who wants to bust him, lock him in jail and deport him.
The excellent protean actor Sarita Ocón disappears into her characters as the fierce, limping mother of Fausto and abuela to Edgar. She also scores a jittery, violent, teenaged gangster girl, named Bugsy, and a therapist, Liz, who, in an intense moment of existential angst, reveals her own worries – a sister who has fallen in with a gang. (The multi-talented Ocón also designed the show’s tattoos.)
The character of Fausto is based on the real-life experiences of Alex Sanchez, an ex-gang member and now an internationally recognized peacemaker and co-founder of Homies Unidos, an “organization that works to end violence and promote peace in Central American communities through gang prevention.”
Placas, as directed by Fidel Gomez, is a work of high drama with conflict at every turn, played by a fine cast with fierce passion. The show has a short run and closes on February 28 at Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights. See it while you can.