Play distills diverse avenue

The Baltimore Sun

Gamaliel Portillo groans in pain and collapses onto the stage, crying out because of a broken knee. His character, Rafael, has just fled El Salvador and is in the midst of a punishing journey through the Mexican desert, seeking a new life in the United States.

For Portillo, it is not an act. Rafael's story is his.

Portillo, who left El Salvador at 16 to make the trek across the Mexican border, now lives and works legally in Baltimore's Highlandtown. His is one of the diverse voices heard in a play called Belongings, which explores the mix of ethnicities that is Highlandtown and the changes and challenges confronting the community.

The play's 10 characters are based on longtime residents and new arrivals. Five of the actors are professionals; the rest are community residents portraying versions of themselves. Ranging in age from 17 to 60, they are recent Latino immigrants, African-American teenagers and seniors whose families came to Southeast Baltimore from Poland, Italy and Germany.

The production, which runs today and tomorrow at the Creative Alliance, has been a year in the making.

Last November, playwright Luisa Bieri de Rios began interviewing 25 neighborhood residents, taking pieces of their stories to create the plot. She received a fellowship from the Open Society Institute to launch the production, the latest installment of a project called Por la Avenida, or On the Avenue, which examines Highlandtown's diversity through theater, film and music.

Upon moving to Baltimore from her native Ohio two years ago, Bieri de Rios was quickly enamored of the eclectic Southeast Baltimore community. Fluent in Spanish after years living in Argentina, where her husband is from, she became involved in the Latino community and the arts.

"I was impressed by the marble steps and the Formstone and the sense of tradition," she said. "I was pretty amazed by the level of internationalism along Eastern Avenue."

She also observed misunderstandings.

"I was noticing the diversity of the neighborhood, and I found things such as language barriers and cultural differences were standing in the way of people understanding each other," she said. "My goal with Belongings is really for people to get to know each other better by listening to each other's stories. I think we can be very surprised."

While the play doesn't dwell on ethnic tension, it explores it through personal stories.

Portillo's tale, woven with that of other newcomers, touches on the isolation and culture shock immigrants often feel.

Upon arriving in Baltimore in 2001, Portillo shared a Highlandtown apartment with his brothers. But because of conflicting work schedules, he rarely saw them. Early on, Portillo would spend his days off holed up in his room, uneasy about taking on an unfamiliar city and language.

In the play, Portillo tracks his monthlong journey from an impoverished upbringing in El Salvador, where a typical dinner consisted of a single egg and some tortillas shared with his two brothers, he said.

Portillo now speaks fluent English and works as a contractor, sending paychecks home each month to help his family.

"I hope people learn from this play that we are all equals," he said. "No matter what you have, no matter where you are from, your value is equal to the next person."

Other characters share their difficulties finding their footing. Terry Barnes, 17, plays Joshua, whose family are the first African-Americans to live on their street. Barnes knows that experience firsthand, when his family moved to Claremont Avenue years ago.

"I didn't see anyone the same color as me," Barnes said. "I remember none of the other kids would play on the street, and that was strange to me."

Over time, Barnes became friends with the neighborhood kids of Greek and Polish descent.

"As change happens, Josh, my character, begins to change," he said.

The play also touches on issues of gentrification, the newer people it brings to Highlandtown and those it pushes out.

Bieri de Rios' work tries to touch on all the facets of Highlandtown, a community that has long been a magnet for immigrants. Among the projects in the Por la Avenida series is a music and dance festival this summer called Salsapolkaloosa, which pays homage to the neighborhood's Polish and Latino influences.

Bieri de Rios hopes Belongings not only conveys a deeper understanding of the neighborhood's diversity, but also acts as a tribute to the people who live there.

"I've been really inspired by the people who I have come to know here," she said. "I have learned the power of listening and that listening is a form of respect."

If you go

Belongings has shows at 8 p.m. today and 3 p.m. tomorrow at the Creative Alliance at The Patterson, 3134 Eastern Ave. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, students and residents of the 21224 ZIP code. Call 410-276-1651.

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