Actors Hope to Use Art as a Deterrent From Gang Life

When Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo makes its stop in Long Beach next week, Ric Salinas says the acting will be as critical as the message. Salina, who plays reformed Salvadorian gang banger Fausto Carbajal, said that the plot of redemption is a powerful tool, and through art, the cast is hopeful to spread that message in an effort to keep kids off the streets.

Placas is an original stage play written by Oakland-based community leader Paul Flores which illustrates one man’s quest to reunite his family and save his son from the gang life after spending time in prison for his own gang-related offenses.

In developing his script, Flores interviewed over 100 gang members, parents and intervention workers, including Alex Sanchez, a former member of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, whom the play’s lead character Fausto is loosely based off of.

Salinas grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, far from the McArthur Park neighborhood that his character Fausto grew up in after immigrating from a war-torn El Salvador. For the past three decades Salinas has performed with the renowned comedy group “Culture Clash,” who he likened to a Chicano Aerosmith because of their staying power.

When Placas hits Long Beach's Scottish Rite center April 30, despite some artistic license to interject comedy, the tone will be more serious as the cast acts out what Salinas calls an archetypal tale of a father trying to save son.

“The play really could be a Greek tragedy,” Salinas said. “It’s so universal, a father who was in jail tries to save his son out of the gang life. It has very big universal themes.”

Sanchez grew up in Los Angeles and ascended to “shot caller” status in the criminal organization before being arrested and eventually reforming and founding the gang outreach non-profit Homies Unidos. In addition to being an anti-gang advocate, Sanchez also helped Salinas, a fellow Salvadorian, prepare for the role that Flores pitched to him over the phone.

When Salinas got the call from director Paul Flores, he was skeptical about what he referred to as "another play about a Chicano gang member." When he read it and learned that it was a play about redemption, but even more, a Salvadorian’s tale of rectifying his gang member past to become a good father, he said his own Salvadorian roots wouldn’t allow him to turn down the role. He wanted to show a different side of the Salvadorian narrative in America, but also wanted to illustrate the impact that gang life can have on a family. 

“When they think of Salvadorians they think of MS-13, the most dangerous gang,” Salinas said. “It’s one aspect of Salvadorian culture. We have a whole other culture that doesn’t deal with gangs, but unfortunately the media focuses on that.”

To add to his own innate insights to the Salvadorian culture, including proper conjugation and accent, Salinas took a ride-along of sorts with Sanchez through the Los Angeles neighborhood where he formed his gang identity. The experience was eye-opening for Salinas and invaluable to the development of his Fausto character.

“He started pointing in the streets, telling me stories and I”m just listening,” Salinas recounted. “I grew up in a totally different neighborhood, I didn’t do the gang thing. His whole world was just completely different so I was able to absorb some of that. It’s a role that I’ve never done.”

In a twist of irony, Salinas said that performing in a drama is easier than comedy because in a comedic setting he has a tangible expectation and a measurable response—a laugh. With Placas, he said he’s just able to perform without waiting for the audience to interpret a joke and grade it as funny or unfunny.

But what he does have to worry about is getting the point across, something that he said has been made easy by the fact that so many professionals are in the cast. The plot touches on several topics including gang violence, prison life and the transformative process of tattoo removal that many former gang members have sought out as the last step to leaving the gang life for good.

What’s most important, and what the cast and crew try to impress upon youth that they visit at the community centers, schools and juvenile centers they visit while performing in each town is the idea of the second chance, and how powerful it can be if someone truly embraces it and turns their life around.

The play, which is on a national tour making stops in Washington, D.C., Oakland, New York City and other parts of the country is being showcased as a medium to help combat crime that is fueled in cities that are affected by poverty, immigration and violence. According to Salinas, the art of the play can be a powerful tool to affect these types of communities in a positive manner by showing that redemption is not out of reach and that there is a way out of gang life.

“We all think about are second chances possible?” Salinas said. “Well this play is really about having a second chance and the way that he wants to have a second chance is symbolic and he goes through this process of tattoo removal, which a lot of homies are doing.

“This play is a great example of that because not only is this play an example of how society feels and how we can mend them, it’s done with a professional cast. These are all actors that have pounded the stage and have done a great job.”

Tickets are $15 at the door or $12 in advance and can be purchased at the event’s page. The Scottish Rite Event Center is located at 855 Elm Ave. Parking is available next door.



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