I honestly didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I decided to attend a showing of the Frontera Project here at Swarthmore. From what I could gather from the posters printed across campus, the Frontera Project was an interactive theatrical experience centered around life on the US-Mexico border, frequently pictured as chaotic and unpredictable by the media. There were two things that stuck out to me: the fact that it was interactive and the fact that it was about life on the border, things that I knew very little about. After all, most of the news stories that I have seen framed life on the border as a sort of crisis. Because of that, I really did not know what to expect with a show like this, but by the end, I was left with a deep appreciation for connections, especially those that transcend borders.
Outside the entrance to the Pearson-Hall theater in the Lang Performing Arts Center, there was a series of cards, each answering a question relating to family and connection during the pandemic. Most answers were in English, though I did see some answers written in Spanish as well. The answers seemed to come from various places in the United States and Mexico, but they all seemed to carry a common theme of gratitude and hope.
After entering the theater, the performers asked us to write a word in chalk on the stage that reflected our thoughts on the border. There were lots of words, such as “socially constructed,” “arbitrary,” “division,” and “love.” That last word seemed to be an outlier to me; after all, how can an actual division be equal to love? No matter. The show was about to begin.
The five performers (Lou Best, Cristóbal Dearie, Jesús Quintero, Jassiel Santillán, and Valeria Vega-Kuri) first introduced themselves and talked about their own lives on the US-Mexico border, including how they often had to cross it in order to get to school, work, or back home. They referred to the U.S. and Mexico as having been “buddies” back then. One of the actors then burst into song, accompanied by scenes of Tijuana (a city in Mexico close to the border) projected onto the back of the stage. Afterwards, the actor painted monarch butterflies and asked the audience to share what the border now meant to them. After this, the actors revealed a flock of butterflies accompanied by words such as “love” and “family.”
The scene then shifted to two separate scenes: one about a teenage boy being interrogated by border patrol, and the other a conversation between two other friends about how long it takes to cross the border. Both scenes depicted the complications of crossing the border sprinkled with humor (the boy eventually had his bag incinerated for carrying a banana from Colombia). As funny as it seemed, the extreme reaction pointed to an unfortunate reality; the border has become so policed and monitored that it has since become nearly impossible to cross. The actors further illustrated this by dividing the audience into two groups: one tapping at 120 beats per minute, the other tapping at 240 beats per minute. These two tempos relayed a startling statistic — 2000 children have been held at custody at the southern border for at least 120 hours, and 300 children have been held for more than 240 hours.
Somewhere in the middle of the performance, each audience member received an envelope containing two cards: one with a question, and one left blank. Here, we were instructed to write an answer to the question written on the first card and write another question on the blank one. The question I received was about the most important thing I found in Bethlehem, PA; I did not know how to answer that one (I wrote something similar to this question on the blank card, but asked what was the most important thing found away from home). Later I learned that the Frontera Project had premiered at Bethlehem before coming to Swarthmore, meaning that perhaps the question I wrote on my blank card would reach another person watching the Frontera Project somewhere else.
The final scene of the performance depicted a woman volunteering at a church’s homeless shelter along with her pastor, who was diagnosed with cancer. Eventually, the pastor died and she was left to run the shelter alone. Here this woman met a man, Jared, who called this woman his mother. With her help, Jared eventually found a job and rented out a small apartment, all while helping the woman run the homeless shelter. Jared decided to search for a regular who had not been seen in the shelter for some time, and was ultimately run over and killed, to the woman’s shock and grief. Despite this, she still kept going. When she asked why, she said that she kept going because of her faith and belief that people are ultimately good.
That is what is at the heart of the Frontera Project: the conviction that people are ultimately good at heart, and that with just a connection, things can ultimately change for the better. Here, the Frontera Project succeeded in connecting people, whether it was the audience directly engaging with the actors, the actors directing the audience to talk with one another, or the audience members interacting with other audiences across the country. To them, connection is one way to bridge the division across the border, because if people can connect across borders, then the world can become a better place.