The Lost Boys of Postville, Iowa


Members of Teatro Indocumentado field questions after their performance.

This weekend I went to see an unusual play. It took place in a church, and the actors were all playing themselves. The play was in Spanish, and if you didn’t speak Spanish you could read an English translation. The acting wasn’t stellar and the writing wasn’t award-winning, but the close of the play brought down the house, and everyone got to their feet to applaud the performance.

Why? Because this play wasn’t about entertaining an audience. It was about seven undocumented workers sharing their stories, helping others to understand what they went through to come to the U.S. and how they were treated once they got here. In that sense the play was a complete success.

On May 12, 2008 the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided a meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa. They arrested close to 400 workers, most of them from Guatemala and Mexico. Many were sentenced to five months or more in jail for the use of stolen social security numbers and other similar offenses. Once they served out their terms, many of them were relocated to Decorah, Iowa, where they are awaiting trial of their former employer, AgriProcessors. They now have work permits, but many are having trouble finding jobs while they wait to testify.

Seven of those workers (six from Guatemala, one from Mexico), came up with the idea of putting on a play. While this might seem odd, political theater has been a part of the arts since the Greeks first started staging their comedies. It plays a particularly important role in countries where the people are trying to rise up against their political leaders. One of the actors said it was the best way they could imagine to help people understand what they, and other immigrants go through.

The men in Decorah have named themselves “Teatro Indocumentado” or “The Undocumented Theater” and their play is called “La Historia de Nuestras Vidas” (The Story of Our Lives). In the play they don’t ever say “I’m not guilty” or “what I did was right.” Instead they say things like this:

Life is hard in Guatemala and Mexico.

The crops never earn enough, and everything is expensive.

We plant with borrowed money, and only our debts grow.

Some days there isn’t enough to eat.

I wanted to make a better life for my family,

So that my brothers and sisters might finish school,

So that my children might finish school.

I wanted to build a house out of brick.

The play follows the men from their dreams in their home country, through what they had to do to come to the United States, to the working conditions they put up with once they got here. Then there’s the raid, the imprisonment, and being moved from prison to prison every few weeks.

As part of the play the men put themselves back in chains to show us what prison was like. This scene was particularly powerful knowing that the “actors” had actually lived through this.

The play closed with these words:

Our American Dream had become a nightmare.

And the land of freedom had become our prison.

We came here so that we could provide for our families, and improve their future.

But we’ll return to them with empty hands.

We made friends here, but now they are gone, deported, I don’t know where.

And meanwhile, we wait – without knowing for how long,

We are still waiting,

Unable to make a life here and unable to return home.