These Bay Area domestic workers are making theater about labor and immigrant rights

"We have dreams coming to this country, but we start realizing we don't know when we'll be able to hug our parents again."

The “Santa Almas” performers include domestic workers and farmworkers. The performance, which is in Spanish, will be held at the Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa on May 1.Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Eloisa Hernandez’s prior acting experience has been in church pageants, where she’s played Pontius Pilate’s wife, a pregnant woman, the Virgin Mary and a prostitute, for which she wore a short skirt.

But on Sunday, May 1, the Santa Rosa domestic worker is appearing in a very different show with a very different costume.

She and the five other creators and performers are staging “Santa Almas” for free on International Workers’ Day in Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square. The production celebrates, and demands rights for, some of the American workforce’s most overlooked and vulnerable members, featuring costumes from the different industries that rely on immigrant labor — health care, food service, construction, house cleaning and janitorial — fused with the traditional blouses and skirts of the women’s native Oaxaca, Mexico.

During rehearsals, Hernandez straps on a farmworker’s tool belt with two sets of shears dangling from her waist. It’s part of the uniform from one of her last jobs, and she’s a little out of practice fastening, her acrylic nails studded with rhinestones clicking against the metal buckles.

The “Santa Almas” cast rehearses at Bayer Park & Gardens in Santa Rosa.Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

She and her castmates are all members of ALMAS, which stands forAlianza de Mujeres Activas y Solidarias, which translates to the Women’s Action and Solidarity Alliance. The group is a program of the Graton Day Labor Center, a worker-led labor organizing outfit in rural Sonoma County.

Developed with Jackie Katz, who teaches political theater at the Children’s Day School in San Francisco, “Santa Almas” has three parts: First, the women revisit their own walks across the border. Then they protest the failure of state government to pass health and safety protections for domestic workers. Finally, they envision a future in which they’re reunited with their families, eating and dancing together.

The “Santa Almas” cast rehearses at Bayer Park & Gardens in Santa Rosa.Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

“I like to participate in things,” said Hernandez, of choosing to perform. She explained that she joined ALMAS to learn about her rights, both as a woman and as a worker. Through ALMAS, for example, Hernandez learned she is entitled to lunch and other on-the-job breaks.

“We also grow as leaders,” she continued, speaking through ALMAS Program Director Renee Saucedo, who translated from Spanish. “For example, we learn how to speak in public.”

Saucedo noted that the immigrant domestic workers whom ALMAS serves also tend to be isolated because of the nature of their work. “House cleaners, for example, they don’t have any co-workers,” she said.

And with biological family far away, Hernandez added, they tend to “create our families here with people who we meet.”

Deysi Lopez, another performer, said working on the show gives her a mix of emotions.

“I’m happy because I feel powerful in that I can share with other women similar experiences in our lives,” Lopez said. “I feel sadness because we have dreams coming to this country, but we start realizing we don’t know when we’ll be able to hug our parents again, and life becomes a routine here. It’s about work and work and more work.”

The “Santa Almas” cast rehearses at Bayer Park & Gardens in Santa Rosa.Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Many audience members of the free public show, which will be performed in Spanish with a printed English translation handed out, will be friends and family of the women — spectators whom ALMAS also hopes to bring into its fold.

In sharing the show’s message, Lopez said, “my hope is that a just immigration reform law passes. We have a moral right to basic services and benefits.”

In rehearsal, Katz prompts the women to express the play’s ideas through their bodies: “What’s another way to show reuniting with your family?” With that question, a rote hug becomes a squeal, a burying of the face in a relative’s belly. Even novice performers start to show unique strengths. One of the women, who is one of 15 siblings, is first to let a playful physicality come out. Another has a powerful, disarming gaze and the voice of a cannon, belying her short stature.

All the ALMAS women are fierce. Hernandez recalled hurting her hand on her farm job — the same hand that was struggling to fasten her costume. “They only gave me two days to rest, and they just told me to use my other hand,” she said of her employer. “I was discarded as if I have no value.”

She knows, partly through her ALMAS sisterhood, that she has value. “Santa Almas” proclaims that fact to the world.

“Santa Almas”:Written and directed by Jackie Katz and ALMAS members. 3:30 p.m. Sunday, May 1. Free. Old Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa.www.gratondaylabor.org

  • Lily Janiak
    Lily JaniakLily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak
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