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To poet and performance artist Quique Aviles, the corner of 15th and Irving Streets NW represents more than the intersection of two of Columbia Heights’ busiest streets. It marks the confluence of art and activism, of poverty, charity, and social politics.
“It was that corner, of 15th and Irving, where I really developed a sense of voice,” says Aviles, 33, sitting in the window of Tryst in Adams Morgan. As he sips his coffee, lots of people who know him walk by and say hello.
Though he was born in El Salvador and grew up “basically like a farm boy” in the small town of El Carmen, he’s a city boy now. He was 15 when he arrived in D.C. on July 16, 1980. Two weeks later, he says, he was walking down Columbia Road NW toward that corner in a wig, a dress, and sandals, pretending to be the first lady of El Salvador. Ever since, he says, that corner has been the focus of his life and work in the U.S.
Not coincidentally, that corner is also where the neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Adams Morgan meetneighborhoods where the voices of browns, blacks, and whites, haves and have-nots, rise up in Aviles’ creative consciousness and inspire his latest work of political theater, a one-man performance piece called Chaos Standing, which opened last weekend at the District of Columbia Arts Center and runs to Feb. 13.
Chaos Standing, says Aviles, developed over the course of two years, but it encompasses a lifetime of experiences. “The original idea was to do a piece on Salvadorians in D.C.,” he says. “I went back to El Salvador in ’96 to basically see if I still belonged. There were a lot of questions as to what ‘home’ was.” He ended up feeling like a foreigner in his homeland, “because all my family is here.” He left El Salvador “pissed and disappointed,” but also certain that D.C. had become his home.
But this city, where military strategies were formed that helped make an exile of him and thousands of others, didn’t always feel so warm. Aviles vividly recalls what it was like to come to D.C. not knowing how to speak English, not having any friends, and not finding the fabled American welcome mat anywhere in sight.
Aviles’ mother left El Salvador when he was 4, so he lived with his grandmother, who raised goats and ran a country store. As a young teenager, he involved himself in an underground leftist political movement. “The repression right before I left was so heavy, we all had to flee. I hated it here for the first five years,” Aviles recalls. “There was no sense of belonging. And slowly, I think, the city grew on me…in me.”
In D.C., he remained a young radical steeped in leftist politics and took up street theater. Aviles’ affinity for performance led him to attend Duke Ellington School of the Arts, from which he graduated in 1984, and also to his work with Teatro Nuestro, a local bilingual theater group that had leftist leanings.
He decided not to go to college and instead co-founded a theater group, Latinegros, in 1985: four 18-year-oldstwo black girls and two Salvadoran guysconfronting tensions between blacks and Latinos in D.C., which were especially high at the time. Fights broke out every day in the schools and on the streets.
“We were just like a crew of four. We would smoke weed…and talk and talk and talk,” he says. Then the [Latin American] Youth Center took us under their umbrella, and we started going into schools.” Latinegros became a full-time job for the troupe, which stayed together eight years.
Aviles’ early experiences in D.C. form the backbone of Chaos Standing, and the play’s main character, Pelón, is loosely autobiographical: Like Aviles, Pelón comes to D.C. at age 15. He recounts the neighborhood’s past, the days when the Ontario Theater, now a discount store, still showed movies and snooty neighbors hadn’t yet succeeded in barring the Latino festival and soccer games in Kalorama Park.
Aviles structured the play around Pelón, who serves as narrator and ethnic tour guide to a fictional Washington Post reporter, Pam Anderson (a not-so-subtle dig at Post reporter Pamela Constable), as she presents a seven-part series on what the play calls “these three culturally saturated neighborhoods.”
Several of the monologues are based on interviews with Aviles’ friends and neighbors. He took the play’s most controversial section from the 1989 beating death of a young Latino by a group of black teens during Adams Morgan Day. In Aviles’ version, the victim’s fictional brother, “Giovanni,” develops a hatred for all black people.
Racism in the Latino community against blacks is “one of our not-so-best-kept secrets,” says Aviles. “We all know it, and it gets played out in very obvious ways. And we knew we were touching on something sensitive…but so what? It’s real. We’re goddamned racists,” he says.
Almost nobody in his community of characters escapes his critique. There’s Tiffany, the white liberal social worker, a composite of several different people, including Shenandoah Gale, a friend of Aviles’. He interviewed her about living in the neighborhood, her work, and her thoughts about the area’s racial dynamic. Gale saw the play-in-progress as part of a workshop performance last year.
“It was interesting to me and so realistic,” says Gale. “She’s typecast as this bleeding-heart white liberal who had come into the city and then had the privilege to leave.” At first, Gale hedges as she tries to explain how much of Tiffany’s story is her own. The details about her house being broken into are true. But the way the realities of life intrude on Tiffany’s idealism is a much more sensitive, subjective issue. “If I’m honest about it, I did relate to [Tiffany],” she concludes, “but I chose to stay.”
Gale describes herself as “one of those young white volunteers who come into the city,” and though her degree is in religion and politics, she explains that she was given the job of social worker by the Lutheran Volunteer Corps. “I was immediately in a position of knowing other people’s business…and given the authority to…enter people’s lives.”
“That’s one of the biggest businesses around here,” says Aviles. “All these well-meaning, educated folks coming in to save us. I gained an insight into both worlds because I’ve worked with agencies and because I’ve also been a part of that other side and perhaps will always bedrug dealers, crack addicts, down and out. People who make [grant] proposals shine.”
Among those people in the play is a drunk character, Calisto, whom Aviles modeled on a wise-ass alcoholic (with a degree from Temple University) who hangs out on Mount Pleasant Street NW harassing passers-by. For every Calisto, Aviles posits, there’s a busybody homeowner griping about him on an Internet chat group. Aviles used actual text from community chat groupsparts of which, as Calisto, he reads aloud in the play:
“For about two months now, I have had to deal with a particular individual that goes by the name of ‘El Toro.’ This vagrant takes pleasure in insulting law-abiding residents of this community. The fourth district police have done nothing. It is time that decent honest residents do something about this individual and the rest of his kind.”
Aviles held the workshop performances, followed by talks with the audiences, to help him fine-tune the play’s emotionally searing material. The results sometimes surprised him. “Most white liberals were pissed off by the white liberal girl who decides to take off because she can’t take the shit, but they all loved the drunk…this drunk spewing his ire at these wealthy homeowners, [these] Internet-wielding, dog-walking whites.”
Not that he tempered the play’s incendiary streak. Rather, he’s “allowing the characters to say exactly what is underneath and then confronting the audience with it, because I think everybody knows that the way that these characters are speaking is the real way in which we all kind of talk,” says Aviles. “We lay it as raw as it can be, just to see what happens internally with the audience.”CP