Octavio Solis grew up in the 1960s where the Rocky Mountains make their final descent into the riverbeds of the Rio Grande.
Born in El Paso Texas, his life along the U.S-Mexico border was littered with women “battered like piñatas,” in a male-dominated culture, and “men in green” challenging his understanding of what it meant to be an American.
At night, Solis would listen to shadows cross the border, their soft, wet footsteps in search of a better life in El Norte. “We knew where they were coming from, but not where they were going,” said Solis, pausing. “They moved like ghosts.”
Those same ghosts will move across the stage of the Mission District’s Brava Theater tonight in a two-week run of his latest work, Ghosts of the River. The play is presented in five parts—each a tale from the borderlands and a meditation on immigrant life.
Directed by San Francisco producer Larry Reed of Shadowlight Productions, and with art direction by Oakland native Favianna Rodriguez, the play weaves traditional Mexican design with the harsh realities of the border, and larger-than-life characters with humor.
During the play’s 75-minute run, actors, known as shadow-casters, don large masks dappled with traditional Mexican designs that direct shadows to the front of the stage. There, a large white curtain captures their image, and projects the story to the audience.
While some scenes come alive with the shadows, others are created by puppets traveling through Solis’s world of light and darkness.
The scenes offer a window into Solis’s borderlands—a world where mythology and ghost tales combine.
In the real world, the 51-year-old playwright, who earned an MFA in acting from the Dallas Theater Center, talks enthusiastically about his life as he drinks americanos and peers out at the world from dark tortoise shell Ray-Bans. He dances easily from his personal history along the border to present-day politics, then back to the greasy diner where his father made a career of burgers, fries, and later, taquitos.
Solis’s imagined ghosts move just as easily as his speech. The script shows scenes that change quickly, depicting alleyways, the river, giant Humvees, mountainsides and even tears. Each scene finds its way to the audience as a whirl or waltz of shadows projected on the 20-by-16-foot screen that borders the stage.
On that screen, the actors beg the audience to join Solis on his journey to the past, present and future, to laugh at its oddities and sad beauty.
In one story, “Adrian’s Ghost,” La Migra taunts a boy and his friend by drawing an imaginary border they can’t overcome.
“See, this line is always there, boy. No matter how many times you cross it, you are still always a Messican. And don’t nothing ever change that. Don’t you forget it.”
The two friends have different reactions, one slides into drug abuse, and the other finds partial solace in memorizing the Gettysburg Address—proof, he thinks, that he is a real American.
Although the plays are not entirely biographical, Solis has pulled from his 18 years along the border.
The son of two Mexican immigrants, a fast-food worker and a budding businesswoman, others made fun of Solis’s Mexican accent. “At that point I resolved to speak and write English better than any of them,” said Solis, eyes blazing.
That same year Solis memorized the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, hoping to earn his stars and stripes in the eyes of his peers.
Whether it was subconscious or not, he moved away from anything associated with Mexican stereotypes.
“People say that Mexicans always have their cars up on bricks,” he said. “Well, not me!”
“And now I can’t even fix my own car—but that’s my problem, now,” the 51-year-old laughed recalling his own identity issues.
As a young child in El Paso, giant cotton fields used to line his yard, and blossom kitty-corner to the home where his mother still lives. “The migrantes used to in hide there,” he said, describing the pillows of white cotton as they thickened and reached towards the sky. “We used to play hide and seek in there too,” and sometimes “we’d see the border patrol shining their light on the cotton fields, looking.”
Just as with “Adrian’s Ghost,” La Migra built invisible divides throughout Solis’s community. “They’d stop me and ask me what school I went to, and who my principal was,” he said. “And I’d think: ‘Can’t they tell, I’m not one of THEM. A Mexican.’”
It took years for Solis to fully embrace his heritage. Even as a young actor, the first thing trained out of him was his accent. “I spoke like Lee Trevino,” he chuckled, recalling his clipped Mexican speech patterns and smooth country drawl.
It wasn’t until 1986, when Teatro Dallas commissioned Solis to write his first play set on Day of the Dead, that the young playwright looked inward.
“It was the first time that anyone had ever asked me to write about my culture,” he said. “And the first time I had ever seen other Latino actors or a Latino director.”
The play “Man of the Flesh,” was produced in 1988 in Dallas. “It was totally politically incorrect,” said Solis, covering his mouth, and squinting, “but people loved it.”
Solis had hit his stride, and not in the euro-centric theater style he had become accustomed to, but his own.
Since then, Solis has produced more than a dozen plays and works of fiction, including “Lydia” in early 2009, which set off his “most successful year yet,” he said.
For the last 20 years Solis has been living in San Francisco, and nowadays calls the Sunset District home. “It’s a funky place to live,” he grins, content to live once more in another immigrant culture. This time it’s a mostly Asian community, complete with morning dim sum and hole-in-the wall coffee shops, including his favorite haunt, Hollow.
Of “Ghost” and “Lydia,” he said, “They aren’t portraits of my life but I have had to open the door to my home, and to families I knew who had these experiences.”
Photographs courtesy Octavio Solis, Favianna Rodriguez and Shadowlight Productions. See a slide show here.