MEXICO CITY – A decade-old program has made professional theater a path to freedom for some of the inmates at Santa Martha Acatitla penitentiary in Mexico City.
Participants spend several days a week rehearsing plays to be performed before audiences made up of members of the public.
Javier Cruz spent 16 years locked up and his first days as an inmate were marked by drug use. But after joining the theater group, he found a motivation to re-educate himself.
The day after his release, he became part of Mexico City’s prestigious Shakespeare Forum, whose social-impact arm, El 77 Centro Cultural Autogestivo (The 77 Self-managed Cultural Center), supports the Santa Martha Acatitla Penitentiary Theater Company.
Inmate Juan Luis Hernandez has been in the theater group for five years. He started as a stagehand, but soon got the opportunity to act, which made him realize that he needed to commit fully to the enterprise.
“The moment I joined the theater company I left other external activities and changed my visiting hours. If I want to become a professional, I have to be here,” Hernandez told Efe Tuesday.
Because they are paid for their work, the inmates get experience in managing their own money even as they acquire skills that can open doors for them in the world of art and culture.
Plays are staged both inside the prison and at the Shakespeare Forum and no matter the venue, the audience sees trained actors delivering a quality performance that comes from a very different place from that of most theater companies.
“The connection that has to exist between the public and us is that they have to realize that although we once made a mistake we have the opportunity to change the mindset and that we aren’t that dark part of society. We needed an opportunity like this,” Hernandez said.
The long-time artistic director of the Shakespeare Forum, Itari Marta Mena, went to Santa Martha Acatitla to hold a four-session workshop for the members of the theater company. But the collaboration did not end there.
Mena saw in that workshop an opportunity. Both as an actress and as a person, she was interested in exploring a part of society previously unknown to her and, in the process, she would also be able to contribute something to the country.
In retrospect, there are two main things that Mena believes the group has taught her and vice versa: “self-knowledge through cruelty against oneself to be aware of one’s deficiencies and imagine other possible worlds.”
“Mexican women are educated in a way that makes us submissive and kind, which is something that does not necessarily translate into self-love, empowerment or determination. When I arrived here I faced that. I realized that I did not have respect for myself, I was confronted with my lack of self-love, and that has changed,” Mena said.
For all the members of the group, which this season staged Shakespeare’s “Richard III,,” the company represents hope for a better world and, in many cases, the only way they have, for now, to contribute to improving society.
This initiative is an attempt at rehabilitation, something that seems all but forgotten in many prisons in Mexico, a country where nearly 99 percent of crimes go unpunished.