Reflections on "Living Out"

by Carlo Botero

Revolutionary Worker #1227, February 1, 2004, posted at

I'm a revolutionary artist and long-time reader of the RW, who is working with the newly formed Los Angeles Writers Collective. We've been wrangling with the question of how people that flip burgers, sweep floors or sew clothes become trained and able to understand major questions and world events from a class conscious proletarian point of view. This made me think about how I've come to grasp things on a deeper level. And it reminded me of a play I saw last year. So I wanted to share this with readers of the RW.


A friend and I caught the bus going into downtown Los Angeles. We walked past women going home from their jobs as nannies and housekeepers on the Westside. Along the bus ride I looked around at the tired faces of young men weary from work in kitchens in fancy restaurants throughout the city. Some women struggled with their kids to sit down, while others talked among themselves about their home countries, the type of work they do in this country and how little they get paid for it.

In downtown we met up with some other friends who gave us a pair of tickets to see a play that night at the Mark Taper Forum--but when we looked at the tickets, we didn't know what to make of them. The title on the tickets said Living Out. At first, my friend and I thought it was a play about being openly gay-- but a poster for the event showed a woman holding up a baby--we were confused but intrigued.

We walked past the new Disney Concert Hall and went up the stairs into the Grand Avenue Plaza. As we approached the entrance to the Taper, I realized how different we looked from others attending the play--the overwhelming majority of people there were middle-aged, middle-class and white. I looked down at my Converse sneakers and my bulky morral (satchel) and saw those around me in suits and ties or evening gowns and cardigans. I stood there and thought back to a revolutionary walking tour of the garment district I had participated in. I had come to see how immigrants working in the sweatshops are part of a class that produces everything, yet nothing of what they produce belongs to them. I took a second look at the clothes being worn by the people standing in line to enter the Taper and saw those garment workers reflected in the sleeves, the collars and the buttons.

We entered the theatre amidst heavy carpets and drapery; my eyes were led to a brightly lit stage that had the walls converted into a giant map of L.A. city streets. My friend and I took our seats in the back row, and I checked out the crowd before the curtain went up. It was my first time at the Mark Taper Forum and I was psyched to be there. When the crowd had settled in their seats, I noticed other youth there as well.

Finally, the play began. It started out as "A Day in the Life of." type of story, and I kept waiting for the part where the main character, Ana, would come out to her husband, Bobby, saying she was really a lesbian. Needless to say, by the time intermission rolled around, I realized that the play was not about being gay--it was not about coming out of the closet, but cleaning someone else's closet! Humorous scene after heartbreaking scene I sat in the audience in stupefied amazement. I couldn't believe that on that very stage was the life-story of Latino immigrants--the millions who are forced to endure hardships such as the separation of their family, who risk death by crossing the border and end up working in back-breaking, low-paying, and degrading jobs. In the spotlight were the masses of people who are given unfulfilling jobs and whose exploitation makes this oppressive system grow. I especially remember sitting in the audience and thinking, how the hell does the playwright know about my mom's life in this country?

Living Out is a sharp and witty play that tells the stories of two different families--and two different experiences--at the same time. Wallace and her husband, Richard, are a family of lawyers on the Westside and they're looking for a "caretaker" to look after their newborn daughter, Jenna. On the other side of the city lives Ana with her husband, Bobby, who works in construction. Ana and Bobby are raising their son, Santiago, here in Los Angeles while their other son, Tomas, is being raised in El Salvador by his grandmother. We follow Ana, who is undocumented, as she searches for a job to make enough money to bring Tomas to the U.S. She goes out to interview for different families on the West Side of the city, an area that is generally much more affluent than the rest of the greater L.A. area. The first family that Ana interviews for asks her if she has any children of her own, and when Ana answers that she does indeed have a child at home, she is turned down because they want a nanny that would make their children a priority. Sitting in my seat, I thought about how, in order for a middle-class woman to join the paid labor force, she has to hire a proletarian woman to do the work that she would otherwise do--like cooking, cleaning and childcare. Among the questions that Ana is asked, much like other women seeking work as nannies and/or housekeepers, is if she would live with the family employing her (living in) or if she would leave to go home each day--which gives the play its title: "Living Out."

Throughout the play, I thought back to the times I would hop on the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus with my mom to go to her work. She's worked on the Westside as a housekeeper and sometime nanny for more than a decade. When we would get there, I would be astounded just looking at the big house that she had to clean by herself. And even though I would complain sometimes about going to work with her, I was glad that I could help her finish work fast. We would make a deal: she would give me a dollar for each chore that I did like cleaning windows and large mirrors, or vacuuming the hallway. And after we were done, we would walk down the hill to catch the bus again, and I would sit next to my mom and talk. Sometimes she would tell me how her eyes stung from cleaning solutions and how much her back began to hurt over the years. But she would most bitterly tell me how her degree in accounting does not count for shit when she's scrubbing someone else's bathtub.

The play brings out the bitter situations that immigrant masses face. There's a particular scene when time stood still for everyone in the Taper: Ana is sitting on a park bench with other nannies she has befriended and recounts a telephone conversation with her son in El Salvador. Tomas held in his hands a photograph of his mother along with other people--but he could not recognize which woman was his mother because it had been too long since he'd seen her. Ana, Zoila, and Sandra would meet at the park and share stories about work, their families and their life in this country, creating an informal network of support for each other. But that scene with Ana on the phone with her son, Tomas, made me think of all those men and women I saw on the bus on my way to the theatre. I saw on the stage all the families in my neighborhood who were forced to immigrate to the U.S. and whose lives and families are broken up by la frontera /the border: all those campesino families that were driven out of their land because they could not compete with U.S. imports; and those families seeking refuge from the U.S.-sponsored war in El Salvador.

Living Out brought out the heartache. But sometimes the contradictions were drawn out by the nannies with humor. In one comic scene they're out with the kids at the park, and they ponder what life in Los Angeles would look like without the back-breaking labor of Latino immigrants. They laughingly suggest that "Los Americanos be drivin' around in their dirty clothes, starving." Or that you "can't go to a restaurant cuz there's nobody to park your car."

The lights emanating from the stage cast a dim shadow on the audience. On occasion I would pan across and notice how people reacted differently to different scenes. And sitting there in the dark, even though I couldn't see all the people around me, I was able to discern the different classes and class strata in the audience by listening and observing how the play cleverly drew them out. There were a lot of jokes, comments and references made by characters in the play--some from the viewpoint of the nannies and some from the viewpoint of the employers, and it was interesting how different people in the audience reacted to these things. From the nervous titters, loud laughter and sometimes "I don't get it" silence, I could make a good guess where people were coming from and what their outlook is. This ability to recognize and analyze different classes from a communist point of view is something Lenin emphasizes in his book What Is To Be Done?

Living Out is a play that serves as a window into the lives of the millions of immigrants that have been forced into the shadows by this system. We get a glimpse of what their lives are like, and what kind of aspirations people at the bottom of society have and the kinds of obstacles and struggles they face.

Sitting in the darkness of the seats in the theatre, I kept thinking about my mom's life in this country. I thought to myself, how can a woman that was once an accountant only get a job as a housekeeper and nanny in this country? I was outraged when my mom had told me stories about how she had been harassed at the supermarket by a security guard who followed her around as if she were a thief. How she had been sexually harassed at work, but when she confronted the guy, he acted like it was an accident. Or how because she didn't speak English well, she was treated as if she were unintelligent. Growing up, I thought that the only way we would get out of poverty would be if I went to college, got an education, and worked in a high-paying job. And then, the bourgeois glasses that had been firmly in place were knocked down. I began to understand that there are reasons why people live this way, it is not an accident, and it is not their fault. It was then that I began to focus the anger and confusion as I became conscious that I am part of a class who under this system can live only so long as we can work and can work only so long as our work enriches someone else--the capitalist class.

At the end of the play, I was caught up in a whirlwind of emotions the drama on stage had brought out for me. And once the crowd started to vacate the theatre, I tried to walk down the stairs into the lobby with my friend--but all I remember is seeing black and feeling my eyes explode with tears. An overwhelming sense of outrage came over me and I could see how my mom's life as an immigrant has been characterized by struggle. The more I thought that society is all fucked up, the more I realized that we need to be serious about fundamentally changing the way this world is run.

Living Out is one of those mirrors that made me see life in a new way. It made me think about how Mao Tsetung said in his Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art , that works of art are drawn from life, but they are higher than life.