Nun Fights For Families Of Killed, Missing In Mexico’s Drug Wars

Sister Consuelo Morales (Photo/Victor Hugo Valdivia)

Sister Consuelo Morales (Photo/Victor Hugo Valdivia)

When one thinks of drug wars, a nun does not come to mind. But 67-year-old Sister Consuelo Morales’s fight for the families of those missing or killed in Mexico’s drug wars is one of the powerful story lines in the new documentary, “Kingdom of Shadows,” making its world premiere at SXSW on Monday, March 16.

Acclaimed Mexican-American filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz (Emmy-nominated “Reportero,” 2012), follows three individuals, with very distinct lives, all dealing with the consequences of the U.S.-Mexico drug war.

There’s a Texan rancher who fell into drug smuggling, because he had trouble making ends meet as a farmer, as well as a Homeland Security Investigator on the U.S.-Mexico border who witnesses the continual rise of violent and deadly organized crime. Then there is Morales, a Catholic nun in Monterrey, Mexico fighting for the rights of families whose loved ones have been killed or “disappeared” as a result of drug violence.

Sister Morales returned to her native city of Monterrey, Mexico in 1992, after years working to help indigenous communities in Veracruz and in Mexico City. She came back to find her community in turmoil. It was then she helped found Citizens in Support of Human Rights (Ciudadanos en Apoyo de Derechos Humanos, CADHAC) to help families in need – and she has devoted her life to that cause for the past two decades.

According to the latest official numbers from the Mexican government, the number of people who have disappeared since the start of the country’s drug war in 2006 is nearly 23,000 (although this number has fluctuated widely depending on the administration). Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz argues the most international attention this crisis has gotten was the disappearance of 43 college-student protesters in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero in September 2014, recently declared dead.

In an interview with NBC News, Sister Morales says the violence has substantially increased since 2007. “This situation of violence touches not only the people involved with narcos or the drug business, but it also touches families and young people that had nothing to do with it. When the Mexican government decided to stop this…the situation became worse and worse, because citizens were in between the delinquents and the soldiers. They were in a very vulnerable situation.”

She says that individuals ages 16 to 35 are the most affected by the violence and targets of kidnappings/killings. The worst years, she remembers, were 2010 through 2012.

“We were frozen,” says the nun. “People were so scared and still are scared. We just received a case from a mother who said five years ago they took away her son. Her husband is so scared [of the drug cartels] that he didn’t allow her to put an announcement with the authorities. They put an announcement with [CADHAC], but the day after, they didn’t come back.”

She explains this behavior is common, because Mexican citizens fear everyone – even the authorities – because they are also known to be involved in narco trafficking.

“Two years ago, a kid – two and a half years old – was walking with his father very close to his office,” remembers Sister Morales. “His father wanted to take him to the doctor. On the corner, there were two groups of young people. One of them was taking people away. They took his father, and left the boy on the street..If we don’t do something to support and give what we can to this child to grow in confidence, what will he have in his heart?”

According to Sister Morales, the people who are generally taken away are the ones giving economic support to the family. In this way, she says, the narcos are instilling fear in the community. If you don’t have money to pay them their “dues,” you get taken away.

The petite yet strong-willed nun arrives at CADHAC around 8:30 am every morning. After meeting with her team, she has appointments throughout the day with people needing help with justice or violent situations.

“They come and ask questions and share information with us, and we help them resolve their problems,” says Sister Morales. “We may help them, and stay beside them, but never in front of them. We help them with the tools to get justice.”

There was a point in her life, she says, when she questioned her belief in God. But helping people was something that was innate to her since she was a young child.

“I asked myself what was the message that Jesus gave us – it is to love each other,” says Sister Morales about why she does the work she does. “The only thing that is important is that they are human beings, and they have dignity. I am their sister.”

Bernardo Ruiz sees her as a savior.

“What I do know is that people like Consuelo, and the families she works with, need more international support,” he says. “From my perspective, they’re the ones who represent our path forward.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

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Amidst drugs and violence, art turns lives around in PR housing project

Anoushka Medina and Xavier Morales, protagonists in “For Love in the Caserío.” (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

Anoushka Medina and Xavier Morales, protagonists in “For Love in the Caserío.” (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

Antonio Morales was born in the second largest housing projects in the U.S. – the Residencial Luis Llorens Torres in San Juan, Puerto Rico – also known as el Caserío. His dad was a drug lord in their intimate, yet violent world consisting of 140 buildings and about 2,600 units, and his mom was one of its drug addicts.

As a boy, Morales would find guns in the closet and drugs under the mattresses, but at 15, he found the arts. Morales had passed a competitive audition to attend the Jose Julian Acosta Theatre Arts Middle and High School in Old San Juan, and that was his one-way ticket out of his violent past.

“I knew I didn’t want to end up like my father,” says Morales. “I found my passion in the arts, and I was convinced that the arts was going to be the most effective tool to get kids off the streets. Once the federal agents arrested my dad, I started Viviendo el Arte – in the housing project…I started to teach theater to other kids in the neighborhood as a way to help them.”

While studying theater at the University of Puerto Rico, Morales says he got the urge to write a play for the kids in el caserío to act out. It was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet’s” family feud. He wrote his own theatrical love story set in the housing project.

Instead of the Montagues and Capulets, the friction was between feuding gangs – Los Caliente and Trebol. In the play Cristal and Angelo meet and fall in love, but their families belong to the feuding gangs. The successful play, “For Love in the Caserío” then became a feature film, and it has had so much success in 16 movie theaters on the island it just started a three-day tour in New York this week through November 14.

“I found so many similarities to our reality,” says Morales about when he first read “Romeo and Juliet” in high school “I found it so amazing that I could include all our social problems in Shakespeare’s plot line…I used all my reality and joined it with a prohibited love story, and it was a success.”

But the success he is most proud is how his art has helped change many lives in a housing project known primarily for its drugs and violence.

“First it transformed the kids, and then it went on to transform the parents, and then the community,” says Morales. “Before I knew it, everyone wanted to come see the play. They knew it was about their lives. They felt I was exposing them, but I also offered different tools to better themselves.”

Since Antonio first wrote the play 12 years ago, it has been presented more than 500 times all over the island, and it has flourished with the involvement of members of el caserío  – from lighting to set design.

“For Love in the Caserío” writer and producer Antonio Morales. (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

“For Love in the Caserío” writer and producer Antonio Morales. (Courtesy Cine-Coop)

He explains that after each show he and the director, Luis Enrique Rodriguez, talk to the audience.

“People in the audience sometimes would confess the bad things they were doing, and with tears in their eyes, say they wanted to be rescued,” says Morales.

Now 31, Morales remembers back when he was 15, and the kids he recruited for his project were around 12.

“I had to be the most outstanding student, because I had the responsibility with other kids in the community,” he says. “I had to understand everything so I could have the answers.”

 He happily mentions that many are still active and teaching the next generation involved with Viviendo el Arte, or have careers in the arts themselves. Now in their late 20’s and early 30’s, they are also the actors he used in “For Love in the Caserío.”

“I was very convinced that it had to be done with our kids,” says Morales.  His 25-year-old brother Xavier, who started acting in the play at age eight, plays the lead in the movie. “They lived it, it’s their reality.”

When officials at the San Juan office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) saw the play, they got involved, and continue to meet regularly to provide support to the project. The New York Times reports that, so far, housing officials in Puerto Rico have given $2.8 million for a tour of the play and the production of the film.

After HUD Secretary Maurice Jones saw the play, he received a letter from Morales, which was posted in the HUD web site.

“In the late 1990′s, we learned an increase in prison sentencing and armed police officer presence made little difference in controlling drug crime in Puerto Rico,” wrote Morales. “Moreover, we learned punishment does not drive behavior. However, what has been proven successful and what drives public housing youth to modify behavior has been peer modeling. This is why I created the theater group which includes a group of talented individuals from the largest public housing project in Puerto Rico, Llorens Torres, to star in my play, ‘Por Amor en el Caserío.’”

Morales tells NBC Latino, “Now we’re in New York, and we want to continue to work hard and spread our message. What are the chances to succeed when nobody cares?”

Today, Morales lives with his brother Xavier in an apartment in Guaynabo, near San Juan and works full time in film production and with his theater group, San Juan Drama Company, which is volunteer run and involves more than 100 youth.

Xavier Morales says he had two older brothers to look up to, one was a drug dealer like his dad – both of whom ended up in federal prison – and his brother Antonio.

“Antonio inspires me,” Xavier told an audience after the film screening in John Jay College on Monday. “He changed my life.”

 The film’s producers say crime has significantly decreased in the housing project and the drug gangs support Morales’ work after seeing the positive effect it’s had on the youth.

“We want people to see our work because of the social transformation effect it causes,” says Morales. “It’s not just a movie.”

“The audience comes out different than when they entered – that’s how you know your art is working.”


Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Cheech Marin talks about “Born in East L.A.,” 25 years later

BorninLAposter

“Born in East LA” movie poster.

The cult classic film, “Born in East L.A.,” written, directed, and starring Cheech Marin, turned 25 this month. The film is considered groundbreaking for its time, as it was one of the firstHollywood films starring a Latino cast, including Paul Rodriguez, Tony Plana, and Lupe Ontiveros. It also brought issues of Latino identity and immigration to the forefront with a sense of humor.

Marin says when he wrote the movie, at 41, little did he know that it would have such an impact on American society. It was a low-budget film, but it grossed nearly $18 million in box office sales. It also triggered the making of a music video — a spoof of Bruce Springsteen’s famous“Born in the USA” — it is now even being incorporated into college curriculums.

I was surprised at the longevity of it, and how it translated into different ethnicities,” says Marin, now 66, about the topic of immigration in the film. “I learned that it’s a very universal experience — it affected a lot of people. [When the movie premiered] was just the beginning for the biggest wave of immigration.”

He says what inspired him to write the film was real life.

“I was sitting at my kitchen table, reading the LA Times — [an American] kid was caught in an immigration raid, and he was mistakenly sent to Mexico, and at the same time, ‘Born in USA’ came on the radio.”

He says the story kind of wrote itself after that.

“I really never knew what ‘Born in the USA’ was about, so I had to go out and get the record,” says the comedian, who was really born a couple of blocks away from East L.A. — in South Central.

He says it was the success of the song which made his movie being picked up by Universal Pictures a little easier.

“It was really interesting with social commentary weaved in — bilingual issues, issues at the border,” says actor Tony Plana. “It made people laugh and also think. You can’t meet one Latino who doesn’t have a copy of ‘Born in East LA.’”

Plana, who played “the thug” role, later renamed “Feo,” says he still gets recognized from playing that character so many years later. He also remembers Marin as a very gracious and collaborative director to work with.

“He was open to ideas, and finding the socially relevant insight into what we were doing, as well as finding the comedy,” says Plana, who has been in a myriad of productions since then, from the movie “Three Amigos” to the TV series “Ugly Betty.”

He says they worked together to make his underdeveloped character relevant in some way.

“We wanted to create the ultimate Tijuana nightmare,” says Plana who played a character who looked like a rat with slicked hair, parted in the middle and gold teeth and dressed in a little bow tie. “At the time, we had a couple of religious scandals going on, such as Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart — preachers who sinned publicly. We wanted to satirize them a little bit. We turned Feo into a guy who extorts money in the name of Jesus.”

He says they improvised a lot of the lines they actually used such as, “You don’t have to thank me, you just have to pay me.”

Marin also remembers improvising the scene where he’s standing outside of the bar, during one of his random jobs in Tijuana that he takes to make money to cross the border back to America. He says he just made everything up as normal people walked by.

His all-time favorite scene though was the “wass sappening boys,” where he has to teach non-Mexican immigrants English so they can fit in when they reach Los Angeles.

“When I was writing that scene, I kind of imagined what that alley looked like,” reminisces Marin who filmed in Tijuana for six weeks. “It was exactly as I had pictured in my mind.”

Plana says these humorous scenes really struck a chord in the Latino community and the national community.

“It didn’t give you answers, but it showed the interesting complexity of who we are — specifically Mexican-Americans,” says Plana. “Mexican-Americans tend to lose their connection, and Cheech’s character becomes more aware of what’s going on down there and starts to identify with it.”

He says to him the most powerful scene is at the end, when Cheech starts crossing the border into the U.S. with a plethora of Mexicans.

“It’s almost prophetic in a way,” says Plana. “This is going to continue unless we do something about it.”

Marin agrees that nothing has changed a quarter of a century later.

“We haven’t come up with a solution,” he says. “We’re dealing with contradiction and hypocrisy. We want immigrants to come in, because we want cheap labor and a certain lifestyle, and we want to persecute them at the same time.”

The avid Chicano art collector says he’s considering directing another movie in the future.

“It’s such a tough job directing,” says Marin, who continues to act. “You really have to love the subject matter.”