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McLane Students Tell Human Trafficking Stories With Pop-Up Art And Monologues

Laura Tsutsui
Valley Public Radio
Daniel Martinez, 18, stands next to a "pop-up" of the character Jessica. He wrote a monologue and backstory for her, describing her life experiences in human trafficking.

On May 2, hours before the M Street Art Complex opened for ArtHop, Marina Santos gave her students stage directions. Santos is an English teacher at McLane High School. She’s been working with her senior class all year to understand one issue.

Credit Laura Tsutsui / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
McLane High School art students painted "pop-ups," life-size cutouts on cardboard of characters involved in human trafficking. They presented them at the May ArtHop in Downtown Fresno.

“What they're doing tonight is bringing alive the voices of the voiceless,” Santos says. “They're kind of illuminating all sides of those that are human trafficked and those who do the human trafficking.”

At ArtHop, the students represent both victims and perpetrators of sex and labor trafficking in a presentation called “After Dark: Breaking the Chains of Human Trafficking.”

The project is part of McLane’s ArtVenture Academy, Santos says.  

“Most of the time as a teacher, it feels like you're getting them close to the issue through literature and having them become empathetic by understanding characters,” says Santos.

She says the project has been a team effort including art and English faculty at McLane and members of the community.

“We started off with community engagement dinners and we had several after school dinners with law officials, social workers, Gay Straight Alliance, non-profits,” says Santos.

Student Damien De Leon used what he learned to write and perform a monologue.

Credit Laura Tsutsui / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
From left to right: Jessemiah Pech, Eduardo Negrete, Damien De Leon and Daniel Martinez. All four performed in skits and monologues to show the impact of human trafficking.

“I have performance experience, like I've been in plays and stuff so I’m not that nervous,” De Leon says. “It's just that it's a touchy subject because it’s not what I usually do in theater. It’s human trafficking and it’s a more serious topic, like you don’t come across this every day.”

The monologue he wrote is for a character named Maria. She’s a young girl from Veracruz, Mexico. Maria’s family sends her to the U.S. under the care of a woman named Sandra, thinking that Maria will receive an American education, but it turns out Maria becomes a victim of labor trafficking.

“Every night I regret my parents making that decision for me,” De Leon recites, as Maria. “I couldn’t choose my own path. I had no choice to come to America. Now every night I’m beaten, now every night I’m starved.”

De Leon’s character is one of two victims portrayed during ArtHop with short skits. Art students at McLane had already painted backdrops and props to put the audience in an American kitchen, where De Leon’s character cleans, and is beaten.

McLane students like 18-year-old Daniel Martinez also perform as perpetrators of trafficking.

“I knew that some people actually get taken away and they have to do sex trafficking, but I also didn't know that it's also forced labor as well as organ trafficking,” says Martinez.

Martinez created a character named Jessica, who he performs in a monologue. He says Jessica is a makeup artist who was trafficked, and then pressured to become a trafficker.

“At first everything was amazing. I was able to have meals when I wanted it, I even had someone say they loved me,” Martinez says, as Jessica. “But over time, I watched young innocent girls get destroyed with a single touch, being beaten and raped. I know that feeling. I was like them once.”

He says some of her backstory was inspired by his grandmother.

“I remember my grandma telling me that her grandpa was in a cult. and supposedly what happened is my grandpa kept telling her to join them and she kept denying, like peer pressure. And that’s what I kind of want to use with Jessica, because she was peer pressured in doing these things.”

Martinez worked with some of the art students to create a “pop-up” of Jessica, a life-size cardboard cutout of the person he thinks Jessica looks like. She’s an older woman with grey hair and a pink dress.

Martinez says he hopes to expand Jessica’s story, even after graduating. It’s the takeaway  Santos says she wants her students to have.

“I hope everything that we do in classroom they can transfer it and translate it into their lives,” says Santos. “Some of them do aspire to be teachers, and then some of them would like to go into criminology, so I hope that they know that whatever we read in the classroom, they can be part of the solution.”

The students will perform again on May 17 at the San Joaquin Parkway and Conservation Trust, as part of the Respite By The River series.

Laura Tsutsui was a reporter and producer for Valley Public Radio. She joined the station in 2017 as a news intern, and later worked as a production assistant and weekend host. Laura covered local issues ranging from politics to housing, and produced the weekly news program Valley Edition. She left the station in November 2020.