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Placa's plot turns on families of all kinds.
PHOTO BY AMANDA LOPEZ

Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo explores the numerology of loyalty

“What’s in a number,” asks the man onstage, a former gang elder undergoing a laser tattoo-removal procedure. He is middle-aged, weary-looking, and sports a huge number one emblazoned down one forearm. Americans believe in being number one. A three down the other, reference to the holy trinity. Taken together, the number thirteen—a denotation of his gang affiliation. Numerous other tattoos covering his arms, chest, back, even his neck. 

“My placas are my history,” he explains, somewhat ruefully. Removing them, a condition of his parole, is an arduous process, a physical equivalence to the mental challenge of rebuilding a life free from criminal activity. 

“It’s not the laser that hurts,” he’ll assert later in the play. “It’s the memories.” 

>>CLICK HERE TO READ ROBERT AVILA'S RECENT GUARDIAN COVER STORY ON PAUL FLORES AND THE CREATION OF PLACAS

Played by Ricardo Salinas of Culture Clash, himself a former Missionite of Salvadoran extraction, the character of Fausto is as tormented as his German counterpart. True, he’s made no visible deal with the devil, but the demons of his past refuse to stay away, and those that tempt his son Edgar (Ricky Saenz) to follow his footsteps into a life of crime are all too present. In a mean twist, Edgar’s solidarity lies not with the Sureño gang of his father’s misspent youth, but rather with the Norteños in whose neighborhood he has grown up, and when he receives his first placa, it’s a bold Roman numeral XIV.

Angry with his father for his abandonment of his nuclear family (due to a nine-year prison term), eager to embrace the “family” of the neighborhood gang, Edgar embodies the contradictory petulance and naïve optimism of adolescence, a likable youth with a wobbly sense of consequence. Meanwhile his strong-willed mother Claudia (Cristina Frias)—herself a former chola who still favors tight jeans and leopard-print blouses cut low to reveal her Virgen de Guadalupe tattoo on her chest — attempts to broker kinship between them despite her own reservations about Fausto as a role model. 

Focusing mainly on the dynamics of family, in and out of the gangs, Mission District-based playwright Paul S. Flores spent months interviewing former and current gang members, capturing the cadence of their speech, the fierceness of their loyalties. With Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo, he limits the scope of the complex historia to a small circle of characters: Fausto’s extended family, Edgar’s gang familia, a smattering of officials in charge of managing various aspects of Fausto’s rehabilitation.

Flores mostly avoids politicizing his characters, though shades of illegal immigration and exile color their everyday struggles, and he also studiously avoids passing moral judgment on his fallible protagonists, choosing instead to explore their often overlooked decency and sense of personal responsibility. The play ends on a downbeat note which feels somewhat rushed, unsatisfying, but does leave open the possibility of a companion piece or sequel, while illuminating and illustrating some of the shadowy complexities of gang influence in the Mission with stage lights and temporary tattoos.

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