It’s not often that an actor gets a chance to play a character that reflects their own past and family history, but that’s one of the many reasons why Nina Marti appreciates playing Valentina in Óyeme, the Beautiful.
Óyeme, the Beautiful is a new professional touring play written by Miriam Gonzales based on the experiences of the refugee youth who worked on our ¡Óyeme! afterschool project. The story shows the experiences of two best friends who have recently immigrated to the U.S. on their own from Central America, and who are now living with relatives and attending public middle school in our community.
Nina plays Valentina, a young immigrant from El Salvador. What makes this role particularly special for Nina is that her mother is also an immigrant from El Salvador. We had the chance to sit down with Nina to discuss her character and the connection she shares with her mother.
You play the character, Valentina, in Oyeme, the Beautiful. In your own words, can you describe her journey?
Nina: Valentina and her brother, Estéban, fled El Salvador when she was 13. Their mother and father, fearing the growing violence in El Salvador, arranged for them to make the treacherous journey across Central America and into the U.S. Along the way, Estéban and Vale have a traumatic encounter that shakes their relationship. Now living in the U.S. with their aunt and uncle, the siblings face bullying from other students, and their struggles go unnoticed by the adults in their lives. Estéban is jaded by their experience and seeks the protection of a local gang. Vale must find the strength to rise above the bullying, the alienation, and her own fear to make it through another day and to stop her brother from going down a dangerous path.
As the daughter of an El Salvadorian immigrant, this show has a personal connection for you. How important is it for you to portray this character? How does it feel to play a character who is also an El Salvadorian immigrant like your mother?
Nina: When I received the offer to play Valentina I was very overwhelmed. There was excitement for sure, but knowing who my audience would be and knowing that Óyeme is based on real experiences, I also felt a tremendous sense of responsibility. The fact that the story is directly tied to my heritage intensified those feelings. Being born and raised in the U.S., my childhood was very different from my mother’s. There has always been a bit of a disconnect because her struggles, traumas, and triumphs shaped how I was brought up, but I knew nothing of what it felt to be in her shoes. All I have ever known were stories. Playing Valentina has given me a rare opportunity gain a better understanding of my mother’s experience.
In what ways is your mother’s journey similar to your character’s?
Nina: Well, one important difference is that my mom didn’t cross the border illegally. Her trip, while difficult, was not that of an undocumented immigrant. However, her childhood in America was much like Vale’s. The culture shock and language barrier was obviously rough and isolating, but even when she got a grip on the English language and started to flourish academically, she was still subject to discrimination from fellow students. It was also difficult to find a place among her peers where she felt like she belonged. On one hand, she was bullied by her American-born classmates. However, oftentimes her Latino classmates would ostracize her for wanting to be a good student. They were understandably rebelling against a culture that rejected them, but it frequently got them into trouble and my mom didn’t want to be a part of that. So, she was caught between two worlds, just doing what she could to get by, much like Vale does.
What is it like performing this show for students?
Nina: It’s complex. The whole mission behind Óyeme is to give immigrant children a voice. We’re simultaneously trying to do these stories justice and make sure these kids are heard, while also conveying the realities of the immigrant experience to students who were otherwise unaware. We have this very important mission to accomplish in 45 minutes; that is scary. But when we went to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (BCC) last Thursday and had our first post-show activity session, there was an immense feeling of relief and fulfillment. They were responding to the themes of the show and a few kids commented on how Óyeme spoke to their own experiences. I can’t ask for a better outcome, because that’s exactly what we’ve set out to do.
You performed at your mother’s alma mater. Can you share how special that moment was for you?
Nina: It was surreal. I still feel like it hasn’t fully sunk in. When I arrived and we started loading in for the show, I thought about the stories my mom told me about when she attended BCC, the good and the bad. Then, when the performance and the post-show session was over, I felt like I had reclaimed that space for her. I can’t erase the challenges from her teenage years, but I was able to honor them. There was definitely some vindication happening that made me feel pretty good, to say the least.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience acting in Oyeme, the Beautiful?
Nina: Right now, we’re dealing with a cultural climate that is becoming increasingly hostile toward immigrants. The news gets kind of hard to watch and it’s easy to get bogged down in feelings of helplessness. That’s why it is so rewarding to be a part of Óyeme. I get to be an agent of change. By telling this story, I am fighting back against that hostility and empowering a group of vulnerable people. I am reminding these kids that they matter, that they are not alone, and that they are so much more powerful than they may realize.
¡Óyeme! is a collaborative project that responds to the surge of refugee children fleeing violence from Central America who have arrived in Montgomery County. Many of the children have experienced horrific circumstances in their country of origin, as well as in the migration here. Our Project partners include Imagination Stage, The Hispanic Heritage Foundation (HHF), Montgomery County Department of Recreation, Councilmember Nancy Navarro, and the Department of Health and Human Service’s Street Outreach Network (SON).
¡Óyeme! strives to provide a creative arts outlet for young people, utilizing best practice culturally-based, trauma-informed theatre and arts activities to create a sense of community among the participants, and provide a safe space for immigrant youth to share their stories. Our hope is that as a result of our efforts not only will the children feel welcomed, but they can begin the healing process that will allow them to assimilate into their new community. There is no better way to connect to another human being than through the arts. Learn more at our website!