In Isaac Jerome Lopez’s view, there aren’t any rules to improvisational theater. But if he could boil it down to two precepts, they would be: Don’t hurt your fellow actors or audience members, and think fast. He’s a 12-year-old actor and gymnast who has been taking classes for 10 years at Moving Arts Española (, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating through art. When I asked Lopez, a student of La Tierra Montessori School, if he considered himself a veteran of the organization, without skipping a beat he answered yes.

I first encountered Lopez on Sept. 9 at Santa Fe Art Institute where he, along with five other young actors from Moving Arts Española, were staging Beyond the Border, a "youth-created participatory performance and dialogue about the state of immigration policy and its effects on families in Northern New Mexico," as the program stated. Ashley Ardilla Garcia, Magdalena Marcos-McNeil, Jeremiah Vigil, Diego Delgado and Analise Lopez all shared the stage. The youngest member was 11; the oldest was 20.

The actors' movements began slowly—measured, even—with a spare narration by Delgado. There were no props, just the gray concrete floor and white walls. As Delgado began to speak, each actor swayed, jolted, marched and, at one point, ran. A few members of the group emphatically formed a barrier, crossing their forearms to make an "X" shape. It immediately brought to mind the X-shaped barricades that line the US-Mexico border. But the gesture also said something about the hostile rhetoric around immigration—whether chosen or forced—and the increased policing of immigrants across American towns and cities. The performance then unfolded with a series of vignettes the actors generated with the help of a handful of community partners: Somos Un Pueblo Unido, the Dreamers Project, Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan, as well as Delgado's family; his father, as he mentioned at one point, had been deported over five years ago.

The vignettes followed the template of the Theater of the Oppressed, a type of performance with origins in 1970s Brazil. At the risk of oversimplification, Theater of the Oppressed all comes down to a basic question: Given a certain set of circumstances, what would you do differently in another person's shoes? Think Run Lola Run wherein scenes repeat, but instead of Lola changing the course of the narrative, it's the viewers who do. Devon Hoffman, one of the adult practitioners who helped guide the direction that Beyond the Border would take, encouraged Santa Fe Art Institute attendees to tap in and take the place of one of the actors. The eventual goal was to put different tactics to use, changing the outcome of a particular situation, from the frustrations of filling out paperwork in the office of an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement bureaucrat to interacting with a nosy—and potentially harmful—neighbor whose long Southern drawl set her apart from the undocumented workers in the scene. The reversals were provocative, though it was clear that audience members, myself included, rarely took on the part of an immigrant.

If anything became clear, it was that playing the role of an empowered person was easier than putting oneself in the place of the marginalized. To symbolically take up an "other's" nationality, ethnicity, sense of privilege or lack thereof was perhaps the greatest barrier. When one white woman did play the role of an undocumented person, she mentioned how hard it was to have a voice even within the imagined constraints of a theatrical setting. At one point, Roger Montoya, artistic director of Moving Arts Española, added another wrench by playing the part of an anti-immigrant Chicano man who was sympathetic to his white neighbors' complaints about immigration. As Analise Lopez put it, "I didn't realize it would be so complex with so many outcomes."

Of the residents in Rio Arriba County on the whole, about 25 percent live under the poverty line. Española is not a high-profile sanctuary city like Santa Fe; yet the community-based organization, located in the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh, produced in the capital city a more than worthwhile experience that put real people with real histories of deportation front and center. One byproduct that I couldn't ignore, however, was that having a liberal stance on immigration can only go so far.

Montoya, along with Analise Lopez, currently a film student at Northern New Mexico College, will represent Moving Arts Española during conversations in Washington, DC later this month. They will discuss the future of the Reimagining Youth Leadership Project; it, along with two other organizations (Zygote Press of Cleveland, Ohio, and Sitar Arts Center in Washington, DC) was funded by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

With recent ICE crackdowns and Trump's recent push to repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, watching and participating in Beyond the Border drove home the idea that empathy must be political, especially if we intend to work in the role of allies. The first and hardest step is attempting to comprehend circumstances that are not our own.