When Isaac Gomez first workshopped his play The Women of Juarez as an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, the faculty strongly advised him against it. They believed a myth that continues to plague the Chicago theater scenethat there weren't enough people of color to cast his ensemble. Gomez knew differently.
When the playnow called La Rutaopens at the Steppenwolf this week, it features a a plethora of Latina talent, many of them making their Steppenwolf debut. The stories of las desaparecidasthe missing women of Juarez, will finally be heard.
That story is brutal. Since the early '90s, hundreds ( perhaps thousandsnobody has an accurate count ) of women have disappeared or been found murdered in the liminal borderlands along sister cities Cuidad Juarez and El Paso. The dead and missing women are mostly poor or working-class. Many vanished or were killed while going to or from work in area factories. Nobody has found the killer or killers. Few have even tried to.
Inspired primarily by interviews with the mothers of the missing women, La Ruta leans toward docudrama. Each character is based on a true story or a person Gomez interviewed.
Gomez grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border of El Paso and Juarez, unaware of the ongoing femicide. As a kid, he and his family would cross the border to visit family. Gomez became cognizant of his own privilege slowly: He was instructed to accompany his female cousins wherever they ventured, be it to grab groceries or throw out the trash. "I had the privilege and ability to go and do whatever I wanted. I just didn't know that at the time," he said.
This ignorance followed him to college until a friend studying Chicana history confronted him on his ties to Juarez. Gomez remembered the friend asking, "Isaac, you're from here. Why haven't you told me about this?" His confused response was, "What do you mean?"
"Women. Juarez. They're missing. They're being murdered, left in the deserts," the friend said.
Gomez had no idea what she was talking about. In a distressed panic he called his mother, thinking this dark chisme couldn't be based in fact. She told him that it was.
"I was embarrassed," he said. "And so, the more I researched, the more I read, the more I became obsessed and I knew I needed to go back to Juarez." So he did, thinking it'd be a quick trip to the memorial site, a cotton field watered with tears and littered with pink crosses representing las desaparecidos.
But with the wisdom of Mexican women who accompanied him in both body and mind, Gomez soon found himself seeking out the mothers of the missing daughters. He found grieving mothers coping in a variety of ways. Some turned activists, others prayed for the safe return of their daughters.
"These were different women with different journeys of grief and loss and resilience and resistance. And so, in my head I thought: what would happen if they were friends?" The question helped form the spine of La Ruta.
Growing upand even into collegeGomez didn't consider himself a writer, but he relished the moments he spent journaling, often detailing the tragic events of his childhood. "They were very short entries, like, 'Dear journal, today we had a test. I didn't do great. I'm hungry. Love, Isaac,' " he recalled.
As a teenager, he adapted a book into a play for his church. And then, in the darkness surrounding the suicide of a close friend in college, La Ruta began to take shape. Even then, "I had an aversion to calling myself a writer," Gomez said. " I didn't feel like I was worthy of that title."
But when he arrived in Chicago to intern at the Goodman, Gomez felt that he could be whoever he wanted. The city made an impression on him. "I had no idea the kind of family community, rigor, guttural heart informed creation that was happening in this city. I love Chicago," he told Windy City Times.
Gomez didn't arrive alone. His best friend ( and newest Steppenwolf ensemble member ) Karen Rodriguez traveled north with him from the Texas border. They were young, poor and unfamiliar with anybody in Chicago, but late nights in their little apartment are among Gomez's favorite memories.
"Karen would be reading my plays in our kitchen at like 1 a.m. because she wasn't really booking anything at the time. No one knew I was writing, but it was in those private moments, hearing her voice in my words that really allowed me to sit with the reality that, 'Oh, my gosh. I can do this,'" Gomez said.
Gomez swiftly worked his way up from a literary internship at the Goodman to director of new play development at Victory Gardens Theater. "If you were to ask me seven years ago if I thought Steppenwolf would be the place to premiere La Ruta, I would laugh and say you're crazy. It is still very surreal for me," he said.
Within the last two years, Gomez has cranked out five new plays: Wally World ( Sideshow Theater Company ); PerKup Elkhorn ( developed at Northlight Theatre and Chicago Dramatists ); The Way She Spoke: A Docu-mythologia ( Greenhouse Theater Center ); Ofrenda ( Albany Park Theatre Project ); and, most recently, The Displaced ( Haven Theatre ). He also is a steering committee member of the Latinx Theatre Commons while teaching at The Theatre School at DePaul University.
Despite being Gomez's most developed play ( with five workshops spanning coast to coast ), La Ruta struggled to find its home on the mainstage, just like the Latinas of its first workshop in Texas.
"In the larger American regional landscape, I think theater companies are afraid sometimes to take a risk," Gomez said. "It's sad to believe this 'risk' includes parts of the play that are not risks at all. They are very much a part of my everyday life. I owe my entire existence to Mexican women. They're my blood and spirit. They're my saviors; they're my best friends. They're my soulmates."
Of all the plays, Gomez said La Ruta is the closest to his heart and home.
At the Steppenwolf, Gomez has found another place to call home, a place that also makes room for joy. He said, "It's beautiful because being around these brilliant, fierce talented and hilarious women, Latinas, mostly Mexican, is just a completely ruckus experience. We laugh a lot. To be in a room like this one, that's all femme, all brown, pretty much, is so gratifying. It's incredibly joyous."
La Ruta runs through Jan. 27 at Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. For more information, visit Steppenwolf.org .