Fausto (Ricardo Salinas) y su familia es amenazada por pandilleros hacia el final de la obra “PLACAS” puesta en escena el 8 de septiembre de 2012 en San Francisco. Fausto (Ricardo Salinas) and his family have their lives threatened by gang members towards the end of the play “PLACAS” on Sept. 8, 2012 in San Francisco. Photo Clarivel Fong

On Saturday Sept. 8, “PLACAS: The Most Dangerous Tattoo,” a play by Paul Flores directed by Michael John Garces, was presented by the San Francisco International Arts Festival, Mission Cultural Center Latino Arts and Central American Resource Center to a sold-out audience at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.

Upon entering the theater, it was hard not to feel uneasy about what to expect from a play that explores the topic of gang violence in San Francisco. The audience, which comprised local community members, activists, youth groups and actors’ family members, buzzed with excitement and uncertainty.

As the play commenced, the lead actor, Ric Salinas, entered in his narrative scene that would provide the landscape for the play: the process of the placas (or tattoo) removal, after spending nine years in prison.

Salinas showcased a genuine relationship with his role, as his captivating acting skills effortlessly fused with his Salvadoran roots and Mission upbringing to become Fausto Carbajal, a familiar character from the barrio. He believes that “PLACAS” presents a unique opportunity as “this is a Salvadoran, Chicano-American reality,that is reflected very honestly—it will break the ice and create dialogue within the community,” Salinas said.

Using the placas removal as the centerpiece, the play unfolded into a story that delved into the many layers associated with gang violence. It cracked open topics like: immigration; self-hatred; the concept of family; the domino effect; the vicious cycle of perpetuated violence; identity struggle; the victimization of Latinos by the police; the role of community organizations; and the process of redemption, in an engaging, believable style, marked by elements of Salvadoran and Chicano “Spanglish,” poetic monologues and an impeccable comedic timing.

The characters were well developed and representative of the many personalities involved among these complex issues. San Francisco Excelsior district native Ricky Saenz, shined as he portrayed Edgar, the son of Fausto, a teenager who feels betrayed by his father and is in the midst of following his footsteps-a life full of gang-violence without any direction.

For Saenz, his performance was a product of what he grew up with.

“These are real problems,” he said. “And this story, that came from an organic place, has the potential to directly influence troubled youth.”

Actress Sarita Ocon displayed tremendous strength and dynamism as she accounted for three of the female Characters in the play: Liz the CARECEN therapist, Bugsy the gang member and Mama Nieves the grandmother.

“Doing my homework for these roles was essential to me,” said Ocon, who spent time at CARECEN and actually witnessed the tattoo removal process. “[It was] extremely important to approach this topic with a sense of accuracy and sensitivity.”

“Gang culture is especially masculine—but the issues involved greatly affect girls and women, and this perspective is hardly talked about,” Ocon said, adding that she hopes “’PLACAS’ can give girls and women a sense of empowerment.”

Overall, the play was loaded with powerful messages and beaming talent. The topic and execution was approached with a homegrown, realistic feel that upon exiting the theater worked to spark a dialogue among our neighborhoods.