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Street theater in Mexico City's rough Tepito area

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Photo - In this April 11, 2014 photo, people walk past graffiti reading in Spanish "We grow like steak," part of a theater project in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City. Neighborhood resident Lourdes Ruiz is one of four residents performing scenes about life in the neighborhood alongside four professional actors. "We grow like steak," says Ruiz in the play, explaining that with each strike of the mallet, a person expands. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
In this April 11, 2014 photo, people walk past graffiti reading in Spanish "We grow like steak," part of a theater project in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City. Neighborhood resident Lourdes Ruiz is one of four residents performing scenes about life in the neighborhood alongside four professional actors. "We grow like steak," says Ruiz in the play, explaining that with each strike of the mallet, a person expands. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Few outsiders dare venture after dark into Tepito, a neighborhood known as Mexico City's main clearinghouse for contraband ranging from guns and drugs to counterfeit sneakers.

But a theater project led by one of Mexico's best-known actors has been taking middle-class audiences into the lives of Tepito residents in recent weeks in an attempt to show the human side of the gritty area blighted by poverty and crime.

Traveling by foot and motorcycle, the participants move after dark along trash-strewn streets, then crowd into the cramped apartments of residents, who interact with professional actors as they perform fictionalized renditions of tales about their lives.

The small company led by movie star Daniel Gimenez Cacho has offered the experience known as "Safari in Tepito" since mid-March. The performances end this month.

Many attending the four-hour production say it helped them better understand an area they would not have visited otherwise.

"The play helped me see there are good people in Tepito, there are kind people, people struggling to improve their situation," said Christian Pimental, a 24-year-old who works in marketing and lives in a middle-class neighborhood. He said he had visited Tepito in the daytime as a child, "but I still wouldn't dare go there at night by myself."

People in Tepito, which has been the site of a huge open-air market since Aztec times, sometimes battle with rocks and bottles against police trying to conduct raids at houses believed to be storing drugs or pirated merchandise.

Adding to the tough reputation, Tepito and its residents have been hit by a series of violent tragedies in recent years. In 2010, a drive-by shooting there killed six youths. Last year, a dozen young people, most of them from Tepito, were abducted from an after-hours bar called Heaven in another neighborhood and turned up dead nearly three months later.

Organizers and attendees of "Safari in Tepito" say they aren't trying to exploit the residents' lives for their own entertainment. They say "Safari in Tepito" aims to increase understanding of the poor in a country where nearly 50 percent of the population lives in poverty.

"I have liked this neighborhood since I was young and I was worried that a place I love so much, that to me represents the heart of Mexican identity, could be defined only by how many dead people there were, or how much cocaine was trafficked," said Gimenez Cacho, who has starred in films by directors Pedro Almodovar of Spain and Alfonso Cuaron of Mexico.

Tepito residents, most of them merchants, have welcomed the visitors, and as the outsiders walk through the market they are invited to shop at vendors' stands or stay for a beer.

The theater project is modeled on "Safari in Slotermeer," a work produced by Dutch actress Adelheid Roosen in a heavily immigrant district of Amsterdam. Roosen traveled to Mexico to help set up the Tepito version.

To develop the scripts, four actors lived for two weeks in the homes of Tepito residents — a human rights activist, a man paralyzed from the waist down from a gunshot wound, a woman who supports her family selling makeup bags and cosmetic contact lenses, and a vendor known as the queen of "albures," or sexual double entendres.

Together, the actors and residents wrote two-person scenes dealing with abandonment, violence, sexual abuse, hope, female strength and love.

Before performances, each of the four actors leads 10 people through the neighborhood after sundown while members of the production walk in front of the group and others trail behind, guarding the participants. Plastic foam cups and plates are piled along curbs. Children fly kites of plastic bags and sticks among gutted cars.

The groups pass through the market, which bustles in daytime with sales of pirated DVDs, women's underwear, jeans and other items, most illegally imported from China. At night the clamor of commerce is replaced by norteno and brass band music booming from speakers near improvised sidewalk bars, and the smell of grilled meat gives way to the aroma of marijuana.

On a recent Friday evening, one group traversed a narrow hallway into the tiny apartment of Martin Camarillo, 35, paralyzed when he was 19.

Camarillo welcomed the audience into a bedroom barely big enough for his bunk bed. Actor Raul Briones lay on the bottom bunk and exchanged thoughts about fatherhood with Camarillo in his wheelchair. Camarillo talked about having to accept that he'll never have a child, and described his own father's alcoholism, womanizing and domestic abuse. The character Briones plays then said he was unsure he wants to meet his 8-year-old son.

Camarillo said he wants to show visitors the similarity of their lives.

"We are all the same people, with the same dreams, perhaps the same suffering," he said. "We want for people to know that in Tepito there are also people who work hard, who set up their stands early in the morning to give their family a better future, to give them hope."

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