Street theater in Mexico City’s rough Tepito area

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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.

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