Chelsea was the city that welcomed Jessica Armijo into this country.
It’s where she arrived 15 years ago, leaving her husband and little girl in Honduras to pave the way for their arrival. If the last years of her life were placed on a stage, this city would be her backdrop.
“Toda mi vida estado en Chelsea y yo de Chelsea no me quiero ir," Armijo said. "No me quiero ir porque este fue la ciudad que me abrió los brazos.” (“All my life [in the U.S.] I’ve lived in Chelsea and I’m not leaving Chelsea. I’m not leaving because this was the city that opened its arms to me.”)
On Sunday, Aug. 2, over Zoom, a group of artists spoke to the now 48-year-old Armijo for four hours to understand who she is: a mother, an immigrant advocate, a dancer, a volunteer. They channeled her life story into a piece of musical theater that debuts online Saturday night.
This was a part of an effort this summer by the Apollinaire Theatre Company to write and perform a new operetta each week about three Chelsea residents. They called this project "Chelsea People" and brought together composers, a director and cast.
The theater is using these hour-long digital performances as a way to bring the stories of the diverse community of Chelsea to life via Zoom with unique songs written about the experiences of real local people.
“It's just like these beautiful group of people with all different kinds of talent coming together and telling the most universal story about an incredible woman that, in our everyday lives, we wouldn't hear about," said Maya Manzanero-Lopez, one of the participating songwriters. "It’s like seeing a play about your neighbor.”
Manzanero-Lopez wrote an emotional ballad inspired by the anguish Armijo felt when briefly leaving her oldest daughter to come to the states.
It’s called “Te Prometo,” or “I Promise.” The lyrics, which are sung by drama therapist Marcia Aguilar, are told from the perspective of a mother explaining to her daughter why she must go, the pain of that separation, and the hope of reuniting.
“I want you to be brave,” Aguilar sings. “I’m leaving but my soul remains here.”
The theater company asked three key community organizations in Chelsea to nominate one person for each of the productions. Armijo’s colleagues at the Chelsea Collaborative thought of her right away. Gladys Vega, executive director of the nonprofit, says Armijo stepped in at the start of the pandemic when they were extremely short-staffed to volunteer and help run the food pantry and feed thousands.
“I called Jessica and I said, 'Jessica, I've got a donation of food. I have no volunteers. Do you think you can help me out, but let it be known that you are risking your life? ... And I cannot guarantee that you won't get sick,' " Vega said. "Immediately she came, she brought her husband. She didn't think about it. She's like, 'Give me five minutes, I’m changing.' "
Armijo assists with inventory, making sure they have the best ingredients for Central American favorites. Her dedication to advocating for the immigrant community in Chelsea is also something the operetta focuses on, with lyrics in English and Spanish, that highlights her activism and legislative work.
Composer David Reiffel said he took inspiration from School House Rock for one of his songs, with lyrics that he wrote based on instructions from the ACLU's website that help immigrants to know their rights when they're stopped by ICE.
Though he doesn't speak Spanish and Armijo doesn't speak much English, he and other composers said writing about Armijo and her determined nature came easily.
"[Armijo] really is a woman with a mission," Reiffel said. "It's very easy to latch on to and to create something from what she's talking about. Because it's so clear."
As a young woman, Armijo was a folkloric dancer who traveled with a company representing Honduras on tours. They were like another family, one she still misses after she left for the United States. Armijo and her husband spent seven years apart before she got her citizenship and was able to sponsor him and her mother. There’s a song by composer Allyssa Jones about their relationship, how he saw her and simply knew she was the one for him. All of these aspects of her life are woven into the play.
"The song takes place at the moment where he is about to walk out of where he's been living in Honduras to head to the airport," Jones said, "to finally be reunited with his family ... that kind of devotion and a partnership that's committed to what they see as a shared destiny was really, really moving for me."
Armijo said she is not one to brag about her accomplishments. In her words, "siempre te encuentras en el camino gente que te da la mano." ("You always find people that cross your path and are willing to give you a hand.") But she still holds on to the lessons she learned about how to adapt to situations and make it on her own.
“Cuando uno disfruta lo que hace independientemente de todos los obstáculos que se te aparecen, para mi han sido vivencias que me han enseñado a ser un poquito más fuerte de lo que soy," Armijo said. ("When you enjoy what you do, regardless of the obstacles that get in your way, these experiences have taught me to be a little bit stronger than I am.")
Armijo’s life, like all good tales, has universal truths. Love, family, hope. The operetta highlights a few chapters, while her life continues to play out in Chelsea.
Apollinaire Theatre Company's third operetta of the "Chelsea People" trilogy debuts Aug. 8.
This segment aired on August 7, 2020.