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Street theater in Mexico City’s rough Tepito area

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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)

In this April 11, 2014 photo, Lourdes Ruiz laughs as she performs outside the Fortaleza housing complex where she lives in Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood. Ruiz is one of four local residents who teamed up with professional actors to write and perform fictionalized renditions of scenes from their own lives, dealing with themes such as child abandonment, violence, sexual abuse, hope, female strength and love. Ruiz, a vendor, is known as the queen of “albur,” a word-play based on sexual double entendres. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

In this April 11, 2014 photo, young men carry a coffin past the outside of a church as pat of a theater performance bringing together professional actors and local residents in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City. Named “Safari in Tepito,” the experimental theater project takes people into the cramped apartments of residents who perform fictionalized renditions of tales from their tough lives alongside professional actors. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

In this April 11, 2014 photo, Martin Camarillo, 35, who was paralyzed by a bullet when he was 19, performs a scene with actor Raul Briones as spectators crowd around them in Camarillo’s cramped bedroom in Mexico City’s Tepito neighborhood. Camarillo said he wants to show the visitors how similar their lives are. “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,” he said. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

In this April 11, 2014 photo, dolls sit on a couch in the apartment of Lourdes Ruiz in Tepito’s Fortaleza housing complex in Mexico City. A small theater company led by one of the countryís best-known actors recently began leading groups of people on evening walks and motorcycle rides through Tepito to show them the human side of a neighborhood identified with crime and poverty. (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

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