When creating the play Tiny Fingerprints, M.F.A. candidate Jaymes Sanchez wove an urban legend from his hometown of San Antonio, Texas into the framework of his script. In his exploration of grief and belief, Sanchez chose the famous haunted train tracks as a backdrop, testing the limits of his protagonist’s belief in this ghost story. To find out more about the original story and its retelling in cities across Texas, we spoke with Sanchez and a few of his Tiny Fingerprints collaborators about the haunted train tracks ahead of their performance as part of UTNT (UT New Theatre) this spring.
Give us a brief description of the ghost story. What was your inspiration for using it as the foundation of this play?
Jaymes Sanchez: “The story goes that a long time ago, probably some time in the early 1900’s, a school bus full of children stalled out on the train tracks and was hit by a train, killing everyone on board… Some people believe that the streets of a nearby neighborhood – Bobbie Allen Way, Nancy Carole Way, Laura Lee Way, Richey Otis Way – are named after children who died in the accident. In the decades since the supposed accident, people knew that if you parked your car in front of the tracks and put it in neutral, the car would roll over and past the tracks to safety. AND if you put baby powder on the back of your car beforehand, you would see dozens of child-sized fingerprints in the baby powder after.
It’s hard to say when I first heard the story as it felt like just a fact of life growing up in San Antonio. The tracks have always fascinated me. I love scary stories. They were a big part of my childhood. Many family gatherings included huddling up with my brothers and my cousins, taking turns telling ghost stories that we had all heard a thousand times but somehow never got old. And between the tracks, the Menger Hotel, The Alamo, The Missions, The Donkey Lady Bridge and many other sites, San Antonio is a haunted city. I have wanted to find ways to bring all of these unique places to the stage through my work.
I think the tracks have a lot of storytelling potential. They are a great catalyst for conflict between belief and non-belief. This works between people – believers vs. non-believers – but it also works within people, as an external image that captures the crisis of belief that a person could experience internally. I think that’s how I arrived at the image that starts the play, which also served as my first inspiration at the beginning of the writing process: a person sitting on the tracks and covering himself with baby powder, hoping to see and feel some kind of PROOF that will solve his internal conflict between belief and non-belief.”
How did believing (or not believing) in the ghost story effect your process when creating this piece?
Jaymes Sanchez: “That’s a great question. I think this play is not about making a choice between believing and not believing, but more about the experience of living in the conflict between wanting to believe but not being able to fully believe. That tension is where I live. One of the hardest parts of developing this play was trying to make sure that the play never gives a big revelation, never makes a claim about whether magic or supernatural things are real in the world of the play. I wanted to write a play that reflects my general outlook which is something along the lines of ‘I don’t know if any of this is real, but wouldn’t it be cool if it was?'”
In starting the rehearsal process for Tiny Fingerprints, it became apparent that Sanchez wasn’t the only one with an interest in the haunted train tracks. Many Texans across the state have a familiarity with the urban legend. We spoke with a few cast and crew members who shared an awareness of the tracks before joining the Tiny Fingerprints team about their own relationship with the legend and how it impacted their work on the show.
How did you hear about the haunted train tracks in San Antonio?
Simon Salinas Jr. (cast): “The first time I ever heard about the ghost tracks in San Antonio was from my parents. We always loved spooky stuff and had made plans to go visit them while we took a trip there but never were able to truly go. We talked about them all the time because rumor has it that something similar happened in my hometown (Sullivan City, Texas). Anytime we were sharing ghost stories, that was always one we’d turn to. It was a classic. This story was being told in the Rio Grande Valley, four hours away. Everyone knew about it.”
Raquel Schmidt Ramirez (cast): “I was told about the tracks when I was 10 years old. I was in the fourth grade. My small town in the south Houston area (Alvin, Texas) had a train that ran through, which I was told was the site of the school bus train collision. My friends and I lived very close and could hear the tracks, sometimes crossing them while driving through town, but I was certainly too scared to try it myself. Knowing it was a story in my town made me recognize the way the myth travels from ear to ear, telling a different story wherever it lands.”
Moriah Del Toro (cast): “I grew up in San Antonio so I have known about the tracks since as early as elementary school. That being said, there were so many different variations of what the actual story of the tracks was. The one used in Tiny Fingerprints is just one of the many I’ve heard.”
Amaya Coleman (cast): “My roommate is from San Antonio. One day she was telling me about all of the fun things in San Antonio and she began explaining the haunted train tracks. I was really interested in the myth around the tracks because I 100% believe in ghosts and spirits, but I’m one of those people who wants to see it for myself in order to completely believe.”
Miranda Luna (assistant stage manager): “I heard about the train tracks from my grandma who loves scary stories. I think I was about 7 or 8 when she told me the story and I remember my mom also knowing the story as well.”
Insha Noorani (cast): “My junior year of high school the choir took a trip to San Antonio and New Braunfels. The evening in San Antonio we got to walk around on the riverwalk and I went to a haunted hotel with some friends. I was curious about other ghost stories in the area so I did my own research and learned about the ghost tracks. I didn’t think much of them and kind of forgot that I knew about them until I read Tiny Fingerprints.”
How did knowing and believing (or not believing) in the ghost story effect your process when working on Tiny Fingerprints?
Moriah Del Toro (cast): “I definitely believed in the tracks when I was younger, but growing up and hearing so many other stories about the tracks kind of led me to assume that it really was just an urban legend. Nevertheless, when I first heard about Tiny Fingerprints being based on something that was so hugely part of the culture of my OWN hometown, it made me want to be a part of the show even more!”
Simon Salinas Jr.(cast): “Believing in the tracks has made this experience and process so much fun. I truly believe in ghosts and ghouls and everything else in between. However, there is so much evidence brought up from both sides of the spectrum – those who believe and those who don’t – that I truly feel like [my character] “Bobby Allen;” trying to decide for myself if it’s real or not. Right now I still believe in them, and I think that’ll be true until I experience it myself.”
Insha Noorani (cast): “Knowing about the tracks hasn’t really affected my process in this piece as much as I thought it would. I still don’t know whether I believe in ghosts and spirits. I believe in astrology and the energy of crystals but I think that life after death is such an insane and mysterious concept that I think trying to understand that while playing a skeptic [in Tiny Fingerprints] would put my brain in overdrive. I do think being a part of this show is helping me understand different ways of coping with grief and how belief can stem from trauma.”
Miranda Luna (assistant stage manager): “It affected me because I have a personal belief in the story and the things around spirits and ghosts so it gave me a sense of belief when working with the cast on a story that I believed was true.”
Amaya Coleman (cast): “In my opinion, this show is about how believing or not believing in something can affect a person. I think being able to truly believe in something whether it be ghosts or religion or anything else of the sort has been really beneficial in my process of understanding the script. We get to follow Bobby’s story, someone who believes almost to a fault. I think in my role as a ghost child, I get to determine how my choice to believe in things that can’t be proven affects Bobby as we are the personification of his thoughts but also the reality of the situation.”