Here’s the gallery attendant — a student, true, but you’d think the campus culture vars wouId have made students more circumspect — telling me about his family’s South American bull breeding ranch, his dad, the foreign rep for Caterpillar and amateur bullfighter, his anthropologist mother, who lectures on rain forest Indians and for a while ran a shop selling tribal fetishes. This comes as he’s flipping through a stack of cards he brought out for me from a locked drop-box stenciled “FEARS," part of a new installation by Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Roberto Sifuentes called, believe it or not, “The Temple of Confessions.”
Someone’s next to us, draped over a kneeler. A well-pensioned couple circles a filled body bag on the floor behind us, “Indocumentado #00143019 Courtesy of the INS.” “Immigration and Naturalization Service,” the sunbird clarifies for his wife.
A hanged chicken swings like a censer over the supposed corpse’s chest, unplucked and badly ruffled. Near the entrance, where gallery attendants normally stand, a kid struggles to translate the greeting for his abuela, a wailful of silver graffiti that ends by explaining the installation is meant “to create a context in which to reflect on the mechanisms that shape our mythical perceptions of other cultures.”
Sifuentes and Gomez-Pena installed this temple three weeks ago in the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, and it’s going to end up costing the center more than the artists’ commission; one big donor already has withdrawn her $30,000 commitment to finance future projects at the museum. But like the other components of their “Cruzando Fronferas/Crossing Borders” exhibition, it’s also pulling people in. On this Saturday afternoon, I doubt all the confessionals in the Phoenix archdiocese will see as many visitors.
Most don’t confess, of course, just loop through the two rooms in a state, to borrow a phrase Gomez-Pena often assigns himself, of total perplexity. Each room ends in a reliquary altar to a kind of post-Chicano santo. We’re in the chapel of San Pocho Aztlaneca. Inside a Plexiglas case the size of a tool shed, a molded torso floats above a toilet, a side table offers for reading material Alan Riding’s 1985 Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans. WE INCARNATE YOUR FEARS, a neon bar sign screams overhead. The other room houses the altar to El Precolumbian Vato, another drop-box, and neon that announces WE INCARNATE YOUR DESIRES.
“The desires are just as good,” the attendant assures me, unlocking the “Fears” box and removing the cards visitors have filled out — a neat two-inch stack that proves he has been through them, plus a few recent additions. I wanted to know what some of the desires were. “Crazy things, real explicit,” he answers, “like what some guy wanted to do to three girls one night in Nogales.”
Many of the cards express the inverse fear: “When I see a Mexican or Mexican American man I cringe because I assume he’s going to make sexual advances to me,” goes one version. Others worry over Arizona becoming like Santa Ana, California, and Mexicans getting medical while Americans have to wait. An astonishing variety of Bible verse has been deposited, some so far from the point their only relevance seems to be that they were available to memory; a dense passage explaining how the Book of Mormon commands the writer — reluctantly, it sounds like — to accept all races; and a blanket “You treat your women like slaves and your pets like shit.” There are also dozens of thank-you notes, most in Spanish. And mixed into all these, on a card marked “Desire” but dropped here as a “Fear," someone wrote, “My sister works for the INS. I wish she could come see this installation. But she won’t. She likes her job and she’s Chicana. Mother crossed the border 30 years ago.”
When we’ve gone through the cards and the gallery traffic slows, a young woman, beautiful as a prison tattoo, comes up to the attendant and asks to buy a votive candle. Muttering something, she lights and places it before a portrait of a mustachioed bombshell in lingerie, one of a half-dozen gender-bending paintings by traditional Tijuana velvet painters Jorge and Beto Ruiz that line the galleries. I’m trying to hear what she’s saying, but instead the audio track that has been insinuating itself since I entered the temple finally breaks through, a woman’s voice erupting, “I want to confess all my sins, my terrible sins of wanting to be like the conquistadores, of forgetting the rebelliousness in my heart, of becoming like them.”
In a performance that opened the exhibition, Gomez-Pena and Sifuentes appeared as the temple’s two santos— Sifuentes, as El Precolumbian Vato, sat staring at a TV, a syringe aimed into his heart and then tongue, his plastic enclosure crawling with cockroaches and an iguana; Gomez-Pena, his jacket decorated with cheap tourist curios, sat on his toilet in a case filled with crickets. Visitors were urged to kneel before these figures and confess their fears of and desires for Mexico, Mexicans, and Latinos in general into microphones. Their admissions, they were warned, were being recorded and, after voice-alteration, might become part of the audio text for the installation.
“This is really pretty strange, kneeling here in front of you,” a woman blurts, inhales again, then launches in. “There was a man in Mexico who had a family, who lived on a dirt road outside this town where we were staying. I was invited into his house to sit at his table and have a cold drink with his family. His wife was there, and she was serving us these drinks, unaware that the man had made sexual advances to me, really aggressive advances, just before we got there. For me, that was very interesting as a cultural exchange, as an introduction to the culture. Afterwards this man and I stopped somewhere and were drinking margaritas and eating shrimp and not really understanding each other, but it went on that way for a while, it was really very pleasant.”
Minutes later, a man begins gravely, “I’m a photographer. I’ve spent time in Mexico. I’ve been to the interior. I’ve enjoyed the people of Mexico, the Indios. I think the government of Mexico is cruel. The government, the intelligentsia, the class system are to blame. I don’t think there will be peace in Mexico until there’s a government that allows everyone to share, especially the Indios. When I was in Mexico, I worked for a man, a client, who hated the Indios. And I used to tell him, ‘Gonzalo, the Indios are good,’ but he wouldn’t listen. I wanted to give them money, but he wouldn’t let me. I had to decide between pleasing my client and pleasing myself.... There’s a part of Mexico that scares me, it’s very cruel, but it’s also beautiful, primitive, and the people, the Indios, are closer to themselves.”
Coming in the middle of all the jokes and the cruelty and the Chicano rage Gomez-Pena and Sifuentes taped that day are several cultural memories like these, recovered from speakers who must have forgotten where they were or misread the artists or mistakenly believed their own memories aren’t apolitical. How else is it that even on their knees, in the middle of an art museum, in front of men whose entire work explores issues of cultural misunderstanding, they could go on thinking the circle of performance stopped short of them, that somehow they weren’t what we all are, the automatic, oblivious agents of history?
During the Northridge earthquake, the bungalow at the corner of 18th and Olympic in Santa Monica lunged from its foundation, landing on its chin. Chick-yellow, still immaculate, it was the last house among body shops and warehouses that dream of becoming art spaces. Now it tips so far forward that when you walk by you can see bare floor through the picture windows.
“It was really sad,” Guillermo Gomez-Pena says, as he sets himself to brewing coffee in the narrow kitchen of his loft down the block. “They were a Mexican family who had lived there forever. All that day they kept going in and bringing out their things, until everything was in the front yard. The viejo — he was very old, around 90, I think — had to be carried out. He didn’t want to leave.” To Gomez-Pena, who admits to being “mystified by the act of departure," who, in fact, has a small pack of shipping crates sprawled outside his front door, his neighbors’ stability may seem almost inconceivable. But the super-dramatic end to their stability is familiar, another installment in the experience of Mexican immigrants to the U.S., an experience he insists is epic in nature.
“It is very hard to understand a Mexican family without understanding its diasporic self,” he tells me.Membersofhisown family have been migrating north since the 1930s; his parents, determined to preserve family ties across the border, visited the U.S. family frequently. Gomez-Pena himself traveled here with his mother, an aunt, and a cousin in the summer of 1968, when he was 13. His uncle, a tailor in Montebello and a “wonderful, wild man,” he tells me, had been feeding Guillermo romantic anecdotes about East Los Angeles nightlife. His sister, meanwhile, was living near Sunset Boulevard with friends who were experimental filmmakers, photographers, writers; she’d been sending him postcards Makeup for Scottsdale performance and posters that fanned his desire to reach California. What he found, he says, was an incredible shock.
“I came straight out of a Catholic school in Mexico City, I had a crew cut, a Mao sweater, and I was extremely polite,” he laughs. “I had a very guarded experience, and I landed in the middle of this wild counterculture. There were parties at the house where my sister and her friends lived, and she took us to other parties; I got to see hippies for the first time, I got to buy my first albums of rock and roll, and ever)' day my cousin and I would walk up and down Sunset in total perplexity.”
After L.A., they visited other relatives in San Francisco, an even more intense scene; and then Guillermo went alone to Detroit, where his cousins picked him up at the airport and took him straight to a Spooky Tooth and Johnny Winter concert, and then to what he remembers as “a kind of acid party.” Gomez-Pena returned from that trip with his hair grown out, two suitcases full of psychedelia, and an image of the U.S., California especially, as “a land of hedonism and radicalism, an instant paradise.”
It was an intensified, upper-middle-class version of the mythical pull the U.S. was exerting on all Mexicans. So when he graduated from Mexico City’s Autonomous University ten years later, instead of following past Mexican artists to Europe, Gomez-Pena and many of his contemporaries came north to confront the culture that had already been shaping them. Returning to L.A. to study at Cal Arts, he discovered a country swerving toward electing Ronald Reagan president, little hint of the counterculture, and manv hard lessons about the realities of life for Chicanos in the U.S.
“In the past ten years Mexicans have become very politicized about the ‘other U.S.s,’” he cautions. “But back then I was a sucker, I fell into the trap. When I came to California in 1978 I had absolutely no idea of the pain and the violence and the sadness that permeates the Mexican-American experience here. My relatives had never talked about these things; it’s the one thing you don’t want to say, because it means a kind of defeat. So in that sense I was as much a victim as Mexicans who have never been to the U.S. of the powerful myths that existed then about the other side and about this magical experience that just by crossing the border you become more prosperous, you become more healthy, you will find a better job.
“I didn’t find my dreams, I didn’t find my myths. I found tremendous violence, sadness, and racism instead.”
Coffee-making is serious chemistry for Gomez-Pena, a selection of small pots offered at angles to the flame, and while he finishes I wander through the main room of the restaurant-sized loft he rents from Highways Performance Space. On the cement floor at the base of a support pillar 1 come across his newest installation — parts of some two dozen dolls and ceramics and an antique mask the earthquake shattered. A pastiche of contemporary to pre-Columbian shards, it follows the same aesthetic that operates in his work, the kind of fusion — “involuntary, vernacular postmodernism,” he calls it — that he says isn’t an art-school convention, but a straightforward representation of late-20th-century urban Mexican consciousness. With the antique Mexican furniture, a small museum’s worth of art by friends and contemporaries, bookcases crammed with English and Spanish texts, and everywhere paraphernalia pretending now to be objects but threatening at any moment to become props, the entire loft evokes both the comfortable abundance of a grandparent’s house and the scavenged improvisation of a squat, an apt atmosphere, in fact, for a paradox like Gomez-Pena.
For its recipients, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation award is meant to provide a kind of professional asylum, freeing them for five years from the tyranny of making a living and making no demands in return — at least in theory. But since few awards go unpunished in our culture, a MacArthur’s not pressure-free. The foundation itself doesn’t call its fellows “geniuses,” but the public does, often with a sneer that implies, “prove it.” And the awards can incite plenty of professional jealousy, particularly when they recognize fellows from fields where collaboration is common.
In the ten years fellowships were awarded before Gomez-Pena won in 1991, the MacArthur Foundation had recognized “highly talented individuals” in a full range of academic, scientific, and artistic fields, as well as in less traditionally honored pursuits like community organizing and political activism. Its $230,000 grant to Gomez-Pena acknowledged his work both as a performer and as a theorist of U.S. cultural politics.
A public performer whose work has always been insistently political, he couldn’t very well disappear for five years. Nor, he says, could he sidestep the implicit responsibilities such awards carry for artists of color to somehow represent their communities. (“Only MacArthur recipients of color are invested with these moral weights,” Gomez-Pena pointed out to me recently. “That doesn’t happen to a white Cornell scientist.”) The fact that it came in 1991, the year before the quincentenary of Columbus’s voyage, added to the sense of responsibility.
“Un chicalango [a Gomez-Pena invention: half Chicano, half chilango, a slightly derogatory term for Mexico City natives] conquista a los Estados Urtidos,” the Sunday magazine section of Mexico City’s La Jornada declared not long after the fellowship was announced. In that interview, Gomez-Pena attributed the recognition not to the quincentenary directly, but to the great cultural struggle Columbus’s landing had set in motion and to recent immigration-driven demographic shifts in the U.S. that were finally forcing these cultural issues. The U.S., he explained, was divided into two great forces that were fighting it out in the universities, the streets, the art world, movies, and the mass media: on the one hand, a growing “third-worldized” society within the U.S., and on the other a dominant culture bent on preserving itself by “first-worldizing” the sectors that were presently third-worldized.
A progressive institution, the MacArthur Foundation was clearly reaffirming its choice in the culture war when it commended not only Gomez-Pena’s performance work, but also his essays on multicultural theory. Since much of this theoretical work dissected the relationships between artists of color and the political and arts institutions of the dominant culture, the award had the ironic effect of making him into a laboratory to study his own theory — nailing him, in effect, to his writing.
La Jornada’s interviewer explored this irony repeatedly, asking finally whether the award left him in danger of being coopted. Gomez-Pena responded, “This is the eternal threat to all artists, that we have to deal with large institutions — the terrifying Faustian pact that each artist must confront at some point in his career. Ojala que no se me queman los bigotes,” he joked. I hope I don’t burn my moustache.
While the Mexican media reported the award enthusiastically, the press in San Diego, Gomez-Pena’s home for the previous eight years, wasn’t so celebratory. Two San Diegans won MacArthurs in 1991, Gomez-Pena and UCSD philosopher and neuroscientist Patricia Smith Churchland, and the San Diego Union-Tribune’s initial announcement of the prizes was straightforward and neutral. But that was followed a week later by a “Currents” front-page feature quoting former associates who questioned the choice of Gomez-Pena.
He says it doesn’t surprise him that the conservative Union went into the Latino community looking for controversy; the mainstream media as a whole loves this pugilismo, as he put it to me recently, loves to see intellectuals and artists of color beating each other up in public, since the disagreements bolster prevailing stereotypes that communities of color can’t get along. If it hadn’t been for the Union, there wouldn’t have been a controversy, he believes. As it was, the public discussion surrounding the MacArthur stretched what was already a strained relationship with the city into what Gomez-Pena, whose Mexico City origins reveal themselves in his frequent use of earthquake imagery, now calls “a rupture.”
He’s reluctant to talk about San Diego, a “bittersweet” period in his life, and when he does, his English delivery flattens. “People remember me two ways in San Diego,” he sighs as we sit down to coffee and take-out tamales. “Either as this controversial MacArthur genius — who should have been Chicano, not Mexican, who wasn’t ready yet, or that the prize should have been given to the entire community — or as a troublemaker.”
He was a troublemaker first, thanks largely to his public criticism of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s “Dos Ciudades" project. The project began as a grant proposal the museum (then called the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art) submitted to the National Endowment for the Arts soliciting funding for an exhibition of what had come to be known as “border art.” The proposal bypassed local institutions that had been nurturing this homegrown movement for years.
“When the La Jolla museum started conceiving the project, the issue of appropriation came up,” says Gomez-Pena, slipping into the passive voice, “and it divided the community tremendously. One group thought the concept, as it was described in the proposal, took over the language and ideas of those who had for years been creating and supporting this kind of work. People were being commissioned from the outside to come in and do quote-unquote border art, while the major players were set aside, left out, or offered minor commissions.” Many of these “major players,” particularly the founding and continuing members of the Border Arts Workshop/ Taller de Arte Fronterizo, had already been struggling with issues of appropriation.
By the time Gomez-Pena and all but one of the remaining original members left the group in 1989, BAW/TAF was being invited to exhibit in galleries and museums throughout the U.S. That fall, in an essay in High Performance magazine, Gomez-Pena worried that “the contemporary art world needs and desires the spiritual and aesthetic models of Latino culture without having to experience our political outrage and cultural contradictions.” Although the so-called Latino Boom had opened some doors for Latino artists, he argued, the real result had been a confused and divided community, where those who weren’t chosen were “slowly poisoned by jealousy and defeat.” He concluded, “If a monocultural organization wants to apply for funding to produce ‘multicultural work’ (and no one is questioning their right to do it) they must at least have the dignity to contact the various ethnic communities around them, ask for assistance, invite them to collaborate, and, if possible, hire people of color for permanent staff positions.”
By the time that piece appeared, the museum had recognized its error and extended to the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park an invitation to co-curate the “La Frontera/The Border” exhibit, which was to be the centerpiece of the “Dos Ciudades” project. The Centro was the birthplace of the Border Arts Workshop and the U.S. heart of border art. After an agonizing internal debate, the Centro staff, a reconstituted BAW/TAF, and some of its original members agreed to participate if a framework for true power-sharing could be created.
Gomez-Pena, three other former BAW ITAF members, Richard Lou, Roberto Sanchez, and Isaac Artenstein, and James Luna still refused commissions, and in 1991, just before the MacArthur was announced, Gomez-Pena published what he now laments as “the last impression the city had of me,” a searing piece in High Performance he titled “Death on the Border: A Eulogy to Border Art.” Border art, he charged, had become “a consumer monstrosity” and “a casualty of a dominant culture that continues to ransack ideas, images, spiritual strength, and exotic lifestyles from without and its own Third World within.”
Written at a time when “Light Up the Border” protesters convened every other week on Dairy Mart Road (doing its own “border art,” Roger Hedgecock is said to have told Richard Lou), Gomez-Pena’s article pointed out that despite the newfound commercial status of border art, “the border as a region of political injustice and great human suffering still exists. The border remains an infected wound on the body of the continent, its contradictions more painful than ever.”
In that article he “named names,” as he now puts it regretfully, denouncing in particular the new Border Arts Workshop members who agreed to participate in the museum’s “La Frontera" show. He also pronounced dead a project many San Diegans still saw as viable. It must be some measure of how tenuous success feels — is — for artists of color that many seemed to grant Gomez-Pena the power to kill it. For what he describes as a “small, very reactive, highly emotional piece written for a minor arts magazine,” Gomez-Pena says he got calls from artists who threatened to “beat the shit out of him” and hold him responsible if supporting institutions were defunded.
In a reunion of sorts for Gomez-Pena and San Diego, “La Frontera/The Border: Art About the Mexico/United States Border” now occupies the gallery across the lobby from the “Temple of Confessions” in the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Even in its abbreviated traveling form and without the work of those who boycotted it, “La Frontera” is riveting, an exhibit rich in both the humor and suffering that surround life along the border.
But the catalog the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Centro Cultural de la Raza published testifies to the depth of the soul-searching and turmoil the project provoked. Almost all the introductory essays grapple with the issue of appropriation, and nearly all agree that even if in “La Frontera" a mainstream and a community-based organization were able to work out a truly equitable partnership, such agreements remain pitifully rare.
Gomez-Pena is mentioned often in the catalog for his contributions to the movement and for his decision not to participate. In one blistering personal attack, a writer interrupts his own essay with a malevolent poem about a “cremita-high bred” performance artist who, having achieved success, went on a “country-crossing skid” and “halted near a wilderness outpost called uptown Manhattan.”
“The whole thing was very messy, and there was tremendous sadness,” Gomez-Pena says now, acknowledging that his move to New York, where he and partner and collaborator Coco Fusco were working on a commission from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, complicated matters. “There was a feeling in San Diego that I was a traitor because I didn’t stay in the trenches. I remember after the MacArthur, I got a letter from an artist I’d never met who called me an opportunist, saying that as soon as I could, I split. And the fact that this all coincided with my separation only made it seem more like I was fleeing town.” What some people in San Diego didn’t see, he insists, was that he'd already been leaving San Diego for three or four years. As a performer, influenced by a movement in performance art in the ’80s toward solo monologue pieces, Gomez-Pena had developed Border Brujo and had toured performing the piece throughout 1988 and 1989. At the same time, with the debate over multiculturalism raging, he says, "I really felt it was important to go national. Many Chicanos also went through that, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Danny Martinez, Ruben Martinez, Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, Chicanos who made a conscious decision that it was important to go and take care of other fronts, and other Chicanos chose to stay in their communities.
“We felt this was important because multiculturalism was beginning to be defined from the outside. Our voices were needed in the table of negotiation to participate in the definition of a new identity for America, because otherwise it was going to be defined for us. It wasn’t a pleasant role, but we had to be in the national conferences, we had to be part of this process of redefinition of culture and identity that America was undergoing at the time. At the end of those multicultural years, many chose to go back to their communities, and many chose to stay.”
It’s hard not to hear in the last phrase a touch of the exile’s irony. Even though he has been in and out of San Diego since 1991 for visitations with his now-five-year-old son, his trips have been quick, almost fugitive. Now, surveying this particular American kind of estrangement, he truly seems at a loss.
“What happened in San Diego I can only speculate — after all, truth is equidistant from the versions of all the participants in an incident. I just know we thought when the doors opened, many would be allowed in, and when only a few were, there was tremendous resentment. Those of us allowed in really thought we were going to be able to hold the door open. And sometimes we have been able to lobby institutions to let in others. But other times we’ve failed.”
- Como las aguas negras
- como el miedo a partir, a llegar
- como el sida y el terrorismo
- como la radiactividad republicana
- como la paranoia de los paises pudientes
- la cultura circula y se expande
- mas alia de las fronteras
- la cultura saliva
- y la bendita saliva de los amantes transporta el fermento de la esperanza
— From the text of El Fin de la Linea (The End of the Line), performed by the Border Arts Workshop at the border fence, Playas de Tijuana, and Border Field Park, October 12,1986.
Last year Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco performed The New World (B)orderat an international theater festival in Germany. Like many of Gomez-Pena’s performance pieces. The New World (B)order is language-driven, pushed forward, as the title suggests, by playful juxtapositions and puns. It also, like most of his work, explores the borders of languages, crossing back and forth between English, Spanish, Spanglish, Inglenol, and his faux-Nahuatl “personal Esperanto”; audience members either cross with him or are detained temporarily at these borders.
Before a German audience, of course, these borders multiply. The New World (B)order typically ends with Gomez-Pena decapitating a chicken — pollo in Spanish, also a term for undocumented workers; as he does, the text has him stuttering “ch-ch-chicken. Chi-can-o. Chi-can-o POWER.” On this night, to acknowledge the forbearance of the audience, he planned to add the alliterative tschuss, a slang German way of saying good night. It came out more like “juice,” and the audience “Hipped out,” as he puts it.
The organizers stormed into their dressing room demanding, “Why did you do that? It was completely unnecessary. Why did you have to mention the word ‘Jews’ when you were decapitating the chicken?”
Going too far, crossing the line, is performance art; one of its most important roles, Gomez-Pena admits, has been to transgress, to find and test borders. But if for other performance artists that means going to extremes, for Gomez-Pena it’s a return to the central immigrant experience. Barriers of race, language, and cultural identity mean the immigrants are constantly reenacting the physical border crossing; no matter where they settle, they continue to live along the border, which Gomez-Pena calls “the territory of cultural misunderstanding.”
He tells a story from his early days in the U.S. It takes place in a deli a few blocks from the Cal Arts campus in Valencia in 1978. “I walked in and there was a woman alone in the deli; she was about 35, a white suburban lady. I asked for a sandwich, and she prepared it for me but didn’t give me a napkin. At the time my English was very broken. I tried to remember how to ask for a napkin, and all I could say was ‘kidnap, kidnap,’ and do this motion,” he says, rubbing his balled hand back and forth across his moustache.
“She freaked out. She walked into the kitchen to call the police, and the cook, this huge guy, came and grabbed me." Too confused to resist, Gomez-Pena kept repeating “All want...is...kidnap, kidnap.”
The cook finally got it and released him, but the woman was still hysterical when he left.
“Many things happen when you cross a border, but one of the most fascinating processes that gets triggered is that concepts, metaphors, and symbols transmute, and we are not aware of the transmutation,” he explains, borrowing, as he does often, the jargon of semiotics. A friend of his from Mexico City discovered this in San Diego when the SDPD stopped him in the car he had borrowed from his local relatives. Reacting as he would have at home, his friend stepped out of the car, walked back, and put his arm around the cop’s shoulders — “part of the ritual of bribery in Mexico City,” Gomez-Pena interprets for me, “a very common ritual.” Naturally the man was knocked flat, cuffed, and hauled in for assaulting an officer.
Incidents like this are a major part of the Mexican-American experience, Gomez-Pena tells me. “We are constantly misread, our social behavior and our gestures are constantly misread, and because of that we are constantly getting into trouble.” He exhales a spear of smoke and ventures further. “I think that a lot of the Mexicans who are in jail today in California — not everyone, but a lot of them — don’t exactly know why they are there. They stepped in the wrong place with the wrong look speaking the wrong language; they were perceived as signs of imminent danger, they were treated as such, and they were forced to react out of fear or cultural misunderstanding, and a dramatic incident took place. I think cultural misunderstanding often triggers dramatic incidents that can eventually become real crimes.”
His own years here were full of what he calls the bitterness of being a Mexican on foot in San Diego. He arrived all but broke, forced by Mexico’s October 1982 economic collapse to cut short a bohemian stint in Europe with Poyesis Genetica, the performance group he had cofounded at Cal Arts. He pieced together work writing weekly columns for El Mexicano, La Prensa de San Diego, and Zeta while he and his partner Sara Jo Berman worked to resurrect Poyesis and began performing at the Sushi gallery and the Casa de la Cultura in Tijuana.
“My experience of San Diego was very sordid,” he remembers, “since it’s one of those cities you can only enjoy if you have money and if you prefer not to think much about politics and culture. I spent a lot of time downtown, very close to the invisible San Diego, the San Diego of the homeless, the San Diego of the prostitutes, the San Diego of the crack dealers and sailors — an extremely violent and lonely San Diego.”
He talks about a “process of criminalization” he went through at that time. Living in Imperial Beach without a car, he had a 20-block walk to the trolley, during which he was regularly subjected to questions from the police about what he was doing there and asked to produce his papers, in spite of the fact that police are not entitled to probe immigration status.
“In those days,” he recalls, “even the taxi drivers were in complicity with the police department and the Border Patrol, signaling them if people who were suspected of being undocumented were in the car. That was regular practice in San Diego, regular practice.” He says he began to feel the almost literal presence of a criminal double, a living projection of the ambient suspicions and racism, who would accompany him into the streets and who at any moment might provoke a confrontation. When he moved to Tijuana and started commuting back and forth every day, he found that even the humiliating experience of having his identity scrutinized became “normal.”
But the move across the border also made things more interesting, he says. Though he says the region has changed completely now, he remembers there were many fascinating processes happening along the border then, and certain spots were particularly revealing. “In Tijuana, Avenida Revolution had become a set design of U.S. fantasies about Mexico. The tijuanenses were very conscious that they were creating a scene that materialized all the dreams that Americans wanted to experience — like Margarita’s Village, the place where Americans are forced,” he puts himself in a headlock, “to drink a glass of tequila; the waiters were dressed as the bandito, la adelita, el torero, all these stereotypes, and they’d take the Americans by the throat and wrestle them, forcing them to drink.
“There were also the transvestite nightclubs, where many of the Marines went, not knowing the women were transvestites. It was like a double circle: the tijuanenses would go to watch the Marines going for it with the transvestites. These were, in a sense, small rituals of revenge,” he says with a touch of pride.
Meanwhile, in North County, he remembers, “there was an entire Mexican community living in the wilderness, in the canyons — living in conditions that were comparable to some of the worst conditions you could possibly find in Mexico, and sometimes with the total blessings of certain institutions. On terrenos of UCSD there were hundreds of migrant workers living literally in the wilderness.” And there was Tom Metzger’s menacing presence, whose publication The Torch was appearing all over San Diego.
At that time, the border itself was a neglected strip through the middle of these extremes. Now we have this fence that pretends it won’t even let the wind cross, a wall of salvaged iron ribbed like a Doberman; but when Richard Lou planted his “Border Door” near the Tijuana airport, the line was a few strands of barbed wire so exhausted they could hardly haul themselves off the ground for the few standing posts. In the ’80s it wasn’t as hard to see the border for what it is, something theoretical; Lou’s “Door,” though, was beautifully, absurdly real. Hung in a freestanding frame, it opened only from the Mexican side, where the artist had attached 134 copies of the key. (He also distributed keys in the Tijuana cobnias where would-be undocumented immigrants gather, personally inviting them “to cross the border with dignity.”)
The Border Patrol quickly hauled the piece away, but by then it stood as a clear concept in the minds of everyone who’d heard about it, a gesture of reconquest and the kind of inversion of power that’s at the heart of border art, a movement that reclaimed the border itself, of all places, as creative space.
“Every important cultural project comes out of the realization that there is a void, an empty space that has to be occupied, a missing.. .a missing voice,” Gomez-Pena says, recalling the birth of the Border Arts Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo, whose importance is the one thing the entire San Diego art community agrees on.
In 1984 Gomez-Pefna was crossing back and forth between what he calls his three border homes, the Casa de la Cultura in Tijuana, and the Centro Cultural de la Raza and Sushi in San Diego, institutions he credits with saving him from “sinking existentially” during his early years in the region. On both sides of the line he found artists who shared his sense that events in the region were momentous and careened toward an emergency.
At the Centro Cultural de la Raza, David Avalos and Victor Ochoa were vigorously applying Chicanismo’s activism and aesthetics to border issues; at the Casa de la Cultura in Tijuana, where Gomez-Pena was now a regular performer, Marco Vinicio Gonzalez had been encouraging cross-border collaborations between Mexican and Chicano performers; two Tijuana friends of Gomez-Pena’s, filmmakers Isaac Artenstein and Gustavo Vazquez, were talking about the need to create a border cinema; and Gomez-Pena himself, along with Vinicio and Maria Erana, had been working to increase the binational exchange of news, art, and information through his “Border Incorporated” information service.
By 1984, says Gomez-Pena, “the border was really more than a line, it was the center of a spiral, the epicenter of a cultural movement. What was happening in the region was an intensified example of what was happening in the larger landscape; our daily exchanges were more raw, more brutal and exaggerated versions of U.S.-Mexico relations in general. It was becoming clear that the destinies of the two countries were going to be determined, at least in part, right there at the border. That’s when many of us began to think of the border as a laboratory — as a place to witness the interactions between San Diego and Tijuana, between Anglos and Mexicanos, between Chicanos and Mexicans, and to develop social thinking and art that could articulate what we were witnessing.”
The Border Arts Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo came together to mount an exhibition for the Galena de la Raza in San Francisco in January of 1985. The original group, like all its future configurations, was international, interracial, and interdisciplinary. It included David Avalos and Victor Ochoa, Isaac Artenstein and Philip Brookman, Jude Eberhard, Michael Schnorr, Gomez-Pena, and Sara Jo Berman. The group brought together estranged art traditions, uniting Chicano public art and grassroots activism with the international avant garde and conceptualism, joining studio artists with public performers, journalists with filmmakers, balancing Chicanismo’s stance of directly challenging power with post-structuralists’ playful deconstructions of power relationships.
What the members shared was a sense that individual work was insufficient to the emergency and that collaboration was the only way to reconnect artist and community. They also saw their own coming together as a group — an extremely subversive act in itself at the time, Gomez-Pena reminds me — as a work in process, a performance of border culture, something Gomez-Pena defined then as “a process of negotiation toward utopia.”
While continuing to pursue individual projects, the group’s members met regularly to assess the border situation, share discoveries and ideas with colleagues who could translate them to other media, and plan their inventive group exhibitions. In exhibitions like the “Casa de Cambio,” created out of the Centro Cultural de la Raza in 1988, and the “911” exhibit installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s downtown gallery, BAW/TAF subverted the implied rules of museum and gallery spaces, making individual contributions into characters in a performance the visitors themselves entered. In “Casa de Cambio,” for example, visitors moved from installation to installation through a maze of passages re-creating, as they went, a border crossing.
The group also mounted occasional, spectacular collective actions, like the “Border Axis” project in San Francisco, transforming the Capp Street Project into an international cultural and media center that the group operated for an entire summer, and a post-Gomez-Pena trek implanting six-foot sculptural staples across the line from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, called "Border Sutures.”
On Columbus Day 1986, BAW/TAF performed The End of the Line at the place where the border fence meets the beach. Part serious ritual and part camp spectacle. The End of the Line was an early act of what Michael Schnorr termed “site redefinition.” A long table, painted to suggest a freeway, extended from the end of the fence. Personifying south-of-the-border stereotypes, the Mexican members of the group and other Tijuana performers sat on the south side, and the Anglo and Chicano group members lined the north. As a performer with a bullhorn broadcast a poetic text, the two sides rose and rotated the table, entering and occupying the “other side” illegally. Then they shared a meal, also illegally, across the border. After torching silhouettes of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria floating offshore, the performers invited guests and casual spectators on both sides to join the meal, and the scene turned from performance into party.
In one of our recent conversations, Gomez-Pena mentioned in passing how, as a performance artist, he’s allowed to exercise radical ideas without the fear of being arrested or deported. That’s a real fear for undocumented and documented foreigners in the U.S. who contemplate direct political action. But performing, Gomez-Pena was protected; he could, in broad daylight and in front of the media, walk back and forth around the border fence secure from interrogation. With the success and recognition BAW/TAF enjoyed in San Diego, Gomez-Pena started to test the artistic possibilities of this temporary protected status.
On the Day of the Dead, November 1, in 1987, Gomez-Pena, new workshop member Emily Hicks, and other performers from the group assumed the identities of border stereotypes again, this time for a “binational performance pilgrimage,” crossing in costume through the main U.S. Customs checkpoint, concealing tape recorders and trailed by other BAW/TAF members with cameras. This was passive performance, performance as social research.
Posing as a wrestler bride, Hicks refused to remove her mask for customs inspectors, insisting that revealing her identity would kill her character. Video artist Berta Jottar filmed as she was strip-searched, then finally allowed to enter the U.S. after letting an agent compare her face against her identification. At the same time, Gomez-Pena, masquerading as a blind man, was permitted to cross for the first time in his life without showing any papers.
Six months later, Gomez-Pena presented himself at the San Ysidro checkpoint as the Border Brujo, a character whose nine personalities dramatized the fragmentation of identity that all border crossers suffer. He and Tijuana performer Hugo Sanchez entered the U.S. and traveled on foot and by trolley to Balboa Park, where in a ritual death, Sanchez, as Pipila (the Mexican indigenous folk hero who survived a hail of bullets by covering himself with stones), gave life to the Brujo. That night as part of the “Casa de Cambio” exhibit, Gomez-Pena debuted the solo performance piece Bonier Brujo, a piece he says gave him a chance to fight back against his San Diego experience by taking the criminal identities the region assigns Chicanos and undocumented immigrants to ridiculous extremes.
A yearlong U.S. and international tour as the Border Brujo cemented Gomez-Pena’s reputation as a performer and earned him performance art’s Bessie Award in New York and the Prix de la Parole at the International Theater Festival of the Americas in Montreal. But when he returned to San Diego, the city seemed determined to remind him of his criminal other. He was detained three times in his first two months back in San Diego: once, walking out of his house carrying his own boom box, for stealing a radio; once for failing to answer a summons (issued while he was traveling) in a paternity suit that proved unfounded; and once, he says, when county marshals broke into his house at 7:00 in the morning, dragged him from his bed, and handcuffed him in front of then-wife Emily Hicks and their one-year-old son, charging he was a drug dealer.
Each incident, he was later told, had been a case of “mistaken identity.” “Was there another Guillermo Gomez-Pena who was a baby-making, drug-dealing radio stealer, or were these really cases of mistaken identity?” he now pretends to wonder. In fact, he tells me, his landlord eventually confessed that the San Diego district attorney’s office had made several calls in the weeks before his return, hinting that Gomez-Pena was under some kind of investigation. The string of run-ins stopped when Gomez-Pena fought back in another medium, making them the subject of one of his regular Crossroads broadcasts on National Public Radio.
But on April 8 of last year, during one of his weekend visits with his son in San Diego, Gomez-Pena found himself at the center of a performance that so epitomizes the persistant cultural misunderstandings Latinos face in the region, he now calls it simply “The Incident.” He met his ex-wife and son for lunch at Chez Odette in Hillcrest around noon; after the meal, which Hicks later told a reporter “was so homey, it was like a Hallmark lunch," Gomez-Pena retrieved his son’s suitcases from her trunk, and the two took a cab to Isaac Artenstein’s house in Coronado.
Around two o’clock, walking with Guillermito in the park, Gomez-Pena was stopped by a Coronado policeman who wanted to know if they’d eaten in a Fifth Avenue cafe and then taken a cab to the island. When Gomez-Peha said they had, the patrolman radioed San Diego police and announced, “I have the suspect.”
The only explanation he would give Gomez-Pena was that he was cooperating with SDPD and that it had something to do with a kidnapping. That was enough. Gomez-Pena could see he stood accused of kidnapping his own son.
“I vaguely remember two blond women staring at us while we were eating in the restaurant,” Gomez-Pena says. At 12:10 p.m., as the four-year-old boy (who, as it happens, is fair and blond) colored with crayons and planned his weekend with his father, one of these women placed a 911 call, reporting that a Latino man with a moustache and ponytail and a suspicious-looking woman were sitting in the cafe with a boy “who didn’t look like he belonged to them” and “who was clearly being held against his will.” The man was speaking Spanish, she noted, claiming in spite of the language barrier to have ascertained that he was trying to bribe the boy with presents and planned to take the boy to Mexico. At the end of the meal, the women followed the three outside, calling police again to report that Gomez-Pena had “forced the boy into a taxi” and relaying the license plate numbers of the cab and Hicks’s car.
During the 45 minutes they spent in the custody of the Coronado policeman waiting for San Diego officers to arrive, Gomez-Pena says he kept reassuring his son that “it’s just a movie, don’t worry.” When he was finally allowed to identify himself and produced what he calls an integral part of his “Mexican survival kit” in the U.S., his press card, the patrolman, in Gomez-Pena’s words, “turned purple,” taking aside the San Diego officer to warn him that Gomez-Pena was a journalist. The SDPD officer immediately backpedaled and, when Gomez-Pena demanded an explanation, told him about the women’s calls and an ensuing manhunt that had extended to the border and involved several helicopters. The search climaxed when, led to Artenstein’s home by the cabbie who had delivered the pair, four SDPD officers crashed the house, guns drawn, and searched every room.
An SDPD spokesman later told an L.A. Times reporter that only one helicopter had been dispatched, but the department’s aggressive reaction had been warranted, pointing to the recent abductions and murders of two children in the San Diego area. What he didn’t mention, Gomez-Pena points out, is that in the recent kidnappings, the criminals have been Anglo.
This incident happened just as Gomez-Pena was moving back to California after three years in New York. “In many ways it was a kind of baptism,” he says a year later, “a sinister return ritual. It made me very aware of the current climate in California, of the resurgence of this virulent xenophobia. I realized that I was coming back to a part of the country that’s in a state of emergency, and I was going to have to be in a constant state of alert. I really felt my own fragility, and the fragility of my son.”
For his son, he says, it was an even more significant initiation. “It made him aware of racial matters for the first time in his life. After a week of police and the media and the repeated discussions, he started asking questions — ‘Why is it I’m pink and you’re brown?’ he asked me. In school, he dropped his Spanish surname when he signed his names to drawings, and he stopped speaking Spanish, thinking that speaking Spanish means trouble, hanging around with his father means trouble.”
Seeing this, Gomez-Pena immediately took his son to Mexico for several weeks so he could again experience the language in a nonthreatening context. “Now, because of his wonderful, magical mind, he remembers what happened as a dream."
But for Gomez-Pena himself, “San Diego has become a symbolic territory of danger. When I’m there, my blood boils. I’m self-conscious walking with my son in public. I know there’s an irrational aspect to this, and I’m trying to face that, since I know I’ll be bound to San Diego for many years to come through my son, my nephews, my sister, and many dear friends who are still living there.”
But there are at least two rational aspects to his reaction as well. “I’m still shocked and indignant that the press in San Diego didn’t want to take part in the story at all. The Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, the Mexican print press, Univision, all mentioned the incident, but not one article about it appeared in San Diego,” he says. “And then there’s the unwillingness of the police department to admit its authoritarian behavior and accept its mistake — ” He starts again, even more forcefully, “Their moral incapacity to ask for forgiveness has just confirmed for me the fact that California is a police state for Latinos. It might be a democratic society for an Anglo-American middle class, but for African Americans and Latinos, that’s what it is.”
I’d been wondering, considering the incident, the new stadium-type lights at the border, the decidedly nonutopian disintegration of the original Border Arts Workshop, if the mid-to late ’80s hadn’t been San Diego’s little Prague Spring, a moment of creative hope before the door slammed closed.
Gomez-Pena admits that for a group of artists to pretend they’re going to improve U.S.-Mexico relations and intercultural relations in the U.S. is utopian, wishful thinking, maybe. But he sees new hope at least for a cross-border dialogue in the wake of NAFTA, which he in fact opposed. “One of the few good things about NAFTA is that Mexico is going to become an ongoing presence on the U.S. psyche. The U.S. already is an ongoing presence in Mexico — Mexico’s always looking north — but right now, when the U.S. looks south, it’s to talk about the evils of immigration or corruption or some aspect of this Dantean view it has of Mexico."
The way the U.S. now deals with binational issues is to decontextualize them, de-historicize them, Gomez-Pena says. Immigration, for example, gets presented as a budget problem, a unilateral U.S. problem. Once that happens, according to Gomez-Pena, it’s easy to propose unilateral solutions like militarizing the border, denying public services, and dismantling existing support systems for immigrants, and to forget that doing this only contributes to the growing nationalism within the Chicano and Mexican communities.
“This isn’t radical politics," he says with irritation. “This is an obvious truth: A disempowered community is much more defiant than one treated with equality.”
Real solutions depend on abandoning our binary us/them, English/Spanish model and thinking in more multidimensional terms. In the case of immigration, that means simply “that we in the U.S. need to recognize that both sides feel uprooted, threatened, displaced. Both sides fear for their jobs, fear that there won’t be enough food or enough housing for everybody.” Nurturing this kind of multidimensional thinking is the only way, says Gomez-Pena, of convincing conservatives in both countries to adopt a less defensive and more productive attitude.
That’s still going to be a painful process, especially for North Americans, he warns. “Before it happens we have to open the wounds, we have to name things the way they have to be named — not in a personal way, in a political way. We must be willing to talk about the inequality of power and about privilege. That will be tough for many institutions. We have to be willing as a society to remember the U.S.-Mexican war, the massive deportations in the early part of this century. Operation Wetback, the Zoot Suit Riots, and what Leslie Marmon Silko calls ‘the amputation of a territory’ — the theft of half of Mexico. That loss still lives in the Mexican psyche, which definitely isn’t the case in the U.S. The U.S. has to come to terms with this pain and with its historic responsibility to Mexico.”
Daunting as that is, clues already exist in the works of border and Chicano artists that can help negotiate this territory. “I still think border culture is what’s needed right now, the wisdom culture provides. I really believe that U.S.-Mexico relations won’t improve unless we have the valor to put on the table all our weakness, our racism, our sexism, to analyze collectively all these mechanisms and to create a very insightful metalanguage about them, to make art in the space between, to make art about the border zone between Chicanos, Anglos, and Mexicans.” He reflects for a second and then adds, “And of course the real task is how you then transfer these cultural models to the political territory.”
Coming across the George Washington Bridge last November on my way to see The New World (B)order at the Dance Theater Workshop in Manhattan, I caught a broadcast of the Guatemalan rebel army’s clandestine radio station being replayed over a local Spanish-language station. It was a bracing shot of spirited talk and music followed by a long, shockingly long, recap of the week’s skirmishes. I’d been living upstate in the Adirondacks, the unsatisfactory end to my own search to find a little asylum from L.A., and in three months I hadn’t heard a single report from Guatemala.
As traffic braked and then advanced down the West Side Highway about as fast as the lines at the San Ysidro checkpoint, I remember feeling for a moment dangerously unprepared — and then, looking around, deliberately resetting my expression to hide that feeling.
After the UNRC report, an announcer interviewed Gomez-Pena a in the station’s studio. Ostensibly a promo for that night’s performance, the conversation in fact roamed from art to culture to politics and included a particularly revealing look at the recently ratified NAFTA. If there’s sometimes a diplomatic suavity to his English, Gomez-Pena’s voice in Spanish has direct authority, and released from the need to supply background and context, he argues his points with straightforward efficiency.
That voice, the artist as political analyst and social commentator, is a familiar one in l.atin America, and throughout his career Gomez-Pena has been looking for ways to participate similarly in U.S. policy debates. He talks about speaking from the center, not from the margins, not from the limited status afforded artists, and artists of color in particular. At that moment, in that morass of traffic where anger was finding dozens of different languages, it felt as if he was getting close.
The performance that night felt exactly the opposite. The Dance Theater Workshop is like a speakeasy; you enter a blank doorway on a dismal warehouse street in Chelsea, climb narrow stairs, and find yourself among a hundred or so people who all seem to recognize one another. (Even I, after five years in California and three months nowhere, ran into somebody I knew.) Although multicultural in a strict, check-the-box sense, the audience was monochromatically cool and received The New World (H)order's nine prophecies for an inverted, post-global-free-trade world like dim sum at their favorite spot, knowing and delighted.
When Gomez-Pena and co-performers Coco Fusco and Roberto Sifuentes returned for a discussion after the show, most of the questions seemed contrived to reveal how thoroughly the asker had gotten it. The only moment of contention, a debate over the decapitation of the chicken, passed quickly, to the relief of the performers; the night before, animal rights activists had completely hijacked the discussion. Incendiary as the vision of The New World (Blonder is, that evening it was contained completely by the audience and the location, a controlled burn at a very safe distance from the political territory.
“No matter what we do, we have a very restricted impact, especially in America,” Gomez-Pena now observes. We’ve been talking about how free he feels these days as a performance artist, an art he adopted, he says, because it allows him to exercise the freedom that society has denied him. He credits many generations of predecessors for conquering this freedom, which he in turn preserves by practicing, though he acknowledges that this quest has led the public to typecast performance artists as iconoclasts.
In that respect, he comments, “It’s harder for us to prove we’re intellectuals and not just professional provocateurs or emotional troublemakers. We have to fight hard to be covered in anything but the calendar section of the newspaper. We’re hardly ever covered outside the restrictive confines of art reviews or in mild features that decontextualize the artist and the art. When my work is covered not as an art review or human interest story, but as news, I am extremely proud. Art should be covered as news, but it never is in this country.
“When do I enjoy a sense of cultural or intellectual freedom?” he puts the question to himself again. “When I’m able to step outside of the art world. When I’m doing a broadcast on national radio or PBS and no words are bleeped or when I have involuntary audiences who aren’t art audiences. That’s when I feel empowered, when I feel like I’m making a difference.”
“Are you making a difference?” I want to know.
He smokes for a moment. “The most one can aspire to is to be a reformer,” he begins soberly. “I mean, the only hope we have — or else we would commit suicide, really, or turn into bartenders — is to think of our minute, minute contribution as part of a continental effort and that it might change a little bit the perspective. No one human being or group of individuals can really produce change, but perhaps the minuscule effort that we make and the effort of all our colleagues working in the territories of law, academia, journalism, art, activism, and education throughout the continent might add up to something.
“The debates that the U.S. is undergoing are not particular to the U.S. — the debate of decentralization of culture is a continental debate, the redefinition of notions of identity and nationality is a continental debate, the relationships between indigenous cultures and Euro-American culture remains a problematic one throughout the continent. The role of the artist is being discussed from Argentina to Alaska. Everything in America makes us think we are alone, marginal, but we really have to fight this and realize we’re part of a continental project. And that’s really where I see my role, only that,” he concludes emphatically.
As a performance artist “you’re constantly scrutinizing yourself, changing strategies — so you can’t possibly believe that what you’re doing is great. If you do, you can easily get lost in hype, fall into the false heroism of the performance artist as anti-hero. There is such a thing,” Gomez-Pena assures me.
“Even radical artists are intellectual commodities,” he adds finally. “It’s something that we have to fight constantly, because that is the death of freedom. Part of the role of the performance artist is to constantly redefine our role and to constantly redefine our position in relation to the dominant culture and the alternative institutions. We are the closest in the art world to journalism. Our job is to be always in the center of the wound, to be in the epicenter of the earthquake, and to make a chronicle out of it, or a counter-chronicle.”
Collaborating with artist and critic Coco Fusco, Gomez-Pena’s most penetrating work since leaving San Diego has probed the mechanisms of his own “discovery” by Anglo audiences and institutions. The U.S. mainstream still gains access to “the other” through commodification and consumption, argues Fusco, citing the “yuppification” of Latin American objects and consumer goods. Ethnicity becomes a vicarious emotional experience for mainstream audiences, while the exchange itself reasserts their power. It is a process that dates back to the original “Discovery." An effect of this, Gomez-Pena writes, is that Latin Americans have absorbed this identity as the object of European contemplation and at times still cater to that desire by presenting themselves as frozen in certain historical moments.
That’s precisely what Gomez-Pena and Fusco did to explore this neocolonial relationship. On March 4,1992, they premiered at UC-Irvine Two Undiscovered Aborigines Visit Irvine, a piece that in its life would expose more of these mechanisms than they would have dared to hope. The two posed as a pair of Amerindians from Guatinau, a fictitious Caribbean island somehow bypassed by the European conquest, putting themselves on display inside a 10-by-12-foot cage. Even before the opening, the piece was working. The pair’s stated intent to remain in the cage throughout the three-day performance prompted a flurry of memos from the university’s environmental health and safety office to the art department, outlining the proper disposal of human waste and listing a number of diseases transmitted through feces, particularly the feces of “rural peoples” of the world.
Those who visited the exhibit had plenty of clues that these weren’t real aborigines. Gomez-Pena was dressed, he says, like an Aztec from Las Vegas, and Fusco like a bad dream on Gilligan’s Island; their “native rituals” included writing on a lap-top computer, watching videos, and reading Vogue magazine. For $1.00 visitors could pose for a photo with the pair, who donned sunglasses and leaned on the bars with bored indulgence. To appease the concerns of environmental health and safety, they were periodically led to the bathroom on leashes by students posing as museum docents. These docents also hand-fed the pair through the bars. At a ceremony on the second night, the dean of the school of fine arts drove home the satire, reading a speech praising the display as “in the finest tradition of multicultural education.”
During their three days in the cage at Irvine, they discovered that even some of those who got the joke still entered into colonial behaviors. Docents gave the visitors the option of putting on surgical gloves and touching the specimens, and people “really went for it,” says Gomez-Pena. One, a conservatively dressed Orange County businesswomen, reached straight for his crotch. They emerged from the performance stunned by what they’d experienced and, after deciding to prohibit touching in the future, determined to carry the project further. That summer they presented the piece in London’s Covent Garden, and then, returning to the very heart of the matter, in the Plaza de Colon, Columbus Plaza, in Madrid.
In Europe, without the superimposed meaning of a museum space, half of those who saw them thought they were real. Many Londoners complained not about the idea or the exhibiting of humans, but the immorality of Fusco’s outfit, a leopard-print bikini top, grass mini-skirt, and Converse All-Stars. Businessmen stood against the bars grunting like gorillas. The top of the cage was open in London, and once, after Fusco had been led away to the bathrooms, seven skinheads scaled the bars, apparently planning to attack Gomez-Pena. Another group rushed forward to pull them down.
In Spain, where half a millennium ago an Arawak Indian that Columbus had brought back from the New World remained on display in the Spanish Court until he died and where, according to Gomez-Pena, the people are still completely unwilling to deal with the issue of colonialism, viewers complained unceasingly about the possible damage the exhibit might do to their country’s image during the Olympics and Columbus celebrations. Teenagers were especially aggressive, offering Gomez-Pena cigarettes and then, when he reached through the bars, grabbing his arm and burning him. The artists were doused with wine, handed beer cans filled with urine. Spanish businessmen — “these extremely suave, urbane-looking men,” says Gomez-Pena — bombarded Fusco with endless and violently explicit vulgarities.
Back in the United States, the two found their involuntary audience in October, in Washington, D.C., when they set up the cage in the rotunda of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The museum, which houses several rooms of anthropological dioramas, entered into the project in the spirit of self-criticism but grew increasingly nervous, finally notifying Gomez-Pena and Fusco it was canceling the event. The pair argued forcefully, and ultimately successfully, to reinstate the project, assuring the museum’s administration that “we are not the enemy, we’re not cultural terrorists. We are part of this process of reform that you are undergoing, too, so we are on your side.”
On the first day, thousands of visitors saw the cage. Many seemed confused, unable to reconcile their discomfort at the display with their unshakable faith in the institution. One outraged woman, however, called the Humane Society to complain that the museum was keeping humans in cages; humans, she was told, were out of the Humane Society’s jurisdiction. When a critic finally convinced her that this was a performance, she allowed that she understood their message. “But they could think of a more tasteful way to do it,” she insisted.
The last performance of the cage piece was at the opening of the Whitney Museum’s biennial exhibition in March 1993, and with it the issues it explored came full circle. Presenting the work of more than 80 artists from diverse backgrounds, the 1993 biennial was one of the most aggressive attempts by a mainstream museum to correct the past predominance of Anglo artists, and the art world hated it.
“It was really a daring gesture,” Gomez-Pena says. “The biennial brought multiculturalism into the heart of the art market, and people freaked out. Never before had a Whitney biennial been attacked so unanimously and so viciously. An art critic I know has a file of all the reviews, all the backlash articles, and they number in the hundreds."
The real issue behind the backlash, suggests Gomez-Pena, is money. “It’s one thing to have multi-culturalism in alternative spaces, in universities, and in the education department of museums, but it's another thing to bring multiculturalism to the core of the art world. That’s what the Whitney is, and one of the purposes of the biennial is to define trends and set values. When this biennial opened, collectors were calling and screaming, 'What are you doing to my prices?’ ”
In his own negotiations with cultural powers, Gomez-Pena now says he seeks a balance between exposing and forgiving past mistakes. When he accepts an invitation to perform or create an installation, he says he tries to use the institution as a base of operations and connect with other grassroots community organizations. He hires and works with local Latino artists who help install the projects, “so that when we get in, a lot of us get in,” and demands that the institution that invited him carry through on its commitment to the project, even when it draws criticism. And in the project itself he looks for ways to “problematize" the institution’s historical relationships with communities and artists of color, as he and Fusco did when they presented the cage piece in the Smithsonian.
“Institutions cannot totally co-opt us,” he says with confidence. “There are a lot of invisible sides of ourselves. A museum may invite us and may even co-opt that project, but not everything else we do while we’re in that city that’s invisible to them. They may know what we’re doing with the left hand, but they don’t know what we’re doing with the right. They may co-opt part of us, which is fine. They’ll never have all of us.”
It’s six o’clock, and Santa Fe cues a spectacle: a quick snow squall with Hakes like Styrofoam beads that blows apart just as the sun sets. “Beautiful, isn’t it," a bass voice calls. Across the street a black-hatted Native American nods west, then turns back to me. When I answer where I’m from, he wants to know more precisely. “I spent some time downtown, on Winston, between Ijos Angeles and Main,” he explains. “Yeah, I know, Skid Row,” he laughs easily when I recognize the address.
His name is Harley. We’re on the same sidewalk now, and quoting his grandfather’s wisdom on preserving beauty, he has me stop to look into the cobalt heart of a particular cloud; he’s a sculptor himself, he explains, and he’s trying to get to the middle of it. Rut the playful, shifting edge to his delivery undercuts what he’s saying, making the exchange a beautiful, multilayered street performance, both real and a hustle.
Gomez-Pena told me he’s nervous about Santa Fe. He’s never performed here and knows its reputation as a conservative arts community. With its deeper ties to la tierra and to the church, the Chicano community, too, Ls very different from urban California’s — less in-your-face, as Gomez-Pena puts it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a community in crisis.
At the edge of Old Santa Fe, I pass a wall sprayed “Save Atalaya,” the mountain on the northeast border of town that Shirley MacLain owned and proposed bulldozing the top off for her estate. A few blocks later I’m into Santa Fe’s galleries, which deliver either straight ethnic heritage or contemporary work that already carries the art world’s seal of approval.
Last fall Laura Carpenter, whose gallery shows blue-chip New York and international artists, joined with her principal benefactor to announce “Site Santa Fe,” an exhibition of work commissioned for locations around the city, scheduled for summer 1995. The original press release touted the city’s “tripartite heritage originating from the distinct cultures of the Pueblo Indians, Spanish colonial settlers, and pioneer European Americans.” The exhibition, it promised, would explore social, environmental, and cultural issues and “serve as a new model for international representation and exchange in the visual arts by addressing the interrelationships between the local and the global concerns of contemporary artists.”
By January, the curator hired to assemble artists for “Site Santa Fe" had resigned, and the project was in shambles. The board of directors had reviewed the visual material she submitted and rejected 15 of the 20 artists she had invited, a group that included Daniel Martinez, James Luna, and in fact all but one of the artists of color on the original list. Andres Serrano, the lone nonwhite survivor, subsequently withdrew from, the project, along with local organizations like the Institute of Native American Arts, whose students had hoped to collaborate on Luna’s installation.
The “Site Santa Fe” board insists the exhibition will still happen. The decision to uninvite 15 of the original list was purely aesthetic, they maintain; the show Jacobs planned was too conceptual, where they wanted something more visual and accessible to the public. Local artists I spoke with translated that to mean more commercial. But a few tied the decision to the backlash: To hell with multiculturalism, was the message they were hearing. Let’s do something that really sells.
Luna and Gomez-Pena worked together at the Smithsonian last June, performing a piece they titled The Shame-Man Meets El Mexican't at the Smithsonian Hotel and Country Club, an installment in an ongoing performance discussion. Since this show was coming only a year after their experience with the cage piece, the Smithsonian watched the project closely, sitting in on rehearsals and asking questions. It didn’t block the performance but did drop the piece’s title from the press release and barely publicized the afternoon portion of the performance, in which Luna and Gomez-Pena acted out displays among the museum’s anthropological dioramas — Luna as an “Indian vacuuming” and Gomez-Pena as a straitjacketed mariachi wearing a sign declaring, “There used to be a Mexican inside this body.”
During the evening’s performance, Gomez-Pena demanded of the audience, “Would you accept me for your permanent collection? James, would you like to be in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection?” “I want to go home to the reservation and be an Indian," Luna answered mournfully.
Tonight is the second of two Santa Fe performances of The New World (B)order. By 6:30, a half-hour before the performance is to begin, the lobby of Santa Fe’s Museum of Fine Arts is jammed, and when the doors to the St. Francis Auditorium finally open, nearly a thousand people funnel in. For Exile Santa Fe, a group dedicated to bringing politically challenging work to town, performance art in particular, it’s a crossover event, their first to be held in and co-presented by the museum — southwest art’s ultimate shrine.
The St. Francis Auditorium itself was copied from the mission church of Acoma, “the Sky Pueblo." In the original, we’re meant not just to marvel at the levitation of the massive timber beams, but the apparent miracle of their presence there, since no trees of any size grow within 75 miles of the mesa — though the truth, as usual, is mundane, brutal, secular.
Surprisingly for a public space, religious details have been added here, not de-emphasized: a huge organ stage right, stern pews for seating, and on all the walls a series of frescoes depicting Franciscans’ adventures. Above the pew I’ve squeezed into, I swear, there’s one titled “A Franciscan Preaches to the Mayans and Aztecs.”
Here Sifuentes and Gomez-Pena are happily iconoclastic. Before the triptych “The Renunciation of Santa Clara,” a cruciform skeleton seems to be falling into a dive; the chicken is drawn tight to one side; some unholy hip-hop plays. A local performer, tonight serving as curator of “The Generic Primitive and Clepto-Indian Museum,” introduces “The Couple in the Cage,” Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia’s video record of the cage piece, interspersed with documentary footage of actual human displays like “The Nine Largest-Lipped Women of the Congo” the Ringling Brothers exhibited in 1931.
Before The New World (B)order begins, Gomez-Pena dedicates the performance to the memory of Pancho Ortega. On the anniversary of the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles last year, Ortega, who was brandishing a steak knife, was surrounded, shot, and killed by Santa Fe police, an incident that ignited the Chicano community. Santa Fe’s mayoral election is a week away, and how the candidates responded to that shooting remains an unspoken issue in the election. The dedication’s a return gesture for a reception local Chicano leaders, many of whom told Gomez-Pena they never entered the museum, held last night to celebrate the performance. That party outlasted the security staff s patience, moved down the street to the main plaza, where someone opened his bookstore, and continued until five in the morning.
The audience tonight is maybe two-thirds Anglo. Some, like the couple beside me, don’t know what to expect beyond what they read in a short newspaper feature early in the week. Through the first three prophecies, an old Chicano keeps shouting, in Spanish mostly, but twice in English, “Let them laugh, they don’t understand,” but not everyone is laughing. The piece has already lost two women behind me; when one complains about the amount of Spanish, the other complains loudly, “I can’t understand the way he speaks English.” Gomez-Pena seems to absorb and return the antagonisms, sharpening the edge of lines like one ridiculing the “art hanging on the walls of idiotic tourists like you.”
At the end of the piece, Sifuentes, stripped to his undershirt and bloody from disemboweling the chicken, sits side-by-side with Gomez-Pena, their arms behind their backs and bags over their heads like hostages; they’re offering themselves up for “free-trade sex,” the ultimate border experience. That’s more than the woman sitting next to me can take. She dives over me into the aisle and runs onstage. Her mouth moving mechanically (“It can’t possibly be that bad, it can’t possibly be that bad,” they later tell me she is saying), she pauses to touch Gomez-Pena’s breastplate and loincloth. She recovers Sifuente’s shirt and drapes it over his shoulders, tips his paper bag off, knocks the one from Gomez-Pena’s head and kicks it across the stage. Then she’s next to me again, doubled over, sobbing.
“It’s just funny it was me,” she says in the break between the performance and discussion. When I ask why, she offers, “Because I’m blond; I’m the one they pick on the most.” During the questions, she stands to say, “I don’t know much. But this touched me deeply. I want to thank you for showing me that I can change and that I need to change.”
But the questions from Chicanos in the audience are edgy, pointed. Several men and women, still grieving, thank him for the dedication. A grandfatherly man presses him to acknowledge the contributions of Chicano precursors, which he does, crediting especially Alurista’s and Montoya’s experiments with bilingualism. A student, surveying the audience, asks tentatively if others felt like a message was being given to Santa Fe in the performance. Another asks, more directly, “Are you aware of the history of colonialism, the colonialism that’s going on here right now?”
“I’m completely blown away by the gentrification of Santa Fe, the way it’s becoming like a movie set for the rich,” Gomez-Pena answers. “This place has all the elements of indigenous culture, but it has been completely deodorized. It’s like Oaxaca, where the indigenous culture has become subservient to the department of tourism.” He checks himself, then looking around, adds, “I can imagine there must be a lot of anger.”
Tonight’s after-show gathering is ragged, confined mostly to the local crew they’ve been working with during the week, and can’t seem to find an agreeable place to settle. The group ends up in the performers’ room in the Eldorado Hotel. As Gomez-Pena unloads the courtesy bar’s mini-bottles onto the bed, Sifuentes hands me one of the cards the housekeeper leaves each evening on the pillow, a sage, slightly stilted, Indian verse.
Near the end of an intense, four-month round of performances, they’re obviously exhausted. After this it’s back to the Scottsdale Center for the Arts for one more performance, and then some real time in Los Angeles, where they’ll plan and rehearse for their next piece: a comic double-crucifixion under the Golden Gate Bridge. With Gomez-Pena as an Azteca mourned by an undocumented worker and Sifuentes as a lowrider, a Mexicano and a Chicano, they’ll be the thieves, the two public enemies of Pete Wilson and the police.
They lean against the headboards now and watch what happens. Not much does, until a conversation that’s been simmering on the far side of the room suddenly boils over. A woman vilifies those who sell their land as traitors to their family and to their history. “I care about my family,” a lawyerish Chicano counters with equal vehemence. “And if by selling I can give them a future. I’ll do it every time. That’s my right, and you don’t have the right to question me.”
The borders, Gomez-Pena writes in a recent essay, keep multiplying. That’s what I’m thinking as I leave the hotel and start toward the parking lot with two women who were at the party. They’re Latina, young, and as we’re walking a pickup approaches, slows, and then stops dead in the middle of the street 15 feet in front of us. The window’s down, and completely regardless of me, the driver leans his blond head out into the streetlight, his grin so self-assured it’s menacing. The women turn their backs to him; “What the fuck?” one yells at me. He just sits there watching them and grinning, looking like he’d be happy to keep it up another 500 years.