Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s “Strange Democracy: Border Wars”

Friday, 28 June, 2013
7:30pm
Pigott Theater

Blog Response by David Preciado

(See also Megan Hoetger’s Blog Response here.)

Photo by Jamie Lyons

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“Radical discrimination!” yelled the woman, who resembled an Aztec warrior in an eagle headdress, fishnets, steel underwear and holding a sword. The woman came out of the theater around 7:30pm and addressed the crowd who anxiously waited for the performance outside by the stairs, much like a master of ceremonies. “Radical discrimination!” she kept yelling. The woman had power and did not hesitate reconfiguring the rules of theater. She prompted people without tickets to enter the theater first and suggested that those with tickets “fight” for their seats. “Radical discrimination” she called it, and those with tickets, those who spent money to view the performance were not guaranteed a space within the theater and those who did not purchase a ticket, either because of financial constraints or because the show sold out or because they left it to the last minute or some other reason, were granted access first.

I grew up in the inner cities of Los Angeles, California, in a place named Huntington Park (also known as HP). HP’s population was predominantly Latina and Latino, poverty levels were striking, gang violence was prevalent, and factories that polluted the air surrounded the city. It was within these urban parameters where I learned first hand what poverty looked like in the US. Money was always tight in my family; my mother was a single parent cleaning houses. I was enrolled in the free meal plan all throughout my years in school because my mother made very little income, and I worked since I was fourteen years old to pay for school supplies and help pay the rent. However, by the grace of God and mother earth, and most definitely to our communities, we managed to survive.  Fortunately, I made it through the cracks of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is notorious for underserving their schools and tracking students, and now I completed my first year as a doctoral student in the department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where I explore the ways queers of color use performance for political activism, and reclaim spirituality.

Unfamiliar with mainstream performance studies, I had no idea what to expect from Psi19. All I knew was that my praxis was accepted and I had to present. The conference was happening fifty minutes from where I lived and scholars and performance artists whose work I admired would attend. Also, I knew it would cost a lot of money, money I did not have readily available in a trust fund and/or savings account but money I had if I cut down on my living expenses for a month or two. Unfortunately, because of the current economic crisis many public universities are facing, I could not ask my department to sponsor my trip to Psi19. I managed to pay though: $200 for registration, $100 for the commute from Berkeley to Stanford every day, and lastly I decided to pay $25 for the Guillermo Gomez-Peña performance because I read about his work in several of my Chicana/o and Feminist classes. Additionally his performance was the only one of the ticketed options that caught my interest. “Chicanismo,”  “border wars,” “reflects on identity, race, sexuality, pop culture, current politics,” were all trigger words and phrases that justified my purchase.

***

Back to “radical discrimination.” Psi19, from my experience and own observation was predominantly US white and internationally attracted European whites that came from middle and upper class backgrounds. Also, given Hugo Glendinning’s opening night showcase, “un still-dance photography and the movement of time,” Psi19 was invested is displaying white bodies on screen, and world-renowned bourgeois performances, as brown bodies were almost non-existent and I did not see much street, working class performances either.

When the woman warrior yelled “radical discrimination” I immediately thought of an affirmative-action type of scenario. Given the type of people who mostly inhabit Psi19, maybe the woman was going to reorganize the space to accommodate underrepresented bodies? Maybe this was a performance response to the current attack on affirmative action in the US (Fisher versus University of Texas)? Maybe all the queer people of color would go in first? Women of color? Disabled? Poor? Clearly, my perception was off. The woman first allowed, what I perceived as her “friends” because she either singled them out with her hand or called them by their name to enter the theater first. However that part did not trouble me, what did bring on frustration was when she separated the group of those with tickets from those without. She then informed the folks without a ticket that they would receive priority seating over those with a ticket. The group without tickets was predominately white “looking” and the crowd with tickets, although still predominately white, did occupy the most bodies of color. When I noticed the group with no tickets enter the theater first I felt frustrated and, for a second, defeated. Bodies were choreographed to perform a spatial aesthetic of racial inequality: white bodies may enter first and brown bodies second.

No, I did not starve, nor did I pawn an item of mine to pay the $25 for the performance. But, as an underpaid, public school graduate student, and working class queer Chicano, I did sacrifice for those $25—money matters when you are from HP.

***

I did find a seat in the theater, but left about fifty minutes into the performance. Gomez-Peña’s cultural references suggested that he was concerned with entertaining a white (neo)liberal, affluent, academic audience. Gomez-Peña made references to “gluten-free” and “organic” lifestyles; mocked cultural theorists like Jacques Derrida and J.L Austin; and discussed the ways in which “white” organizations contracted him to perform and serve as the “token” performer of color that spoke for all the injustices against racialized subjects. The audience enjoyed the references as laughter filled the theater.

In the beginning he addressed the audience and said, “reach over, and grab the crotch of your neighbor…” White older men, with beards and European accents surrounded me; in defense, I pressed my thighs together, brought my shoulders forward and glared at the men to suggest, “Don’t you dare touch me!” This incident speaks to the historical ways in which racialized queer bodies are rendered “open” prey for dominant cultural predation. White bodies given permission from the state, but in this case Gomez-Peña, to objectify bodies of color for sexual pleasure.

In another part, Gomez-Peña decided to pass around a tequila bottle for the audience to consume. The audience laughed, welcomed the bottle with open arms, chugged, and what I interpreted as, “got a taste of Mexico.” I left soon after an audience member, a white man, drank the rest of the tequila bottle and slurred the words, in a ridiculous over exaggerated anglo accent, “gray-see-us.” Living up to the cultural stereotypes that all Mexicans were lazy because they drank tequila all day, Gomez-Peña did not provide the necessary dialogue or comedic relief that portrayed Mexican people in their complexities. Not all Mexicans drank tequila, yet some did. The production of tequila continued to be a manual process, it required the strenuous labor of Mexican people who were underpaid and exploited. No amount of tequila would ever convey the long hours spent in the fields harvesting agave nor make a person feel the impoverish results neoliberal capitalism has had on Mexican people. Lastly, the white man’s ruinous pronunciation of the Spanish word for “thank you” spoke to linguistic appropriation Mexicans continuously faced when a person not from the same ethnic background felt compelled to say a word in Spanish to portray a sense of false cultural affinity.

The “radical” gestures by the Aztec warrior and the “border wars” performance by Guillermo Gomez-Peña perpetuated normative ideologies of spatialization that positioned racialized queer bodies to the margins.

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