Culture-trafficking for the 21st Century

Musings of a conceptual coyote

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click to enlarge CHICANISMO: Curator Brian Biggs exhibits - performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pea, who - captures the absdurdities of border culture. - MANUEL VASON
CHICANISMO: Curator Brian Biggs exhibits performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pea, who captures the absdurdities of border culture.

The consummate politicized performance artist and radical linguist, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, has fearlessly explored and exposed the underbelly of American culture in the 25 years since he emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico.

His organization, La Pocha Nostra, is currently involved in collaborative projects that connect the Chicano experience to the post-9-11 experience of British Pakistanis, Hindus and Arabs, and to border conflict resolution between Jews and Palestinians.

Gomez-Peña has authored six books; numerous video, audio and in-person installations; poetry and journalistic projects — including projects for PBS, NPR and HBO. We caught up with him recently at his home base in San Francisco, where he's surrounded by Tijuana velvet artwork, lucha libre memorabilia and other pop culture artifacts. He poured himself a strong cup of coffee, lit up a cigarette, and we launched in.

Q: At various times you've called yourself a "cyber-immigrant," a "conceptual coyote," a "jalapeño pusher," a "Mexican in the process of chicanoization." I want to know more about one of these terms. What's a "borderologo?"

A: Well, border culture is above all a culture of misunderstanding. We cross the border, therefore we get misinterpreted. So, border artists and border writers have performed the role of interpreting Mexico for the U.S., the U.S. for Mexico, and also interpreting Chicanismo for Latin Americans. In this process of building bridges, we have developed a new vocabulary to name the new hybrid realities and border cultural phenomena. In a sense, we are border semioticians and vernacular linguists. And I joke around calling myself a borderologo, an expert in border culture.

Q: And a "reverse anthropologist," is that the same thing?

A: No. In the late '80s, when "multiculturalism" was at its peak, we realized that something was fundamentally wrong with the multicultural premise. Our job was to perform our authenticity so that the self-proclaimed center, the mainstream, could understand us and accept us on its own terms. That was, fundamentally, a neo-colonial model. So we decided to insurrect, to assume a fictional center and push the dominant culture to the margins — treat it as exotic and unfamiliar, and anthropologize it. We said, "Enough is enough; we are no longer giving you access." In fact, we are going to attempt to explain the U.S. through our own Chicano eyes.

In the early '90s, we began to work with political contingencies. What if the U.S. was Mexico? What if Chicanos were in power? What if Spanish was the official language? What if Anglos were nomadic minorities crossing illegally into Mexico to work for Mexican fast food taquerias? So we created a character called Gran Vato, the first Chicano president of the U.S. and working out of the Brown House.

Q: What historical, literary or pop culture figures should people of color look to for guidance, or should folks try to stay away from hero worship of people like César Chávez, Subcomandante Marcos, you name it?

A: What worries me is the absolute lack of enlightened political leadership in the Latino community. A year and a half ago I interviewed tons of Latino professionals and Anglos and asked them to name the most famous Latino figures. Number one was the Taco Bell Chihuahua — unanimously — followed by Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas and Christina Aguilera. Then Enrique Iglesias, Cristina, the talk-show hostess, Daisy Fuentes, and a few others. There was not one intellectual, civic leader, activist or visionary. They were all just kind of superficial celebrities.

Q: Chicano, Mexican, Americano — how should people be defining themselves these days? Does it matter? Will identity politics ever be resolved with language?

A: All terms referring to identity politics are imperfect. We need a new terminology. There was a time in which Chicano barrios were just Chicano, now you probably cannot find one pure Chicano barrio in the U.S. There are 80 or 90 languages spoken in California school districts. The barrio where my 14-year-old son lives in San Diego and the friends he has are completely multiracial. The language of my generation cannot explain the realities of my son's.

... Right now the entire world is experiencing a profound crisis of identity. We are all clumsily trying to understand what is our new place in the new cartography. The identities we have inherited are dysfunctional and somewhat useless. One of the lessons that performance art has taught me is that we can reinvent our identities; we are not straightjacketed by them. We have the capability to pick and choose and pastiche and sample from our multiple selves to construct a better human being.

Q: Why use the arts to break open misconceptions, borders, about cultural difference?

A: I think that artists make great border crossers. ... Artists make great traffickers, great smugglers of ideas. We may be clumsy political organizers, but we are good cultural brokers. It's just that society has lost its understanding of how to use artists.

One of the challenges we have as a society is to make sure the voice of artists and intellectuals gets carefully taken into consideration. If a society doesn't listen to the voices of its artists and intellectuals, it won't have the necessary mirror of critical culture to see its own reflection.

The following books by Guillermo Gomez-Peña can be purchased at El Mexterminator (Oceano, 2003); Dangerous Border Crossers: The Artist Talks Back (Routledge Press, 2000); The New World Border: Prophecies, Poems & Loqueras for the End of the Century (City Lights, 1997).

Gabrielle Banks is senior writer for ColorLines, where this story first appeared.

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