Culture-Tracfficking for the 21st Century

Meet the cross-cultural, postcolonial performer who takes on everyone from George W. to J-Lo

By Gabrielle Banks Jun 15, 2003

The consummate politicized performance artist and radical linguist, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, has fearlessly explored and exposed the underbelly of American culture. In the 25 years since he emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, he’s crucified himself under the initials INS in his "gala mariachi rockero" suit, crashed Ellis Island as a "cybervato," and skewered everything from free trade to revolutionary tourism, Ricky Martin, and the ubiquitous Taco Bell Chihuahua.

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. Gómez-Peña has authored six books; numerous video, audio, and in-person installations; poetry and journalistic projects–including projects for PBS, NPR, and HBO. ColorLines 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.

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 "borderólogo?"

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 borderólogo, an expert in border culture.

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

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.

What was it that inspired your first performance art?

I was 23 years old. I had just arrived in Los Angeles and I was experiencing the loneliness that an immigrant feels during the first couple of years. And I felt compelled to do this performance piece in which I wrapped myself in a serape with rope and some friends of mine placed me in a public elevator in downtown Los Angeles for 24 hours. We had notified the owner of building, and he had agreed, but we had not told anyone else. So for 24 hours I went up and down this elevator, bound in cloth and rope. The yuppies and the workers in the building had to confront this extremely pathetic image of utter isolation.

At the time, I didn’t really know exactly why I was doing it. I just felt compelled to do it. And then later on the performance art community in Los Angeles heard about the piece and they were quite impressed and they decided to embrace me. They themselves were the ones who started telling me that what I was doing was actually called performance art. Prior to that, to me, it was just a kind of an existential gesture.

Who are the great performance artists in world history–who may or may not have known they were performance artists?

In Native American culture, it was the coyote or the Nanabush, the sacred clown who was allowed to cross the borders of gender, the borders of dreams, and witchcraft. In the Middle East, you have Dervishes. In medieval times, you had jugglers, alchemists, witches, and street performers. Even in the most traditional and conservative societies there has always been a space for the accepted provocateur, the antihero, the neighborhood loony who performs the role of being the public consciousness of that place, making sure that madness gets protected. Performance artists perform this role in postmodern times.

What’s your take on the "reality show" concept? Do you have any ideas of how you might redesign a show like Survivor your style?

I think reality shows are extremely interesting anthropological experiments with absolutely no content. So what would happen if suddenly we were to add content and have, say anthropologists and sociologists casting the show? We could have a reality show with the members of the U.N. Security Council trying to negotiate extreme difference ¿Qué no?.

Would you put them in an apartment together?

In a really small apartment. Or I can easily imagine applying a reality show to race relations. A city dealing with abrupt racial conflicts would carefully select representatives of the warring communities and put them in a kind of laboratory situation where they would have to come up with new models of conviviality, of co-existence.

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?

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.

Do you have any feelings about Saddam Hussein either as a dramatic character or as an anti-hero?

He’s clearly a despicable tyrant, but the world is full of tyrants who are equally scary. He just happened to be chosen by Bush’s screenwriter to replace Osama bin Laden in the latest Hollywood-slash-White House production of Robocop Against the Global Evil Other. This has nothing to do with the fact that Saddam looks like my uncle.

Is the fact that he’s a brown person with a mustache a factor in convincing the American people?

Oh yes, absolutely. In many ways Arabs replaced Mexicans overnight in the old stereotype of the seditious brown man with a mustache. Ethnic profiling, which used to be a common practice in this country but nevertheless a silent one, has become national policy.

Chicano, Mexican, americano–how should people be defining themselves these days? Does it matter? Will identity politics ever be resolved with language?

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.

Does he have a new vocabulary that he’s teaching you?

If he does, he hasn’t told me. But every time he sees my performances or reads my writings, he tells me that what for me was a conscious political project, for him is everyday reality.

That’s a starting point for him?

Yes, and that humbles me. But at the same time it gives me a lot of hope. Every now and then I revise my performance poetry from the late ’80s–it seems awfully quaint. At the time, it was quite outrageous. I was imagining a full hybridized America in the 21st century and trying to coin all these neologisms to explain what America would look like. Now 12, 15 years later, reality has way surpassed the wild imagination of my generation.

So mestizaje is crossing the border?

Mestizaje is a thing of the past. Mestizaje was originally coined to try to grapple with the fusion between the Spanish and the indigenous. What do you do when the new Americans are the product of five or six races and many overlapping subcultures? Kids are cultural cyborgs. They’re way beyond mestizaje. My son is fluent in Spanish, English, Spanglish, African American slang, cybertalk–and he doesn’t even reflect on it.

So his identity crisis will not happen? Or it just will be different?

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.

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

I think that artists make great border crossers. Why? Perhaps because the stakes are so low in our field, or perhaps because we love to take risks. 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.

I’m constantly telling my political activist friends: "Instead of going to the streets with stupid-looking puppets and ’70s retro-protest language, your organization could hire a couple of experimental poets and visual artists to upgrade your political language. Performance artists and choreographers could help you stage demonstrations that would be much more appealing and sexy for the media."

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 U.S. is a country that listens to lawyers, celebrities, opportunistic politicians, sportsmen, and movie stars–but it doesn’t listen to poets, you know, and artists. That’s a symptom of a profound spiritual malaise. You know what I mean?