Gracias a la Vida

Guillermo Gómez-Peña

Guillermo Gómez-Peña

Just like when I get up in the morning and thank my parents for having made me a Mexican, I give thanks to life for having exposed me to the Chicana/o Movement. It has been a learning experience; teaching me the importance of helping Sisyphus push the boulder up the mountain.

If I could single out what I loved most about my life, it is that the opportunity to learn. I have met people who have become my teachers. They have given meaning to my life.

In the 1990s, I remember going to the home of my friends Cristina Shallcross and Ruben Guevara — great teachers of life. They knew I was not much for socializing, but they wanted me to meet their special guest Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who had recently been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

Guillermo, a chilango, came to the US in 1978 and totally integrated into the Chicana/o community, exploring cross-cultural issues, immigration, and the politics of language. His works were a mixture of English and Spanish, fact and fiction, social reality, pop culture, and Chicano humor. He embraced activist politics and the theme of linguistic resistance.

The Couple in the Cage

The Couple in the Cage

He had just finished a tour of museums that included the Smithsonian, performing “The Couple in the Cage” (1992-93). His partner CoCo Fusco and he exhibited themselves in a cage, and they pretended to be from an undiscovered Amerindian tribe from an island off the Mexican coast.  They performed rituals designed to befuddle patrons.

They portrayed “authentic” daily life — writing on a laptop computer, watching TV, making voodoo dolls, and pacing the cage dressed “in Converse high-tops, raffia skirts, plastic beads, and a wrestler’s mask.”  The two “Amerindians” depicted a hybrid pseudo primitivism. The audience could pay for dances, stories, and polaroid photos. Some viewers were indignant and sent complaints to the humane society. They believed “that the two were real captives, true natives somehow tainted by technology and popular culture.”

Some gave them presents, offerings, and sent sympathy notes. Reactions were also violent. “In London, a group of neo-Nazi skinheads tried to shake the cage.” In Madrid, teenagers tried to burn Guillermo with cigarettes and gave him a beer bottle full of urine. They treated the Indians as if they “were monkeys—making gorilla sounds or racist ‘Indian’ hoots.”

According to Guillermo, “We understood it to be a satirical commentary both on the Quincentenary celebrations and on the history of this practice of exhibiting human beings from Africa, Asia, and Latin America in Europe and the United States in zoos, theaters, and museums.” But even he was surprised– in Spain, more than half the people thought they really were Amerindians. Some were so convinced that they were real that they said they could understand their language. “One man in London stood there and translated Guillermo’s story for another visitor… Men in Spain put coins in the donation box [CoCo] to get me to dance because, as they said, they wanted to see my tits. There was a woman in Irvine who asked for a rubber glove in order to touch Guillermo and started to fondle him in a sexual manner.” The lines between ethnography and pornography were blurred.

The Couple in the Cage

The Couple in the Cage

The responses from Native Americans and Latinos were also interesting. “They tend to find fault with the hybridity of the contents of the cage, while Anglos take this as a sign of our lack of authenticity. In Washington, for example, there was a Native American elder from the Pueblo tribe of Arizona who was interviewed by a Smithsonian representative. He said that our performance was the most real thing about the Native Americans displayed in the whole museum.” A man from El Salvador pointed to the rubber heart hanging in the cage and told everybody, “That heart is my heart.”

According to Guillermo, Western anthropologists are obsessed with authenticity. The authentic Indian, the authentic Mexico, the authentic Chicano. He found Mexicans less preoccupied with the question of authenticity. Mexico was less tainted by post-modernity and perhaps more accepting of Magical Realism.

I saw Guillermo again circa 1994 when he came to the campus. He was collaborating with the son of my late colleague, Roberto Sifuentes, on the “The Crucifiction Project.”  I was into my suit against the University of California Santa Barbara so I lost track of Guillermo until the other day when I noticed an article by him titled:  “An anti-gentrification philosophical tantrum, 2015” in which he critiques the dangers of the ultimate “creative city,” where you become a foreigner in your own neighborhood.

Illustrated by John Criscitello, it was addressed to “Dear Ex-local artist, writer, activist, bohemian, street eccentric, and/or protector of difference…” He continues: “Imagine a city, your city [San Francisco] and your former hip’ neighborhood, being handed over by greedy politicians and re/developers to the crème de la crème of the tech industry. This includes the 7 most powerful tech companies in the world. I don’t need to list them: their names have become verbs in lingua franca; their sandbox is the city you used to call your own.”

“Imagine that during the reconstruction process, the rent – your rent – increases by two or three hundred percent overnight. The artists and the working class at large can no longer pay it. You are being forced to leave, at best to a nearby city, at worst back to your original hometown. The more intimate history you have with the old city, the more painful it is to accept this displacement. You have no choice.”

“As your community rapidly shrinks, so does your sense of belonging to a city that no longer seems to like you. You begin to feel like a foreigner and internal exile: freaky Alice in techno-Wonderlandia; the Alien Caterpillar who inhaled… You become an orphan.”  Guillermo uses imagination, a sort of magic realism to paint this new order. It becomes a “Blade Runner” set in words.

The invaders are the “zombie techies who make well over $200 grand a year, but behave not unlike obnoxious teenage frat boys.”  With them the nightmare unfolds: “Full of Maseratis, Ferraris, Porsches and Mercedes Benzes, the private parking lot is now protected with barbed wire fences and a digital display keypad encoded by microchips; and so are the ‘vintage bike’ racks and trash containers.”

It is “the latest American version of ethnic and cultural cleansing. It’s invisible to the newcomers, and highly visible to those of us who knew the old city. The press labels it ‘the post-gentrification era.’” He continues, “There are suspicious fires happening constantly, in apartment buildings and homes inhabited by mostly Latino and black working class families. And you cannot help but to wonder if landlords and redevelopers are setting these fires? … Is there a secret garden of violence in the heart of techno-bohemian paradise?”-Anonymous tweet.

“In this imaginary city, we no longer have citizens: we have self-involved ‘consumers’ with the latest gadgets in hand.” –Tweet.

”But dear reader/audience member, don’t take it personally, you are always an exception to the rule.’ – Tweet.”

“For the poetic record: They are mostly ‘white,’ (meaning gender or race illiterate). 70% are male and have absolutely no sense of the history of the streets they are beginning to walk on.”  The description continues, “In the ‘creative city’racism, sexism, homophobia and classism are passé…”

Gracias a la vida, a life that permits me to see reality. Tweet.

— by Rodolfo F. Acuña

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