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El Maíz

Jesusa Rodríguez's Transgenics

Chantal Rodríguez | University of California, Los Angeles

El Maíz (Corn). Written and Performed by Jesusa Rodríguez and Liliana Felipe. Los Angeles Theater Center (LATC), Los Angeles. 23 November 2008.

El Maíz

Jesusa Rodriguez in El Maiz.
Encuentro: Belo horizonte.
Photo by Julio PaNtoja, 2005.

On a brisk fall afternoon at the newly renovated Los Angeles Theater Center (LATC), a fortunate audience was treated to El Maíz (Corn), a performance that weaves songs with theatrical action and ritual. Written and conceived by Jesusa Rodríguez and Liliana Felipe, the piece occurred entirely in Spanish with English supertitles. The performance was presented as the concluding celebration of Actions of Transfer: Women’s Performance in the Americas, a four-day international conference held at UCLA from November 20-23, 2008 and co-sponsored by the UCLA Center for Performance Studies and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. In addition, the piece was also presented as part of the LA Theater Center’s Face of the World Festival.

Rodríguez and Felipe created El Maíz in response to Mexico’s growing dependence on imported corn from primarily US-based transnational corporations and the growing threat of the contamination of Mexico’s crops by genetically modified seeds. Blending ritual, cabaret, activist performance and object theater the performance not only decries this assault by transnational agribusiness but also aims to make visible the cultural significance and centrality of maíz to Mexico’s identity.

El Maíz

Jesusa Rodriguez
Photo by Julio PANTOJA, 2005.

Accompanied by a strip of butcher paper, pots of colored powder, and incense, Rodríguez appears on an otherwise bare stage, semi-nude, covered in body paint, and wearing only a taparrabo (loincloth) and a jade mask. Liliana Felipe performs eight songs on the piano, guiding Rodríguez through her journey into the underworld to reactivate the myth of the origins of corn. Rodríguez traces this journey by painting her feet and marking her path to the underworld on a large sheet of butcher paper which results in a spiral, conch-like image. Echoed by Felipe’s blowing of a conch shell, the performance effortlessly blends elements of ancient Mayan and Aztec ritual while making poignant reference to Mexico’s modern indigenous populations. Rodríguez symbolically enters the underworld by climbing underneath the butcher paper and emerges wrapped within it, metamorphosing into the form of a large shell that resembles a caracol (snail). Here the power of Rodriguez’ imagery becomes most evident: through the image of the caracol she aligns her performance with the struggle of the indigenous populations of Mexico by invoking the most well-known symbol of the Zapatista movement, which expresses the ideals of autonomous government in the face of globalization.

El Maíz

Jesusa Rodriguez.
Photo by Julio PANTOJA, 2005.

Through a series of vignettes Rodríguez and Felipe construct a fractured narrative that fluctuates between the world of the supernatural and the present. Rodríguez seamlessly embodies characters ranging from a hyper-sexualized mythical porcupine, the Aztec God Quetzalcoatl and the iconic character of La Muerte (death). She blends physical comedy with minimalist staging to re-enact the moment of human creation achieved through the blood sacrifice of Quetzalcoatl and nourishment through his gift of corn. When she returns to the earth’s surface as La Muerte Rodríguez finds herself in a world full of violence, death, and aberration, as Quetzalcoatl’s seed of humanity has been genetically modified and commodified by transnational corporations. Rather than reconstructing a romantic, cultural, or nationalistic sense of ritual and myth, these scenes work in partnership with Felipe’s transgressive political words, subverting the lyrical nature of the music to reflect on the chaos and destruction of the natural world--most notably in “Antes del tsunami” (“Before the tsunami”) and the title song “El Maíz” (“Corn”).

El Maíz

Jesusa Rodriguez.
Photo by Julio PANTOJA, 2005.

El Maíz more than a celebration of corn, also serving as a call to action against the aberration that threatens to contaminate and homogenize the over 300 varieties of corn in Mexico. Furthermore, as a cultural worker, Rodríguez expertly marks the centrality of corn to the needs and cultural imaginary of the Mexican people as she highlights their threatened status. This is most successfully achieved when Rodríguez likens the actions of transnational companies to a modern colonization of Mexico--its civilization is again endangered by los bárbaros del norte (the barbarians of the North). Moreover, she equates transgenic corn to a disease that has infected and poisoned the natural crops of Mexico. As she manipulates a serpent prop to strangle and attack her she highlights the way transgenic corn is strangling Mexico as she and Felipe sing,

Liliana Felipe in El Maiz

Liliana Felipe.
Photo by Julio PANTOJA, 2005.

"Las palomitas eran de maíz
y los humanos teníamos raíz,
hoy son transgénicos, genéticos, clonados,
biotecnológicos, modificados.
Hoy son parásitos, engendros mejorados,
farmacultivos contaminados.
Ya no hay ni máis
ya no hay maíz
ya se acabó nuestra raíz.”

(“Popcorn used to be made of corn and we humans had roots, today it's transgenic, genetic, cloned, biotechnical, modified. Now it's a parasite, an enhanced freak, a contaminated pharma-crop.”)

Rodríguez utilizes her own performance as a form of contagion in itself, working to sound the alarm directly to the audience. This is exemplified in a scene in which Rodríguez appears as a character entangled in a dense net, which represents her “heritage full of holes,” as punctuated in song by Felipe. In the most humorous section of the performance, Rodríguez skillfully employs a cabaret and activist aesthetic as she engages in word play with the Spanish verb decir (to tell). Constructing a space of interpellation with the audience she passes on the responsibility of spreading this information, while simultaneously declaring “you didn’t hear it from me.”

El Maíz

Jesusa Rodriguez
Photo by Julio PANTOJA, 2005.

Ultimately, El Maíz reminds us that the roots of cultural diversity originate in the great diversity of the natural world, which is in danger of being brutally erased by the corporate absorption of difference. Instead of providing a solution to this global issue, Rodríguez and Felipe leave their audience with one final poetic image for contemplation. After being pummeled by dried corn kernels that fall from the sky, La Muerte pours a pile of dirt onto the stage and plants one of the kernels, symbolically entrusting the audience with the task of protecting not only the seed, but their own survival as well.


Chantal Rodríguez, Independent Scholar. Chantal earned her Ph.D. in Theater and Performance Studies from UCLA in June, 2009. She was one of the central conference organizers of "Actions of Transfer: Women's Performance in the Americas." Her research interests include Latina/o & Chicana/o Theater and Performance, Identity and Identification, Critical Race Theory and Latina feminism.