How would you define yourself, as an activist, artist or journalist?
I am a political activist who uses aesthetic, performative, and mass media resources to express, expose, and popularize messages of social transformation.
Why did you choose the figure of Che?
I chose it playfully, without realizing the full effect it would have over time. I remember in the beginning of the 1990s I was studying journalism at Universidad ARCIS and the image of Commander Ernesto Guevara was everywhere on campus. The first thing I did was to paint Che's lips red on a graffiti at the university. The raging red lips were not enough and I decided to transform myself into Che, acquiring a black beret with a star on it, in the style of Che Guevara. The difference was that it was a starfish, effeminate and ludic.
I chose the figure of Che because he is the utmost metaphor of the contemporary revolutionary and by taking on part of his representational figure (star, beret and guerilla attitude), I seek to politicize homosexuality and/or homosexualize politics and show that it's possible to be homosexual and be a revolutionary, to be homosexual and fight for social change.
On 4 September, 1997, in the context of another anniversary of the death of the Cuban-Argentine guerilla in Bolivia, I started doing a series of actions to attract public attention. Aiming to link his revolutionary struggle with our cause for emancipation, armed with my black beret and star, a number 11 soccer shirt of the Chilean national team, a container labeled AZT (the first AIDS drug), and bright red lips, I presented myself at Santiago's Planet discotheque at an anti-censorship event organized by the polemic, counter-cultural Chilean performance artist, Vicente Ruiz.
As the famous actress and muse of the Chilean underground Patricia Rivandeneira (ex cultural attaché for Chile in Italy), spoke of the need for free expression in Chile, I threw water from the AZT container on her to provoke the provoker. Vicente Ruiz didn't get the symbolism of the act and ordered the security guards to throw me out of the club. As I shouted, "This is censorship, this is censorship!" the crowd was captivated, thinking it was all part of the show. Then, outside the club, I got even with my censor by washing my ass with the same water I threw on the actress, as a way to show my condemnation of press censorship. It could well have been understood as an aggression, but my action was a metaphor, a game, an experiment, to provoke the provoker, to push the limits of freedom and censorship. That is how El Che de los Gays was born–polemic, provocative, metaphorical, and performative.
Che went through many phases in his history, which of the Che's did you model El Che de los Gays after?
I intend to recreate several aspects, though his persona of heroic guerilla is the most interesting and impassioned. I conceive of my political activism and public interventions as a kind of guerilla war in the style of Che Guevara.
What aspects of Che do you want to preserve "intact" and which do you aim to subvert? Which aspects do you want to contaminate and how?
I don't seek to preserve anything intact. I seek to subvert everything. My character is a revolutionary metaphor, a reinvention of Che that turns the homophobia of Latin America on its head, with Cuba of the 1970s being an emblematic example with its Units to Aid Production, where homosexuals were taken for "rehabilitation." The character aims to subvert structures with liberating imaginaries and contemporary sexual-political metaphors, wherein homosexuals, lesbians, and transsexuals are accepted as free citizens with guaranteed rights.
What does the "New Man" mean to you?
Che pointed out that the revolution is not only a transformation of social and institutional structures, but also a profound and radical transformation of men, their conscience, customs, values and habits, and their social relations. He emphasized that a revolution is authentic only when it is capable of creating a New Man, a solid revolutionary who should work his whole life; he would not feel that this work is a sacrifice, since he is devoting all his time to the struggle for social justice, because he is himself the revolution. Che pointed out that a revolutionary must clearly define his feelings, because great love and a passionate spirit should drive the actions of every revolutionary. In this way he can achieve concrete actions aimed at a single objective-progressive social change. For Che, the New Man is an authentic revolutionary soldier.
I believe the New Man, using Che's words, today would be the homosexual, lesbian and transsexual activists who struggle daily for a better world. New men, new women, new trans determined to give our best to construct a more just and free society.
You also incarnate San Sebastian and Christ.
I use utopian, defeated, chastised, and suffering images of prophets crossed by politics and Christianity who never won institutional power, but who left a message of hope and transformation. I use them because I want to liken them to contemporary homosexuals, degraded and suffering, whose civil rights are not guaranteed, contemporary transvestites who are beaten and murdered, and lesbians who are stigmatized by the system. More than mounting an image of proud and happy gays, I deploy an image of a discriminated and stigmatized homosexual, a distorted subject who is a threat to the heterosexual social order.
You recently traveled to Cuba. How was your portrayal of a homosexualized Che received?
It was complex and contradictory. The first time I traveled to Cuba was in 2005 for the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, which showed the film El Che de los Gays. The film was received with respect and caution, but it failed to produce a significant impact in the local media. Nevertheless, during my speech at the official presentation, I provoked controversy by openly citing Reinado Arenas, the Cuban writer who died of AIDS in the U.S., who overtly declared himself homosexual and was a dissident of the revolution. Without being a counter-revolutionary, I intended to use the image of the most famous and polemic Cuban dissident, citing him along with the father of the nation, José Martí, to impress on the audience an emancipating image of a liberated homosexual.
A few days ago I visited Havana again, this time for the International Book Fair, and I presented the book, Bandera Hueca: Historia del Movimiento Homosexual de Chile.1 This time El Che de los Gays was received with much enthusiasm, probably because the character was already known and recognized, and because of the work being carried out by the Cuba's National Center for Sexual Education, led by Mariela Castro Espín, Raul Castro's daughter and Fidel's niece. My impression is that the island is experiencing a revolution within the revolution, so much that Mariela Castro herself pointed out when referring to El Che de los Gays that:
"From what I have read of the book, I think it's interesting and intelligent to look at Che in this way, to deploy his figure in this struggle. I thought it was a very interesting idea that led you to find new ways to struggle as you have in such a prudish society, or "cartucha," as you Chileans say. Surely if you look at the figure of Che superficially, it may offend a homophobic Cuban, but knowing Che as I knew him, he would be one of the first people I would go to for support if he were alive."
Can you give me an overview of your use of the mass media?
In 1993 the Movement for Homosexual Liberation (MOVILH) created the radio show Open Triangle, and I took on the roles of director, host and producer of the show. Open Triangle was the first radio program directed at gays, lesbians and transgendered people in Chile. It lasted more than 10 years on the AM dial and made it possible for us to directly connect with political, cultural, and artistic personalities in Chile and the rest of the world. During this time, in the middle of our campaign against Article 365 which penalized sodomy between men, I used the show as a political platform, writing and personally delivering letters asking for support and solidarity to the Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez, English singer Elton John, Mexican composer Juan Gabriel, Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa, and the former First Lady of France, Danielle Miterrand. Likewise, I asked the French scientist who discovered the HIV virus, Luc Montañier, for his support. He refused to sign our petition, claiming that he could not "interfere in the domestic politics of a country."
In September of 1995, Open Triangle began a campaign to collect the signatures of political, artistic, academic and cultural personalities in search of solidarity with our demand to repeal Article 365 of Chile's Penal Code. Taking on the political act of writing public solicitations, as suggested by a friend from the Gay Liberation Front of Catalonia, Eugeni Rodríguez, who recommended that we seek support for our cause from international personalities, I began handing letters to public figures visiting Santiago.
One morning in September 1995, I interrupted Silvio Rodríguez's press conference at the Violeta Parra Foundation, handing him the document. Even though the letter to Silvio had been circulating in the media, none of the movement leaders had thought of personally handing it to the artist, thinking that by just distributing it to the media, Silvio Rodríguez would become aware of it.
In front of the expectant media, I went onstage and handed the MOVILH letter to the singer saying, "Silvio, this is a letter from the Chilean homosexual movement. We want you to read it and reply."
For his part, Silvio kindly responded, "If you are struggling for your rights, which I share and respect, you have all my support, of course, only if you do not position yourselves against Cuba."
Elated by Silvio's backing, gay activists attended the singer's concerts at Santiago's Municipal Theatre. In the middle of his concerts, Silvio Rodríguez consummated his support for the Chilean homosexual cause, saying to the public:
"I want to dedicate this song especially to a movement you have here called Open Triangle, Homosexual Liberation Movement. By way of the document you gave me, I am aware of an unusual law that makes homosexual relations illegal, and that is a very crazy thing. This song is for them."
Silvio Rodríguez then sang one of his most beautiful songs, "Te molesta mi amor."
After Silvio's response, which was widely covered by the press and particularly by Cecilia Rovaretti's warm voice on Radio Cooperativa, we sought to extend the petition for support to other international figures that arrived in Santiago. Despite the ample press coverage the MOVILH letters received, we got mixed results. Elton John, gay artist and sponsor of the fight against AIDS, never replied to the gay Chileans' letter. Mercedes Sosa, for her part, only gave a short response to Gabriela Bade of the newspaper La Tercera, "I have great respect for all people, and my support is implicit."
In September of 1995, the Mexican singer, Juan Gabriel showed no objection to back Chile's gays. At a well-attended press conference in the Mexican Cultural Center in Santiago, I took the floor to inform "Juanga" that his songs were a "symbol in the gay movement's struggle." Surprised, he responded, "Well, I didn't know that. What I hope is, since music touches many lives and one life touches others as well, that my songs serve good, positive causes. You can use all my songs, music and artists have no sex."
That intense period during which I distributed the letters made me known, and I even started staging direct performances, mixing our appeal for solidarity, art, and politics, as shown by the performance Bandera Hueca.
During the XXV Chilean Socialist Party Congress, celebrated in Santiago on 4 May 1996, I remember I interrupted a ceremony paying homage to Francois Miterrand, deceased French president, handing a letter to his widow, Danielle Miterrand. To the surprise of all the politicians present, the former president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos, among them, and while Hortensia "Tencha" Bussi de Allende gave the welcoming address, I handed over the letter and unfolded a Chilean flag with a huge hole in the center, and then swiftly ran out of the place. The next day MOVILH explained its action to the press:
"Hollow are the holes in the ozone layer; hollow is the Chuquicamata mine; hollow are the graves of the disappeared; hollow is the popular designation of homosexuals. Hollow is a void to be filled and the homosexual demand is a hollow claim as long as it remains unresolved in our culture."
In 1996, I had to leave the Movement for Homosexual Liberation and the gay radio show for being the protagonist of the performance known as The Transvestite Takeover.
On1 June 1996, the same day that the so-called "pink primaries" were held to choose a gay candidate to run in the municipal elections, a new incident trumped MOVILH's electoral plans. That day, the transvestite activist Michelle from Valparaiso and I occupied the movement's headquarters to protest the event. "Transvestites and lesbians have been excluded from this process!" we declared to the press, inaugurating the brief existence of the "Anarchist Transvestite Front." We remained entrenched in the movement headquarters a whole day and night, receiving well wishes from friends and rejection from others. Despite all obstacles, including Carlos Sánchez and other MOVILH leaders' attempt to evict us by force with the help of the police, the transvestite takeover continued, while in a house next door, where a movement sympathizer lived, they counted the ballots of the "pink primaries."
Even though we were never kicked out of the gay collective, they imposed disciplinary sanctions on us after the takeover. The leaders of the group who survived the internal conflict that ensued agreed to ban us from MOVILH headquarters, a decision we interpreted as an obligatory "pink exile."2 The expulsion hit me hard on a personal level considering my years of work for the homosexual cause and because I had to leave the Open Triangle radio show. The program fortunately continued to air, because Héctor Núñez, a MOVILH activist, took control of its direction for a long time, giving gay radio programming a new chance.
After months of compulsory "exile" and relative political desolation, the combative, rebel spirit that drives my causes led me to create a performative character that intruded in many protests and cultural/political meetings, thus El Che Guevara de los Gays was born.
In the middle of 1997, when MOVILH struggled politically and a public opinion poll carried out by the IDEAS Foundation showed a high level of intolerance towards gays, I began to develop a series of actions to jolt the public, creating a character known as the El Che Guevara de los Gays. These actions, accepted by some and rejected by others, helped keep the Chilean homosexual struggle visible.
A little before the emergence of the Gay Che, I attended the Workers Central Union (CUT) event in the capital's Almagro Park on 1 May 1997. Intending to link social demands with the utopias of the gay world, I appeared with a crown of thorns, emulating Jesus, and a picture frame adorned with a sign reading: "The herb is with me, I am with you." I used that slogan because, as the ex-announcer of Radio Umbral, Pedro Henríquez, had told me, the local hippies of the 1970s used it to express their support for Salvador Allende, the candidate of the Left.
Understanding very little of my delirium with Jesus Christ, marijuana, and Allende, the press consequently used opposing signifiers to describe the presentation. So in spite of my forced displacement from the Homosexual Liberation Movement MOVILH after the transvestite takeover, I discovered this particular way to remain active, visible and independent.
On 4 September 1997, in the context of another anniversary of the death of the Cuban-Argentine guerilla in Bolivia, I started doing a series of actions to get public attention. Aiming to link his revolutionary struggle with our cause for emancipation, armed with my black beret and star, a number 11 soccer shirt of the Chilean national team, a container labeled AZT (the first AIDS drug) and my lips painted intense red, I presented myself at Santiago's Planet discotheque at an anti-censorship protest organized by the polemic, counter-cultural Chilean performance artist, Vicente Ruiz.
While the famous actress, muse of the Chilean underground, Patricia Rivandeneira (ex cultural attaché for Chile in Italy), argued for free expression in our country, I threw water from the AZT container on her to provoke the provoker. Vicente Ruiz didn't get the symbolism of the act and ordered the security guards to throw me out of the club. I shouted desperately, " This is censorship, this is censorship!" while the crowd thought that it was all part of the spectacular alternative show put on by the producer. Then, outside the club, I got even with the censor by washing my ass with the same water I threw on the actress, as a way to show my condemnation of press censorship. It could well have been understood as an aggression, but my action was a metaphor, a game, an experiment, to provoke the provoker, to push the limits of freedom and censorship. In a 6 September 1997 interview with the newspaper La Tercera, Vicente Ruiz stated:
"It's one thing to provide a free space for people's expression and it's quite another if people trash you. I will not permit anyone to breach the integrity of my familiar circles and I think I reacted like any other person would; imagine if it had been gasoline instead of water and he throws a match, nobody has a chance to react, nobody, and today we would be dealing with something quite different."
On 11 September 1997, armed with my Che-style beret and red lips and a little star that said "CRISIS" (alluding to the political crisis preceding the military coup of 1973), I presented myself at the human rights march, which ends at the General Cemetery. I joined the multitude in the caravan, led by the Communist leader Gladys Marín, marching towards the memorial for the disappeared. Later, amidst the graves, facing violent police repression and tear gas that would not let me see or breathe, I gave Gladys a public ovation, culminating my tribute by presenting her with the star.
Some time later, having consolidated a relationship of complicity with Gladys, I presented the communist leader with a tri-color presidential sash (as she was a presidential candidate for the Left), provoking indignation among the old Communist militants who saw it as an incursion of Sodom and Gomorra in the Party, as the sociologist Tomás Moulian, who was the president of Gladys Marín's Presidential Commando, revealed in the award-winning documentary, El Che de los Gays.
At the General Cemetery, I gave the "CRISIS" star to Gladys Marín after my presentation. Just when the police repressed the hooded protesters, I bumped into Lorena Astorga, the young spokesperson for the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front. Lorena and I fled the place in a taxi that came out of nowhere, just like in the prison break where a helicopter freed her compañeros from High Security Prison 19. The escape from the cemetery reminded me of Ricardo Palma Salamanca, the most romantic of the liberated Front members. I also remembered Palma days later, when I attended the homage to Che Guevara at the National Stadium. There, in the midst of the rollicking youth, I stood out with my beret, my red lips, and a colored star that read "Che TE ASMO." It seems that few understood the meaning of my slogan and confused, they asked what it meant. "Che was asthmatic, that's why it's 'asmo'," I would tell them, barring any other interpretation.
I thought I had culminated a month of political activism with this metaphoric play on words and my particular act of "asmor." But, the anniversary of the 5 October 1988 plebiscite, when we defeated Augusto Pinochet at the ballot boxes, took place. That's why the Humanist Party marked the historical triumph of the NO vote with a protest in Almagro Park in the capital, to which I arrived in character. It was a delirious day, since I ended up on top of the statue of Diego Almagro with my pants down, screaming like crazy with my bare ass in the air.
"Long live Che Guevara! Long live Che Guevara!" In all, the crowd was impressed as Gladys Marín and Luis Corvalán, former General Secretary of the Chilean Communist Party, greeted them. Soon, as the sun was setting, a beautiful song bathed the scene and "Yo te nombro libertad" played through the sound system.
After a year of public visibility, I went to the inauguration ceremony of the 17th International Book Fair in Santiago on 21 November 1997, held at Mapocho Station. I presented one of the most publicized performances of El Che de los Gays there. Being an official inauguration, the usual cultural personalities, many journalists, various writers, and the highest political figures were there. Everything was business as usual and no one could predict what would later happen. The was no hint of what was about to occur, except my lips painted an intense red, my Che-style beret, and a certain air of anticipation that could be sensed in the pre-inaugural atmosphere.
The commotion started when I sat in the front row, courteously greeting the former First Lady of Chile, Hortensia Bussi de Allende. She kindly turned around to hear me, and she looked stunned by my particular attire. She smiled, a little confused, and sat with other illustrious guests. After the country's highest authorities entered the venue, Jaime Ravinet, Mayor of Santiago, José Pablo Arellano, Minister of Education, and then-President of the Senate, Sergio Romero, among them, the official inauguration of the Book Fair began with an interpretation of the national anthem by the Municipal Choir.
Then, frightened, I jumped on stage with a red handkerchief and began to dance an uninhibited cueca to the beat of the national anthem, screaming "Prosecution for Pinochet, prosecution for Pinochet, for the disappeared, prosecution for Pinochet!" Nobody reacted, thinking that my performance was part of the inaugural program. The improvised act lasted minutes that never seemed to end, until the security guards came onstage and dragged me out of Mapocho Station by force. Later, in an attempt to overcome the impasse, the authorities apologized for the occurrence. "What shame!" claimed a bewildered Mayor Ravinet. The baffled gaze of the reporters covering the event remained fixed on us to the doors of the Mapocho Station. Outside, under police custody, I waited for a police car that never arrived. In the end, the police understood nothing, and after being so heavily guarded, only one cop took me to the First Precinct of Santiago in a radio taxi. At the station, a Lieutenant Alarcón, who couldn't believe the information her subordinates reported, received us. I was released after being detained for several hours, being charged with "disturbing the public order."
Meanwhile, at the Fair, writers and politicians shared their opinions with the newspaper La Nación. The writer Antonio Skarmeta said, "It was a spontaneous act, in a stimulating environment, open and democratic, like that of the book, that tolerates all kinds of expressions, impulses, and eccentricities. I thought it was good. I thought it was strange that they apologized." The poet Raul Zurita added, "Maybe they apologized because there's no prosecution for Pinochet. At least that's how I understood it."
For his part, then-president of the Senate Sergio Romero expressed his discomfort:
It was an absolutely abnormal intervention, showing no respect, not even for the book nor the national anthem. It's a shame. I do not consider it an attack on General Pinochet, but a display of vulgarity and lack of culture. What I find most strange is that some of the audience applauded. It demonstrates that people are losing their values. It's not possible that this type of pervert is allowed to eclipse an international ceremony.
The following year, on 16 October 1998, Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London, accused of crimes against humanity by the Spanish courts. I remembered the "cueca maricueca" of the Mapocho Station on that unforgettable day.
Some time later, in March of 1998, political activism pervaded the public sphere. On March 8, International Women's Day, the Chilean Left organized a protest in O'Higgins Park to repudiate the dictator's congressional intentions, as he was about to be sworn in as a life-long Senator. I enthusiastically attended the event armed with my beret, the Chilean national team soccer shirt, and a sign reading "PROSECUTION FOR PINOCHET" attached to a wooden frame adorned with little pigs' feet.
The day Pinochet was sworn in at the Congress, Valparaiso exploded with protest. Gladys Marín and Sola Sierra (the now-deceased president of the Association of Families of the Disappeared) were brutally beaten by the police, while El Che de los Gays, together with a group of members of Congress from the Concertación and other protesters, defiantly marched through the streets of the port with a bloodied Chilean flag, recalling the blood shed by all the victims of the military dictatorship.
With Pinochet installed in the Senate, the labor movement's pending demands remained unresolved, and there was obvious disenchantment at the Workers' Central Union (CUT) demonstration on 1 May 1998. Hoping to link labor demands with the gay liberation cause, I showed up wearing a crown of thorns, the Chilean soccer team shirt, red lips, and the frame with pigs' feet with a sign reading "THE PEOPLE UNITED." Just when then-president of the CUT, the Socialist Ricardo Alarcón, finished reading his speech, I jumped the security barriers in front of the stage and stripped off my clothes in front of the crowd. This action was widely covered in television and print media.
On another occasion, a month before Pinochet's arrest in London and the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the military coup, El Che de los Gays again appeared at a public event. At a ceremony paying homage to Salvador Allende held at the National Stadium on 4 November 1998, I showed up dressed in red, with a presidential sash and a giant sunflower and proceeded to run a hallucinating lap around the National Stadium's Olympic track, cheered on by Gladys Marín and Camilo Guevara, son of the mythic commander. Days later, during the launching of a book on Salvador Allende written by the sociologist Tomás Moulián, I mounted an installation. Inspired by the dramatic final radio speech given by President Allende on 11 September 1973, I installed a plaster statue of Saint Sebastian on the stage of the National Library right next to Moulián, the author of Chile Actual: Anatomia de un Mito.4
While Pinochet was held in detention in London, on 22 November 1998, I attended a demonstration organized by the Left in O'Higgins Park dressed as a bride, carrying a plaster statue of the Virgen del Carmen (the patron saint of the Chilean Armed Forces), who in turn held a sign saying, "Where are they?" In the middle of the band Sol y Lluvia's set, I jumped onstage and danced to their infectious melodies. After several minutes, and before the blank stare of reporters and the audience, I closed the intervention by throwing the virgin on the floor, smashing the Chilean military's plaster virgin to pieces. The scene was applauded by some, Gladys Marín among them, and condemned by others. Viviana Díaz, then-vice president of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared, was upset by the "heresy" and openly showed me her disapproval. Images of the action aired on the now defunct TV network Rock & Pop.
From 1999 to 2009, merging El Che de los Gays' performative work with journalism, I took over the direction of the magazine VIVO POSITIVO, which is published by Chile's National Organization of People Living with HIV/AIDS. As part of this work, I research articles and conducted in-depth interviews with a significant number of community leaders, who discussed their lives and activism as HIV positive people.
Alongside my work at VIVO POSITIVO, I began to actively collaborate with a series of Web publications, exploring new themes, and bringing new perspectives online-AIDS in prison, HIV/AIDS among indigenous communities, and others.
As of September 2000 until today, El Che de los Gays has had active mass media participation in the many colorful, well-attended LGBT Pride marches in Santiago, Chile. By using a series of personified installations, dressed as a bride with a white handkerchief in the style of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, carrying a frame with little pigs' feet, holding San Sebastián, or carrying a multicolor mirror, El Che de los Gays has sought to present messages of liberation using aesthetic, innovative and distinctive resources, standing out among the thousands of participants in the marches, and receiving attention from the press.
–Santiago de Chile, 6 April 2009.
Translated by Margot Olavarria
1 Hollow Flag: The History of the Homosexual Movement in Chile.
2 "Exilio rosa" is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the bourgeois, counter-revolutionary Cuban exile community, and the "rose primaries."
3 "Cueca" is Chile's national dance, which is danced waving a handkerchief in the air, and "maricueca" refers to "maricon," a derogatory term for gay.
4 Chile Today: Anatomy of a Myth.