Víctor Hugo Robles remembers feeling minimal next to the monumental images of Commander Che Guevara all over the Arcis University campus where he studied journalism in the early 1990s. Having spawned an iconic poster and taken on a life of its own, Che's image had become both a fashionable de-politicized logo as well as a potent anti-establishment symbol used by a wide spectrum of human rights movements and individuals affirming their own liberation.1 Robles experienced an untamable desire to contaminate the figure that loomed over the university's counter-cultural scene. His first intervention into el Comandante's image was to apply lipstick to a graffiti depiction of the guerrillero located in Arcis. Soon thereafter, a peculiar character with a black beret and a starfish walked onto the Chilean public stage.
Víctor Hugo's public persona "el Che de los gays" emerged as a politicized, performative character bent on provoking the "establishment"-from government agencies to established left-wing and LGBT organizations.2 Specifically, Robles chose to incarnate the intersection of homosexuality and politics to draw attention to the devastating effects of HIV/AIDS in Chile as well as Chilean society's haunting fear of contagion.
"Escogí la figura del Che porque es la máxima metáfora del revolucionario contemporáneo y al asumir parte de su figura representacional (estrella, boina y actitud guerrillera), busco politizar la homosexualidad y/o homosexualizar la política, demostrando que es posible ser homosexual y ser revolucionario; ser homosexual y ser de izquierda; ser homosexual y luchar por los cambios y la transformación de la sociedad." (Oquendo-Villar 2009)
["I chose the figure of Che because it is the maximum metaphor for the contemporary revolutionary. By assuming part of his representational figure (star, beret and guerrilla stance), I sought to politicize homosexuality and/or homosexualize politics, demonstrating that it is possible to be homosexual and to be revolutionary; to be homosexual and to be a leftist; to be homosexual and fight for change and the transformation of society."]
Víctor Hugo's decision to use the image of Che Guevara to challenge the separation between homosexuality and revolution places his performance in a unique position, given that many gay rights activists and intellectuals consider Che Guevara a homophobic figure within the Cuban Revolution (see Bejel, 2001). In Gay Cuban Nation, Emilio Bejel refers to che Guevara as "one of the staunchest homophobic leaders of the revolutionary period" (Bejel 2001: 100). Despite the UMAPs (forced labor camps to rehabilitate "anti-social" people, including gays in Cuba), Víctor Hugo remains a loyal defender of the Cuban Revolution. During his most recent visit to the island, Mariela Castro, Cuba's leading sexologist and director of the National Center for Sexual Education (who also happens to be the daughter of the Cuban leader, Raúl Castro), officially sanctioned Víctor Hugo's impersonation of che by stating that "if che were alive, he would be supporting our cause" (Robles 2008).
A media savvy activist and performance artist, Robles has a keen understanding of the power of polemic to draw media coverage of his interventions in, and disruption of, protest demonstrations and public acts. As illustrated in the accompanying gallery and interview, throughout the 1990s El che de los gays engaged in numerous acts of improvised yet calculated interruption-contamination-of political events, deploying his agendas through a performatively parasitic relationship with other causes in the public sphere. Whether taking a critical stance or expressing support, his actions and movements always require other actions and movements, underscoring both the relational and intersectional nature of his demands. Among his many acts, we find: his striptease at the official May Day event of the National Workers Federation in 1998; throwing water labeled AZT (the first HIV medication) at a renowned television celebrity and artist at a 1997 anti-censorship event (from which he was subsequently thrown out); breaking a statue of the Vírgen del Carmen, patron saint of the Chilean army, as part of a political performance against former dictator Pinochet's political immunity; occupying MOVILH headquarters to boycott the exclusion of the Chilean transgender community in elections endorsed by the gay movement during the campaign for the 1996 municipal elections; and wearing a white scarf in allusion to the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo during the 2000 Gay Pride parade. A practicing journalist, Víctor Hugo thus used mass media outlets to draw attention to LGBT demands and to disseminate and multiply the impact of his political message. Robles' mediatized interventions acquired a political potency and permanence that was a key component of the performances themselves.
However, Robles's media-friendly appearances were often not welcomed by political groups organizing the events, regardless of their ideological inclination or Robles's endorsement of their cause. Such was the case of Viviana Díaz, Vice President of the Agrupación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos, who reacted negatively to Víctor Hugo's shattering of the statue of the Vírgen del Carmen, which she criticized publically. Similarly, when Víctor Hugo publically presented communist leader and presidential candidate Gladys Marín with a presidential sash, her campaign director, Tomás Moulian noted the resistance of older militant communists who felt they were witnessing "the installation of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Party" (Oquendo-Villar 2009). Other organizers have also feared the disruption and contamination of their political message by Victor Hugo's irreverent interventions at press conferences, book fairs, rallies, and official appearances of international personalities visiting Chile. When Danielle Mitterand was speaking at a Congress of the Socialist Party, for instance, Víctor Hugo interrupted the event carrying a Chilean flag with a hole. The hole represented the lack of lesbian, homosexual, and transgender participation in Chilean politics.
Dressed as Che, Víctor Hugo has joined a long list of che Guevara impersonators including, most notably, Omar Sharif, Antonio Banderas, Madonna, Cher and, more recently, Gael García Bernal and Benicio del Toro.3 Yet, unlike the Hollywood stars that glamorously impersonated Guevara, Víctor Hugo's trademark guerrillero look had a specific queer left-wing political agenda and, though seduced by the combatant image of che,4 drew on the image of a deceased and defeated Che Guevara best captured by Bolivian photographer Freddy Alborta's iconic photo of the dead Che. According to sociologist Tomás Moulian, Víctor Hugo's performance directly referenced that defeated Che:
"Tiene un aspecto desvalido, no puede representar a che de la carabina, entonces, él representa un cierto Che, el Che de la derrota y él usa las imágenes de la derrota. Yo creo que se inspira en el che muerto, entonces, es un gesto interesante, es un gesto descolocante, que se vincula más al che patético, el patetismo del profeta desarmado, al profeta semiarmado. El no representa el realismo, sino que el idealismo, el gesto. Es alguien que busca el poder abandonándolo, hay algo en la figura misma de Víctor Hugo Robles que le permite jugar bien ese papel, y donde se une la simbología cristiana con la simbología política, entonces yo creo que es una performance interesante, muy interesante." (In El Che de los gays, 2005)
[He has a helpless appearance; he cannot represent the Che of the carbine rifle; he represents a certain Che, the defeated Che, and he uses images of defeat. I believe he is inspired by the dead Che, therefore, it is an interesting gesture, a disconsolate gesture, that links him more to the pathetic Che, the pathetic quality of a disarmed prophet, a semi-armed prophet. He does not represent realism but rather idealism, the gesture. He is someone who looks for power by abandoning it; there is something in the very figure of Víctor Hugo Robles that allows him to act this role well, a role in which Christian symbolism mingles with political symbolism, thus I think this is a very, very interesting performance.]
Víctor Hugo distorted Che's image by irreverently mixing it with other culturally sacred and defeated figures such as the Abuelas de Plaza Mayo, Salvador Allende, and Gladys Marín. Reflecting on his use of tormented figures, Robles states:
"Utilizo imágenes utópicas, desvalidas, castigadas, agonizantes y dolientes de profetas cruzados por la política y la cristiandad que no conquistaron poder institucional, sino más bien dejaron un mensaje de esperanza, de búsqueda de cambios y transformación. Las utilizo porque busco asimilarlas con las figuras desvalidas y sufrientes de homosexuales contemporáneos con derechos no garantizados, travestis contemporáneos golpeados, asesinados y de lesbianas de hoy estigmatizadas por el sistema. Más que levantar una imagen de orgullo y de gay feliz, intento mostrar la imagen discriminada y estigmatizada de la figura del homosexual en tanto sujeto distorsionado y peligro para el orden social heterosexual." (Oquendo-Villar 2009)
[I use utopian images of prophets who are destitute, punished, in agony and pain, prophets crossed by politics and Christianity who did not gain institutional power, but rather who left a message of hope, of the search for change and transformation. I use those images because I seek to assimilate them to the destitute, suffering figures of contemporary homosexuals who have no guaranteed rights, contemporary transvestites who are beaten and murdered, lesbians who are stigmatized by the system. More than raising a proud image of the happy gay, I intend to show the discriminated and stigmatized image of the homosexual as distorted subject and threat to the heterosexual social order.]
Header photo: Juan Catepillan
Carmen Oquendo-Villar (Harvard Ph.D) is the Jacob Javits Fellow at New York University's Kanbar Institute of Film and Television in Tisch School of the Arts, where she is continuing her filmmaking training, and at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, where she serves as film curator. She has published academic articles on diverse cultural fields including film, narrative, performance studies, media and politics, and gender and sexuality in several scholarly publications including E-misférica: Performance and Politics in the Americas, Revista: Harvard Review of Latin America, and Memory Market in Latin America, a forthcoming book from Duke University Press. She is completing a book on Chile's 1973 Coup as a performance and media event, with Augusto Pinochet as its leading political icon. As a visual artist and filmmaker (www.oquendovillar.com), she has focused her work around issues of gender and sexuality, having completed a series of film portraits of members of the Boston and Puerto Rico Latin@ trans community. She is currently working on a documentary with José Correa about beauty ideals and practices amongst the Puerto Rican transgender community. "Trans," her latest curatorial work for the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, has been exhibited in Space Other Gallery in Boston and in the Centro Cultural Recoleta in Buenos Aires. She is currently curating a film and video program for the 2009 Encuentro in Bogotá about citizenship and cultural rights, after having served for 6 years as part of the Boston Latino International Film Festival's curatorial team.
Charlton, Hannah. 2006 "Introduction." In Ziff, Trisha, ed. 2006. Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon. New York: Abrams Image.
Bejel, Emilio. 2001. Gay Cuban Nation. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
El Che de los gays. 2005. Dir. Arturo Alvarez. Escuela de la Universidad Arcis, Santiago de Chile.
Hernández-Reguant, Ariana. 2004. "Copyrighting Che: Art and Authorship under Cuban Late Socialism." Public Culture 16, 1: 1-29.
Oquendo-Villar, Carmen. 2009. Interview with Víctor Hugo Robles. 15 April. Santiago de Chile.
Robles, Víctor Hugo. 2008 Bandera hueca. Historia del movimiento homosexual de Chile. Santiago: ARCIS /Cuarto Propio.
______. 2009. Toda la Justicia (Revolución en la revolución). Una entrevista a Mariela Castro Espin. February. Havana, Cuba. El Che de los Gays. Accessed 29 June 2009.
Sutherland, Juan Pablo. 2002 A corazón abierto: geografía literaria de la homosexualidad en Chile. Santiago: Editorial Sudamericana.
Ziff, Trisha, ed. 2006. Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon. New York: Abrams Image.
1 Having gone through a process of "poster-ization" the image of Che Guevara has taken on a life of its own distinct from the legendary hero's actual life story and ideological beliefs. For a survey of the international transformation of Che Guevara's image see Ziff (2006). For an account of its transformation in Cuba, see Hernández-Reguant (2004).
2 Chile's LGBT movement, MOVILH (Movimiento de Liberación Homosexual de Chile,) to which Víctor Hugo belonged, opposed Pinochet's dictatorship, even as left-wing political movements tacitly excluded queer folk. For a history of the LGBT movement in Chile, see Sutherland (2002) and Robles (2008).
3 For an extensive list of Che Guevara impersonators see Ziff (2006).
4 Korda's image of Che Guevara has been reproduced more than images of the Mona Lisa, Christ, Marilyn Monroe, or the Beatles. See Charlton (2006: 7).