Interview with Guillermo Gómez-Peña by Oscar León Bernal (2008)

Guillermo Gómez-Peña at El Museo del Barrio Guillermo Gómez-Peña at El Museo del Barrio Marlène Ramírez-Cancio

Originally published in Remezcla on May 31, 2008.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña is a well-known performance artist and prolific writer whose work calls into question the codes that define racial and ethnic categories in American culture.

Born in Mexico City, he has lived in Tijuana, New York and San Francisco, where he currently resides. He is preoccupied with the exploration of unstable and shifting national identities, and often acts as a cultural provocateur, pushing the limits of cultural stereotypes to defy the standard monolingual, uncontaminated American ideal.

Gómez-Peña works with La Pocha Nostra, a trans-disciplinary laboratory based in San Francisco through which he and various other artists aim to remap and expand world borders. His performances consist of monologues that bridge poetry, critical theory and comedy.  His stage persona is crafted out of all the elements that bring to mind stereotypes about Mexicanness and being “Other:” feathers, skulls, religious images, make up, a bottle of tequila… I once saw him in a zebra-textured Zoot Suit.

He was recently invited to the Museo del Barrio in East Harlem where he presented “El Mexorcist 3: America’s Most Wanted Inner Demon”—an assault on the “demonized construction of the Mexico/US border” and a commentary on extreme culture and post-911 patriotism. I spoke to him before his performance and the following is a translated Q&A session from our conversation.

Remezcla:  Guillermo, could you tell us what your impressions of New York City are?

Guillermo Gómez-Peña: I lived in this city at the beginning of the 1990s, and for me, this is a very important place, and I believe that artists, at some point in their lives have to come to New York, even if it is for a short period of time.

After New York, I moved to California because I thought that the work I was doing would make more sense there because of the Mexican presence in that state, and because my work is based on the relationship between Mexico and the United States and on the border culture of northern Mexico and California.

I still travel to New York on occasion and I still believe it is important to do so in order to open up dialogues with other artists from around the world; New York is a type of delicatessen, that’s why I like to come.  I do so every two or three years. The last time I was here, I came to present one of my projects at the Guggenheim, but I had not been back. This time, I was invited by the Instituto Hemisférico de Performance and Politics, a very interesting institute based at NYU and also by this place, which is very dear to me, el Museo del Barrio, where I will present a new project entitled El Mexorcist.

RE: I think you have made use of post-structuralist and post-colonial theories along with stereotyped and exaggerated representations in your work, to call into question the way in which we are all in a sense disciplined into assuming particular ethnic and racial identities, which tend to be fixed and loaded with essentialisms.  In my opinion, your work makes use of these theories to confront a society built upon these rigid racial and ethnic conceptions, but my question is the following: When we articulate these very stereotypes, even when we do so from a notion of Otherness, don’t we run the risk of validating these very disciplinary practices?

GGP: Well, during the 1980s and 1990s, my work was very much centered on issues of identity. I began to understand myself as a post-national Mexican, one inhabiting the Mexico at the other side of the mirror, inhabiting the insides of….all etceteras.  I understood myself as belonging to this floating population of millions of post-national Mexicans who exist outside of our national territory and outside of our language. I was very interested in exploring the processes that take place during this acculturation period, when one de-Mexicanizes and one begins to enter a process of chicanization, and to assume multiple identities and multiple repertoires—one enters into a dialogue with Afro-American cultures, Asian cultures and with cultures from all of Latin America, thus forging a hybrid identity. I very much became interested in that process and that is what I articulated in my work.

At this present moment, I have developed an interest in other subjects. For instance, I am interested in how new technologies affect our identities, our community and nationality, or how this rampant culture of globalization and its use of these digital technologies has affected our understanding of identity.

I am also interested in Extreme Cultures; something once marginal and prohibited is now fetishized by the mass media. Why has everything that is extreme become consumable? Through a series of performances I have developed a new type of relationship with the public, one in which the audience is willing to participate, to role-play and enter into radical transgressive sexual and artistic politics precisely because of a new form of socialization based on digital technologies.

These are my obsessions at the moment, but also to understand how the events of September 11, 2001 have produced a paranoid nationalism that affects all of our commonalities. I want to understand how the U.S. has become a closed and intolerant society and how the Mexico-US border is now a sensitive zone for national security—a possible gateway for Islamic terror and, how undocumented migrants, paisanos produce a hysterical reaction that equates them with terrorism.

RE: I understand that that your body of work is extensive and your relationship with social, political and cultural developments is never static, so forgive me for being so insistent on the topic of identity—the thing is, I also form part of this unbounded Mexican condition—I was born in Mexico City, I have roots in Sonora and I have lived much of my life outside of the geographical, cultural and linguistic boundaries of my national state…

GGP: Ah, chilango, or ex-chilango!

RE:  Yes, or trans-chilango!  But I have never identified with U.S.-based identities. I am not interested in assuming a Latino identity, and when I lived in California, I felt very detached from the Chicano discourse. I felt it was out of tune with my own experience. What is interesting to me is how you blend the languages associated with Chicano culture and infuse them with the technological discourses of globalization. I also find it interesting that you make use of the images associated with the Chicano movement. To me, the icons used by Chicanismo, such as the Virgen of Guadalupe make me think more of Televisa or the P.R.I. than with a Mexicanidad I can relate to. Do you think that Mexicans living outside of the national limits—or even those within them—the ones who live in the post-Mexican condition as Roger Bartra described it, will develop new symbols and new discourses that are not associated with Chicanismo, which is an important contribution, but one that belongs more to academics, or a specific generation than to the Mexicans who inhabit global cities such as New York, places that have little resemblance to the American Southwest?

GGP: Yes, of course! I do feel that the Chicano movement was one of affirmation of identity and one which ceased to exist thirty years ago.  But Chicanismo has been transformed, reinvented and that is why we can now speak of a post-Mexicanidad or a post-Chicanidad. The new generations of Chicanos are much more hybrid, much more expansive and fluid in their understanding of identity than their parents. In that sense, I am in total agreement with your analysis and I also agree that recent arrived Mexicans in places such as New York are creating their own distinct spaces—a Mexa-York so to speak that lends itself to a very different experience than that of the post-national condition in cities such as San Antonio or Los Angeles, or Sacramento.  I think all of these places hold new and transitional identities and we do not know where it will all end up.

But I do believe in a very valid Neo-Chicanismo, or Post-Chicanismo attitude towards life. For me, this attitude belongs to people capable of negotiating two or more cultures, capable of being in transit and handling several languages—a Neo-Chicano, or post-Chicano is a good border crosser and fluid and anti-essentialist attitude. That is why I find this a useful model and curiously that is why in Europe people are so interested in what we are doing here. We are cultures that are producing artforms with a hundrend and forty year old process that began with the loss of half of the Mexican territory to the United States. But again, we should not confuse these emerging identities with the Chicanismo setenterto de Virgenes de Guadalupe and Che Guevaras and flying Aztec warriors.

RE:  Also, now that we are on the subject of border-crossings, I remember a moment during the 1990s when I was a student at Berkeley, when I first became interested in the work of Garcia-Canclini and Appadurai and everyone I knew and myself were all traveling back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. and talking about hybrid identities, ethnoscapes, and fluidity and globalization.  I felt we were in a new moment of border-crossings. In retrospect, I feel we all got ahead of ourselves; borders are now more rigid than ever, the nation-state did not disappear, it became more repressive and we now have an anti-Mexican  campaign and a xenophobia that you touched on earlier.  We are in a different world.

GGP: Yes, the cult of Globalization that the 1990s generated has given way to a nationalism that serves as a mechanism of defense. In the mid-1990s we started to see the emergence of ultra-nationalist movements. We had on the one hand the emergence of a global culture and the notion that nation-states were becoming a thing of the past that no longer corresponded to our cultural realities. Simultaneously, Globalization generated neo-nationalist movements and after September 11th, this neo-nationalism becomes a virulent force articulated primarily under the leadership of the United States, where we now live in a society that seeks to close itself from Arabs, but also from those who come from the South.

In Europe, they have the movement known as Fortress Europa.  Europe lives under the impression that the new barbarians have arrived; these new barbarians are depicted as Islamic fundamentalists, but also as undocumented migrants. Europe and the United States are experiencing a profound identity crisis, a fear of all alterity. But this condition is generating new sounds, new forms of poetry. For instance, we at La Pocha Nostra seek to confront this world where, lo que rifa son el patrioterismo and arrogance. We often discuss among ourselves whether the moment has arrived for us to return to the South. New York, for instance, is no longer a place with the cultural and artistic importance it once had; new movements are developing elsewhere, in the Global South.

RE: Guillermo, finally, what do you think of what is happening politically in Latin America?  Until very recently I had never been interested in elections, which to me are for the most part a farce, but what happened in Mexico in 2006 was very significant. What is your assessment of the political present in Latin America? Most nations have elected presidents we can in one form or another consider of the left; the outcome in Mexico was different and some consider what happened a type of coup d’etat by the right.

GGP: It almost happened, but well, the election was stolen from Obrador in a similar way as Bush once took it from a Democrat some years ago.  Calderon in Mexico and Uribe in Colombia are now practically alone in Latin America.  I don’t think they represent their societies. I think we are seeing the emergence of a Pan-American left that has discovered that it does not even have to take the United States into account. While this country lives under its illusions of a global war on terror and immigrants, it is no longer necessary to even invite the U.S. to a dialogue held among nations where much more interesting developments are taking place.

Additional Info

  • TItle: Interview with Guillermo Gómez-Peña by Oscar León Bernal (ReMezcla)
  • Date: 31 May 2008
  • Interviewee: Guillermo Gómez-Peña
  • Interviewer: Oscar León Bernal
  • Language: English