Back in the mid-1980s, years before any part of a border wall was constructed, Guillermo Gómez-Peña helped jump-start an art movement at the San Diego-Tijuana border. He and a larger group of artists contested the idea of the U.S.-Mexico border as a dividing line, picturing it instead as a circle, a “place of encounter, reinvention, and utopian possibilities, as opposed to a site for violence or hatred,” he said.
Gómez-Peña never imagined that in the 21st century the problems at the border would be worse: immigrant children inconsolable as they were separated from family members, inhumane conditions documented at detention centers, and the deaths of a handful of children and adults in U.S. custody.
La Pocha Nostra, Gómez-Peña’s radical performance art troupe — which is dedicated to erasing borders, both physical and theoretical — has found itself more relevant than ever. “It is the same subjects, but on steroids,” he said.
In all their work, which is meant to be provocative, La Pocha Nostra affirms a borderless America. “We claim an extremely unpopular position in post 9/11 USA,” the troupe’s manifesto reads. “No homeland, no fear, no borders, no patriotism, no nation-state, no censorship.”
Their name translates literally to “the cartel of the cultural traitors,” or more poetically to “our impurities,” Gómez-Peña said. Both meanings gesture at the transgressive nature of the troupe’s work. The members of the group, which fluctuates in size, alternately refer to themselves as “inter-cultural chameleons,” “border dandies,” “neo-Indian cyborgs” and “fetishistic and kinky.”
Their performances, which they call “radical citizen diplomacy,” often push the boundaries of what polite society might find acceptable, in order to force people to think across the dividing lines of race, gender, language, class, generation and political belief. (A “burqa striptease,” a “queer Christ” and a nun washing feet in pig’s blood has all been part of their repertoire.) If it works, a viewer just might find themselves shaken up, questioning beliefs they held dear minutes before.
“We are in the business of quantum physics and shamanism,” Gómez-Peña said. “And our secret strategy is humor.”
After the 2016 presidential election, when a national conversation began over the sharp divide between urban and rural America, La Pocha Nostra responded by embarking on a red-state tour to bring their work to places it hadn’t previously reached. No matter where the troupe goes, they never put on the same performance twice, preferring to immerse themselves in a local community to see and understand the local issues, and then plan a performance to fit.
This weekend, they’ll perform at The PASEO, an annual immersive art festival in Taos, New Mexico, where the troupe has been working for several weeks putting on a residency and workshops with local artists. Their performance, a piece called “Enchilada Western: A Living Museum of Fetishized Identities,” will comment on cultural appropriation of the American Southwest (think desert music festival-goers wearing cowboy hats or Native headdresses) and the mythologies that attract people to the region. They will also “race bend and queer” those mythologies (now imagine the hyper-masculine American frontiersman Kit Carson portrayed as queer). The performance will include 35 local and global artists, and a combination of live and recorded music and video, costumes, lighting and more.
Ahead of The PASEO, the PBS NewsHour caught up in Taos with Gómez-Peña and Balitronica Gómez, another core member of the troupe and his wife, to preview what their latest piece will look like, censorship of their work in the modern era and the dangers of performing to audiences who don’t agree.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with what came before La Pocha Nostra. How did you come to this obsession with borders?
BALITRONICA GÓMEZ: Well I grew up on the San Diego-Tijuana border. I was a gutter punk for a long time in Tijuana punk scene. I also did years of musical theater, became a dancer, got badly injured and then became an angry feminist poet. When I met GP [Gómez-Peña] and joined La Pocha, I found I could bridge the two disciplines of poetry and dance. My parents were also visual artists and occultists. I grew up with that. So today in the troupe I work a lot with the occult, using the body as a conduit, and exploring that idea. La Pocha Nostra is a feminist occult practice for me.
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: She’s the daughter of Aleister Crowley and Sylvia Plath. (laughs)
For me, the markers in my biography are that I am the son of an indigenous man from Chihuahua and a gorgeous woman of Spanish descent from Puebla. I was conceived in Havana, born in Mexico City. My family is made up of seven generations of immigrants to the U.S. When I came of age as an intellectual, in a sense, I decided to follow in the footsteps of my ancestors, and I migrated to California. But the U.S.-Mexico border is like a spider web; you get stuck. And so I spent seven years as a journalist reporting from the border. It was the early days of the border art movement. It was the first bi-national collective of border art. We conceived of the border not as a line, but as a spiral, where multiple cultures met and collided and reinvented themselves. The Tijuana-San Diego border became like a natural habitat for me.
But eventually I had a crisis of professional identity because I wanted to be so many things: historian, poet, activist, visual artist, even soccer player. Several important people in my life said “you can be all of that if you label yourself a performance artist.” It is the ultimate space for contradiction, for reinvention. I became part of a burgeoning milieu of performance artists at that time.
The other reason I fully embraced performance art is because I could become a full citizen through my art. The citizenship that was denied to me in Mexico as an indigenous man, and in the U.S. as a Mexican man, I could attain through my art. I could get respect, live through my art, and justify who I am. I could become a first-class citizen. Everyone in the troupe has a complicated relationship with home and identity.
BALITRONICA GÓMEZ: Or has a [expletive]-up relationship with that. (laughs)
How has La Pocha Nostra’s work changed over time? Has it?
BALITRONICA GÓMEZ: The same discourse Guillermo used in the 1980s and ’90s is applicable now.
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: Just on steroids.
BALITRONICA GÓMEZ: It’s true, which is sad and intense and disturbing.
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: One of the ongoing subject matters that we have tackled throughout the years is that of the thorny and complicated relationships between North and South, between so-called white America and the other multiple Americas. We have also been dealing with issues of colonialism and how it gets reenacted through pop culture throughout the decades. And that’s what our piece at PASEO will be about.
Why did you want to come to New Mexico to perform?
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: New Mexico is an incredible source of mythologies in the international imagination. On the one hand, you have the land of mysticism that attracts new-age tourists and people in search of spiritual intervention from all over the world. And then, at the same time, there is this other mythology, which is the violent and unresolved relationship between pioneers and cowboys and the Native populations. And of course this goes as far as the myth of El Dorado, and the intent of [Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de] Coronado to look for this city of gold.
In the Trump era, we feel that there is a narrative of reenacting the conquest of the West. [President Donald] Trump’s wall is like the ultimate metaphor. So how do we begin to connect all these dots, and create a performative experience for the audience, one that is not judgemental but that is full of humor but tackles all these delicate issues?
In Taos, we are trying to create a parody that is part-infused with these mythologies of the Southwest and particularly of New Mexico. We will do these performance games and the audience will participate in them. At the same time, when they leave, they will reflect on their complicity in these mythologies. Because we are all complicit.
When you say that, it makes me think of a lot of what we see on Instagram out of the Southwest these days — images of people with tribal print blankets, wearing cowboy boots, cacti and elk bones against white walls. It’s all romanticizing the culture here.
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: That is precisely what we’re thinking about. It’s this cannibalization of the other — what we call ethnic-bending. It’s assuming the identity of those you don’t understand or you fear. New Mexico may be the international capital of this phenomenon. People come to stage their fetishized identities here, to be an “outlaw cowboy” or “noble savage.” This is the place where you can perform or inhabit your identity.
It is this idea that you can reinvent, overnight, your identity by simply relocating yourself to a majestic geography. But all of this is staged for us by Hollywood, by literature, by the departments of tourism.
How much do you plan out a performance ahead of time?
BALITRONICA GÓMEZ: It changes as we go, because it’s scored, not scripted. It’s all call-and-response between the troupe’s members, like chess.
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: You could compare it to aikido, quantum physics, or magic.
BALITRONICA GÓMEZ: It always changes based on where we are, and who we’re working with. We never do the same performance twice.
Why not repeat a performance? Especially if a lot of the issues you’re addressing are national, international?
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: It forces us to be in touch with the political temperature of the local site. Performance artists engage in multiple roles, and one is as a detective.
BALITRONICA GÓMEZ: We have to really embed ourselves in the place. This is the fourth annual workshop in Taos, so we have a lot of freedom, and there are a lot of students and collaborators we know. But still we are here asking questions.
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: We talk to locals, we talk to indigenous communities, and we ask: What are the local issues? That is the raw material we work from. Performance art is art of the here and the now. We are chroniclers of the present, and we rely on symbols and metaphors to help us with that. The script of the opera gets written late at night with four computers and one Google doc.
Humor is a big part of your art. Does it help disarm people in controversial performances?
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: Parody and humor is a basic survival skill for Mexicans.
BALITRONICA GÓMEZ: Totally true. Humor helps in our performances, but sometimes people still don’t get it, what we’re trying to do. When that happens, I say go home and think about it. Mexican humor is different.
Do you get censored for your work? Now, or before?
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: I think many producers and presenters have become more bold in the Trump era and are taking more chances. Many others have become more scared of losing their jobs or their patrons or their funding sources. Sometimes we arrive to a city in red America — we always try to always arrive a few days before, to take the temperature of the collective psyche, to talk to local intellectuals and artists, to get a sense of the place — and in these discussions sometimes curators and presenters say, please be less abrasive and controversial.
There are all these stereotypes attached to performance artists, as provocateurs or whatever. Performance artists cannot escape censorship or controversy. It comes with the job.
BALITRONICA GÓMEZ: The goal is not the shock factor, but to make you think about the image you saw.
Let’s talk about your red state tour. What was the reaction like?
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: As soon as Trump got elected, some of the young members of the troupe were adamant about the need for La Pocha Nostra to shift priorities and to shift our touring cartography. They felt it was important to go to all the red states and places where indigenous, Latin, African American and queer communities were under assault. So we have been doing it, and it has been dangerous, to say the least. We have been heckled by the alt-right, we have been followed by white supremacists, we have been thrown out of bars and restaurants.
Of course we are not exactly subtle. When La Pocha Nostra arrives in town, all the locas hang out with us, and we become a raggedy bunch of artist rebels. We have to take more precautions. Because it’s no longer a joke or an academic theory.
In a sense, I think we are attempting to find a place and a voice in a new era. By shifting our cartographic journeys, we are also helping communities of difference and sameness to connect the political dots. We just got back from a European tour, and the issues are not that different there either. The resurgence of nationalism is happening there.
But actually audiences responded very positively in these places during the red state tour, which encouraged us, while of course, we also had some hecklers and lost some audiences.
What were your performances like on the red state tour?
BALITRONICA GÓMEZ: For a while I’ve been really, really fascinated with nun imagery, the cloister, the performance of it. I spent a year in Paris with nuns, studying deviant nun behavior. I often perform as a dominatrix nun. And so, in red America, I did this piece where as a nun I offered to wash the feet of anyone with racist acts they wanted to confess. I washed their feet with pigs’ blood and the American flag. And a lot of people volunteered to do it.
Some people cried, confessed horrible things — crimes toward people of color, rapes they’d committed … they’re not mic’ed, so it’s just between me and the audience member. They say really intense things, and so it’s quite transformative for them and for me and for the audience. It’s hardcore psychologically. Every time I do it, so many people want to participate that I never have enough time to wash everyone’s feet.
Will we see that during your performance at PASEO? What else can people expect
BALITRONICA GÓMEZ:Yes, a colleague will be doing that piece.
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: Another popular performance piece we like to do is “Miss Illegal Alien.” We came up with this after Trump. It’s a beautiful woman painted green, wearing an alien mask. First she began to show up to Mexico City Senate in a lowrider car. Now we want to have her parading around Taos one hour before the performance. People may have random encounters with her, and with other parts of our performance, and the hope is that all of this amounts to an epiphany.
An epiphany. And then — change?
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: No one performance art piece can affect change, but the hope that is by experiencing the art work we can plant the seed in a person’s consciousness that can grow in their mind in the days or weeks after. That it can come back in the form of a dream or conversations or can get completed or enhanced by the reading of other authors. In a small town like Taos, the performance can become part of the mythology. Hopefully the audience members will think more carefully about these issues in the coming months. The hope is that people become better border crossers, and less judgmental in matters of race, gender, culture, nationality.
Do you ever think about stopping what you’re doing? Doing something different?
GUILLERMO GÓMEZ-PEÑA: We could be in a city’s symphony or opera or dance troupe but that wouldn’t accomplish what we’re trying to do. La Pocha Nostra is our mandate; it’s what we need to do and have to do. We need to go where the wound is infected. We need to go to the vortex of the crisis.