LOS ANGELES — People filled the lobby of Los Angles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) on Monday evening, eagerly waiting to witness the latest work from veteran performance artist, educator, and activist Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Known for his transgressive brand of performance art that takes aim at borders — both physical and cultural — the 62-year-old “border brujo,” as he is called, is based between San Francisco and Mexico City, though he’s something of a global nomad, performing and teaching around the world. His carefully crafted persona is part trickster, part radical, presenting an array of stereotypes in order to poke fun at their absurdity.
Dressed in a skirt, motorcycle boots, and a cut-off T-shirt reading “Viva la Raza!” Gómez-Peña walked into the crowd accompanied by a nude woman covered in green paint and wearing an alien mask. They then made their way outside onto Hollywood Boulevard, where they posed for passersby, before heading back in, kneeling and raising their fists in protest. The point was clear: the show begins on the street.
Once inside, Gómez-Peña acted as a kind of absurdist border guard, selecting which individuals could enter the main gallery space, choosing solely people of color first, before letting the rest through. “Welcome to a world without Trump!” he shouted.
Inside the gallery, the audience meandered through various living tableaux staged by members of his performance troupe, La Pocha Nostra. In one corner, Gómez’s wife Balitronica — dressed in a fetish dress with a nun’s habit — washed the feet of audience members with an American flag, while in another, the alien posed for selfies. “Don’t touch her, she’s got tropical diseases!” Gómez-Peña joked.
After ceremoniously taking a swig of vodka and spitting it in a fine mist over the heads of the audience, Gómez-Peña presented a series of new and old spoken word pieces brought together under the title “The Most (un) Documented Mexican Artist.” Delivered in his signature husky, accented voice — peppered with Spanish slang words like pinche and cabron — the one-man show spoke truth to power with equal parts outrage and humor.
“Everything we do is the first and the last version,” he told me earlier, drawing on “a kind of living archive out of which we scratch and mix, tailor to a specific site.”
He began with a sort of new Bill of Rights, stating, “Everyone shall have the right to…” before detailing a comprehensive list covering everything from the right to cross borders, access to universal healthcare, and student debt relief, to the right to be “economically unproductive and still have basic human dignity.”
This was followed by a tongue-in-cheek Spanish lesson for those who have difficulty communicating with “their maid, waiter, or nanny,” and a letter to Jan Brewer, the former Governor of Arizona who signed anti-immigration bill SB1070. He outlined the long list of US cities, states, companies, cars, and sports teams — Los Angeles, Padres, Ford Fiesta, Adobe Photoshop — that we would need to abandon to eliminate any Spanish influence from our national identity.
He finished with a letter to Trump, as two Pocha members — one dressed in an American flag body suit, the other in a Mexican flag — beat each other with foam bats. “You make it so much easier to imagine a world without you,” he said, “a new vibrant civil rights movement is in the making” and hailed the current president as a “genius of involuntary activism.”
Gómez-Peña was born in Mexico City but came to the US in his twenties, and has referred to himself as a “Mexican in the process of Chicanoization.” “Identity is an open fluid system,” he said to me. “I always try to occupy multiple identities in different contexts, and speak from different positionalities. That grants me special freedoms. I want to be a coyote, an intellectual coyote, a smuggler of ideas from north to south and vice versa.”
Although the themes explored in “The Most (un) Documented Mexican Artist” may seem especially timely, Gómez-Peña has been working in this vein for years. This was apparent last Friday, when Highways screened a new version of “The Great Mojado Invasion,” a film Gómez-Peña and filmmaker Gustavo Vasquez made nearly 20 years ago. Using found footage from Mexican B-movies and American films depicting Latinos, this mockumentary documents a US-Mexican War that ends with a Mexican victory and the reconquest of formerly Mexican territory in the US.
“It’s a film that examines the origins of Mexiphobia in American pop culture,” he told me before the performance. “We decided to re-edit it, remaster it, add new graphics, to create a new version for the Trump era … Suddenly it has a new life. With Trump, all the early border art work that we thought belonged to an earlier era is becoming strangely current again.”
For the past two weeks, La Pocha Nostra have been in residency at 18th Street Arts Center — where Gómez-Peña was a founding artist-in-residence — offering a five-day intensive performance workshop to an international group of artists. “It’s very cross generational, gender-complex, multi-racial,” he told me of the artists selected for the workshop. “In many ways we like to work with groups of artists that look like the America we would like to inhabit, the other America.”
“Our main project is our pedagogy,” he stressed. “No matter where we go we try to add a workshop for local artists.”
To this end, La Pocha Nostra has been on a Red State Tour, staging performances and offering workshops for “Muslim youth, Black Lives Matter activists, young migrant workers, queers who don’t have a place in the world,” in Ohio, Texas, Iowa, and other places far from the coastal art worlds. They have done a similar tour in Mexico, in states controlled by organized crime, working with their victims. He mentioned the need for bodyguards, either because “there are skinheads at the local bar, or sicarios at the hotel.”
In a time when art is seen more and more simply as another asset class disconnected from the struggles of the “real world,” Gómez-Peña and his inclusive, transgressive, campy, hybrid form of performance art offers a path of relevancy and affirmation.
“More than ever, in the Trump era, artists need to recapture, by any means necessary, a central role in society, as ombudsmen, experimental linguists, reverse anthropologists, radical pedagogues, utopian thinkers, and vernacular philosophers,” he said in a rare moment of total sincerity. “We have to assume the role of critical thinkers in our times, because it is now or never.”
Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s “The Most (un) Documented Mexican Artist” took place at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) (6522 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles) on Monday, February 12, 8pm.