With illegal immigration and homeland security issues still simmering in this country, border performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña has plenty of fresh material for his act.
The member of San Francisco-based radical arts collective La Pocha Nostra returns to the Old Pueblo for his one-man show, “El Mexorcist 4: America’s Most Wanted Inner Demon,” in which his stage personae take on immigration policy, the Minutemen, rising nativism and cultural and sexual identity – among other topics.
In a recent phone interview, the 53-year-old author and NPR commentator – whose work has been described as “Chicano cyber-punk” – discusses the evolution of his show, the current political climate in the U.S. and what he expects from President-elect Barack Obama.
Q: Your show is called “El Mexorcist 4: America’s Most Wanted Inner Demon.” So this is the fourth installment?
A. It’s a work in progress. In a sense it’s like the end of a series of spoken-word monologues that deal essentially with the Bush era: What it meant to be a Mexican, to be a Latino in the Bush era in the U.S.; How the war on terror affected us, affected our notions of community, identity. . . . It’s the end of the series because the Age of Obama is about to begin and we’re walking into a new zone with a new kind of optimism, cautious optimism. But this is going to affect the kind of content of art and literature being produced in this country. This is going to be a transitional piece, like I’m saying goodbye to the war on terror and the Bush era and hopefully welcoming, in the name of the arts community, the Age of Obama.
Q. So your work continues to evolve.
A. Constantly. That’s the job of the artist. The artist in many ways is like a journalist. Our job is to chronicle the times like you guys do. But we just utilize a different kind of discourse, a different kind of methodology. We’re constantly tapping into the current issues, trying to articulate the spirit of the times. And in many ways that is the job of the artist: to ask impertinent questions, to ask the questions that are not being asked and to do it originally.”
Q. You call yourself “The Mexorcist.” What is it you’re “mexorcising?”
A. It’s like a word game on the whole kind of “mexiphobia” that emerged in the last three or four years. When the border become the, quote unquote, most sensitive zone of our national security, and the potential entry point for international terrorists, the U.S.-Mexico border became the second front on the war on terror. And migrants from the south became an extension of Arab terrorists, so there was (building) racism and one of the focal points was Arizona. So I created these performance personae to kind of exorcise those fears and hopefully call for a better understanding of our relationship with our southern neighbor, with Mexico.
Q. What other factors do you think are contributing to this rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, especially against Mexicans?
A. The first one is a kind of attitude crisis of identity that the U.S. has been undergoing since 9/11, this idea that our sense of national identity is being threatened by foreigners. So (it’s) a byproduct of the constructive discourse of the war on terror, which in many ways was a war against difference, a war against religious, political, cultural difference, linguistic difference as well. The anti-immigrant sentiment is an extension of nationalism that was constructed by the neocons in Washington. And of course, right now we have a new added element, which is we’re entering a very precarious financial era. People are debating, is it a recession? Is it the third great Depression? The beginning of the end of the great American empire? As we face these financial uncertainties, the jobs that in the past only Mexicans wanted to do are now up for grabs. And the Mexicans in many ways will be the first ones to experience the fear of uncertainty of financial instability. It’s already happening. I just got back from Mexico and there is already a lot of paisanos who are returning crestfallen because the jobs they used to have are no longer available, and the job market is shrinking and shrinking. It’s going to be a tough time for the Mexicano community. Our job as artists is to keep those borders open, to make sure that we cross those borders, to make sure that we invite artists from other parts of the world to cross those borders as well and that we forge transnational friendships and collaborations between artists from the north and artists from the south. It’s a small contribution but it’s an important one.
Q. How surprised were you that immigration wasn’t much of an issue during the presidential campaign between Obama and McCain?
A: I think it was understandable. It was a really hot potato. … If Obama had spoken in favor of immigration it would have been the end of this campaign. So I’m sure they discussed it in his insider group and they decided not to touch immigration as an issue. It was very hot. Right now it’s a very unpopular cause to defend migrant workers, to defend so-called illegal aliens, to defend immigrants without documents. It’s heartbreaking because … it’s a humanist cause. We have the responsibility to aid other human beings regardless of their immigration status. It’s kind of essential humanism, but this kind of argument has been lost in this culture of fear, fear of others that permeates American culture.
Q. What role does humor play in your performances?
A. It’s crucial, and this is something I learned from Chicanismo and from Mexican culture. I think that both Mexican and Chicano culture are extremely irreverent. We don’t hold anything sacred. We laugh at everything, we laugh at ourselves. It’s a way of coping with problems. It’s a very useful performance strategy. If the audience can relax and lower their defenses, you can deal with very sensitive issues in ways that you couldn’t deal with if you were much more heavy-handed. For me it’s an important element. Satire, political satire, humor, irreverence are also kind of like not taking myself very seriously, because the last thing I want to do is preach. For me, I feel that the social problems we are facing are all our fault. We are all implicated and the last thing I want to do is create a binary world where there is us and them, the good and the bad, because precisely I’m trying to dismantle this binary world.
IF YOU GO
What: Performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña in “El Mexorcist 4: American’s Most Wanted Inner Demon”
When: 8-10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Tucson Museum of Art and Historic Block, 140 N. Main Ave.
Price: $12 general, $25 VIP seating
Info: 624-2333, TucsonMuseumofArt.org