New York

Guillermo Gomez-Pena

Dance Theater Workshop

In his performances and manifestos, “border artist” Guillermo Gómez-Peña describes the fissure between two worlds that he inhabits. Geographically, that means Tijuana/San Diego, but to this artist interested in “alternative cartographies,” the more important space is metaphoric, one closer to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s “thousand plateaus” than to a landscape with mesas. In Border Brujo, 1988, Gómez-Peña wore a border-guard jacket covered with signifying buttons (political slogans, Michael Jackson’s face, toy sheriffs badges), a necklace of plastic bananas, a straw hat, and a pigtail. He read his monologue at a table decorated with Day of the Dead relics, votive candles, hot peppers, and toys, slipping from one language or accent to another: English, English with a Spanish accent, Spanish with an English accent, Spanish, Spanglish, and a Native American dialect. Transitions from one character or caricature to the next—from undocumented Chicano to obnoxious gringo to the seedy bandito of a Saturday morning cartoon—seemed to happen mid sentence, almost imperceptibly, like one more sneaky border crossing.

But the performance was more than a deconstruction of stereotypes (the sleepy Mexican, the wetback, and company). Gómez-Peña created a border situation in which the audience members became visitors to his “performance country.” Watching this border guard, who occasionally addressed us through a bullhorn, I felt moments of irritation and anxiety at not understanding words and references. (I don’t speak Spanish.) I’d been shut out, hearing what seemed like half the show in Spanish. Then, listening to it a second time on tape, I realized that most of the performance had been in English. Annoyance with the linguistic Other had distorted my perception. I’d been, perhaps, alienated. And this was the point, of course.

Gómez-Peña addresses a world still trying to operate dualistically, where the border is thought to be a magic line, changing whoever crosses it from insider to outsider and back again. But many, like the border artist, are neither inside nor outside wherever they are. As Gómez-Peña puts it, “All we want is to go back, but there’s no place to go back to.” The border is a wound, he says, and ideology the knife. In such a messy place, identity is not a simple matter. “I know there is a niche for my little brown self in your glamorous society, in your orderly art world,” he declares. But Gómez-Peña doesn’t want a niche or a trip to the melting pot. He wants an open-ended space, “a multicultural society, from ritual art to neo geo.” He is the New Border Guard, encouraging everyone to cross and recross the lines until they become meaningless.

C. Carr