Pushing the Borders of Performance Art
By Benjamin Ortiz
A TV screen flickers with the static-scratched image of a meeting in a dimly lit brick basement. Figures in black work clothes exhale steam through their ski masks. One steps forward and spits out, "In the tradition of Pocho Villa, the lesser-known cousin of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, Chicanos grow up today in occupied Aztlan: confused yet fierce, defending our gente, our land, and our pet Chihuahuas. A pocho is a Mexican growing up in the U.S. who is considered tacky and uncouth by both Mexicans and gringos. Pocho Villa was the first hero to stand up for the right to be Chicano, not a Mexican with their perfect Spanish-language skills and taste for bad pop music, not a gringo with their inability to share and taste for bad pop music, but shunned by both! Subcomandante Chuy wants you, Raza! Join the totally chingon forces of the Pocho Villa Liberation Army! Be a revolting pocho and help liberate Aztlan!"
Next to the screen stand Esteban Zul and Lalo Lopez, two soft-spoken emissaries of the PVLA. The pair are also the creators of Pocho Magazine, which they describe as "a Mad magazine for mad Chicanos." Since 1990, Zul and Lopez have managed to squeeze out seven issues. Turning a term of derision into a badge of honor, Pocho's strategy of Chicanoizing popular culture and traditional Mexican folkways satirizes life on both sides of the border. It offers a culturally schizophrenic pastiche, taking jabs at everything from barrio life to U.S. immigration policies. While the zine has been in limbo for nearly a year, the Pochos have blossomed into a multimedia operation. Lopez, cofounder of the Chicano Secret Service performance troupe, writes the "Mexiled" column for L.A. Weekly and draws the cartoon L.A. Cucaracha under the name Lalo Alcaraz. Zul heads up the Berkeley-based hip-hop group Aztlan Nation. Together they've performed on Pacifica radio and produced videos with other artists. The Pochos also run a site on the World Wide Web called the Virtual Varrio (silcom.com/-tonkin/pocho/varrio.html). Recent posts include Dia de la Independencia, inspired both by Mexican Independence Day and by this summer's blockbuster movie; sombrero-shaped spaceships zap the White House with a jalapeno laser ("The next time you call them aliens might be your last!"). Since affirmative action has been eliminated in California, the page also advertises the "National Pochismo Institute," which offers classes in Transcendental Lowriding, Pochteca History, and business ("Raza Swap Meet Technology").
After the revolution, there will be no more lost luggage. But Lopez and Zul have arrived an hour late for their appearance at the University of Illinois at Chicago after tracking down their bags at O'Hare. They're here for a conference organized by the Mexican Students of Aztlan.
"I think that since our audience has been waiting so patiently we shall reward them," Zul announces in his raspy voice, prowling the stage in sneakers, baggy black jeans, and a T-shirt that reads "Gypsys & Thieves Cover the Earth!"
Lopez unloads a cardboard box of jingling bottles and proclaims, "Malt liquor for everybody."
Hoots and hollers come up from the crowd, and one homeboy in a hoodie and baseball cap exclaims, "Orale! I've been waiting for some liquor all damn day!"
"I gotta tell you, we are all about free malt liquor," Zul says. "It enhances our product and loosens the pocketbooks at the end of the show when we sell our merchandise." Plastic cups are passed out, and Zul walks around pouring from a communal 45-ouncer. Most heartily welcome the ghetto-style aperitif.
"Don't you think you're promoting some bad habits here and supporting the liquor industry that loots our communities?" someone asks.
"Hey, I don't promote it," Zul answers. "I just pour it." Those familiar with the Pochos know how they feel about the alcohol industry targeting the barrio. One parody centers on a drink marketed to poor whites: Dead Gringo Malt Liquor ("Dang, it's tasty!"). In April 1995, the last time the Pochos came through town, they performed Chorizo of the Gods at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum and ended up serving malt liquor at the nearby Jumping Bean Cafe.
The redundancy of proving their point again doesn't seem to be a problem tonight, as the crowd quickly gets behind the Pochos. "If you didn't know already, this is our first piece here," Lopez says, pacing the stage. "It's called 'Malt Liquor Machos,' a group collaboration with some of the art students at UIC."
"It's been a great show so far," someone drawls.
"That's what you call arte," Lopez explains. "Art so good you have to spell it with four letters." He introduces the next video, "some animation by one of our Pocho agents, Alex Rivera from New York, and it is called Cybracero." Lopez explains that the film takes off from the bracero program, which promoted immigration during World War II when Mexican arms [brazos] were needed for agricultural work. From this program came the mass importation of braceros, contracted laborers from Mexico. Cybracero uses stock footage of the actual bracero program, news clips, and slick editing to depict a future in which Mexican labor can be employed to pick crops via the Internet. An enthusiastic narrator says, "The United States Government Department of Labor is excited to announce a new program to get the job done: the Cybracero Program. The presence of braceros contributed to a climate of racial and economic suspicion; evidence of major tension was not hard to find." The video cuts to footage of last April's brutal beating of Mexican immigrants by Riverside County sheriff's deputies in El Monte, California. It then switches to an animated sequence showing robots in sombreros picking fruit in southwestern orchards. "Through the new program, Mexican workers can, from their Mexican village, watch their live Internet feed, decide what fruit is ripe, what branch needs pruning, and what bush needs watering. For the American farmer, it's all the labor without the worker. In American lingo, cybracero means a worker who poses no threat of becoming a citizen, and that means quality products at low financial and social cost to you, the American consumer!" The video shows a little blond girl drinking orange juice, then fades to black.
The lights come up, and Lopez begins to introduce the next video. Zul interrupts, "But first: does anyone need more beer?" Zul pours refills while Lopez describes their own "cybracero" work on the last feature. "Yeah, our homeboy Rivera works with archival film footage, and all he had to do was mimic the actual narration from a real government flick. I sent Rivera the scripts and the images for other cartoons over the Internet, and then he put them into his Mac, processing with animation programs, etcetera--the two of us sending bits of sound files and visual clips back and forth. The Pocho animation ventures go under the subsidiary title Animaquiladora, and our logo is a bunch of workers drawing in a sweatshop."
Lopez segues into the next subject. "I recently went to the GOP convention as my character Daniel D. Portado, who is the former head of the group Hispanics for Wilson and current head of HALTO, Hispanics Against the Liberal Takeover. D. Portado is this right-wing freak. You've seen these people on TV, these right-wing Latino spokespeople that are...uh..."
Someone yells out, "Coconuts," a reference to people who are brown on the outside and white on the inside.
"Yeah," Lopez agrees, "but they work for a paycheck, popping up at English-only rallies, and they're held up as representatives from the community by politicians, so we thought it would be funny to spoof these people 'cause they're very annoying.
"During the campaign for Proposition 187 in California, we were all pretty pissed off and wanted to think of a way that we could attack pro-187 people and get free publicity doing it. So we thought we'd take it to the point of absurdity and become militant self-deportationists."
Zul picks it up. "We put out newsletters and press releases on the Internet and sent them to radio and TV stations, saying that we believed in deporting ourselves. We told them stuff like we wanted to get rid of Linda Ronstadt because her garbled Spanish yodeling attracts too many immigrants to this country, Mexican food is just too unhealthy for you, there's too much banda music. We promised that before we self-deport we'd train all the white people to work in the hotel and gardening fields, and then we'd have an event with Pete Wilson called the 'Run for the Border 10K' to repatriate Mexico."
Surprisingly both the left and the right took the Hispanics for Wilson hoax seriously, and the Pochos received death threats as well as praise on their hot line. "We felt kinda bad with some of the calls we got from shocked and enraged Mexicanos taking us dead serious," Lopez admits, "and then we got calls from MEChistas." He's referring to the student activist group known as MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan), born out of the Chicano civil rights movement. Lopez repeats one death threat. "'187 bitch! I'll kill you motherfuckers!' And I met one of the dudes who placed the call at a MEChA meeting in Sacramento. He was really embarrassed! I just said, 'Hey, congratulations, you made your first death threat.'"
In November 1994, the Pochos pushed the envelope further when a TV station in Salinas, California, invited Hispanics for Wilson onto Sevcec, a Spanish-language talk show televised on the Telemundo network in 22 countries. The show featured an immigration debate, though the Pochos in HFW disguise were the only 187 advocates to show up. "Everyone else canceled," Lopez says. "All their pro-187 people realized, 'I'm not going into a room of angry Mexicans!'" Lopez went as Daniel D. Portado, clad in a suit, an Old Glory necktie, and mirrored shades, claiming to be Pete Wilson's former gardener. Zul followed as his bodyguard, Rudy Rico, who was introduced as a former Los Lobos roadie. "It was the longest half hour of my life," Zul recalls. "They took us into the studio, and the whole time they were screaming at us. There were these kids sitting behind us saying, 'You guys are coconuts, eh! Take off the sunglasses! You're a sellout, eh!'"
Having successfully passed as Hispanics for Wilson, the Pochos decided to make a video mockumentary about the group. "We had no script," Zul says. We just kinda made up scenes as we went along." The video, titled Hispanics for Wilson in "Walk Softly, Pedro!" features clips from the Telemundo show, which are hilarious yet uncomfortably surreal. Activist Juan Jose Gutierrez electrifies the audience, unleashing his anger on the stone-faced Pochos, who somehow manage to keep from laughing while they decry "crimigrantes" (Pocho-speak for illegal immigrants) and the physical dangers of banda dancing.
Lopez made an encore performance as Daniel D. Portado at the Republican National Convention, where he was accepted into the GOP family. "They loved us, but some liberal photographers there talked shit to me, and we almost got our asses kicked by Chicano Brown Berets in San Diego." Hispanics for Wilson did not end with the ill-fated Wilson campaign--they continued to solicit donations on the Pocho Web page for their political action committee, WETPAC, to promote the conservative Hispanic-American agenda through reverse immigration, affirmative inaction, pro-Olestra cookouts, and a Million Mexican March to the border. Though some of their critics see the hoax as outright mockery of Latino efforts for immigration rights, the Pochos maintain that their performances portray right-wingers as buffoons while injecting a sense of humor and irony into the sometimes preachy, self-righteous cant of Chicano activism.
"OK, let's get the next video on," Lopez says wearily, sounding a bit tired from all the traveling involved in the Pochos' 1996 Bandwagon Tour across the U.S. There's some confusion in the back of the room, and someone jokes that the VCR operator has fallen dead drunk. Lopez leaves to check out the problem, and the homeboys in attendance start demanding entertainment from Zul. "Bust some rhymes!" they shout, asking him to demonstrate the skills he's learned with Aztlan Nation. Zul tilts his head back with the microphone pressed against his lips and lets loose a lyrical flow: "I'm the original gangsta politico / sometimes analytical / like to write graffiti / so sometimes I'm known as criminal!" The crowd rocks to the beat until Zul winds it down and jumps off the stage to start a collection for another beer run.
Lopez introduces the next video, Unmasked! The Pocho Villa Liberation Army, with more stories of Pocho hoaxes gone awry. "Daniel D. Portado went to this right-wing media conference in LA for this group called AIM, Accuracy in Media, so I could report on it for my column, and they had a panel called 'Is There an Aztlan in Your Future?'"
Zul breaks in, "And they said stuff like, 'These Mexicans are like the Intifada: bombing, babies being killed, children dying in the streets! That's what's going to happen in your neighborhoods! These Mexicans will stop at nothing to get Aztlan, and we've got to stop them!'"
"These people think that MEChA and all Chicano organizations are the biggest threat, like we're going to take over the southwest next week," Lopez explains. "When I was in MEChA we couldn't even have a carne asada sale without fighting amongst ourselves. I mean, c'mon!"
After he was unmasked as a fraud at the AIM conference, Lopez claims that the Pochos have been tailed by right-wingers who believe the duo are in the vanguard of an illegal-immigration conspiracy involving the Zapatistas in Chiapas, MEChA in the U.S., and the virtual Pocho Villa Liberation Army, led by Subcomandante Chuy and based in Bakersfield, California. "Before getting thrown out, I got my hands on an info packet that had clippings from Chicano activist newspapers," Lopez says, laughing. "And they had a clip from Pocho Magazine with a communique from the PVLA. The packet said 'Know thine enemy.' They actually thought we had an armed force of insurgents!"
The Pochos flip the video on, and Subcomandante Chuy rants about liberating Aztlan through the use of bad poetry. PVLA demands include a claim to the tortilla patent (and eventually rights to all corn products), and it threatens to use the deadly manteca (lard) bomb and hold the editor of Hispanic magazine hostage. The video takes some bizarre twists and turns, with karaoke Nazis taking over bars with white-power lyrics and various scenes from shows on the Pocho TV Network, including a program for men who love to dress like Frida Kahlo, a cooking show for cholos (homeboys) called "Juan Can Cook," and the Tio Taco Players in "Taco the Town."
Future Pocho projects include a feature-length video now in preproduction called The Mexecutioner, a spoof combining 60s sci-fi films and Mexican lucha libre wrestling flicks. A sketch-comedy pilot called "Channel Zero" is in the works for cable TV, and Pocho Magazine may soon be resurrected with issue number eight. Zul and Lopez also plan to crash the Latino Marcha in D.C., a civil rights march scheduled for October 12. "We're just trying to get people to think a little more critically and to raise the level of appreciation for irony and satire," Lopez says. "We want to talk to cholos as much as academics." Mexico has yet to put down the Zapatistas, and now the norteamericanos must face the ski-masked, manteca-throwing wrath of the Pocho Villistas.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lalo Lopez, Esteban Zul photo by Victoria Landeros.