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Guillermo Gomez-Pena, James Luna, and Roberto Sifuentes

at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, April 29 and 30

A young man known in current parlance as a cholo, wearing a red bandanna around his forehead, wraparound sunglasses, baggy black pants, army boots, and a flannel shirt, stood impassively amid the crowd waiting to see a performance by James Luna and Guillermo Gomez-Pena. What set him apart from the art crowd at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum and from the Pilsen neighborhood in which the museum is located was that he was so clearly "not from around here--a foreigner," as the local children refer to almost anyone who lives outside the neighborhood.

The cholo is a kind of street tough, a folk cliche whose origins lie in California Latino fashion of the 1950s. But the image is also very current: children at the Pilsen school where I teach draw pictures of cholos as readily as they draw eagles with serpents, Mexican flags, Aztec symbols, crosses, and the mountain ranges of Mexico. Yet almost 100 years ago prints by the Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada, whose art appeared largely in newspapers, showed men sporting goatees and bandannas around their heads, under hats or without them or around the eyes like victims before a firing squad. The look now serves almost the same purpose as hooded shirts among gang members: it effectively veils the identity of the individual, yet with one glance it quickly identifies him as a member of a larger body. But unlike your average gang-banger, the cholo is a tragic and heroic figure. First, he's a victim of the class system in Mexico and of the uneasy U.S.-Mexican alliance. But he's also evolved from the mythic Mexican cowboy of the 19th century, the charro, who even if he had nothing else had balls.

Saturday night's amazingly articulate and powerful performance by Gomez-Pena, Luna, and Roberto Sifuentes, The Shame-Man, El Mexi-Cant & El Cyber-Vato Come to Chicago in Search of Their Lost Selves (or the Identity Tour), was filled with these corrupted, easy ethnic identifiers and signifiers. Luna wore the semblance of a Native American costume, except that the loincloth was made of a British flag. Gomez-Pena at times wore a zebra-striped suit reminiscent of a zoot suit (an LA Latino fashion of the 40s), and at other times a sombrero, no shirt, and black trousers.

As I watched Sifuentes as the cholo, I waited for people to quiet, thinking that he would begin talking or begin some action less pedestrian than playing a boom box, but no one quieted and he made no effort to gain the crowd's attention. After 20 minutes or so, the doors opened to the performance area, and Sifuentes filed in with the others.

Luna and Gomez-Pena sat onstage at a dressing table, their backs to the audience, facing a gilt mirror that reflected their faces as they dabbed on makeup, smoked, and sipped Diet Coke, Old Style, or Sitting Bull. On either side of the mirror were flags--on Luna's side an American flag with a Native American in full costume and headdress holding a peace pipe, and on Gomez-Pena's side a Mexican flag with a black silhouette of a cholo superimposed over the eagle and serpent. At the end of a runway jutting out from stage center into the crowd Sifuentes sat on a toilet, facing the audience, looking at a small TV screen that showed Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, ads in which cowboys sold Doritos, and other television snippets of the mythic old west.

The show provided a wonderful opportunity to see performance pros in action that was at times raw, at other times highly polished. Every aspect of the piece, every solo and duet, addressed its subject: our uneasy sense of ethnic identity in the fluid, avaricious American landscape. This is a landscape where Luna might sell a Native American blessing or a weekend at a sweat lodge in order to raise a little cash. Gomez-Pena alludes to his uneasiness with his own success as a multicultural ambassador of "gringostroika." At the beginning of the piece, Luna carries a box of corn flakes and, in a mock maize blessing, throws them into the audience. The cholo stands and makes a series of gang signs, also as though in blessing.

Luna and Gomez-Pena at times interact, at times perform solo, then return to the dressing table and confide in each other or let off steam by sighing, then change costume and move out again onto the stage. Gomez-Pena uses both a lectern and a music stand for his script, and Luna uses a clipboard for his. Neither is "off script," though there are segments in which scripts are not in hand, nor do they seem necessary. The contrast between reading, apparently improvised asides at the dressing table, and stylized actions, dances, and accents (Gomez-Pena uses a fake Yaqui dialect, also heard during his Field Museum installation with Coco Fusco a year ago) makes the performance as a whole slightly unpredictable, seemingly candid, relaxed, and refreshingly real.

Gomez-Pena asks the audience for money, shaking a plastic cup with change, a cup that could just as easily have been a ceremonial rattle. Luna asks about the purpose of art: "Can art only be beautiful?" "Does art have to transport you?" "Can art be painful?" In singsong Spanglish, Gomez-Pena asks, "Will you accept me in your permanent collection? I need a job bad, amigo." They ask the audience about NAFTA, about whether we believe in borders between Mexico and the United States, about whether anyone has ever wanted to change his or her ethnicity. They tell racist jokes, forcing the audience to consider their own values. In a very revealing, uncomfortable section, the audience is asked to question the performers. Luna was asked how much money he receives from the government, and Gomez-Pena was asked if it's true that Latinos make good lovers.

There was no posturing or overreaching. The performance was at once self-referential, captivating, painful, moving, and oddly beautiful.

At some point the three might come back for an extended run at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. If they do, I'll be sure to send some of my older students. They'll never think of a cholo or a Yaqui Indian the same way again. And they might learn to think that power can be expressed not only through might but through something in the soul, beyond popular culture, beyond the neighborhood, beyond America's legacy of manifest destiny.

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