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  • Cyclona and Early Chicano Performance Art:An Interview with Robert Legorreta
  • Jennifer Flores Sternad (bio)

Robert Legorreta, also known as Cyclona, dates his earliest street performances to 1966. Only fourteen years old at the time, he regularly donned women's clothing, false breasts, and thick makeup and paraded along Whittier Boulevard, the main commercial thoroughfare in East Los Angeles. He was often met with open hostility and threats of physical assault from passersby and harassment from the police. Legorreta took these extreme reactions as artistically and politically instructive; he learned how to generate a public reaction using only his body and homemade attire, and this became the foundation for his lifelong career as a performer, activist, and self-described "political art piece."

Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1952, Robert Legorreta was one of three sons in a working-class family of Basque and Mexican heritage. While he was an infant, his family moved to a predominantly Mexican American community in East L.A. Like thousands of other Chicanos and Chicanas of his generation, Legorreta was subjected to institutionalized racism and abuse in the public schools. He describes in this interview how his peers' and his own early experiences with racism laid the groundwork for the urban manifestations of the Chicano civil rights movement that would erupt in Los Angeles in 1968.

Legorreta's early political education followed the development of the Chicano movement and the antiwar movement. He attended Garfield High School at a time when the school was a hub of political activism. Garfield, along with four other schools in East L.A., was temporarily shut down in 1968 by the mass student [End Page 475] boycott known as the Chicano Blowouts. Legorreta was one of over one thousand students who walked out of the schools to protest the racist practices and substandard education in East L.A. During this time Garfield was a crossroads for many artists who would become luminaries of the Chicano art movement. These included the painter Mundo (Edmundo) Meza (1955–85), and the founding members of the conceptual visual and performance art collective Asco: Gronk, Harry Gamboa Jr., Patssi Valdez, and Willie Herrón III. Asco staged cuttingly political and absurdist performances in the streets of East L.A. in the 1970s.1 These are an important context for Legorreta's early solo performances and his collaborations with Asco artists. He first performed with Gronk and Valdez in 1969 when he participated in the grotesque protest performance Piglick and starred in Caca Roaches Have No Friends, a play written and directed by Gronk.2

In Caca Roaches Legorreta made his public debut as Cyclona, the character who would remain his performance persona and personal alias thereafter. According to Gronk, Cyclona was based on a Chicana lesbian of the same name.3 In photographs of the performance, Legorreta wears a black gown pulled down to the waist with a fur stole draped on his otherwise bare torso. His face is painted in what would become Cyclona's signature visage: whitened skin, black-ringed eyes, and an exaggerated red mouth that looks as bloody as it does lipsticked. Though Legorreta's Caca Roaches costume was somewhat spare compared with his later constructions, it still exemplifies the unique aesthetic he created for Cyclona: he drew on conventions of drag performance with a gothic camp sensibility (he compares Caca Roaches to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and likens Cyclona to its corseted star Dr. Frank-N-Furter), and he simultaneously evoked the iconic clowns of European theater and opera, indicating, if not enacting, the pathos of tragic harlequins such as Pagliacci's Canio (another character he identifies with Cyclona).4

The climax of Caca Roaches was Cyclona's "cock scene": Cyclona stripped a male actor of his clothes and then bit and broke the phallic water balloon the actor wore between his thighs. Legorreta describes this as a protest against gerontocracy and cites it as the impetus for the audience's violent reaction to the play. Yet it is likely that the scene's homoerotic overtones and Legorreta's appearance in semidrag were as much a cause of the outrage, especially considering that Caca Roaches was performed...