- Guillermo Gómez-Peña: An Introduction
The keynote address for the 1998 ATHE conference in San Antonio, Texas, had little in common with more conventional modes of academic speaking. Performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña stood on a makeshift stage in a cavernous convention hall. Adopting the persona he identifies as “El Mariachi Liberace,” Gómez-Peña, with his thick mustache and oversized sombrero, embodied the familiar image of the “rrrrrroomantic Mexican” as seen on picture postcards and in tourist brochures. In the spoken word performance he presented for the ATHE delegates, Gómez-Peña alternately deployed and destabilized this image, using humor and irony to guide his audience through the millennial cartography of his “performance universe,” a world in which essentialist notions of identity collapse and geopolitical borders fade in the wake of an irreversible process of cultural hybridization. Whether evoking the specter of a US economy in ruins following the massive migration of Mexican workers to the South, or a nation in which the first Chicano President addresses the country from the Brown House, Gómez-Peña articulated the complex range of tensions and projections, desires and fears, that characterize US/Mexican relations at the end of the twentieth century.
Gómez-Peña’s work is characterized by a type of artistic and political strategy that he describes as “reverse anthropology.” Both in his performance texts and his critical writings, Gómez-Peña seeks to appropriate and reverse the direction of the ethnographic gaze, “shifting the notion of center and margins and creating a space for the South to become the speaking subject and the US becoming the object of analysis, adoration, criticism, etc.” To this end, his work explores situations of radical historical, political, and cultural contingency, strategically occupying a mythical center from which he is able to “explain the dominant culture to itself” (Gómez-Peña and Fusco). Moving from the familiar landscape of California under the xenophobic administration of Governor Pete Wilson to a utopian future in which the peoples of the Americas peacefully coexist in a landscape without recognizable borders, Gómez-Peña effectively defamiliarizes and interrogates structural and political inequities in contemporary culture. According to Gómez-Peña, “We assume a fictional center, push the dominant culture to the margins and treat it as exotic and [End Page 89] unfamiliar. So in our performance world, Spanish is the lingua franca, Mexicans are the dominant culture, and Americans are exotic, nomadic minorities” (Border Stasis).
Over the past ten years, Gómez-Peña’s writings and performances have been recognized with numerous honors, including a National Book Award (1997), a Bessie Award (1989) and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1991). Yet only a small portion of his artistic and political activities have taken place within the confines of the art world. A visionary artist and cultural critic who refuses to let his work be circumscribed within pre-existing categories, Gómez-Peña is as likely to be found performing in community centers or marginally funded alternative arts spaces as in the museums and galleries of Mexico City, New York, and London. Whether working as a commentator for National Public Radio, engaging in street interventions at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, or organizing performative town meetings in Toledo, Ohio, or Washington, DC, Gómez-Peña epitomizes the role of the artist as citizen diplomat and public intellectual (Giroux x), using performance as a tool to initiate dialogue on a range of complex issues, including censorship, immigration, and Anglo American attitudes toward Latinos and indigenous peoples. In a society in which performance artists are alleged to speak only to a sophisticated, “art world “ audience (see Kester), Gómez-Peña is committed to making art that is politically engaged, theoretically informed, and yet highly accessible, simultaneously addressing multiple constituencies and communities.
While he first came to public attention as a solo artist, the majority of Gómez-Peña’s work in recent years has been collaborative in nature. Since 1994, he has worked consistently with interdisciplinary artist Roberto Sifuentes; more recently, choreographer and performer Sara Shelton Mann and soundscape...