Forms of Opacity: Roaches, Blood, and Being Stuck in Xandra Ibarra's Corpus
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Forms of Opacity:
Roaches, Blood, and Being Stuck in Xandra Ibarra's Corpus

In a 2012 performance in San Francisco (and again in New York in 2013), artist XAndRA iBARRA staged the not-quite-death of her burlesque persona, La Chica Boom, in a theatrical performance entitled FML: F*ck My Life.1 As the artist's website explains, the performance was "a mute spectacle that explores the backstory and failure of Xandra Ibarra's burlesque persona, La Chica Boom."2 Ibarra had first come (pun very much intended) onto the Seattle and San Francisco Bay Area queer Latina/o art scene sometime in the early aughts. Her inaugural performances were witty burlesques that took up iconic figures of Mexicanidad, femininity, and brownness, and mixed them into a stiff cocktail of campy spectacle. Ibarra named these performances "Spicticales"—showing her punning prowess in the curatorial signifier of the series.3 Performing as La Chica Boom, Ibarra's spictacles constituted "a mexy-sexy" set of camped-up performances of ethnic drag. Such performances, to many, provided the kind of textured play with power, pain, and pleasure that camp so often affords, while also decentering the gay white masculinity it so often seems to serve.

The La Chica Boom performances were not sustainable, however. Rather than viewing them as camp, white audiences often responded to them as an invitation to jeer and sling racist and sexualized slurs at the artist. As Ibarra has subsequently noted, the spictacles failed to do the work of disidentificatory camp; their efforts [End Page 369] to expose stereotypes surrounding racialized sexualities as parodic—as comedic in their own hypberbolic racist and colonial absurdity—seemed to backfire. The not-quite-death of the spicticale staged in FML responds to this failure by incorporating it into the very structure of the performance. The artist's website describes the project as follows:

Using evocative sound montage, critical political imagery, and fast paced physical theatrics, FML chronicles Ibarra's early ambition to use burlesque "spictacles" to undermine her audience's Mexiphobic gaze. With astute direction from Evan Johnson, Ibarra reveals her incompatible relationship with her audience and the emotional toll that her spictacles have had over the past ten years of her burlesque life.4

FML marked a shift in Ibarra's oeuvre away from the campy, burlesque performances of La Chica Boom, but it did so by staging her ignominious death and quasi-resurrection. Notably, FML takes its title from the abbreviation used in text messaging to express feelings of existential angst, rather than to communicate desire or invite sexual intercourse. Ibarra's title glosses the acronym in turn, notably supplanting a vowel with an asterisk: "F*ck." I read the asterisk here less as a self-censoring gesture of politeness than as a defiant withholding, a refusal to offer access to the authentic interiority that a penetrative gaze might crave. The invocation "Fuck My Life" is not an invitation to penetrate. Female performers have long struggled to maintain possession of their lives in the face of such penetrative demands; this struggle figures poignantly in FML, insofar as Ibarra's performance alludes to the legendary death of the Mexican stage and film actress Lupe Vélez. Ibarra's performance culminates with a less dramatic ending: molting rather than dying, La Chica Boom turns into a cockroach.

Ever theorizing her own aesthetic practice, Ibarra writes convincingly about the promise and failure of the spictacles as a motivation for FML:

I want to illuminate how performing racially perverse material often fails because it is read and embodied as reality by my (white) audiences. I do this by juxtaposing the rumored death of Lupe Vélez, the original Hollywood Mexican "Spitfire" who purportedly died with her head in the toilet, with the life of La Chica Boom. My hope is to present these stories side by side in order to foreshadow the destiny of my burlesque personae. Although I don't resolve my actual life with death as Lupe did, I propose that the afterlife of La Chica Boom will be lived as a [End Page 370] cockroach; reviled, untamable, and always pregnant with yet another disciplined reality...