Negotiating Performance: Gender, Sexuality, and Theatricality in Latin/o America

Negotiating Performance: Gender, Sexuality, and Theatricality in Latin/o America

by Diana Taylor

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In Negotiating Performance, major scholars and practitioners of the theatrical arts consider the diversity of Latin American and U. S. Latino performance: indigenous theater, performance art, living installations, carnival, public demonstrations, and gender acts such as transvestism. By redefining performance to include such events as Mayan and AIDS


In Negotiating Performance, major scholars and practitioners of the theatrical arts consider the diversity of Latin American and U. S. Latino performance: indigenous theater, performance art, living installations, carnival, public demonstrations, and gender acts such as transvestism. By redefining performance to include such events as Mayan and AIDS theater, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and Argentinean drag culture, this energetic volume discusses the dynamics of Latino/a identity politics and the sometimes discordant intersection of gender, sexuality, and nationalisms.
The Latin/o America examined here stretches from Patagonia to New York City, bridging the political and geographical divides between U.S. Latinos and Latin Americans. Moving from Nuyorican casitas in the South Bronx, to subversive street performances in Buenos Aires, to border art from San Diego/Tijuana, this volume negotiates the borders that bring Americans together and keep them apart, while at the same time debating the use of the contested term "Latino/a." In the emerging dialogue, contributors reenvision an inclusive "América," a Latin/o America that does not pit nationality against ethnicity—in other words, a shared space, and a home to all Latin/o Americans.
Negotiating Performance opens up the field of Latin/o American theater and performance criticism by looking at performance work by Mayans, women, gays, lesbians, and other marginalized groups. In so doing, this volume will interest a wide audience of students and scholars in feminist and gender studies, theater and performance studies, and Latin American and Latino cultural studies.

Contributors. Judith Bettelheim, Sue-Ellen Case, Juan Flores, Jean Franco, Donald H. Frischmann, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Jorge Huerta, Tiffany Ana López, Jacqueline Lazú, María Teresa Marrero, Cherríe Moraga, Kirsten F. Nigro, Patrick O’Connor, Jorge Salessi, Alberto Sandoval, Cynthia Steele, Diana Taylor, Juan Villegas, Marguerite Waller

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Among its many virtues, Negotiating Performance has the merit of bravely tackling the thorny issue of Latino identity head-on. Taylor’s strong and thoughtful introduction sets the tone for a challenging reflection on the pitfalls of a multiculturalist stance (be it purely commercial or naively sympathetic) that blithely incorporates, homogenizes, and dispatches differences without ever dwelling on the more profound implications of those differences in U. S. culture today."—Sylvia Molloy, New York University

"The attractiveness of Negotiating Performance lies exactly in the boldness of including a diverse group of essays, each of which speaks with its own voice. It will provide valuable insights into areas of contemporary interest in theatre studies."—George Woodyard, University of Kansas

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Negotiating Performance

Gender, Sexuality, and Theatricality in Latin/o America

By Diana Taylor, Juan Villegas

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9927-8


Guillermo Gómez-Peña

The Multicultural Paradigm: An Open Letter to the National Arts Community


Today in this troubled continent accidentally called America a major paradigm shift is taking place before our very eyes. The East Coast/West Coast cultural axis is being replaced by a North/South one. The need of U.S. culture to come to terms with the Latino American "cultural other" has become a national debate. Everywhere I go, I meet people seriously interested in our ideas and cultural models. The art, film, and literary worlds are finally looking South.

To look South means to remember: to recapture one's historical self. For the United States, this historical self extends from the early Native American cultures to the most recent immigration from Laos or Guatemala.

The current Latino and Asian immigration to the United States is the direct result of international conflicts between the so-called First and Third Worlds. The colonized cultures are sliding into the space of the colonizer, and in doing so, they are redefining its borders and its culture. (A similar phenomenon is occurring in Europe with African immigration.)

The First and Third Worlds have mutually penetrated one another. The two Americas are totally intertwined. The complex demographic, social, and linguistic processes that are transforming this country into a member of the "Second World" (or perhaps Fourth World?) are being reflected in the art and thought produced by Latinos, blacks, Asians, Native Americans and Anglo-Europeans. Unlike the images on television or in commercial cinema depicting a monocultural middle-class world existing outside of international crises, contemporary U.S. society is fundamentally multiracial, multilingual, and socially polarized. So is its art.

Whenever and wherever two or more cultures meet — peacefully or violently — there is a border experience.

In order to describe the trans-, inter-, and multicultural processes that are at the core of our contemporary border experience as Latino artists in the United States, we need to find a new terminology, a new iconography, and a new set of categories and definitions. We need to re-baptize the world in our own terms. The language of postmodernism is ethnocentric and insufficient. And so is the existing language of cultural institutions and funding agencies. Terms like Hispanic, Latino, ethnic, minority, marginal, alternative, and Third World, among others, are inaccurate and loaded with ideological implications. They create categories and hierarchies that promote political dependence and cultural underestimation. In the absence of a more enlightened terminology, we have no choice but to utilize them with extreme care.

My artistic sensibility as a deterritorialized Mexican American artist living a permanent border experience cannot be explained solely by accepted historical notions of the twentieth century Western vanguard (from Dada to techno-performance). I am as Western and American as Laurie Anderson or Terry Allen. Yet my primary traditions are Chicano and Latin American art, literature, and political thought. We must realize that the West has been redefined. The South and the East are already in the West. And being American today means participating in the drafting of a new cultural topography.

Let's get it straight: America is a continent, not a country. Latin America encompasses more than half of America. Quechuas, Mixtecos, and Iroquois are American (not U.S. citizens). Chicano, Nuyorican, Cajun, Afro-Caribbean and Quebeqois cultures are American as well. Mexicans and Canadians are also North Americans. Newly arrived Vietnamese and Laotians will soon become Americans. U.S. Anglo-European culture is but a mere component of a much larger cultural complex in constant metamorphosis.

This pluralistic America within the United States can be found among other places, on the Indian reservations, in the Chicano barrios of the Southwest, the black neighborhoods of Washington or Detroit, or the multiracial barrios of Chicago, Manhattan, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Miami. This sui generis America is no longer part of the First World. It still has no name or configuration, but as artists and cultural leaders we have the responsibility to reflect it.

Despite the great cultural mirage sponsored by the people in power, everywhere we look we find pluralism, crises, and non-synchronicity. The so-called dominant culture is no longer dominant. Dominant culture is a meta-reality that only exists in the virtual space of the mainstream media and in the ideologically and aesthetically controlled spaces of the more established cultural institutions.

Today, if there is a dominant culture, it is border culture. And those who still haven't crossed a border will do it very soon. All Americans (from the vast continent America) were, are, or will be border-crossers. "All Mexicans," says Tomás Ybarra Frausto, "are potential Chicanos." As you read this text, you are crossing a border yourself.


The social and ethnic fabric of the United States is filled with interstitial wounds, invisible to those who didn't experience the events that generated them, or who are victimized by historical amnesia. Those who cannot see these wounds feel frustrated by the hardships of intercultural dialogue. Intercultural dialogue unleashes the demons of history.

Arlene Raven once told me, "In order to heal the wound, we first have to open it." Now we are just beginning to open the wound. To truly communicate with the cultural other is an extremely painful and scary experience. It is like getting lost in a forest of misconceptions or walking on mined territory.

The territory of intercultural dialogue is abrupt and labyrinthine. It is filled with geysers and cracks; with intolerant ghosts and invisible walls. Anglo-Americans are filled with stereotypical notions about Latinos and Latino American art. Latin Americans are exaggeratedly distrustful of initiatives toward binational dialogue coming from this side, or el otro lado. Bicultural Latinos in the United States (be they Chicanos, Nuyoricans, or others) and monocultural citizens of Latin America have a hard time getting along. This conflict represents one of the most painful border wounds, a wound in the middle of a family, a bitter split between two lovers from the same hometown.

Fear is the sign of the times. Americans are a culture of fear. Everywhere I go, I meet Anglo-Americans immersed in fear. They are scared of us, the other, taking over their country, their jobs, their neighborhoods, their universities, their art world. To "them," "we" are a whole package that includes an indistinct Spanish language, weird art, a sexual threat, gang activity, drugs, and "illegal aliens." They don't realize that their fear has been implanted as a form of political control; that this fear is the very source of the endemic violence that has been affecting this society since its foundation.

Border culture can help dismantle the mechanisms of fear. Border culture can guide us back to common ground and improve our negotiating skills. Border culture is a process of negotiation toward Utopia, but in this case, utopia means peaceful coexistence and fruitful cooperation. The border is all we share/

La frontera es lo único que compartimos.

My border colleagues and I are involved in a tripartite debate around separatism. Some Chicano nationalists who still haven't understood that Chicano culture has been redefined by the recent Caribbean and Central American immigrations feel threatened by the prospect of intercultural dialogue and Pan-Americanism. Meanwhile, sectors of the Mexican intelligentsia viewing themselves as guardians of Mexican sovereignty see in our proposals for binational dialogue a disguised form of integration and pull back. Ironically, the conservative Anglo-Americans who are witnessing with panic the irreversible multiculturization of the United States tend to agree with Chicano and Mexican separatists who claim to speak from the left. The three parties prefer to defend "their" identity and culture, rather than to dialogue with the cultural other. The three parties would like to see the border closed. Their intransigent views are based on the modernist premise that identity and culture are closed systems, and that the less these systems change, the more "authentic" they are.

We must realize that all cultures are open systems in constant process of transformation, redefinition, and re-contextualization. What we need is dialogue, not protection. In fact, the only way to regenerate identity and culture is through ongoing dialogue with the other.

Then, the question is, what does dialogue mean? Some thoughts in this respect.

Dialogue is a two-way ongoing communication between peoples and communities that enjoy equal negotiating powers.

Dialogue is a micro-universal expression of international cooperation. When it is effective, we recognize ourselves in the other and realize we don't have to fear.

Dialogue has never existed between the First and Third Worlds. We must not confuse dialogue with neocolonialism, paternalism, vampirism, or appropriation.

Dialogue is the opposite of national security, neighborhood watch, racial paranoia, aesthetic protectionism, sentimental nationalism, ethnocentrism, and monolinguality.

In order to dialogue we must learn each other's language, history, art, literature, and political ideas. We must travel south and east, with frequency and humility, not as cultural tourists but as civilian ambassadors.

Only through dialogue can we develop models of coexistence and cooperation. Only through an ongoing public dialogue in the form of publications, conferences, and collaborative intercultural art and media projects can the wound effectively heal. It will be a long process. It might take 30 to 50 years. We cannot undo centuries of cultural indifference, domination, and racism overnight. All we can aspire to is beginning a dialogue. This document is a humble contribution. I ask you to join in.

A whole generation of artists and intellectuals has begun the dialogue. It is mostly artists, writers, and arts administrators (not politicians, scientists, or religious leaders) who are leading this effort. And from these people, the most vocal and enlightened are women. They are the true cultural leaders of our communities.


U.S. Latino culture is not homogeneous. It includes a multiplicity of artistic and intellectual expressions both rural and urban, traditional and experimental, marginal and dominant. These expressions differ, depending on their creator's class, sex, nationality, ideology, geography, political context, degree of marginality or assimilation, and time spent in the United States.

California Chicanos and Nuyoricans inhabit different cultural landscapes. Even within Chicano culture a poet living in a rural community in New Mexico has very little in common with an urban cholo-punk from L.A. Right-wing Cubanos from Miami are unconditional adversaries of leftist South American exiles. The cultural expressions of Central American and Mexican migrant workers differ drastically from those of the Latino intelligentsia in the universities, ad infinitum. Even this document that attempts to present multiple voices and concerns cannot possibly reflect all sectors of our communities. There is no such thing as "Latino art" or "Hispanic art." There are hundreds of types of Latino American art in the United States. Each is aesthetically, socially, and politically specific.

The United States suffers from a severe case of amnesia. In its obsessive quest to construct the future, it tends to forget or erase the past. Fortunately, the so-called disenfranchised groups who don't feel part of this national project have been meticulously documenting their histories. Latinos, blacks, Asians, women, gays, experimental artists, and non-aligned intellectuals have used inventive languages to record the other history from a multicentric perspective.

"Our art functions both as collective memory and alternative chronicle," says the San Francisco-based Chicana artist and critic Amalia Mesa-Bains.

In this sense, this other art, if nurtured, can become a powerful tool to recapture the desired historical self. The great paradox is that without this historical self, no meaningful future can ever be constructed.

Métier is being redefined. In Latin America, the artist has multiple roles. He/she is not just an image-maker or a marginal genius, but a social thinker/educator/counter-journalist/civilian diplomat/human rights observer. His/her activities take place in the center of society and not in specialized corners.

So-called minority artists in the United States have also been forced to develop multidimensional roles. In the absence of enough institutions that respond to our needs, we have become a sui generis tribe of community organizers, media interventionists, and alternative chroniclers. And the images, texts, and performances we produce are an integral part of these extra-artistic activities.

These models are much more pertinent to our times than those of the established art world.

Unlike the avant-garde of modernist times, today's avant-garde has multiple fronts. Or, as Steven Durland has stated, "the avant-garde is no longer in the front but in the margins." To be avant-garde today is to contribute to the decentralization of art. To be avant-garde means to be able to cross the border back and forth between art and politically significant territory, be it interracial relations, immigration, ecology, homelessness, AIDS, or violence toward women, disenfranchised communities, and Third World countries. To be avant-garde means to perform and exhibit in both artistic and non-artistic contexts: to operate in the world, not just the art world.

In order to articulate our present crisis as cross-cultural artists, we need to invent and reinvent languages. These languages have to be as syncretic, diverse, and complex as the fractured realities we are trying to define.

Postmodernism is a crumbled conceptual architecture, and we are tired of walking among someone else's ruins.

Border artists use experimental techniques and performance-derived practices to intervene directly in the world. The permanent condition of political emergency and cultural vulnerability we live in leaves no other choice. If our actions are not daring, inventive, and unexpected, they won't make a difference, and border reality, with its overwhelming dynamics, will supersede us in an instant.


Excerpted from Negotiating Performance by Diana Taylor, Juan Villegas. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Diana Taylor is Associate Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Theater in Crisis: Drama and Politics in Latin America.

Juan Villegas is Chair of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Irvine. He is the director of Gestos as well as the author of numerous novels and scholarly works in Spanish.

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