Thursday, January 11, 2007

>"Learning From "El Mexterminator" and "Cyber Vato": Social Anxiety as a Performative Pedagogy" by Michael Benton

(Reposting for my writing students)

What does it take for people to understand the difficulties faced by those who are different from them? Probably one of my my most formative learning experiences was when I left California and moved to Southern Illinois and later Northern Ohio and then much later Kentucky. During this time I was also learning how to teach and struggling with my own fears/needs/anxieties ... a performative experience taught me about my own prejudices and became a foundation for my understanding of pedagogy.

"Learning From "El Mexterminator" and "Cyber Vato": Social Anxiety as a Performative Pedagogy" by Michael Benton
{originally published in Reconstruction 2.4 (Fall 2002)} and {Also presented at "Something for Nothing." 8th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference, Pretoria, South Africa, September 4-6, 2002 (Conference Proceedings online at ) and in an earlier form as “Crossing Cultural, Technological, and Artistic Borders: Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s and Roberto Sifuentes’ Temple of Confessions and Mexterminator Performances.” Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference, New Orleans, 2000. }

do you hear the police sirens? beautiful, eh?
Ammmeeeeeeerica, what a beautiful scary place to be
but then living in fear is normal for us
we are all scared shitless of the immediate future
by the way, are you scared of me?
of my accent, my strange intelligence,
my obnoxious capability to articulate your fears?
an articulate Mexican can be scarier than a gang member
que no?
are you scared of my moustache?
my unpredictable behavior?
my poetic tarantula,
my acid politics,
my criminal tendencies,
my tropical diseases,
my alleged ancient wisdom?
my shamanic ability to exorcise the evil out of white people,
yes or no? que si que no; que tu que yo
'cause I'm scared of you,
of your silence pinche mustio
your silence makes you really scary
& the distance between you and I makes it even worse

-----Guillermo Gomez-Peña
"On Fear of the Other" [1]

While attending Bowling Green State University in 1997 I had an experience that changed my worldview. I was a teaching assistant in the Popular Culture department and part of my responsibilities included teaching "Introduction to Popular Culture" (POPC 100) and "Introduction to Mass Media" (POPC 165). I had been struggling to engage my students in examining the way in which social reality is represented to them through popular entertainments [2]. The majority of my students were white, middle class students from the surrounding Northern regions of Ohio. My students were well-versed in the ongoing controversy over whether or not universities were attempting to indoctrinate them into a radical form of political correctness and many stated that their parents voiced concerns about attempts to alter their religious and political upbringing. To complicate matters my upbringing in urban Southern California marked me as a "permissive liberal agitator" who didn't understand "how things were in the more sensible parts of the nation" [3].

During the middle of the semester Dr. Lisa Wolford, a performance scholar, hosted an interactive performance piece "El Mexterminator", featuring Guillermo Gomez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes, as part of an ongoing series on campus. I heard that the performance was going to address stereotyped and racist representations of Chicano/as and Latino/as. Sensing that this would provide a good opportunity to introduce my students to a different cultural sensibility and to open up the spatial environment of the sealed classroom I decided to bring my entire class to the performance. My class spent a week preparing for the experience of the performance by entering the website that was operating in conjunction with the performance tour [4]. This was the "Temple of Confessions" which included a series of "anthropological forms" designed to allow the user to explore their "cultural fears and desires" and a section in which one could confess their own cultural sins or desires. This site, "Graffiti Wall," also includes the confessions of previous visitors both to the website and the performances. The power of these public confessions recorded on the Internet and during the performances is that they foreground our society's inherent racist and misogynistic structures (Causey, 389).

By the date of the performance my students were very excited. I was anxious about what the experience would entail and whether my students would be able to engage with the performance. I was determined to remain a disinterested, objective observer in order to respond to student questions or problems. Looking back in hindsight I was incredibly naïve and truly did not understand my own repressed cultural sins. I was adopting a position of enlightened intellectual who was going to teach my Midwestern students about the realities and inequalities of their nation. I felt superior because of my multicultural background, my urban upbringing, and my extreme life experiences. I thought that I was the proverbial Shepard who would guide this flock to Enlightenment.

All that changed once we entered the doors of the theater … The first thing we were presented with was a sign that stated [5]:

"The ex-US of A has fragmented into myriad micro-republics loosely controlled by a multiracial junta, and governed by a Chicano prime minister named Gran Vato. The Tortilla Curtain no longer exists. Spanglish is now the official language. Panicked by the New Borders, Anglo militias are desperately trying to recapture the Old Order. Our border heroes, El Mexterminator, CyberVato, and La Cultural Transvestite have deserted from the newly formed government to join a strange hybrid militia opposing the reverse authoritarianism and radical essentialism of the ruling party. The new government of Aztlan Liberado sponsors interactive ethnographic exhibits to teach the perplexed citizenry how things were before and during the 2nd US/Mexico war. This performance/installation is one example of these official projects."

Upon entering we were herded into small groups that were then lead into the traditional seating area of the theater and we spread out in the seats before a large screen that was showing clips from various movies. There was one similarity between all of these clips in that they all involved stereotypical representations of Latin Americans-the whole spectrum from fearful to exotic, from the "Chiquita Girl" to the bandits who claim "we don't need no stink'n badges". We sat in our seats watching the visual images playing out across the screen in almost a state of suspension wondering if this was the performance or when 'something' else would happen. The images on the screen produced an extreme state of social anxiety in the audience as they squirmed uncomfortably while being confronted with the racist cultural products of their society. This initial stage of the performance demonstrates how "The ideology of capitalism operates … looking to obscure understanding [of] 'how things work' while encouraging acquiescence to 'things as they are.' The television requests that we please stand by, and some do" (Causey, 387). Eventually a few bold members of the audience approached the curtains on either side of the movie screen where noises signaled activities beyond the screen.
Going through the traditional movie theater curtains was like crossing a threshold into another state of reality. The room was smoky with people moving about and hanging from the ceiling were dead chickens with nooses around their necks. There were three main stations: one occupied by the performer Roberto Sifuentes dressed in a bloody, bullet holed, shirt and the styles of a stereotypical gang-banger, another stage directly across presented the figure of the performer Guillermo Gomez-Peña dressed in a pastiche of traditional Mexican musician clothing and Aztec regalia creating a contrasting image of clichéd kitsch and ancient mysticism, the third station was a revolving set of spaces where various performers dressed as transformed nuns/exotics interacted with the audience. These performers would address audience members and encourage them to interact with "Cyber-Vato" (Sifuentes) and "El Mexterminator" (Gomez-Peña) or to approach the "Temple of Confessions" to confess their cultural desires or fears. Before explaining some of the events that I witnessed and participated in while in this performance space I would like to return and examine the temporal states of this initiatory experience.

Upon entering I was still operating at normal physical and emotional intensity. While seating myself I began to slip into the public/communal sociability of movie theaters, trading quips with my neighboring audience members. This quick period evoked my "cinematic imagination" and initiated the familiar cinematic process of the "voyeur's gaze" (Denzin). My consciousness though was brought back to the forefront as I began to be disturbed by the visual representations of stereotypical images on the huge movie screen. Some were exotic, some pitiful, and some designed to induce fear of the ethnic "Other". All were from actual films and advertisements. Many of these clips were from an earlier period, but many of them were recognizable as from films that I had watched in other theaters, at other times in my life, this juxtaposition of the older and newer images brought to mind how easily I had consumed these images without any recognition of the pain that they might cause [6].

Adding to the emotional charge of this initial experience was the sense of anxiety initiated by wondering what was going to happen and being unsure of what I should do next. This initiated a liminal state, this is a temporal state which is described by the anthropologist Victor Turner as a period initiated through ritual in which the initiated is in a state of stasis between two borders. Turner further states that:

"During the liminal period, neophytes are alternately encouraged to think about their society, their cosmos, and the powers that generate and sustain them. Liminality may be partly described as a stage of reflection. (1967, 105)"

At the time I was not familiar with Turner but I clearly recognized that I was at an experiential threshold while crossing through the theater curtains, essentially entering behind the world of the cinematic stereotypes upon the movie screen. When we enter into a liminal period as a group a sense of community is initiated in which hierarchy for the moment is erased through the collective ritual experience. The combination of the state of temporal liminality, spatial uncertainity, and social anxiety produced a situation that allowed for a triadic, or third space, experience [7]. When we came through the curtains we were immediately absorbed into the ritualistic actions of the performers and for many in the interacting audience it induced a feeling that these were "Liminal entities [that] are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial" (1969, 95).

On one of the center stages "Cyber Vato" was engaging in various actions, such as, cleaning an automatic weapon with an American flag, shooting up with a science fictional instrument, and writing on the Internet. On an opposing stage "El Mexterminator" was surrounded with ancient appearing ritualistic artifacts (much like one might find displayed in a museum) and more contemporary clichéd artifacts -- tequila, beads, blankets, velvet paintings, etc. -- that are stereotypically associated with Mexicans along the border towns (e.g. Tijuana and Calexico). The crowd was encouraged by more in-character performers circulating through the crowd to approach and interact with the living "exhibits". Gomez-Peña describes the interactive action that fills the performative space:

Audience members are encouraged to interact with these replicants "at their own risk." They are instructed that they can feed us, touch us, smell us, massage us, braid our hair, take us for walks on dog leashes, or point prop weapons at us to experience the feeling of shooting at a real, live Mexican. More extroverted audience members initiate their own forms of interaction, which range from beating or stabbing us with (prop) weapons to attempting to initiate explicit sexual contact either with us or with objects in our diorama environments. (54)

The emotions displayed can be intense both from the performers and the audience. That first visit I witnessed a vegetarian yank a dead chicken from one of the ropes nooses hanging from the ceiling and threw it at "Mexterminator" screaming at him that they had no right to kill an animal for their art [8]. Mexterminator picked up the chicken and sat down on his throne -- in the various dioramas the throne is often a wheelchair or toilet -- and started to very affectionately stroke the head of the chicken while crying. The vegetarian student asked him angrily why he was crying and Mexterminator replied that the chicken represented Mexicans that were hunted and hanged for bounties by United States nationals. I later talked to the shocked young man and he stated that he had never truly known that the Western section of the United States was a colonized or occupied land in which the original occupants were often hunted or killed as a means of clearing up property disputes. Later, a man started screaming at "Cyber Vato" because he was using an American flag to clean his gun (prop). The man became quite agitated and almost appeared to lose control when a local college girl approached Cyber Vato and started to feed him grapes one at a time (the floor performers from time-to-time would pass food to audience members). Various other audience members were definitely pursuing their ethnic exotic desires by caressing performers or dressing up as ethnic "others". The contrast of these opposite emotions of anger and desire are a part of the performative space opened up by Gomez-Peña and Sifuentes. As Gomez-Peña states in a 1997 diary entry in his book Dangerous Border Crossers

"I believe in the power of decorating and aestheticizing the body in order to exaggerate, challenge and problematize mythical notions of the Mexican Other. In the American imagination, Mexicans are only allowed to occupy two different but strangely complementary spaces: we are either unnecessarily violent, hypersexual, cannibalistic and highly infectious; or innocent, "natural," ritualistic and shamanic. Both stereotypes are equally colonializing. (34)"

During the show a friend and I walked up to the stage of Mexterminator and asked him if there was anything he needed, he said he needed nourishment, we picked up a bottle of tequila and handed it to him and in the middle of a big gulp he sprayed the liquid into the air. Embarrassed, I realized that we had offered him alcohol and cigarettes instead of the fruits nearby-was there a cultural assumption behind that move? Was I reproducing my attitudes developed through tourist/carnival ventures of the past when I would travel into Mexico in order to seek forbidden or exotic adventures? Another audience member took extreme delight in mocking Mexterminator and calling him derogatory names. Mexterminator initiated a dialogue which I was unable to hear, but the man approached the stage and picked up the shotgun (prop) lying on the upraised stage. I was unaware at the time that the gun was a prop. The man stared at Mexterminator and raised the gun and pointed it at his head. Mexterminator calmly explained that now the man would know what it was like to shoot a real, live Mexican. Slowly he walked up to the end of the barrel and placed it in his mouth. They stood in this strange tableau for a few minutes until the man holding the gun started to visibly shake and then broke down crying, finally, Mexterminator walked up to the crying man and embraced him. There was also a space set aside where one could go to confess their cultural fears, desires, and sins. In those emotionally charged moments I too broke down while watching the actions of Cyber Vato. His ritualized performances of a gang member and his blood-stained shirt reminded me of my friends in California who had been killed over being the wrong race, or, in the wrong place, or, who had just plain run out of time. I visited the shrine and talked about my past actions/fears/desires … Some of my students were excited about their experiences in the 'living diorama.' Many more were uncertain about this powerful confrontation with the representation of the societal unconscious needing time to reflect further on their experiences. We spent a lot of time afterwards talking about the impact of the 'living diorama' and this performative lesson continued to shape later discussions in our class. Guillermo Gomez-Peña states that his performances are designed to evoke the ritualized aspects of the brujos and shamans that he and his friends visit as "clientele" and "audience members." Demonstrating his earlier training as a linguist he explains the etymological roots of brujo and shaman:

"[Brujeria] speaks of an ancient indigenous belief system that connects its eccentric practitioners to higher or parallel worlds where time, space, and "reality," and ethics have entirely different meanings. And the Indian noun "chamanismo" means not only Indian medicine; it also implies ritual performance, proletarian psychiatry, and in some cases, political activism. … Their job, like ours, is to create, with the use of chant poetry, surprising gestures and ritualized actions, highly charged props and elaborate costumes, a coherent symbolic system that helps patients (or in our case audience members) understand themselves, their existential malaise and their socio-cultural circumstances a little better." (2000: 232-33)

Later, I had the good fortune to re-visit another of the performances in the Detroit Art Museum a little over a year later [9]. The character "La Frida Prisionera" was added to the show as was a transgendered, or sexually ambiguous, dominatrix. The performance of "La Frida Prisionera" haunts me still today because she perfectly captured the frantic, trapped madness that I had seen in many of my childhood friends who had succumbed to drugs, despair, or violence. The audience was much more experimental, loose, and participatory at this performance, probably due to the 'artistic' elites who were present and the fact that the museum provides alcohol at their shows. I also noticed that the performers in the crowd were much more aggressive and antagonistic with the crowd, perhaps to shock them out of their 'jadedness.'

Gomez-Peña's and Sifuente's performative dioramas have provided me with a lifetime of examples for opening up the classroom, for presenting alternative discourses, and ways to utilize and manipulate time/space in the learning environment [10] Their performative methods produced a Freirian conscientizacao (conscientization) that shaped my pedagogical development in an organic way leading to the initiation of "constructed situations" (Situationist International Anthology) as everyday learning tools. Gomez-Peña refuses to allow us the luxury of the 'denial of coevalness' (Fabian), in fact his performance rests upon his seizing of the cultural authority of hegemonic anthropological authority and reversing the ethnographic gaze back onto the social reality of the contemporary United States. The performance theorist Lisa Wolford when reflecting on Gomez-Peña's earlier "Border Brujo" performances in the border city of San Diego explains that the performances place the audience in the place of tourists/anthropologists who are viewing/gazing upon their own society, but instead of the clean, sanitized version of the tourist spot, or the exotic thrills of foreign beauties, the audience is confronted with their own fear and desires of the culturally Other. Using San Diego as an example Wolford explains the cultural schizophrenia that the performances bring to the surface. Fittingly this explanation is the end of Gomez-Peña's latest book:

"In San Diego, where the so-called "Third World" collides dizzyingly with the "First," the sheer proximity of the sanitized tourist districts to the economically disadvantaged inner city neighborhoods invests these contradictory modes of perceiving otherness with an almost surreal quality. (To the aforementioned diagnosis of the city as suffering from historical amnesia, add an acute case of cultural schizophrenia.) In the low-income districts of downtown San Diego, the Mexican other is constructed as inherently violent and menacing. A five-minute drive away, in the confines of the upscale tourist zone the "domesticated" Mexican (and it is by no means insignificant that the majority of the staff in direct contact with the customers in the stores and restraunts of Old Town are Mexican/Chicana women) is a site of erotic pleasure, inviting colonial fantasies of languorous seduction. Old Town promises that the true California dream, Mexico without Mexicans, is still available . . . for a price. Or failing that, an illusion of Mexico in which Mexicans (primarily young, attractive and female) exist only as part of a silent and compliant servant class, pouring margaritas against the backdrop of tropical foliage." (quoted in Gomez-Peña, 2000: 285)

San Diego's "Old Town" has become a "pilgrimage site for tourists" who want a safe, "authentic" Mexican experience without the perceived risk of actually visiting Mexico. Gomez-Peña has created a performative pedagogy designed to critique the social, economic, spatial, and temporal realities of "here and now" America by looking back on it from a mythical future society. His performative pedagogy leads his audience through a reworking of the dominant temporal and spatial social realities as originally portrayed by the dominant discourse. The materialist feminist Rosemary Hennessey describes this practice as a "disarticulation/rearticulation" in which the creator of a text takes an event, a personage, or a cultural history and re-presents a competing reality/narrative of the chosen subject. The chosen theme/subject is decoded/disarticulated and then re-encoded/re-articulated. The most important factor of this process is that it presents us (readers/viewers/listeners) with a "powerful strategy for rewriting the theoretical texts we encounter" (Hennessey, 7) -- whether they are artistic, political, social, historical, popular, or business discourses, they are all attempting to profess a position, or taking a pedagogical stance ("peda"="to lead"). Organizational theorists David Boje and Robert Dennehy point out that:

"People who do not tell stories well, listen to stories effectively and learn to deconstruct those stories with a skeptical ear will be more apt to be victims of … exploitation and power games . . . Part of exploitation is to deny an interpretation, point of view, or experience, that differs from the dominant view. Rhetoric about healthy, happy, and terrific harmony and unity can mask just the opposite reality. A simple sounding moral or prescription about consensus or teamwork can mask deeper costs in terms of power and domination." (339)

I've been back to my home state of California many times since those early performances and I have never looked at my homeland in the same way after experiencing the "Mexterminator" living diorama or reading the "Temple of Confessions". This is the power of Gomez-Peña's performative pedagogy, it enhances the chances of creating an active and creative public who can better recognize and re-write cultural and political myths.

Michael Benton


[1] Reprinted in Dangerous Border Crossers. (2000: 61). [^]

[2]This was my second year teaching at a university level. [^]

[3] These were actual comments made in anonymous written responses in which I encouraged my students to voice their concerns about the academic system so that we could bring them out into the open. I made the initial assignment anonymous so that the students would not fear reprisals for any statements they made about me as their instructor.[^]

[4]The website, "Temple of Confessions," is still operating at Link [^]

[5] This is a reproduction of the text that is reprinted in Gomez-Peña (2000: 52). [^]

[6] A similar experience was recently initiated by my attendance at Spike Lee's brilliant and controversial film Bamboozled (2000) which fictionally explores how the contemporary entertainment industries re-produce earlier black-face entertainments. For those who are interested in this historical entertainment tactic of black-face, check out Eric Lott's seminal work Love and Theft (1993). Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to revisit this film, or my initial reactions, due to its quick disappearance from the local movie theaters. Clips and previews can be viewed at Bamboozled . I had earlier recognized this feeling, though not as strongly, since it was in the safe environment of a classroom, when during my first year of teaching I screened Celluloid Closet (1995), a powerful historical documentary on Hollywood cinema's representation of homosexuals. During a collage of scenes where cinematic characters (all male) use the term "faggot" as a derogatory term of hateful spite and de-masculinization I recognize this as a ritual that the males, including me, of my working-class neighborhood engaged-in to demonstrate their heterosexual masculinity. While teaching this documentary I learned that these attitudes had been reproduced in the incoming generation of males. After sitting through various depictions of violence and hatred against homosexuals, two male students got up when the documentary portrayed recent positive portrayals of homosexual life. The scene that disturbed them enough to leave the room was when on the screen a man affectionately kissed another man on the cheek and playfully patted his butt. [^]

[7]Of course not everyone has the same experiences during a performance. These statements are based upon my situated experiences, my students, and some of my colleagues. I also spent some time observing audience members after they had exited the performance and were recounting their experiences to filmmakers outside the theater. [^]

[8] Not that it really matters, but I found out later that the chickens were bought dead from a farm nearby. [^]

[9]Guillermo Gomez-Peña was visiting our university for a gathering of former McArthur Genius Grant Winners and they decided to create a performative diorama in the famous Diego Rivera room. I was fortunate to spend time talking to him and Roberto about their art while escorting them around campus. [^]

[10] For more experimental performative exercises check out Berry/Epstein, Garorian, Gomez-Peña, and McLaren. [^]

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tammy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael said...

Tammy--I appreciate your comment if it was sincere, but your site seems more of an advertising/marketing scam, do you have anything else ...