By Guillermo Gómez-Peña
For 20 years I was a US “resident alien” and the fact that I was one of the best known Latino performance artists in the country, didn’t exonerate me from having “to show my stinking badges” every time I returned from performing abroad. But I learned to be extremely cool and to not mistake racism for personal humiliation.
3 years ago when I finally became a US citizen, I thought my border-crossing nightmares would disappear; and they did for a while. I was able to enjoy the privileges of having a US passport. Then came 9/11 and, along with several million brown men with foreign sounding names, I became a generic “suspect.”
In the new era ruled by high security, enforced patriotism and cultural paranoia, there was nothing romantic about being a nomadic performance artist. In fact my misadventures at US airports became so frequent that I started dreading the mere thought of touring. I knew that 7 out of 10 times I was going to be ‘randomly’ checked and/or ‘randomly’ interrogated along with a few scared Pakistanis and Arabs. Missing connecting flights became normal; and so did being sent to secondary inspection, having my suitcases thoroughly inspected and having my strangest props confiscated without an explanation.
One day things got much more serious. Coming back from Europe after a long tour, the immigration officer asked me several unusual questions including my social security number, my mother’s maiden name, and the year I had obtained my citizenship. When I asked him why I was being so thoroughly interrogated, he volunteered some shocking information: according to the computer there was “another Guillermo Gomez-Peña with a criminal past; someone apparently connected to drug dealing.” I was finally allowed in but something, a tiny Mexican bug, stayed in the computer forever.
From that day on, everytime I leave or return to the US, I have to go through the same ritual of mistaken identity: There is this other self I carry along, a ghost with my exact same name, allegedly a drug dealer and we are condemned to travel together; to carry our identities on each other’s shoulders; to bear with each other’s fate, and whatever he does, knock on wood, will reflect on my official identity. It’s like performing in an episode of the Chicano “twilight zone.” But officer, I usually reply after the exact same interrogation can’t you take a photo of me, fingerprint me, or add to my computer file some additional information on my idiosyncratic looks? Nada. The glitch is there and I just have to learn to live with it.
The last time I returned from Mexico, after explaining my case one more time to an INS supervisor, he told me boldly: “Sorry Mister Goumezz: There’s nothing you can do until we catch “him.” This, of course, assuming my evil twin does exist. But what if he doesn’t?
When I started telling my story to other Latinos, I discovered I wasn’t the only one with an evil twin. Several artists from Mexico have had their visas denied under a similar allegation. If fact my experience is so common, that I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t a new conceptual strategy of the Homeland Security Office to add yet another immigration filter to their already thick process? An immigration lawyer friend of mine believes that the problem may be much less sophisticated: their newly consolidated mega-computer system is probably cross-referencing too much unnecessary data or perhaps even the wrong one.
Whatever the reasons, the fact is that thousands of Latinos not to mention Arabs and South East Asians will have to continue enduring a systematic humiliation ritual in the name of national security. The word terrorist has mysteriously expanded to signify first radical muslims, then all Arabs and South East Asians; and finally all Arab-looking people including Chicano performance artists, and probably many perplexed migrant workers who at this very moment are incomunicados in one of those clandestine detention centers where all the people who fall in the cracks between high security, racism and ignorance end up. I just hope with all my heart that one day some impatient INS beaurocrat may not decide to make one phone call and send my mythical evil twin there as well, along with my self number one.
If mister Ashcroft or mister Ridge could hear me right now, I’d like to ask them vehemently: “Señores, are you aware of the fact that whenever there are too many exceptions to the rule of law, we are venturing into the slippery territory of fascism?
(This Commentary was recently broadcast by Latino USA-NPR. Gomez-Peña, a MacArthur Fellowship “genius” recipient, used to be a resident of San Diego and worked with La Prensa San Diego).