December 2, 2005

Guillermo Gómez Peña: Cultural Exchange As Political Praxis At Sushi Performance and Visual Art

By Michael Klam

Critical artist and radical pedagogue, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, comes home to San Diego’s Sushi Performance and Visual Art for two nights only, Dec. 2nd and 3rd, at Saint Cecilia’s Playhouse.

The internationally acclaimed theorist, writer and experimental performer will once again turn the theater into what he calls “a radical talk show, a bizarre experimental town meeting.”

“We live in a time of perplexity and a time of inquiry,” says Gomez-Peña. “It is the artist’s job to ask the questions that are not being asked in universities or by politicians.”

The participating audience will see a different face of America. One that is progressive, polycultural and diversified. “One that has little to do with US unilateralism, the Bush doctrine or the Patriot Act,” he says.

Gómez-Peña’s performances are only partly scripted. “I work with my audience constantly, asking questions and inviting them to help me create the experiment,” he explains. “The fate of the piece is in their hands.”

The artist describes himself as a trickster, brujo-poeta, who engages the audience by shattering the glass houses of poetry and performance (the dreaded, sleepy events of two hours of sit down, listen quietly, and drift off to your happy place).

Gómez-Peña hopes to interactively convert each of the participants into social critics, chroniclers, media pirates, information architects, experimental linguists and radical pedagogues.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña “Natural Born Matones.”

Challenging the traditional art world mythologies of the artist as a suffering bohemian and misunderstood genius, Gomez-Peña contends that the artist should be, “above all, an active, responsible citizen immersed in the great debates of our times.”

Anti-essentialist and anti-nationalist, the performer claims an unpopular position in the U.S.: No homeland; no fear; no borders; no patriotism; no nation-state; no ideology; no censorship.

So far out on the edges of free speech, his shows have elicited a broad range of responses and reactions.

In an infamous piece called “The Chamber of Confessions,” Gómez-Peña played a saint in a wheelchair. He sat in a glass cage, surrounded by live cockroaches, candles and drug paraphernalia. He had the audience come up and confess about their darkest interracial fears.

Some members of the crowd confessed and some fantasized. One wanted to have a ghetto accent and a large behind. Another wanted to grab a Cholo’s crotch.

“It’s extremely important to bring humor to the issues,” Gómez-Peña said in a previous interview. “The point is not to cry, not to scream, not to exercise anger. The point is to sort these issues out in dialogue with an audience, and also to ask the audience where they stand.”

Gómez-Peña once allowed an audience to crucify him in a performance work called “CruciFiction”. His was protesting the poor treatment of immigrants. The rood had the letters “INS” (Immigration and Naturalization Service) above his head instead of INRI. He remained on the cross for hours.

“I have been picketed by everyone,” he says, “even animal rights organizations for hanging dead chickens.”

“I’ve had confrontations with live audiences. I have almost lost control,” he admits.

But Gomez-Peña makes no apologies. “There is a crisis of representation in theater and dance because performers have not redefined their audience expectations,” he says.

“I encourage those who are brave enough to speak up. It is radical democracy. I give them the space to talk back.”

On Dec. 2nd and 3rd Gómez-Peña, who currently resides in San Francisco, comes back to the border region that played such a crucial role in politicizing his art.

It was partly here in San Diego and also in Los Angeles where Chicanismo opened his mind to his own identity. Artistic-political peers and mentors such as James Luna and Dan Muñoz, Sr. helped him “rediscover (his) lost voice and (his) citizenship through (his) art,” he says.

Gómez-Peña returns in Mexterminator vs. the Global Predator as part of Sushi Performance and Visual Art’s Takeout Series: Rebels and Pioneers. He will take on the Minute Men, the subject of the U.S./Mexico border as an open wound, globalization, and transnational identities.

While Gomez-Pena’s career as a performer began at Sushi over twenty years ago, he has since gone on to receive the Prix de la Parole at the International Theatre Festival of the Americas, a MacArthur Fellowship, an American Book Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival.

His performance, installation and video works have been presented at over eight hundred venues across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, Australia, Russia, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela and Argentina.

He has been a regular commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered and Latino USA and has authored eight successful books on performance, border culture and activism.

Perhaps on a similar artistic path as Gómez-Peña, former Taco Shop Poet Adrian Arancibia opens the evening at Sushi with a spoken word performance titled ¡avisale!..exile in aztlán. The piece is a personal narrative of a Chilean immigrant searching for identity and the experience of finding Chicanismo.

There will be a reception and a chance to meet Gómez-Peña after the performance on Friday, Dec. 2 at Voz Alta, 1544 Broadway - East Village (northwest corner of 16th and Broadway), next door to Landlord Jim’s Bar.

Voz Alta director Stephanie De La Torre is honored to be working with Sushi and welcomes all to come for food, drink, and conversation.

“We are participating as a community to bridge the gap with Latino audiences,” says De La Torre. “Part of our mission is inter-cultural. We provide a safe forum to talk about what is Chicano,” she says.

“Guillermo’s work deals with redefining Chicano identity,” De La Torre continues. “We as an organization define Chicano as re-evolving or redefining itself. We share a different point of view of what Chicano means, of what identity means.”  

To learn more about Voz Alta, visit

To read more about Gómez-Peña’s performances and projects, visit his Web site, La Pocha Nostra:, a “virtual maquiladora that provides a base for a loose network and forum of rebel artists from various disciplines, generations and ethnic backgrounds.”

Performances at St. Cecilia’s Playhouse, 1620 6th Ave, Friday and Saturday December 2nd and 3rd at 8pm. Information and Tickets are available through Sushi Performance and Visual Art: 619.235.8466 or

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