Anjalisa — Gomez-Peña — Letter from Oaxaca

Topic(s): Art/Politics | Comments Off on Anjalisa — Gomez-Peña — Letter from Oaxaca

Letter from Oaxaca: Performing in the Flames
By Guillermo Gomez-Peña
“Opening day arrived, and while we were setting up in
the Museum, 50,000 citizens had gathered outside to
support the teachers. The sound of their loudspeakers
intertwined with the sound of our rehearsal.”
Dear friends:
On August 1st, my performance art troupe La Pocha
Nostra began our annual “summer school” in the Mexican
city of Oaxaca. Each summer we conduct two intensive
workshops, one for ‘beginners” and another for
seasoned performance artists. The result is a public
performance at MACO (Museum of Contemporary Art,
Oaxaca). Artists come from as far away as Canada, the
US, the UK, Spain, Holland, Australia, and Peru to
collaborate with indigenous Oaxacans working in
experimental art forms.
The workshop is an amazing artistic and
anthropological experiment–how do artists from
different countries spanning three generations, from
every imaginable artistic background, begin to
negotiate a common ground? Performance art has
provided the answer, becoming the connective tissue
and lingua franca for our temporary community. But
this year the usual cross-cultural borders and
dilemmas we regularly face multiplied in all
directions. The gorgeous bohemian city had become
center stage for one of the most intense political
conflicts in contemporary Mexico, a nation on the
verge of total collapse.
I’ll be more specific.
On May 22nd the Teacher’s Union (section 22 of the
SNTE), who had been demanding a small raise in
teachers’ salaries, began an indefinite occupation
(planton) of downtown Oaxaca. The government responded
with a violent police assault in which, on June 14th,
several teachers were wounded. The APPO (Asociación
Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca) immediately joined
the Teacher’s Union and together they expanded the
planton and took over the Canal 9 TV station, two
radio stations, and several government buildings,
blocking the main avenues and freeways surrounding the
city. Los maestros were now demanding the destitution
of Governor Ulises Ruiz, a repressive politician from
the old PRI guard, as well as the release of all the
political prisoners the governor had jailed. Over the
month of July the movimiento magisterial grew to
encompass over 40 political, social and cultural
organizaciones and 50 ONGS (non-profits) from
throughout the state, including student associations,
universities, art collectives and indigenous
comunidades autónomas.
The tactics of the government shifted as well. By the
time my colleague Roberto Sifuentes and I arrived in
Oaxaca (July 29th), government hit men had carried out
38 political assassinations and several teachers had
been sequestered. The city felt like Belfast or San
Salvador in the late 80s. Thuggish paramilitaries and
porros (infiltrators posing as teachers) hired to
create mayhem were roaming around, every wall was
covered in graffiti and the government was cowardly
operating in absentia.
In this highly volatile environment we continued our
daily performance workshops in the studio of artist
Demian Flores, located in Jalatlaco, one of the oldest
barrios of Oaxaca. The participating artists (15 in
the first workshop and 20 in the second) were all
extremely brave and committed to their practice.
Before workshop hours they would walk the city, talk
to people, observe, sketch, and write notes. Despite
the unnerving daily rumors, never did they express any
fear or desire to leave. Word from the street and from
local colleagues was extremely worrisome: “Tomorrow we
are expecting violence;” “The governor (in hiding) is
asking all foreigners not to leave their hotels
today;” “Flights might be cancelled indefinitely.”
Each morning before we started teaching Roberto and I
got together to discreetly discuss possible
contingencies. What if someone was arrested? After
considering the possibilities our advice was “Be
cautious but open. Be active observers but don’t get
too involved because you might get deported.
(Foreigners are not allowed to get involved in
national affairs.) After all, our artwork is our way
to be part of it all.”
Outside the planton area a strange normalcy pervaded
which, paired with habitual cultural tenderness,
characterizes Oaxaca. Occasionally this tender
normalcy would be disturbed by a burning bus (the
porros were constantly setting city buses on fire) or
a passing SUV filled with paramilitaries with
submachine guns, or the unmistakable sound of a gun
shot mixed with the fireworks of a nearby pilgrimage.
Life went on in a high intensity mode?not unlike
performance art.
One day, during one of the many marchas (peaceful
demonstrations), the teachers were ambushed by police
snipers. One man was killed and several wounded. The
next day the teachers carried the corpse in front of a
ritual pilgrimage across the streets of the city. We
were immediately reminded of the Gaza strip.
The questions infusing the workshop exercises and
improvisations were strangely analogous to our
political predicaments: Which are the borders we
can/must cross? Where are the ethical/political limits
of art? Should we be participants or chroniclers? What
is our new relationship to the civic realm? What are
the new characteristics of our ever changing multiple
communities? Where do we belong when our alliances are
not with the nation/state?
Inevitably the performance material we developed
unconsciously revealed the frailty and danger of our
immediate universe. It revealed the discreet fears
stoically harbored by our psyches: beautiful images
and actions of a world in turmoil where political
violence and cultural perplexity intertwined with
religious imagery. It contained physical metaphors of
a world in transnational flux where the global
mediascape (the war on terror, the culture of high
security, the Muslim/Christian conflict, etc)
overlapped with the surrounding social reality. It
unearthed shared images of hope and despair, of
solidarity and orphanhood. It was as if we were
dreaming collectively and, on occasion, having a
collective nightmare.
We were like needy children clinging to one another.
At night we would eat together, dance at El Central or
have a drink at a hipster bar. Perhaps the only ritual
undisturbed by the omnipresent crises was bohemia. At
night, Oaxacans were as motivated as ever to dance,
drink and laugh their way out of apocalypse?and so
were we. One Friday night we couldn’t enter El Central
because the porros had burned a city bus right in
front of the bar, but the next day Willy, the owner,
reopened as if nothing had happened. The late night
separation was the hardest. Walking back to our hotels
amidst bonfires and buses blocking the streets was
surreal. Not knowing if those shadows in the corner
were teachers or porros was unnerving, but after a
week it all became part of the strange normalcy.
If someone from the workshop didn’t show up one
morning, my colleagues and I would freak out and one
of us would go immediately to their hotel to make sure
they were safe. Near the end of the second workshop,
Marietta, our producer, told us, in reference to MACO
(the museum that would host our public performance in
a few days) “There is word in the streets that all
cultural institutions might be taken over tomorrow, so
we may not even have a museum?then what?” The group
response warmed my heart. “No problem. If that
happens, we will find another space, refurbish it
overnight, and have our performance there.” We were
beginning to sound more and more like the Oaxacan
civil society.
Opening day arrived, and while we were setting up in
the Museum, 50,000 citizens had gathered outside to
support the teachers. The sound of their loudspeakers
intertwined with the sound of our rehearsal. It was
extremely humbling and many times during that day I
was stricken with doubts. Should we cancel the
performance? Was it appropriate for the show to go on?
But I quashed my doubts. At 7:30 pm, just as the
demonstration ended, we opened the museum doors, and
to our surprise, hundreds of people began to storm in.
A perplexed museum employee said to me, “Maestro, why
would all these people (over a thousand citizens) come
to experience weird performance art and experimental
video on such a day?” Precisely, I thought.
There couldn’t have been a better time for us to be
there. It is precisely in times of acute crisis that
cultural institutions become true sanctuaries for
freedom of the imagination, that the function of art
becomes clarified. The wide-eyed audience, which
included many of the victims of the conflict, couldn’t
have been more playful or more interested in our
bizarre imagery and actions. Art clearly brought them
to another place, a parallel reality were symbols,
metaphors and rituals attempted to make sense out of
the political maelstrom we were all experiencing.
By midnight, we were politely forcing the audience out
of the museum. They simply wouldn’t leave. Alone
finally in one of the huge colonial patios of the
museum, the artists hugged each other and cried. With
our make up smeared, we went to eat in silence. No one
wanted to talk.
Today, August 20th, as I pack my suitcase, I’m
thinking about the ineffable relationship between art
and politics and how sometimes we just don’t have the
luxury to separate them, period. I’m also thinking
about the bravery of the teachers defying the
government and of the artists who participated in this
amazing adventure with my troupe. In a few hours I
will be flying back to the US, a place under a
different kind of siege, where the citizenry is either
sleeping, or scared shitless (regardless that they are
unable to talk back to their politicians in the way
Oaxacans do), a place where artists are being censored
and feel inconsequential, a place that rarely looks
South, an isolated country I paradoxically chose as my
second home for the opposite reasons. I am worried
about my Oaxacan friends. I already miss my new
colleagues. It will be extremely difficult for me to
return to the existential ambiguity and political
complacency of San Francisco.
Oaxaca City
August 20th, 2006
*Postscript: As I flew back to the US, the teachers
took over 12 out of the 13 commercial radio stations
in the city, and installed 500 barricadas throughout
the city. By the time this letter circulates in
cyber-space, the political situation will certainly be
much worse for them.