Radical diplomacy: an interview with Guillermo Gómez-Peña

Guillermo Gómez-Peña has no use for lenses

“It welcomes hipsters, but advocates for a more intelligent hipsterism.”

Performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña is sitting in his unexpectedly luxurious Outer Mission live-work space, surrounded by walls of fake masonry, stacks of props for his work, and velvet paintings of lucha libre wrestlers, police officers, and John Wayne that have accumulated in the 16 years that Gómez-Peña has rent-controlled the place. In anticipation of his upcoming performance at Galeria de la Raza's 40th anniversary gala (Sun/21), we're trying to figure out a few minor details about life in 21st century America.

On the table is our two shot glasses of cachacha (he's recently returned from a performance in Brazil) immigration politics, the fate of artistic San Francisco, the role of current events in art – just the sort of small talk one always embarks upon when meeting a stranger best known to you for crucifying himself on Ocean Beach and spending time in traditional indigenous Amerindian garb, trapped in a cage stationed in the lobbies of fine art museums'. Gómez-Peña is letting me hold his chihuahua Babalú while he (Gómez-Peña, that is) chain smokes, wearing a black cowboy shirt, bolo tie, and traces of kohl smudged along his lower eyelids.

His hipster comment is about la Galeria. Gómez-Peña has been involved there for 26 years, ever since moving up from Mexico City via Los Angeles. He had heard San Francisco was good for artists, and in Galeria de la Raza, he found spiritual resonance.

“It is one of the most original Chicano-American spaces in the country,” he tells me. Gómez-Peña, whose wife, Carolina Ponce de León, is now the executive director of the gallery, says that he feels a “sentimental connection” with the place. Ever since 1984, when then-director Rene Yañez invited his Border Arts Workshop to stage their first performance in the gallery, he has made a point to bring some version of each of his projects at la Galeria. 

"The Chicano Vampire" shreds border politics, Sun/21

It's the space's anti-nationalist viewpoint that draws him. Gómez-Peña, a native of Mexico City, is a man who has made his life on the border, examining the border, erasing the border. In the mid '90s, the fake masonry that now dominates his ruby-red living room formed a part of “Temple of Confessions,” for which the artist, attired in tribal splendor, and a man dressed as a cholo gang member, sat ensconsed in Plexi-glass – end of the century saints incarnate. They encouraged visitors to approach their “confessionals” and divulge their secret thoughts about Mexico, Mexicans, race, nation.  

I ask him what secrets they told him, how he thinks those secrets would be different now, in the age of SB 1040 and yet another peak of anti-immigrant hysteria. “At that time,” he begins, drawing on his Marlboro, “the pop culture views about Mexico were much more varied. Nowadays the dominant opinion is one of a country of ingovernability, a potential trampoline for drug smugglers and terrorists. There are no longer any redeeming mythologies.”

Gómez-Peña tells me that he thinks that in the age of strife in the Middle East and grave problems within both their interiors, the United States and Mexico are no longer looking at each other. “There is a lot of silence, indifference at the border,” says the man who has staged elaborate stunts at the nations' fracture point, including a “border wedding” in which the bride and groom stood on either sides of the wall separating us from our neighbors to the south. He says people can't – or don't – tell the difference between narco traficantes and migrant workers.

It's this miasma which makes the art done at Galeria de la Raza all the more important. The space has always been a place where cultures mixed, and where Latinos found ways to enter the psyche of the American zeitgeist. Gómez-Peña says the Chicano spoken word movement got its start there on the corner of 24th Street and Bryant, as did Frida Kahlo-mania. 

But things have been changing, even for this stalwart of the San Francisco neighborhood art scene. For one thing, it's not so neighborhood anymore. The Mission has transformed into what Gómez-Peña calls, in his typically luminous style, “a bohemian theme park." Many of the young Chicano artists that “inform the Galeria's aesthetics” have hightailed it out of here for the easel space and relatively easy rent checks of the East Bay and beyond. 

Obama has disappointed Gómez-Peña. In the wake of a campaign that everyone believed in, wanted to believe in, the arts funding promised hasn't been delivered. Nowadays, the artist sees fellow creatives having to work two times as hard for their paycheck, even a brain drain of people leaving for the more affordably fertile soils of Buenos Aires and Lisbon. It's one of the subjects of his performance piece on Sunday, which he calls Strange Democracy. The program will also honor Yañez, House on Mango Street author Sandra Cisneros, and Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, the acclaimed Chicano Studies professor.

But through the slings and arrows of political misfortune, Gómez-Peña has found ways to be proactive. His Pocha Nostra group is one way, a program that hosts artists in both Tempe, Arizona and Oaxaca in forming multi-cultural, politically striking performance pieces – and, as he riffs, contributes to the “trafficking of artists across the border – we're intellectual coyotes!” 

And on Sunday, he can contribute his unique style to that of Galeria -- a place where he says there is “radical cultural diplomacy, a place for different cultures to meet in a time in which the whole country is becoming divided ideologically and when Latinos are being demonized.” A place where we can all meet and talk in the kingdom of confessions, cachaca, and Babalú.


“40 Years Adelante!”: Galeria de la Raza benefit performance and awards ceremony

Sun/21 4-9 p.m., $40-65

Brava Theatre Center

2781 24th St., SF

(415) 826-8009



Related articles

  • Treading water

    In the midst of a severe drought, the Soundwave art and music biennial encourages reflection on our most precious natural resource

  • SF arts funding prioritizes symphony, other stuff white people like

  • At the crossroads

    A community is left reeling by sudden changes at Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco's oldest alternative non-profit arts space.

  • Also from this author

  • Jock joints

    The 420 Games and weed-smoking pro athletes counter the image of lazy potheads

  • H. Brown: Goodbye to all that, we hope

  • H. Brown: Goodbye to all that, we hope