Reimagining Latina/o and Caribbean Diasporas: World-Making and Hybrid Aesthetics

by Eric Mayer-García

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

Through their work for the theatre, solo performance artists José Torres-Tama and Margaret Kemp break down barriers that marginalize the presence of Latin American and Caribbean diasporas on the U.S. American stage. This spring, both artists presented excerpts from recent performance pieces at the 2014 NoPassport conference, which founder Caridad Svich graciously brought to Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, along with NoPassport’s inclusive, generous, and inspiring atmosphere for artists and scholars of color. The conference was dedicated to the late José Esteban Muñoz, who writing on the performances of Queer artists of color theorized the worldmaking power of performance as the power to “transport the performer and spectator to a vantage point where transformation and politics are imaginable,” to “produce these vantage points by slicing into the façade of the real that is the majoritarian public sphere,” and to “deform and reform the world” for minoritarian counterpublics. The worldmaking power of performance is central to keeping theatres and communities connected, especially as the U.S. public sphere continues to diversify and the old minority communities become part of a majority of color. Muñoz’s concept of “worldmaking” provides an optic for glimpsing how the works of Torres-Tama and Kemp stage inter-diasporic hybridity, reflecting the multiple and converging ethnic diasporas coexisting within urban communities. Each artist documented historic and present-day stories of Caribbean and Latin American diasporas in the U.S. and each created a unique hybrid aesthetics that embodied the mobility and itinerancy of their individual and family’s histories. In each case, aesthetics of hybridity forged alternative theatrical spaces welcoming for those who are situated in-between cultures, identities, and worlds. In this sense, perhaps the work of both artists could be seen as anticipating the fact that an overwhelming number of us in the U.S. today find ourselves in such hybrid conditions of existence.

When Caridad Svich and I began planning NoPassport 2014, I could not imagine the conference happening without José Torres-Tama, whose work aims to create visibility for Latinas/os in New Orleans and the U.S. South. Torres-Tama is an NEA award-winning multidisciplinary artist who has been making performance art in New Orleans for nearly 30 years. Torres-Tama’s latest performance piece Aliens, Immigrants, and Over Evildoers, as José Torres-Tama describes it, “is a sci-fi Latino noir performance solo exploring the current persecution of Latino immigrants across the land of the free. Satirizing the status of immigrants as ‘extraterrestrials’ through a sci-fi prism informed by short films that spoof The Matrix and Star Wars, the artist shape-shifts into numerous ‘aliens’ who bilingually challenge the hypocrisy of a country built by immigrants that vilifies the same people whose labor it readily exploits.” In the full-length version of the play, Torres-Tama montages monologues based the harrowing experiences of Latin American immigrants in New Orleans since the aftermath of the 2005 levee break disaster with satirically charged sci-fi alien/Latino characters that are “edited,” “supplemented,” and “disidentified” (Muñoz) versions of the political straw man figure of the “illegal alien” repeatedly evoked in the mainstream media to incite xenophobic sentiment.

In his presentation for NoPassport 2014, Torres-Tama presented three of these satirical “alien” figures from his larger performance: a masked alien that bares a cross with dollar bills in a movement montage set to operatic vocals, the monstrous image of the demonized immigrant as “evildoer,” and the “Swamp Brujo,” a hybrid character that is imagined through multiple diasporas, bringing together figures of African-American and U.S. Latina/o imaginaries. Specifically, Torres-Tama was inspired by Louis Armstrong’s voice on a recording of “St. James Infirmary.” He interpreted that voice through his unique way of imagining all things Latino, hybridizing Armstrong’s voice with a second pastiche of the archetypal “Pachuco” and making for the ideal emcee to guide the audience through the New Orleans experienced by persecuted Latina/o immigrants. With green face paint, a collar of dollar bills, and a top hat adorned with green intergalactic spirals, the Swamp Brujo embodied a satirical amalgamation of the formal symbols, markers, and rhetoric surrounding the criminalized status of “illegal aliens.” For example, in dramatic verse the Swamp Brujo freely associated between the green color of his “alien” skin, the green of Torres-Tama’s old resident alien green card, and the green of cash flows moving freely across borders devastating economies and exploiting labor across the Americas. The Swamp Brujo’s meditation on the color green “deformed and re-formed” (Muñoz) disparate aspects of the vilification of Latin American immigrants and Latina/o presence in the U.S. towards Torres-Tama’s political critique. Torres-Tama’s improvisational approach to interacting with the audience and his playful and protean costume design harkens to his past as a street performer in Jackson Square, or his many appearances as a “second line” foot parade masquerader. In this way, the Swamp Brujo evokes the corridors of New Orleans, as a theatrical space of unruly resistance, revelry, social critique, and the performative inversion of social order. Through his hybrid aesthetics, José Torres-Tama fashioned a Latina/o oppositional consciousness out of and along side oppositional spaces created by historic movements of New Orleans’s heterogeneous communities of color.

The contiguously formed Latina/o oppositional consciousness created in Aliens… follows a vein of worldmaking across difference shared with Torres-Tama’s portrait series entitled, New Orleans: Free People of Color and Their Legacy, originally completed in 2008 and recently reopened for two months (May-July 2014) at Le Musée de f.p.c. in New Orleans. Articulating his investment in the free people of color of nineteenth century New Orleans as artistic subjects, Torres-Tama writes, “As a hybrid myself, I feel a strong connection to this interracial collective and I have experienced similar prejudices in the United States as a brown man of color and a Latino immigrant.” Torres-Tama created these historical portraits in a style referential of the Mexican muralists and avant-garde artists, like David Alfaro Siqueiros, and German expressionist Max Beckman. Torres-Tama’s way of making historic and performative interventions across difference and through hybridity fashions a space where New Orleans can also be imagined and felt as a part of the Latin American diaspora.

Margaret Kemp is a performance artist who has been a Visiting Professor of voice technique in the LSU department of Theatre the past academic year, during which time I have been lucky enough to get to know her work. At the 2014 NoPassport conference Kemp presented an excerpt from her solo-performance Confluence… previously entitled A Negro Speaks of Rivers that has been performed most recently at Beyond Baroque in Los Angeles, in addition to The Magnet Theatre in South Africa and Theatre of Changes in Athens, Greece. An autobiographical performance, Confluence… deals with multiple disaporas of Kemp’s own family whose mother immigrated to the U.S. from Panama, and whose Father came to the U.S. from the Bahamas. Confluence… is a work of memory theatre that meditates at the intersection of multiple diasporas, and follows a thread of movement endemic to the second generation children of immigrant parents, who grasp onto diasporic memory and traditions. Kemp’s work reminds us that Diasporic populations, even for the second generation, carry homeland(s), memory, and displacement with them in how they make sense of themselves and the world around them, often a harsh world that marginalizes their voice and culture, and subordinates them as a foreign presence or racial Others.

Confluence… offers a key insight into the experience of Caribbean diasporas in the U.S. by making “movement” the ordering motif of the world she creates onstage. The text of the piece is composed of multiple detours of stream of consciousness dramatizing the internal life of Kemp as she prepares for her father to visit her in Los Angeles. Driving to the airport to pick up her father, the city’s many highways become detours into this internal underground landscape of memory, estrangement, pain, longing, and hope. The constant motion of the “110” or the “405” is associated in Kemp’s dramatic language with the “paved over” L.A. river, a metaphor for the history of colonization covering over indigenous Tongva history in L.A.; a metaphor that later represents the continued history of violent forces that come to drive Kemp’s family apart. Yet, it is the river beneath the surface—the countercurrent to coloniality—that Kemp wishes to uncover, recover, and submerge the audience in. Throughout the many detours leading to Kemp’s reconnection with her father, Kemp tells the story of her father’s migration to the United States, her youth growing up in a pan-Caribbean neighborhood near Dudley Square in Boston, and the systematic racism and xenophobic isolation that brings about the destruction of this community through poverty, economic depression, lack of public services, arson, and drugs. In a neighborhood plagued by violence, Kemp’s family is split apart when her mother is tragically killed.

In the excerpt of Confluence… presented at the 2014 NoPassport conference, Kemp performed hybrid aesthetics through Flamenco singing, specifically Seguiriya, as a way to represent her mother’s voice. When creating the piece, Kemp sought to convey the intimate yet distant memory of her mother singing Panamanian songs. Under the guidance of Panamanian voice teacher and actress Mariela Aragón Chiari, Kemp studied Seguiriya singing, which is related to Panamanian music genres like Saloma and Mejorana. In this way, Kemp transplants a Romani diasporic tradition into her work to flesh out memories of her mother singing to her, bridging the rift created by the traumatic loss and absence of her mother at a young age. Kemp also chose to write original song lyrics in English and translate them to Spanish with an eye for odd translation choices. The estranged lyrics coupled with Kemp’s accent express the difficulty of crossing barriers of language and memory that encapsulate her mother’s voice. Margaret Kemp’s Confluence… conveys the political and personal stakes in uncovering “the river that runs beneath the surface” and creating space for those yearning to witness this countercurrent to a history trying to erase any trace of its underground presence.

Hybrid aesthetics in the work of José Torres Tama and Margaret Kemp exemplify how artists of color in cosmopolitan spaces create theatrical worlds across difference. The pieces presented at the 2014 NoPassport conference anticipated audiences of color that relate to movement between rather than adherence to one single fixed identity of race or ethnicity; identities which are made static and homogenized by models of liberal humanism operating behind the season planning of most regional theatres today. If 21st century audiences are going to continue to see their world reflected onstage, theatres will have to continue to find space for work created through and representative of experiences of mobility and hybridity.

Eric Mayer-García is a PhD student in the LSU Department of Theatre. Eric investigates Cuban theatre on the island and in the US diaspora as cultural production that imagines and recreates Cuba as a nation, place, and culture. His dissertation research focuses on the translocality of Cuban theatrical repertoires between Havana, Miami, and New York and their intersection with U.S. Latina/o theatre.  Eric has served as the graduate student representative of ATHE’s Latina/o Focus Group. He has written and presented original research on nineteenth-century Cuban costumbristas in New Orleans, itinerant popular theatre collective Teatro Escambray, as well as the theatre of Maria Irene Fornes, Virgilio Piñera, Pedro Monge-Rafuls, Reinaldo Arenas, and Caridad Svich. He has been awarded a research fellowship from the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami for his project “Translocating Theatrical and Cuban Imaginaries: Virgilio Piñera’s Electra Garrigó in Miami, 1978.”