Brittany D. Chávez

Nepantla: A Reflective Manifesto on Collaborative Processes, Transformations, and Iterations

I. What & Why? Trepidations….

It has taken me some time to write this text—this text that wanted to write with others, but needed to write by itself. What to do with a group performance process and piece that disturbed and infuriated some, triggered others, outraged a few, and deeply transformed a number? A piece that causes you to sweat, to tear up, to scream on the inside every time you consider the process, the outcome, the way the time seemed to come to an end too quickly? A piece that made some think, “stop, stop!” and others, “I don’t want this to end”? How to put into words a process that is not meant to be over-intellectualized, if it is to stay true to the artistic and pedagogical practice that generates and feeds it? And ultimately: how to reclaim an artistic space of integrity through various uptakes, strong affects, necessary severing, and distress? What to do with a performance process that generates necessary yet difficult affective registers? In my own creative interest in re-creating a piece of the wildness that is La Pocha Nostra, did I succeed and yet fail in my timidity to write about the ruptures created through the journey? As an artist-scholar, I find it essential to do this writing about process, and the uneasiness this vulnerability exposes, if we are to perform performance into epistemologies of knowledge production.

Nepantla is a piece that I directed using the pedagogy of Roberto Sifuentes and my dear mentor and friend, a man I consider my “compadre de performance,” Guillermo Gómez-Peña, found in their book Exercises for Rebel Artists: Radical Performance Pedagogy. Under the direction of a faculty mentor, Professor Matthew Spangler, along with a carefully selected cast of exploratory artists, consisting of four undergraduates and two graduate students with little experience in performance art, we created a laboratory for experimenting with radical performance and image making. Combining the methodology and exercises -outlined in the book and my first-hand knowledge of La Pocha, we met once a week for four months, culminating in a collaborative performance piece.

The piece was developed around Gloria Anzaldúa’s notion of nepantla: “a psychological, liminal space between the way things had been and an unknown future. Nepantla is the space in-between, the locus and sign of transition. In nepantla we realize that realities clash, authority figures of the various groups demand contradictory commitments, and we and others have failed living up to idealized goals. We’re caught in remolinos (vortexes), each with different, often contradictory, forms of cognition, perspectives, worldviews, belief-systems—all occupying the transitional nepantla space” (310). From this psychological in-between space, we embarked on this group process together, all caught up in a vortex of sorts. This was also the world we sought to create within the performance itself, for a live audience. The process was intimate and vulnerable and my goal, as director, was to have it also be a personal transformation process for each artist. I asked each person: what is your next personal threshold? Go there. Fail. Go there more.

Once we got into the Pocha process, we used oral histories from the collection Underground America as a framework, soundtrack (recording and scripted versions of these edited by Matthew Spangler), and point of departure for the development of persona—or activated and highly obscure/symbolic characters that took on individual and collective actions and meanings. Our goal was not to re-interpret or re-present these oral histories, but to explore the intersections of migration and sexuality, inspired by these stories. This gave us a common platform from which to develop our performance personae and the theme of nepantla as a question of liminal migration and sexual spaces.

In the spirit of La Pocha: “La Pocha Nostra collaborates across national borders, race, gender, and generations as an act of citizen diplomacy and as a means to create ‘ephemeral communities’ of like-minded rebels. The basic premise of these collaborations is founded on the idea ‘If we learn to cross borders on stage, we may learn how to do so in larger social spheres.’ We hope others will be challenged to do the same” (Ethno-Techno)

Along these lines, perhaps the greatest testament to the ways the performance helped others to consider how to cross and challenge borders in other spheres of their life was a young black male student who was in the audience the second night. He explained that he felt he had belittled his younger sister’s lesbian sexuality, treating her like another man, but that he was going to go have different conversations with her after this performance. It is little changes, lighting fires in minds, that make this work do something in the world.

II. The Archive

Featured Artists: Brittany Chávez, Alicia Garavaglia, Jessica Osegueda, Ricky Dellinger, Stephanie Marsh-Ballard, and Alberto Gutierrez

Dramaturg: Dr. Matthew Spangler

Videographer: Elissa Mondschien

This thirty-minute piece is an archive of our “dress rehearsal”—though this piece had liveness that resisted scripting and allowed for the space to evolve and be slightly different with each rendering. You will see: two characters covered in white paint serving as the orchestrators and phantom persona in the piece, two cross-dressing characters in white and black parodying patriotism and sexual representations of feminized men, a Virgin Mary female figure lathering herself in blood, and a demure teacher figure in various relations to an industrial rope. Each character has a chance to make eye contact with the other characters before going into their repetitive actions that set the tone for the persona. Following this, each persona goes into individual actions, giving us the chance to take in one persona at a time. All of the movement here was chosen by each of the performers with their own autonomy and ways of questioning the limits of their own identities in the process. In the intense process of losing, finding, redefining, and breaking ourselves, we found a community of radical rebels and then invited others to see what we had found, as we invite you now.

The on-line archival excerpt here can be watched from beginning to end, or you can skip around. There is no narrative structure to follow and it will never make total sense—it is not meant to. Experience the persona and let them resonate in you differently. Do particular characters call out to you? Why? Do not over-analyze. Watch and enjoy.

III. An Evolving Manifesto towards Nepantla

As an artist, La Pocha Nostra is where I found home and where I return to time and again to find solace, true challenge, community, and the only real space of belonging I have ever known. As a pedagogue, I wish to teach others to find that space for themselves, and whatever that means for them and to create these spaces, however fleeting, in temporary communities of difference.

Together we fall into Nepantla—we fall into this wonderfully crazy abyss together. Nothing is meant to be taken literally. In this symbolic universe, we find new borders and break them, determine the weather and protest it, and invite you to witness and participate in this madness with temporary moments of clarity—whatever that means for you.

Community art defines, on its own terms, what is constituted as “radical.” This radicality is radically contextual and always dangerous, scary, and requiring of risk. We push the limits of our sexualities, nations, ethnicities, races, religions, creeds, genders, relations, positions, and very beings in order to insist on difference—universality or sameness have no space here. Characters are exaggerated and activated in a temporality outside of the comfortable so that we are no longer clear where reality ends and where fantasy begins. Can we live and die in this universe?

So, fall with us. Fall into this space. Let this difference break with all expectations and in the discomfort, find comfort. In these juxtapositions, find rest. Rely on the inability to define as a location of peace. Here, there are no answers, only provocations.

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader (Latin America Otherwise). Edited by Ana Louise Keating.

Gómez-Peña, Guillermo. Writings on Performance, Activism, and Pedagogy. Edited by Elaine A. Peña. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Gómez-Peña, Guillermo and Roberto Sifuentes. Exercises for Rebel Artists: Radical Performance Pedagogy. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Orner, Peter. Underground America: Narrative of Undocumented Lives. Forward by Luis Alberto Urrea. San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2008.

Brittany D. Chávez is an artist-scholar-activist and PhD Student in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and also works as an associate performance artist with the world-renowned troupe La Pocha Nostra. She divides her time between North Carolina and México investigating issues of Latina/o migration & diaspora, queer politics, gendered violence, diaspora and race, and decolonial studies, among many other topics, through oral history and performance.

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