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Harry Gamboa of Asco: How A Chicano Performance Group Turned Oppression into Dangerous Fun

A friend gave Gamboa, Jr. a carrot after an N.Y. Times article quoted him saying the carrot the art world dangled to him "looked a little spoiled" and should "at least be on a plate."
A friend gave Gamboa, Jr. a carrot after an N.Y. Times article quoted him saying the carrot the art world dangled to him "looked a little spoiled" and should "at least be on a plate."
©2011, Marta Lopez-Garza

LACMA's show "Asco: Elite of the Obscure, a Retrospective 1972-1987," highlighting the famed performance art group, closed on Sunday. Harry Gamboa Jr., one of Asco's original members, grew up in East L.A. and continues to work as a performance artist and writer.

By Harry Gamboa, Jr., as told to Catherine Wagley

That you would be taught the mechanism which would then ensure your own failure became apparent to me on day one. I was introduced to public education by having a dunce cap put on my head that I was actually encouraged to help build. That was kindergarten, but it was already too late, because I had been given several years of advice from people in my neighborhood and family.

I was told not to succumb to bullying or psychological tricks imposed by authorities, and because the kind of punishment I would get at home for succumbing would probably be worse than what they could do to me, I was always trying to outsmart my tormentors. One can fall victim to the sort of oppression or take the same stimuli and convert it into something that's entertaining and fun, even if it might be dangerous fun.

That's actually part of the premise for Asco, to utilize the streets, go to places that have been considered dangerous or would be part of an erased history if they weren't brought to life.

The members of Asco from left: Gronk, Patssi Valdez, Willie F. Heron and Harry Gamboa, Jr.
The members of Asco from left: Gronk, Patssi Valdez, Willie F. Heron and Harry Gamboa, Jr.
Harry Gamboa, Jr.

Stations of the Cross was the first public performance piece that Asco did and the idea was to have a sort of procession with religious connotations and then to cause a blockage of the Marine recruiting station in an era when many of our peers were dying in Vietnam. This was shortly after the Chicano Moratorium, so it was very dangerous to do anything on the streets. The police were so volatile, and just a few months before, 25 police officers had opened fire and shot hundreds of rounds into Chicano protesters. This frightened some people, but, at the same time, there was an allure, and people followed. So by the time we got to the recruiting station, more than a handful of people had joined us.

What always seemed to work was the act of involving ourselves, the human body. One performance that did this is Decoy Gang Victim, in which a young man is laying across the street, face up, apparently lifeless. We created this performance specifically for the camera with the intent of disseminating it on a wide level. At the time, two major newspapers were involved in a battle of one-upmanship, providing details about gang warfare and the names and address of people associated with the gangs, prompting further retribution.

The scene we staged appeared to be from a gang war, and I went and persuaded a handful of news anchors from television stations to come, telling them that this would actually be the last gang member to ever be killed in action in East L.A. The image screened on several TV stations. Our hope was that it would stop the need for any sort of further retribution.

Follow @cgwagley and @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.

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