There is a metaphor — one of many — that Mexican performance artist Astrid Hadad uses to stinging effect in her carnivalesque cabaret. She is quoting Montezuma, reeling at Cortes' betrayal and the terror he unleashes, when she says, “My heart is submerged in chili.” From that image, she fashions a love song. “If you don't know the real love, you submerge your intimate parts in chili and you'll see what I mean,” she quipped at a sold-out show at the Mayan kicking off the Pacific Standard Time Festival: Live Art LA/LA (Jan. 10-21).
In bold iconography — cleverly redeploying familiar symbols in original and rewritten popular songs, brilliant costume design, tongue-in-cheek showgirl coquetry and sly comedic timing — Hadad showed how “Mexican power can transform terror into something sweet.”
Love, anger, terror and transformation also were themes belonging to the festival's broader body of work, displayed over 11 days by more than 200 Latin American and Latinx performance artists in theaters, museums, parks and public spaces — much of it illuminating paths from complex histories to urgent sociopolitical realities.
Organized by REDCAT, CalArt's Downtown Center for Contemporary Arts, PST Festival: Live Art LA/LA was a key performance component of PST: LA/LA, the $16 million Getty Foundation–led initiative involving more than 70 SoCal arts and cultural institutions that started in September and ends on Sunday, Jan. 28.
Taken together, the PST: LA/LA performances were acute and expansive, anguished and alight; a collective, beating heart submerged in chili.
Timing “may have flavored the proposals,” explained REDCAT executive director Mark Murphy, noting the call for submissions went out a week after the Nov. 8, 2016, election. (The Getty, which provided $600,000 in funding for the live festival, required the majority of programming come from a competitive open call.) “But what's interesting is that we saw many projects evolve from a statement of anger and resistance to one that was more nuanced and very thoughtful and a positive expression of values held dear.”
Mapping these performances across the city was itself a political act, bringing transgressive bodies into view and complicating identities and narratives around the relationship between the United States and Latin America, L.A. and Latinx immigrants, and within individuals navigating the resulting matrix.
Anger remains in explorations of feminism, immigrant rights, environmental and economic justice, Murphy said, but he credits performances such as Raul Baltazar's Mi Sereno and Carmina Escobar's Fiesta Perpetua with the transformative effect of activating, connecting and celebrating communities.
“At Echo Park Lake, to see these 40 youth (from Oaxaca brass band Maqueos Music) celebrating a sense of place and water and land, and given immigration issues and some of the nasty things said by current leadership,” Murphy said of Fiesta Perpetua, “it was just very heartwarming to see (them) claiming their right to call this home and celebrate their community.”
Organizers sought to highlight historic connections between development of performance art in California and Latin America, where there is “a long, intertwined history” between political activism and protest that informs performance, Murphy said.
For some who have been thriving in the city's live art scene for years (or decades), the overture arrived late.
“As an L.A. native, I'm always really annoyed any time fucking white people put on a festival for the city of Los Angeles, it's mariachi and folkloric bullshit,” said Marcus Kuiland-Nazario, whose neo-vaudevillean Variedades brought together prominent names in local contemporary performance art — including Nao Bustamante, Dorian Wood and Rafa Esparza.
While praising REDCAT, Kuiland-Nazario called out the Music Center, and the Getty especially, “for not including contemporary live art and performance practice as one of the touchstones when they developed this festival in the first place.”
“Contemporary art gets made in L.A. … This is a Mexican show. It's my love letter to Los Angeles; it's my love letter to L.A. culture,” he said.
Some Variedades performers took a direct approach to activism; others opted for poetic detours.
Inspired by women behind the Chicano Moratorium of 1970, Los Angeles punk icon Alice Bag sang “White Justice”: “Black clubs/blue collars/blood red/silver dollars/you say justice is colorblind/I know you're lying.”
Comedian Selene Luna, introduced as a voice “from that Pixar production that revealed that Mexicans do have feelings,” did a bit about ghost TV shows, asking, “Why is every haunting some Victorian bitch? Why aren't there ghosts of color? … We're fucked if the afterlife is racist, too.”
Esparza offered an arresting spectacle in Corpo Ranfla — his “living cartography” of “the landscape of lowrider and gay cruising places in Los Angeles.” Dressed in fuchsia satin loincloth, elaborate body art and white sneakers, he was a diorama of lovingly detailed ranfla textures. He beckoned with one bejeweled nail and a miniskirted waif (Sebastian Hernandez) appeared in the middle of the room, tottering in arabesque on platforms before slinking through the audience to the stage, where the two posed to Lighter Shade of Brown's “Latin Active.”
While queer/trans artistic communities were well represented in the audience that night, Esparza noted via Instagram “the lack of exhibition space made available to young, Brown, Queer artists in the official PST: LA/LA exhibitions in a moment where Brown Queer youth is hyper-active in cultural production.”
Artists participated in each other's events, including Bustamante and Kuiland-Nazario, who played roles in Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa's El Corazón del espantapájaros (Heart of the Scarecrow) at LACMA, based on a Hugo Carillo play exploring relationships among the military, government, citizens, oligarchy and religion in Guatemalan society.
Teatro Linea de Sombras' production of Durango 66 offered a delightfully creative approach to space and spectatorship. On lower Grand, in the concrete cavern beneath a power center of contemporary art, a stark industrial exhibition became a fair of intimate installations inviting audience members to explore.
Named for the Mexican town where 1,500 students seized control of the Cerro de Mercado iron mine in the mid-1960s — scattering its red earth through the streets of the city for 66 days and igniting political consciousness — Durango opened with truckloads of red-hued dirt (procured locally by REDCAT). It was presented by Teatro Línea de Sombra in collaboration with local artists.
The performance also integrated the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, linking the events in light of contemporary political crises. Jorge Vargas, artistic director of Teatro Línea de Sombra, sought to position storytellers as a link between the audience and the “distant and strange” realities represented in theatrical tableaus and textual objects tracing the histories of Durango and Ayotzinapa.
“I ask myself a lot what can be the meaning of this piece in Los Angeles, because at the moment the geopolitical situation between Mexico and the U.S., it's very complex,” Vargas said.
“Violence is not a problem specific to Mexico (and vice versa). We are tied for cultural, economic exchange. So maybe putting this piece in there is not to answer anything, only to add some complexity to how we can see this relationship.”
Vargas said his work is part of a canon of contemporary performance art — which can “balance the idea that Mexican art is only folklore and Frida Kahlo.”
In Hadad's universe, such icons are liberated from hypocrisy: La Adelita carries the entire revolution, every literal item, on her back. “I don't just carry the cross but Jesus, God — Amen! I carry everything/even your mother so you can't complain.” The Statue of Liberty is a prostitute who sells to men coming in from the sea. “I'm a lighthouse in the night of love.” “Lamp without light” are men “who have the power but do nothing,” while a song dedicated to the exploited people of the world evokes brilliant silver altars hiding bloody truths. Death wears a thousand colors. Independence is a circus.
And to La Llorona, Hadad says, “Don't cry more; it's not time to cry, it's time to fight. … There are not only 43 — there are much, much more.”
Note: Maqueos Music, from Fiesta Perpetua, is from Oaxaca. Their state of origin was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. We regret the error.