By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Culture Clash, which originally consisted of six members, came together in May 1984 at the Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco's Mission District, historically a center of Chicano activism and alternative artistic expression. "We were born directly out of the poets and the theater and the people in the visual arts that we knew who were really the architects of the Chicano movement," Montoya recalled. "We were cutting our teeth in the Berkeley area in places with a large gay clientele. We were political from the beginning. People might think, 'They're politicians first and then performers,' but we're theater animals. First is the ability and desire to perform and make people laugh.
"There was a generation of yuppies in the Eighties that lost the spirit. So what Culture Clash is doing is at the absolute apex now. The college kids are looking at us. And I feel the pressure to keep it up. Bringing ethnic culture to mainstream theater has become sort of a tap dance. We aim our barbs at the right wing, but we're not letting white liberals off the hook, either."
Amid this self-analysis, Siguenza showed up with the video camera, and minus Salinas they dined at the fashionable South Beach restaurant Bang. Later they stopped by at nearby Cafe Ma*ana where some Cuban-American artists had gathered in hopes of speaking to Culture Clash about their Miami project. Distracted and seemingly uninterested in conversation with the locals, Montoya soon slipped away from the group, wandering off down Washington Avenue and back to the hotel, to phone home.
The performers' January residency happened to coincide with the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) convention, and several Fox people, as well as an informal audience invited by Miami Light, were present for an evening screening of the Culture Clash television show at Le Drugstore, a South Beach coffee bar.
The TV program features the three members of Culture Clash backed by a supporting ensemble cast and various Latino stand-up comedians, as well as special guests such as Edward James Olmos and Maria Conchita Alonso, who introduce a Spanish "word of the day" (carajo, for example, defined in the sentence, "Cubans who see many Anglos moving into Miami may say, 'Ay, carajo, there goes the neighborhood"). Music is provided by a band called Tito and the Impalas. Siguenza, Montoya, and Salinas appear as an array of underdog immigrant protagonists. Siguenza usually takes the drag roles. Sketches include game shows ("Run for the Border") and movie lampoons ("Weekend at Bernardo's," a takeoff on Weekend at Bernie's featuring a dead cholo and his drunk friends). A rubber chicken-bedecked Salinas stars in "Let's Do Voodoo With Juan Santero," in which he brings back Desi Arnaz from the dead with the help of Siguenza as a black zombie sidekick. "Authentic Spanish Hot Talk" features a Chicana woman erotically reciting the speeches of Che Guevara to an excited, non-Spanish-speaking Anglo. The half-hour show is a bombardment of one-liners aimed alternately at Chicanos, Anglos, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Cubans, and Argentineans.
Culture Clash, currently aired on weekend evenings in Los Angeles, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, San Antonio, and Chicago, is attracting a young adult audience of both Latins and Anglos. The program has been getting respectable ratings; shown in L.A. at 7:00 p.m. on Saturdays, it has beaten out Jeopardy.
Fox Television Station Productions, Fox's "cutting-edge" team responsible for Studs and Cops, among others, produces and distributes the show. Brian Graden, vice president of program development for FTS Productions, attended the NATPE convention to pitch a number of programs, Culture Clash included. Miami's Fox affiliate, WSVN-TV (Channel 7), which is the number one English-language station among Spanish speakers in Miami, wasn't interested.
"The feedback I got is that the Cuban content is not there," reports Graden. "They said something like, 'The Mexican-American humor wouldn't translate at all, or it might actually be an affront to those people.' With all due respect to the very distinct experience of being Cuban in Miami and Chicano in Los Angeles, I think there is some commonality. Culture Clash probably has more to do with the Cuban experience than Full House."
Burt Medina, director of programming at WSVN, doesn't have quite such vivid recall of the station's reaction to Culture Clash. "We talk about so many shows," says the Channel 7 exec. "I don't remember the exact title, but I do remember something like that. The primary reason we didn't take it is because we didn't have time periods available. Although as a Cuban American, I will say that there are different kinds of humor from one [Latin] group to another."
Channel 7's cool reception -- and the implication that Culture Clash might not meet a necessary local standard for Cuban references -- only served to solidify the group's perception of Miami as a town that is as disconnected as it is diverse. "I don't think we're going to be all things to all people Latino, understandably," Montoya maintained back in January. "I really don't see Cuban culture leading the way as far as humor. Chicano comedy is born out of a social struggle much like the Jewish comics and the black comics."