Radical Chicano

On a hot afternoon this past January, Herbert Siguenza, Richard Montoya, and Ric Salinas were driving south on I-95 in a white Alamo rent-a-car, looking for a dead cat.

For the members of the Los Angeles-based comedy theater troupe Culture Clash, on a two-week visit to Miami to acquire firsthand inspiration for a performance work-in-progress, this particular roadkill specimen marked the way back to Miami Beach at the end of each day of interviews with local movers and shakers. Salinas, sporting a Culture Clash baseball cap and watch, was at the wheel. Siguenza rode shotgun, the five-o'clock shadow on his shaved scalp sweating under the midday sun. He held his stomach and complained that the massive doses of eclectic ethnic cuisine offered by their many hosts had added unneeded bulk to his stocky frame. In back, Montoya passed a hand through his silky long dark hair and looked impatient. The reigning dress was Chicano homeboy: baggy pants, denim engineer jackets, flannel shirts with Aztec patterns, and work boots.

"We're going to give Miami an enema," announced Montoya. "What this town needs is a colonic. Yeah, a mango colonic."

Culture Clash was cruising far from the group's home turf, territory usually staked by low-riding cholos wearing bandannas with gang colors, not yucas in Mazda Miatas toting cellular phones. Montoya, who is Mexican-American, and Siguenza and Salinas, both Salvadoran-Americans, are the most successful Chicano-Latino comedy team in the nation, an accolade that is something of a contradiction given the struggling status of Latino theater. They are also the stars of Culture Clash, a syndicated Fox Television program often described as a Hispanic In Living Color. Seen weekly in six of the top ten U.S. Latin markets, it has not been picked up by the Fox station in Miami.

Second-generation activists who are all in their early 30s, the comedians see themselves as role models for young Latinos, particularly Mexican Americans. They aim to break down cultural stereotypes by satirizing them in slapstick sketches about border crossings and migrant workers, turf wars and riots, presenting life from the point of view of valet parkers, gang members, and the occasional Latin American dictator. Influenced by the collective structure of Latin American theater groups, as well as by political comedy from what they call California's "burrito belt," Culture Clash's postmodern vaudeville targets a multiethnic audience weaned on Saturday Night Live sketches in bilingual homes.

Culture Clash Does Miami will be staged as a work-in-progress this Sunday (May 1) at the 10th Street Auditorium in Miami Beach. The full-length piece, commissioned by the Miami Light Project at a cost of $83,000, is scheduled for a November premiere at the Colony Theater. With funding from Rockefeller and Knight Foundation grants, Miami Light's board of directors A a committee of nineteen that includes local architects, real estate agents, business owners, and arts professionals A chose the L.A. trio to create a theatrical work about Miami on the strength of a well-received performance of the group's show, A Bowl of Beings, at the Colony in 1992.

The members of Culture Clash are most of all phenomenal mimics and they will use that talent to bring to the stage the voices of the Miami residents they have encountered. They've used a similar format in other works, such as Carpa Clash, which they performed at the Mark Taper Forum theater at the Los Angeles Music Center last year. Starting with the death of activist Cesar Chavez, the group flashed back through the history of labor in Los Angeles, marked by the Zoot Suit Riots, the founding of the United Farm Workers Union, and movie studio politics, all told comedically through the words of the participants. This testimonial style, a classical theater form, is a staple of politically committed performance artists, including Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, Guillermo G centsmez-Pe*a, and most recently, Ann Deavere Smith, who plays more than 40 characters in Twilight, Los Angeles, her critically acclaimed performance about the L.A. riots, which Culture Clash is using as a model for their Miami project.

This is the first time, though, that the Los Angeles trio has worked with such foreign subject matter. Ergo the Miami crash course: two weeks in January, followed by two weeks in May after the preview reading.

"This is a way of integrating culture into the political and social life of the city," Miami Light co-director Caren Rabbino says of the commissioned work. "It will do something for Miami which hasn't been done, which is to chronicle the lives of the people here. Certainly the tourism spin doctors have not chronicled the people of the city. I can't think of a city more interesting to make a work about. The stories told here will have resonance across the country -- if not now, over the next decade."

The producers briefly considered commissioning local performers, Rabbino says, but decided to go with a respected outside group, feeling it would bring a fresh vision of Miami to the stage, and a professionalism that might set an example for Dade County artists.

Rabbino and her partner Janine Gross envisioned a full schedule of daily activities for Culture Clash's short residencies, through which they would visit virtually every community of Greater Miami, with local artists, business executives, political activists, teachers, contractors, and clergymen, among others, as their guides. As it turned out, of the dozens of letters Miami Light sent to solicit participation, a remarkably large number of those who responded were Haitian. ("Haitians are more culturally sensitive," Rabbino concludes.) Thus, during their first two-week stay, Culture Clash had comparatively few appointments with Cuban Americans, though that sector might seem the most natural sources for a group known for its grasp of Latino culture. Still, in the course of their January visit, the performers managed to become obsessed with the drastic contrast between the culture and concerns of privileged Cuban political exiles and that of California's illegal Mexican immigrants. This, they stressed, is something they would be looking to examine more closely upon their return.

We're hearing things that people will talk about but no one will really say. We have no political ties with anyone here, no agenda," observed Richard Montoya as the group's rental car made its way down the highway that January afternoon. The trio's position as outsiders peering in, Culture Clash members agreed, would afford them a better chance of reflecting back at Miami an accurate depiction of the area's diverse, disconnected population.

Then again, airing a community's unspoken tensions involves certain hazards. "We want to say what we want," added Montoya, "and get the hell out of here."

"When the City of Miami was incorporated in 1896, there were no Mr. Gonzalezes," explained Dorothy Fields, founder of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida. Siguenza, Montoya, and Salinas sat listening like polite schoolboys, taking notes and videotaping as Fields lectured Culture Clash about the history of the Bahamian and African-American communities in the Grove, and about their important role in the founding of Miami.

Back in the car for the drive home to the hotel in Miami Beach, the group reverted to their roles as socially conscious class clowns. They rolled down the windows and cranked up the radio, tuned to HOT 105 (WHQT-FM 105.1). "The Jheri Kurl station," Siguenza purred, then began throwing out ideas for the performance.

"We've got to go out looking for Cubans," he declared. "So far we've interviewed a lot of rich Jewish people. I'd like to see a Santeria ritual. They might sacrifice a Chicano."

"We should stage the final scene of Apocalypse Now, but substitute Castro for Brando," Salinas suggested.

Meanwhile, the traffic-flattened cat they'd been using as a marker was nowhere in sight, and the guys had to admit they were lost. "Have you noticed," asked Montoya, eyes bugging, "that there are no white people in this neighborhood? And...we...are...in...a...rental...car?

Get that map down, boy, get it down!" he screamed in a Southern drawl, reaching up front to slap Siguenza's arm.

When the causeway to the Beach finally came into sight, Siguenza cupped his hands to his mouth. "Atenci centsn, Miami. Fidel Castro is still in power! Atenci centsn, Miami. Fidel Castro is still in power!"

Montoya pounded out the beat of a son on his leg, and the three Clashers rapped out bilingual verses of their new song:

Cuando Fidel se muere en su cama caribe*a
Calle Ocho esta bailando, todo el mundo esta cantando
Move over, comunista -- aqui viene Armani Exchange
Move over, comunista -- aqui viene Miami Herald
Move over, comunista -- aqui viene Mas Canosa
Move over, comunista -- aqui viene Gloria Estefan and su jet ski

(When Fidel dies in his Caribbean bed Calle Ocho is dancing, the whole world is singing

Move over, communist, here comes Armani Exchange
Move over, communist, here comes the Miami Herald
Move over, communist, here comes Mas Canosa
Move over, communist, here comes Gloria Estefan and her jet ski)

"I think Spanish people are naaaaasty," Montoya smirked, imitating a fifteen-year-old black girl he'd met at Cutler Ridge High School the day before.

"Give me twenty Castros, I give you one Duvalier. Twenty Castros. One Duvalier," boomed Siguenza from the front, speaking with a Haitian accent.

"And in the words of Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes: 'Oh. My. God.'" This they shouted in unison as the car pulled up in front of the Carlton Hotel on Collins Avenue.

"What are we doing here?" Richard Montoya had asked as he walked into the lobby of the hotel a few nights before.

As usual, the group had a dinner to attend that evening. Ric Salinas was sick in his room, Herbert Siguenza had gone to fetch the video camera, and Montoya was feeling a little like Dorothy in Oz. His mind was on Los Angeles, where people were still bracing for aftershocks from the earthquake, which occurred after the actors arrived in Miami. Between concerned calls to friends and family, Montoya was busy worrying about tapings of the group's TV show, of which he, Salinas, and Siguenza are executive producers, as well as writers and stars. Meanwhile, Culture Clash was being kept to a hectic schedule, shuttling between hospitals, county commission meetings, and the homes of an ex-Cotton Club dancer and members of what the Miami Light directors characterized as the "wealthy gay leisure class." Accustomed to spending his spare time organizing boycotts and demonstrating for migrant workers' rights, Montoya seemed a little confused by, and rather bored with, Miami's social structure. So far, he said, he found the city politically conservative and racially segregated. He stood staring with a frown at the row of elderly guests socializing on patio chairs outside the hotel.

Montoya's godfather was Cesar Chavez. His father, Jose Montoya, is a respected Chicano poet. He was brought up in Sacramento, surrounded by what he describes as the art and activism of the Chicano struggle.

"On the West Coast, the people who founded the Chicano movement are still teaching at universities today A that whole school of thought about what it means to be Chicano and why we must preserve and maintain and document our culture," he said. "It's not really Mexican and it's not wholly American. It's a mixture, we call it Chicano, and politically they've always been way farther ahead of the game than Puerto Ricans or Cubans. It's still on fire, and there's a whole resurgence of Chicanoism on the campuses of the Southwest. Theirs is a point of view of Chicano politics that's totally different from that of other Latins A a different world, a different history."

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."

"I pose this question," Siguenza put in. "Let's say there was a trio cubano from Miami who were doing something similar. Let's say they got hot and got this TV deal. I really wonder if the reaction would be, 'You know, you've got to do some Chicano comedy, because there are millions of Chicanos out there.' People should look west from Florida a little bit, because there are so many more Mexican Americans than caribe*os in this country. In Chicago, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, all over California. We can't disregard that. They don't have the economic base, the big quantitative factor. But TV is a mass media."

"Latino culture, man!" exclaimed Salinas. "It's going to take a lot of shows, a lot of revisions. It would be great if we did have a Chicano sitcom, a Puerto Rican sitcom, a Cuban sitcom," he added optimistically. "If you could switch the channel and see these different shows, you could see a part of America that's never been seen."

"It's a strange town -- northern mentality, vestiges of the South, perched on the Caribbean, apolitical," Siguenza observed a couple of days later, as he and the other members of Culture Clash began examining their impressions for performable possibilities. "We have to think about what mirror we're going to put back to Miami," he continued. "We don't have one incident that's overwhelming. We have to focus in on maybe one or two things. We're trying to find some unifying factors: a Third World nation perched on the edge of a delicate ecosystem, the Cuban obsession...."

"Miami's a younger city: Los Angeles was founded 100 years before Miami," commented Salinas. "The Haitians and the Cubans are all together; that's why there's hope in this city. L.A. is so tightly wound. Whole communities are contained, South Central, East L.A., these lines are very defined. There's a very calculated, oppressive system that goes back to the Forties, Thirties, Twenties. And a very racist police department that the Cuban Americans don't have to deal with here. The problem with Miami is that dumb people are salivating to build strip malls in Havana."

"We've been talking to a lot of people, and everyone has a plan for when Castro falls," Siguenza added. "The corporate lawyer has a plan, the businessman has a plan. Everybody has a plan. But what are they going to do? Kick mulattos out of their homes, or jet ski over there? The whole concept is so ridiculous. What plan do people really have?"

Montoya described a dinner in Coconut Grove the night before: "They were environmentalists and they made their money with chemicals. They had this beautiful house but it smelled like bleach. We asked them what they thought about Cuba, and they said they had a plan, too. We made up some slogans for them: 'Biscayne Chemical -- Cleaning up Cuba' or 'Chemicals for Cuba.'''

Siguenza, who visited Cuba through a college cultural exchange program and participated in workshops with the Cuban theater company Teatro Escambray, said he still admires the revolution. And like other members of the group, he added, he was struck hard by the evident differences between the Chicano-Latino culture shared by Mexicans and Salvadorans in California and Miami's Cuban exile community.

"Haitians are the Chicanos of Miami," he asserted, drawing a parallel between the political activism and immigrant experience of that group and his own. "They're not like the spanaticals. There's a fundamental base of the Chicano culture and that's our indigenous ties. We're all a colonized people, but the Mexicans are saying, 'Let's not forget our indigenous past.' I don't have a problem with that inclusivity that says, 'I respect all cultures,' but I don't want to lose my own to another one that has no significance. We did not come from 'Hispania' A there's not a Hispania. It completely denies our indigenous ties and our roots to this continent and embraces this Iberian thing. Of course the Cuban does not have an indigenous past, because their abuelos really were from Spain. They can call themselves Hispanics and not have a problem with that."

"There's a denial and it still exists with the few Cubans we've talked to," Salinas added. "There are class and color differences."

"You see who the servants are and who the rich people are," Siguenza said, shouting by now. "You open up the society page in El Nuevo Herald, guys, and it's the most frightening thing you ever saw. And with the second-generation Cubans, the importance of being hip has replaced any sentiment for Castro."

Naturally, having had such difficulty finding common ground with Miami's Cuban Americans, the comedians worried that locals might not be amused by their portrayal.

"We use Chicano and communist symbols to distraction," Siguenza offered. "But just because we use certain codes, symbolism doesn't mean we're communists."

"We're not afraid to poke fun at our icons," added Salinas, "and we want to expose that here without getting bomb threats."

"The idea is for us to bring all the different facets, the different professions, the different mindsets that people have in Miami, together," Montoya stressed. "And that's going to be the show."

"And knowing us," Siguenza grinned, "it won't be objective."

Culture Clash Does Miami, a staged reading of the work-in-progress, will be performed Sunday, May 1, at 5:00 p.m. at the 10th Street Auditorium, at Tenth Street and Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. Admission is $50 (includes cocktail reception); proceeds benefit the Miami Light Project. For more information call 865-8477.


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