The RW Interview

The Contradictions of Culture Clash

Revolutionary Worker #1085, January 7, 2001, posted at

Culture Clash is what happens when you bring the world today--its oppression, repression and insanity--together with the humor and insights of Ricardo Salinas, Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya. Culture Clash is Chicano/Latino comedy theater. A Culture Clash show is like that tiny circus car stuffed with clowns, with a keen sense of social contradictions. One minute it's roll-in-the-aisles fun and the next brings a tear or pangs of anger. And then, just when you don't expect it, you're back laughing so hard it hurts. And in the middle of it all comes the insight, the look into the evil that runs the world and the people who go up against it.

In 1984 René Yañez, curator of Galería de la Raza art gallery, brought together a group of Latino comedians/actors for a Cinco de Mayo celebration in San Francisco's Mission District. This group continued to perform under the name Comedy Fiesta and included Marga Gómez, Monica Palacios and the late José Antonio Burciaga along with Ric, Herbert and Richard. In 1988 Ric, Herbert and Richard formed Culture Clash and began producing a series of plays rooted in sketch comedy. They were often hilarious and biting looks at Chicano culture in America. The group quickly began to build a large and loyal audience--first among Chicanos and then broadly in L.A. and across the country. Their work has been staged at the Lincoln Center in NYC, the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater, the Kennedy Center in DC and many other theaters throughout the country. Culture Clash coproduced, wrote, and starred in an award-winning short film, Columbus On Trial, and in the early '90s, their 30 episode TV show appeared on the FOX Network. In 1992 their play A Bowl of Beings was featured on the PBS Great Performance series.

Culture Clash's work has stretched from stand-up comedy and impersonation to a late 1990s adaptation of The Birds by the Greek playwright Aristophanes. The group's first play was The Mission, written in 1988 as a semi-autobiographical story of three Latino actors trying to find work in America. It was the first time the group had moved from cabaret-style performance to a narrative play. When the Mission opened in L.A. in 1990 it was a big hit. Other work that followed included S.O.S--inspired by the 1992 L.A. rebellion--and Carpa Clash.

In 1994 Culture Clash's work began to take off in a new direction with the play Radio Mambo--a series of dramatic and comedic vignettes that tell the story of Miami, Florida, through the voices of the people who live there. In 1996 Culture Clash mounted a new version of Radio Mambo that was directed by Roger Guenveur Smith. Smith helped Culture Clash produce a stunning piece of theater that has toured the country for the last five years. Since Radio Mambo, Culture Clash has continued to develop work telling the stories of different cities based on interviews with the people who live there. These works include Bordertown (the story of San Diego and the border region), Nuyorican Stories (focused on the Lower East Side of New York City) and their latest, Mission Magic Mystery Tour, on the impact of gentrification in the San Francisco Mission District. Culture Clash is also working on another play about Washington, DC and they have recently completed work on a screenplay.

Sometime in late 2000, RW reporter Michael Slate had the fun of talking to Culture Clash about their work.

The RW Interview:

A special feature of the RW to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.

RW: Tell us about the artistic and political roots of Culture Clash.

Herbert: We come out of that Chicano theater movement that had a political base--like El Teatro Campesino--or San Francisco Mime Troupe. We're all alumni of El Teatro Campesino at one time or another, before and after Culture Clash. We had worked with Luis Valdez and that theater was totally based on art and politics, on struggle and the plight of the farmworkers. So we come out of that literary and artistic movement. And that's the thing that bonds us and has given us the torch. I think Culture Clash is just taking that torch to the next level.

We didn't think we were going to survive the 1980s, much less the 1990s. It was just one crazy night when we started. But people in the audience were very hungry for this kind of humor--humor that was bi-cultural and bilingual and, more than anything, it was urban...we were talking about the crowded buses and things like that.

Ric: And also Reagonomics was right over our shoulder. It was 1984. The arts were getting blows left and right. And that's what fueled us. We went out and protested with our humor.

Richard: For us it was never a dilemma--so many theaters and artists who have come and gone always challenged us about mixing art and politics and saying that wasn't good. We wanted to come out with something that was in opposition to what everybody was going for, the acceptable Latino entertainment. And coming out of the gate we started a lot of fires....

Ric: We were definitely always the underdog in going against the opposition, which was the government, the Anglo conspiracy against Latinos. But at the same time, and this is something I don't think was going on with Teatro Campesino or any other troupes around, we were in a sense poking fun at ourselves, too, and opening up a can of worms of what machismo was, or sexism among Latinos, or racism among ourselves.

The name Culture Clash is also the culture clash we have among our Latino race. So we were also making fun of Julio Iglesias and Linda Ronstadt--we had these icons--even Frida Kahlo. We would do spoofs on these people, even Che Guevara. So this was something that was completely different. I guess people could call it irreverent because we poked fun at ourselves. But that's what fueled us alongside of making fun of the opposition.

Herbert: Even though we gave homage to Teatro Campesino and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Culture Clash was a reaction to them.... We wanted to bring something a little more irreverent. So there was a sense of irreverence, even anarchy in our early work.

Richard: In the mid 1980s--the "Hispanic decade"--the Chicano movement was all but dead. There really wasn't much of a movement. We were seeing that by that time Cinco de Mayo had been reduced to a wet T-shirt contest sponsored by Coors beer. There was an all-time high for Hispanics feeling good around the time of the movie La Bamba. It was the "Decade of the Hispanic," Wall Street even chimed in. I think a lot of people went for that programme. AKA Pablo was on television at the time. And I think Culture Clash was saying we need to question everything and what that programme really was. The bottom fell out of it and it all amounted to really nothing--except the term Hispanic. And that has its real dark and conspiratorial beginnings--trying to veer Latinos away from their indigenousness.

RW: With comedy you really have to have a deep grasp of the contradictions in life. And there's a fine line in comedy where you can either laugh at the masses of people or laugh with them. How do you deal with that?

Ric: Yeah, that's true and it's tricky. Sometimes we did cross that line and we did some damage in a sense, especially when we were younger and our writing skills weren't as savvy and sharp so we made some mistakes. But once we learned, we became better satirical writers.

Richard: I don't even think we're comedy writers in the traditional sense of comedy writers. We're social commentators. We're satirical writers owing much more to people like Dario Fo, Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce.... You know, finding yourself on a bill with John Trudell [and his band] and asking what was that about and why did we get invited to this. And it was because there was a vibe coming from us that we were really willing to venture into the dark side of things. Especially after Ric got shot, we made a vow to not be afraid to go where we had been cautious before, to go down those dark, dark streets.

Like when the Rodney King Uprising happened, we didn't wait for grants, we didn't wait for dollars, we went right to work. And we were challenged a lot by political pundits who would say 'How dare you." And we were like "How dare we not!" We have to jump into this. We have to go to the Korean Mall [referring to areas in Los Angeles where the masses hit the stores during the rebellion] and find out what's there. There wasn't just African Americans there, there were a lot of Central Americans in those malls too. From the saintliness of Edward James Olmos to some real tensions in South Central...we went right to work with some vicious, brutal satire. We let people get pissed off and we let people walk. That's kind of been one of our hallmarks too, to be the bad boys of satire or comedy.

Herbert: Richard Pryor always says that his comedy came out of pain. I totally relate to that. Comedy and tragedy are like cousins. They are the same coin and if you know how to use one, then you have to use the other. They need each other in order to explode. And I think we're good comics now because we know how to use tragedy.

RW: I went back and listened to some of Richard Pryor's work a while ago and it made me think about how you really do have to craft the work so that you are saying something that's meaningful. How do you do that without falling into didactic theater?

Herbert: I just don't think it's naturally in us.

Ric: Plus, it has to make us laugh. The three of us love good humor.

Richard: I think it all changed when we purposely took on Miami in Radio Mambo. That was not what anyone expected. That surprised us. That took us out of "tried and true," and it was a departure from the West Coast Chicano issues as well--even though within the piece we offered a kind of Chicano world view within the Spoken Word piece. For the first time in our lives we were sitting down with Haitians, with the exiled Cuban community. We were sitting down with the old African American community, with Marielitos, with good old boys who had Harvard degrees, with rednecks, and with people who had just cleared out sections of the city for redevelopment at the time, and what it was that they cleared was Overtown, a historic part of Miami and Black culture. That stuff, it spoke to us and connected with us.

We felt that the Haitians were some of the most vocal and political people--they reminded us of Chicanos on the West Coast. The exile community could pick us off from blocks away--we could barely make it through Little Havana because they wanted to debate. And, as you know, they bomb galleries there so we had to get extra security and all. I think surprising turns like that have given us longevity and allowed us to go from Miami to San Diego, Tijuana, New York, San Francisco and then DC....

RW: What was the big change marked by your Miami piece?

Herbert: Our work became reality based. We weren't writing out of imagination any more, we were writing true stories, monologues based on oral stories told by real, living people. It opened up our whole perspective. I think that's the real difference--when you start writing off of real stories. We can't even write what those people said, what they said and the way they said it was really amazing. It really opened up our work.

Ric: Also, we weren't just going after the funny bone. Sometimes we would do a whole monologue where not one funny thing was said. We used to have a rule that after every two minutes you had to have a punchline. In Radio Mambo and all these site specific pieces, we let it breathe, we have that time to go into the dark and into the light. We let it breathe now and it forced us to be, in a sense, better actors. We honed down our craft and really did some investment into acting per se instead of the bigger broad sense--we had been a lot more vaudevillian before. And we switch back and forth too, which is cool.

Richard: I think that working with Roger Guenveur Smith as the director--he did the Huey P. Newton story and he has his own history in a certain kind of theater. He really rooted it for us--maybe coming out of his own experience as a Black man. So when we went into Dade County Jail to interview people, it had to be life and death for us every night on the stage. When we first staged that scene we didn't even have those guys in jail, we had them sitting on a stoop which is really much more New York. Roger told us to carve all that away and told us to put these guys back on the line-up where we first interviewed them.

Things like that, little things, gave it a tone.... So he did some real masterful turns like that and reminded us and rooted into something very real and dangerous. He gave the characters dignity.

Ric: And people could relate it to their own community too. It was non-traditional storytelling and non-traditional play. That's the thing we're combating in a lot of these big theaters. When we do Radio Mambo at the Seattle Rep or Arena Stage in Washington, DC, we actually have some pretty cool artistic directors bringing us there, but man, we are up against the press who want traditional storytelling and when we bring this it just turns their life around, and they just can't relate to it. Ultimately, though, the audience jumps on board--99.9 of them jump on board. The rest wouldn't jump on board for Shakespeare.

RW: Part of what people react to in your work these days is the dignity to the characters--a lot of dignity and a lot of humor. You guys feel this is a really important part of your work?

Herbert: It's important because you take it serious. If you don't buy into the character and its dignity and its reality then you won't buy into what they're saying. When we first mounted Radio Mambo we did it a lot larger and I think a lot of the characters were not translating because people didn't believe they were real. If they don't believe they are real then they don't invest in it. But now each character is well portrayed.

Richard: In Nuyorican Stories it was bringing that kind of dignity to what people now call junkies. But back in the day they were poets, they influenced art. Bringing dignity to a 16-year-old woman who has to cross the border at night, risk death, risk exposure, risk rape--bringing dignity to these polarized things. The stories and the characters are all around us. The war on drugs has turned all these people into criminals.

Herbert: A lot of kids ask us how they can write. We tell them to interview their families and you'll get stories--your brother who is in jail, your mother who crossed the border, your dad who works a lousy job. Interview them and you'll get nice portraits, nice monologues out of them. Also, though, there is a fine line between doing this and exploiting people. You don't want to get their monologues to exploit them. We're really careful about that. We want to get their monologues--I mean we do edit these down, we are in control of their words. An interview might last an hour and what you see on stage is five minutes. So that means there has been a lot of editing, reshuffling--so it's not verbatim.

RW: You have to make your art higher than life.

Herbert: Yeah, exactly.

Richard: The collective memory is a precious and fought-over piece of territory. Getting to the bottom of the story of Chicano Park in San Diego--for instance, there are 50 experts who say they were the first ones to dig in. And then you find out that it wasn't that. A man went up there with a vision and was joined by some of the old señoras of the neighborhood, the older women, and they took over a piece of land. It was one of the first times that land was taken over and turned from what was going to be a Highway Patrol substation into a beautiful park with murals and art. So getting to the story is somewhat journalistic.

Nuyorican Stories was kind of touchy too. Getting to the bottom of who started the Nuyorican Poets Café--you'll find there are a lot of different versions and we respected everyone's version. We got to get past the hoopla of the slams--the older poets, what did they say, what do they say now, who's dead and who's here now. This piece also had Giuliani shooting the son of one of the Young Lords women we interviewed. We said let's not disguise this in any way--Giuliani kills people. NYPD kills people. That was satire, political satire. When the Giuliani character killed the hip-hop kid in Nuyorican Stories you can hear a pin drop.

By the time we left Seattle, a very white, sophisticated and gloomy town, we were doing Mambo three times a day. We never expected that kind of response or success. August Wilson empowered us with his words and sitting with us and saying, "Your stuff doesn't always have to head right into the labs or ghetto incubators of these large institutions. You can be right up there on the main stages. And you need to be up there on the main stage."

Herbert: We're really proud of the fact that we can do a Mumia 911 [the National Day of Art to Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal] and do the Taper Theater in Los Angeles in the same week. There are very few groups who can do that and not change or change their work. Just based on the quality and talent--I'm not afraid to say that we've gotten really good, that we're talented. I think that's why theaters bring us. I don't think theaters are bringing us because of tokenism because really, if they didn't have to they wouldn't bring any Latinos--believe me....

Richard: Mumia 911 at the Public Theater was really a turning point for us. We walked in there and it was a great night with important folks. It was fun and it was vintage Culture Clash commentary and spoken word and satire. And I thought that we had some impact that night without forgetting that there is a man sitting in a cell who can't leave the theater when we do and go have a cappucino or a pint. I saw some good stuff that night and some uneven stuff that night. But everyone had their heart out there that night.

Herbert: It's that independent spirit that has kept us alive. We're not waiting around for grants or writing grants or commissions. We're getting them now but we weren't waiting for them, they just happened--they're offered and we either take them or we don't. We'll write and self-produce a play on Santa Monica Boulevard if we have to, it doesn't matter.

RW: What are the influences on your work?

Herbert: That's one of the things that is so good about this group. We all have different tastes and different things we're interested in. We all bring in some of these influences into the work. And they are so varied.

I didn't grow up in El Salvador but I went back when I was 9 and lived there for about six years. One of my first theatrical experiences was going to the circuses, the traveling circuses that would go from town to town. They were just a one-ring circus, ragtag band. It was usually a family. They sold the tickets, played in the band and rode the ponies and played the clowns. I remember that really, really influencing me, saying that was so cool. They were dirt poor but they would give the campesinos in the towns tremendous pleasure, they let people escape from their daily toil. That was really powerful to me--to see art doing that and in those conditions that were so terrible, this was so powerful.

Ric: For me, I totally draw on Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers--there's always some of that with all of us but I really gravitate towards that. And Cantinflas, the Mexican Charlie Chaplin they call him--but he was his own person and we don't need to compare him to anybody. This stuff is in our work. The physical stuff--before it was silent so you really needed to do this physical stuff. The physical part of our work is universal. You don't have to be of any race to enjoy slapstick, physical movement. That's a big influence in our work--like I said, the Marx Brothers, Jackie Gleason, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, it's all in us. And alongside this is Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor and poets like Amiri Baraka.

Richard: The Beats and, of course, Brecht. There's Frantz Fanon and Cesar Chavez. And then there are the poets, the Chicano poets who were articulating a movement a long, long time ago and, in some cases, giving their lives like the Nuyorican Poets. That's what Nuyorican Stories was all about--when did they actually come about, on what street corner. We have to find those ghosts. That's our duty....

So, the writers who write it down and the artists--from Diego Rivera to my father, the poet Jose, and my uncle Malaquias Montoya the visual artist--these guys never wavered. They never left the party line as it were. They stayed true and they are artists with tremendous integrity. And those artists and intellectuals and people are still a phone call away. In a way those are the folks who keep us in check more. Some of those folks tell us to spend more time exploring these guys' Salvadoran roots and to go to New York. They get off on that stuff. They don't want to see us get stuck. But it's an incredible time to be an artist in the nonprofit world because it's a profit driven, global economic world.

RW: We've talked about creating the culture of resistance. What is your view of the relationship between art and the struggle against oppression?

Ric: We do that and I think sometimes it has hurt our career. I mean, the Rodney King thing, we went out and did that and we got criticized for it. But we had to do this. It's a dangerous thing that we do when we come to a truth--where we want to deliver the truth about something like racism. We need to know that our neighbors are going to be different and we need to know each other. But there is a danger to that. The conservative Hispanic people are our worst critics. They are the first ones who will come out and complain about us portraying negative images of Latino people. They tell us to just portray the positive and we won't do that....

Herbert: The philosophy you're talking about is the philosophy we came out of. We grew out of that but it's a burden too because there are all kinds of contradictions. There's the whole Hollywood carrot dangling in front of you. That's a contradiction--television is a mass media and it should be a popular medium but it is controlled by a very few elite. It's really weird. On the one hand we want to be on TV and we should be on TV because we have something to say, but on the other hand they don't let us be ourselves because it's controlled by multi-billionaire monopolies. TV now is just an excuse to put commercials on. So we're always battling that. Should we do it? Shouldn't we do it? Is it selling out? All these issues come up. We've always fought to get our stuff out there. We're very proud of our television show--there was some goofy stuff in it, but we're very proud of it. And it was very popular. When 8-year-old Chicanos from East L.A. say 'hey I saw your show'--that's powerful art, that's influence.

RW: What do you want people to get out of your art?

Ric: With our humor and our art, I think what we want people to do is just question what is being fed to them by the mass media. We are such an alternative that I hope they get the alternative nature of it so that they know that the other stuff, 99% of the time, it's complete bullshit.

Richard: You know, we're not cynical--amazingly. We're still relatively upbeat. We know you don't have to fuck people to survive....

You know the media has a lot to do with what we think. There was more outcry from local newscasters about the two cop cars that got burned when the Lakers won the NBA championship. But when it came to the Rampart investigation they did nothing but call for calm and investigation and all that. But here we're talking about lives that were ended, lives that were ruined in the pen, lives that were ruined by being deported back by opportunistic cops. I travel all the time and people always ask me what were you people in L.A. thinking when the Lakers won. Shit, I was there and I was thinking that people should find another cop car.

We got to keep pushing that way. You know there were people who believed what Pete Wilson said--that Mexicans were the scourge of the country. And never once did we hear about a Mexican immigrant bomb a federal building or mow down kids in a school cafeteria. So guess what, the enemy of the state and the monster turned out to be the blue-eyed guy next door. That's something this country was never ready for and it's very interesting as a writer. It's very interesting to see this all crumble. There has to be a way that we can get this outrage, this theater of rage, into our movie. We got rage.

Herbert: I think we have always considered ourselves artists first and a close second as activists. There have been a lot of artists who are activists first and artists second. I think that's a big difference between us. I think that's why some of that work has not survived or looked pretty over the years. And you know, Culture Clash is not gonna last forever, so we want to leave something behind that people can read and get moved. I think that's very important and that's why we survived--we have always entertained first and then a close second is thinking material. It's a contradiction.

We're very vague too. A lot of times people want to know if we're Maoist or Marxist-Leninist, socialist or liberal democrats or radical democrats. I think that is part of the beauty of Culture Clash --we never have ever been typecast in any way. We don't subscribe to any of those isms. We subscribe to all of them and none of them at the same time. This gives us independence as artists. Artists have to be independent because once you become one of the isms then you are just a cheerleader for that ism.

Richard: There's a certain amount of autonomy but I wouldn't say that we don't stand for anything. In a sense we stand for them all. But we have to have a bit of autonomy too.

One guy told me the other day that with Culture Clash you never know whether you're talking about Karl Marx or Groucho Marx. We're gonna leave it like that for a little while cuz I think we can get more work done that way.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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