By B.V. Olguín
When bleached-blond Danny De La Paz rollerbladed onto a minimalist stage at Our Lady of the Lake University on August 13, 2005, wearing a glass tiara, a muscle T-shirt, and tight, bulging shorts while Brian Adams’ campy anthem “Heaven” played in the background, you knew this wasn’t gonna be just another Chicano gangbanger story.
The actor who debuted as the ill-fated cholo Chuco in the classic gang saga Boulevard Nights, and later played a fratricidal Mexican Mafia assassin in American Me, is all grown up and out of the closet in Gregg Barrios’s play I-DJ Mofomixmaster.
De La Paz opened the one-night stand with an adaptation from Hamlet:
“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.”
With a perfectly delivered comic pause and femme aside, he deadpans: “Weren’t you expecting Shakesqueer?”
This seemingly dissonant appropriation of the Bard’s classic work of existential angst to explore the 1970s Los Angeles dance-club scene enables a provocative queering of Chicano identity and even British literary history.
“After all, Hamlet is a play within a play,” De La Paz’s character reminds us. “How queer is that?!”
Barrios’s Shakespeare gloss provided an unexpectedly good staging device for a drama about an aging DJ who recalls how his search for validation as a Chicano on West Coast airways coincided with his coming out. The storyline is simple yet profound: A young gay Chicano wants to proclaim his existence by joining the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and ’70s — el Movimiento — but his fellow Chicano activists respond by paraphrasing Eldridge Cleaver’s outrageous party line, that the only position for a woman or a fag in our movement is the lateral position.
The play documents a burgeoning love between the DJ and his neophyte (played by South San Antonio high-school student Jimmy Villa), who resist the binary logic of the axiom that to be Queer means not to be Chicano. After the romance is broken up by a different type of gangbanging — a viscerally disturbing rape scene — the play’s action unravels into a dark yet illuminating exploration of Chicano ontology. I-DJ is nothing less than a Chicano re-staging of Plato’s Symposium: The mascara-wearing Chicano DJ played by De La Paz does a lip-sync of Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way” while offering metaphysical meditations on the intersections of love, art, Chicano identity, and the ecstatic nature of true knowledge.
This theatrical dialogue with the highly masculine culture of the barrios of the Southwest, and the multiple communities within and beyond — whites, queers of all races, Chicano nationalists — is Gregg Barrios’s signature style in an oeuvre that spans six decades, five genres, and thousands of literary publications and journalism bylines. Barrios has made an art out of creating unlikely fusions and uncovering unexpected influences, collaborations, and liaisons.
Yet the adage that a genius is always unappreciated in his own backyard seems to hold true for Barrios. While I-DJ was published in 2007 in the 15th-anniversary double issue of the venerable Ollantay theater magazine, an expanded re-staging of this play still has not found a home despite the playwright’s success at attracting a Hollywood actor to play the lead role.
Until recently, the same was true of Barrios’s other theatrical works, even as his poetry received early recognition with the 1982 publication of his first collection, Puro Rollo. Prior to his recent hit play, Rancho Pancho (reviewed in the Current’s September 10-16, 2008 issue), Barrios had resigned himself to interstitial anonymity.
“I guess it must be my message,” he said in a recent interview. “Because it doesn’t fit neatly into any pre-established categories, few people want to stage my work. It’s too Chicano for the white venues, not Chicano enough for the Chicano venues, too queer for straight ones, not queer enough for the queer spaces, and just too much of this and not enough of that for everyone else.”
He may be right. Barrios’s work lies at the intersection of so many traditions, political perspectives, and identities it is hard to position it squarely within any single one. Yet Barrios isn’t exactly correct when he complains about a “brownout” and “closeting of Chicano theater” in San Antonio; he has produced two other plays locally, one of which was developed in a short-lived collaboration with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Gateway Grant. But one thing is certain: You either love Barrios’s work for its eclectic cultural fusions and unexpected storylines, or you hate it precisely because of these features.
It's all a matter of perspective
Gregg Barrios was born in Victoria, Texas, on Halloween 1945, and his first contact with the arts was at home. His father, Gregorio Barrios Sr., was a photographer and film projectionist in Victoria in the 1950s and ’60s. His photography recently was published in a father-and-son pairing in Dagobert Gilb’s bilingual multimedia text, Hecho en Tejas: An Anthology of Texas Mexican Literature.
Barrios recalls how his father taught him about the most important element in all literary and visual arts: perspective.
“My father’s studio was next to the downtown bus station, which naturally attracted sojourners from the lower strata of society because it is the most economical way to travel,” he said. “There were bums, prostitutes, hustlers, quick-change artists, pachucos and street toughs, unemployed workers, and just ordinary working-class folks of all races trying to get from one place to another in their daily grind of survival.”
Barrios recalls how “[I] peeked into my father’s dark room once and found photos he had developed of naked men and women ... My father had become something of a fixer, as people would come to him for help with all sorts of problems and activities, legal and not-so-legal. I saw it all from my own little perch in the corner. This was my introduction to the world, from the margins and the bottom up.”
This early exposure to society’s outcasts lead to a lifelong quest for communion with the masses, but Barrios claims his poetry, theater, and journalism have always avoided a condescending or exoticist view. Rather, he seeks to understand and accurately represent his subjects as their ally, as one “who shares similar pains as well as broader joie de vivre.”
It’s also telling that Barrios’s first book review, written when he was a 16-year-old high-school student, was of The Gay Place, Billy Lee Brammer’s thinly veiled roman à clef of Lyndon Johnson’s reign in Pink Dome. His selection is revealing for his innocent belief that as a Chicano in early ’60s South Texas he could pontificate on any topic or author of his choosing. Apparently, no one ever got around to telling Barrios that he could not claim a place in the center and the margins simultaneously, so he just did it.
Having witnessed the fate of the masses excluded from educational opportunities by the cruelly efficient calculations of a capitalist economy, Barrios took a gamble on the Air Force so he could use the G.I. Bill to fund his education. Even though the word “Vietnam” was becoming commonplace, he enlisted in 1962 and for three years served as a combat medic in the 859th Medical Group. Luckily for Barrios, he was stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin — with occasional temporary-duty assignments to pick up severely wounded soldiers from hospitals in Germany. This allowed him to attend class at the University of Texas at Austin as a part-time student.
During his time in Austin, Barrios was involved in the underground newspaper The Rag, infamous for its irreverent political commentary and cultural critiques. He also co-founded the Cinema 40 Film Club, for which he is recognized in Esquire magazine film critic Dwight Macdonald’s 1969 memoir, On Movies:
“While I was in Texas I caught up on my movies, avant-garde and rear-guard ... I was able to see for the first time some films by Warhol and Anger, both programs being put on by Cinema 40, a film club operated with great enterprise by a senior named Gregory Barrios.”
Like most film buffs of the era, Barrios eventually made a pilgrimage to Andy Warhol’s notorious Manhattan Factory. Under Warhol’s tutelage, in 1967 Barrios made his own experimental film, titled BONY (Boys of New York). Shot in both black-and-white and color with a 16-millimeter Roloflex Camera, Barrios’s film captures a day in the life of the Warhol “superstars” — the poet Gerard Melanga and Rene Ricard (the poet and art critic who “discovered” Jean Michel Basquiat) — during which they meet Leonard Cohen and Vogue model Ivy Nicholson.
BONY is archived at UCLA and is included on Chon Noriega’s list of 100 Best Chicano Films. Barrios has since shown his films in San Antonio and elsewhere, paired with an excerpt of Warhol’s epic 25-hour, four-channel projection **** (Four Stars), which Warhol gave Barrios with the express challenge to put it to new use by showing it in different settings. Gemini Ink hosted one of these collaborative screenings in 2003.
Barrios eventually earned a degree in English and accepted his first teaching job in Crystal City in 1970, where his art found new purpose: el Movimiento!
¡Dale gas, carnal!
Like its contemporary, the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Chicano Movement art took a combative tone predicated on opposition to racist white capitalist American society. Barrios took his characteristic interstitial approach, positioning himself within the Movimiento and the effort to complicate models of culture and identity that would later come to fruition in works by Chicana Renaissance writers in the 1980s such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga.
He even anticipated the post-Movimiento hybrid poetics that filmmakers, writers, and critics as diverse as Jimmy Mendiola, Marisela Norte, and Alfred Arteaga have shown to be a hallmark of the New Latino Aesthetic. Georges Bizet’s classic 19th-century opera Carmen was transformed in Barrios’s 1975 rendition, which he conspicuously titled, Carmen: A Chicano Rock Opera. It was co-directed by Ruth Zarate and performed by his Crystal City High School student cast.
Barrios even anticipated John Sayles’ 1984 The Brother From Another Planet with his own 1976 sci-fi play, Stranger in a Strange Land. His 1977 reprise of Andrew Webber’s Evita, which includes a post-mortem cameo by Che Guevara, an icon of the Chicano Movement, was also recast as a Chicano rock opera. The production was covered by the San Antonio Express in a May 24, 1977, feature by Ben King Jr., who quotes the young Barrios:
“We are trying to show there’s more in Crystal City than the politics. We’re trying to reinforce our culture ... Our goal is to show the Chicano has the ability to express himself in several ways, besides politics.”
Barrios was responding to national and international attention to the grueling grassroots battle by the Raza Unida Party against the oppressive local government. He was attempting to restore some sense of normalcy for his students in the aftermath of the famous student “blowouts” (as student boycotts of classes were known), while at the same time using culture as the site for consciousness-raising.
But in Cristal, as the city came to be known, politics infused everything, as was dramatically illustrated in another struggle: the infamous “gas crisis” of 1977. The “gas crisis” was directly related to the oil embargo of the 1970s, but specifically refers to the conflict between the Lo-Vaca Gathering Company (a private utility vendor) and the new, all-Chicano Crystal City Council. The Council, attempting to respond to its new mandate to represent its poor constituency, rejected the new higher price the company demanded for gas. The city insisted on a lower rate enshrined in its previous contract. With the support of a Texas Supreme Court ruling, the company eventually cut off all natural gas supplies to Crystal City for more than a decade.
Prior to the gas cut-off, Barrios and other educators and artists traveled the country to publicize the struggle and drum up support. Barrios spoke to the Coalition for Economic Survival in Los Angeles as a guest of liberal politico Tom Hayden, whose wife at the time — Jane Fonda — donated a shipment of solar panels to Crystal City to help the citizens survive the brutally cold winter of 1977. Barrios was invited as a non-member guest to address the Communist Party National Convention in Santa Monica, where he received a standing ovation after his speech about the popular revolt against monopoly capitalism. Angela Davis, then a prominent member of the CP, subsequently wrote a short preface to the 1977 published version of Barrios’s play about the struggle, Dale Gas Cristal!
In the spirit of the era, Barrios also staged a play about another outlaw — the infamous San Antonio gangster Fred Gomez Carrasco. To call the play “controversial” is an understatement. Drawing from Teatro Campesino’s agitprop theater form known as the Acto, the actors in ¡Carrasco! — the same Crystal City High School Students of his other plays — provocatively kidnap Governor Dolph Briscoe and Lady Bird Johnson in response to the allegation that the Texas Rangers executed Carrasco during his violent 1974 prison-break attempt.
Barrios continued his work as an educator, literary provocateur, and journalist after accepting a new teaching position in Los Angeles, where he lived from 1982 to 1999. He retired from teaching in 1999 and relocated to San Antonio, where he began a new teaching career, while continuing his journalism first with the San Antonio Express-News as the book editor, then as editorial-page editor for the Spanish-language Rumbo. He retired anew to focus on his own creative writing, but continues to be involved in journalism as a watchdog and regular contributor to the Current and other publications.
“Gregg is both a creative force in his own right — witness his body of dramatic work — and an observant journalist and critic interested in the work of others and the personalities and driving forces behind their work,” wrote Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News and Barrios’s former boss, via email. “He also lets us know when we fall short in our own coverage. We don’t always agree with him, but oftentimes he is right and we are better for it.”
With Barrios, you either love him or hate him. But you can’t deny his presence and provocations.
Coloring the canon
True to his simultaneous insider-outsider status, Barrios doesn’t respect zero-sum cultural propositions, but this doesn’t mean he won’t air dirty laundry. And Barrios is fond of chisme and a good off-color joke, especially if he can make a play out of it.
His provocatively titled Dark Horse/Pale Rider, which premiered at the San Pedro Playhouse Cellar Theater, immediately alludes to the theme of miscegenation. It focuses on Texas writer Katherine Anne Porter’s interest in, um, Mexican rural themes, as critics have called it. Barrios dug deeper in archives to find evidence of Porter’s predilection for mounting dark brown studs, then using them in her celebrated stories.
The play received mixed reviews, with some vocal Chicano educators asking why Barrios “wasted an opportunity” by writing about a white writer. “Don’t we already have enough of that shit?” quipped one educator who requested anonymity.
These critics miss the point, however: Barrios’s work uncovers the Chicano presence in the Eurocentric canon. He was much more successful at rendering this issue in Rancho Pancho. An unusual amount of copy has been devoted to this play in newspapers from San Antonio to New Orleans to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the play has run to overwhelming acclaim.
The premise again is both simple and profound: Barrios posits that Tennessee Williams pimped his Mexican-American lover’s life to create characters and storylines. The bombshell is Barrios’s claim, backed up by reams of archival documents, photos, and interviews, that Williams’ archetypal character Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire is modeled on Pancho Gonzalez, with whom Tennessee had a similarly turbulent relationship.
Sandra Cisneros, perhaps San Antonio’s most famous writer and a personal friend of Barrios, suggested the title he eventually used for the play. She was ecstatic at the opening night of Rancho Pancho last month.
“His play is such a pleasure for those of us educated — and indoctrinated — in English Departments to revere the canon as just a white male thing,” said Cisneros. “He gives us new reasons to love the canon because we now know we have always been part of it.”
Despite this celebratory reception among Latina/o writers who know the sting of academic exclusion first hand, an important question remains: What are the ideological implications of a Chicano writer claiming inclusion in an American literary canon built in part on the U.S. imperialist takeover of Mexican territory?
In his groundbreaking 1971 manifesto, Calibán, renowned Cuban cultural critic Roberto Fernandez Retamar aptly notes that literary canons are extensions of political power. He uses the villain of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest as a third-world hero and archetype to rhetorically propose that students in the Americas could do without the European and White American canons if this continues to require the effacement of Mesoamerican, Black, Mestizo and populist canons of the rest of the Americas.
Again, Barrios, a student of Martí as much as Melville, rejects the binary:
“My perspective is that it is a both/and situation.”
He proves his point in his next two plays, Hard Candy, and a restructured and expanded ¡Carrasco!, which he currently is polishing for initial readings in San Antonio next year.
Hard Candy memorializes burlesque performer Candy Barr, who was born Juanita Dale Slusher in 1935 in Edna, Texas. She worked for Jack Ruby in his club in Texas, and later was mobster Mickey Cohen’s lover. (She expands JFK conspiracy theories by claiming to have seen Ruby with Lee Harvey Oswald at her home two weeks before Ruby shot Oswald.)
In an extension of the “prostitute with a heart of gold” storyline, Barrios’s focus is on Slusher’s life outside her status as a “kept woman” of the mob — as the author of a poetry collection, A Gentle Mind ... Confused (Dulce Press, 1972) and a humanist. Slusher transcended boundaries and taboos. She maintained life-long friendships with Barrios as well as Mexican American outlaws such as prison poet Ricardo Sánchez.
“She was the first really public sexual outlaw, a star of a porn film and an iconoclast and bohemian. Were she alive today,” Barrios maintains, “she’d be celebrated very much like the early Madonna was revered and reviled.”
Barrios’s reprise of Carrasco’s violent rise and fall is less about the man and more about the struggle to give meaning to a community that was in such dire straights it lionized him as a social bandit fighting evil racist whites with his pistol in his hand, similar to 19th-century heroes like Jacinto Treviño, who are still celebrated in the popular ballads known as corridos.
Barrios’s play also is informed by his access to the Carrasco diary, which he translated. He has yet to find a publisher. One renowned Texas publisher politely rejected the piece with a note stating, “Gregg, we are awaiting a great work from you. However, Carrasco does little to make our people look good.”
The enigmatic book-selling sage of San Antonio
While some theater critics are predicting Rancho Pancho will eventually find its way into the off-Broadway circuit where real theater still is being produced on occasion, Barrios is less concerned with fame than with the wonderful world of books and film.
Rosemary Catacalos, executive director of literary organization Gemini Ink, where Barrios has taught classes on writing book reviews and plays, testifies to Barrios’s role as a bibliophile.
“Gregg’s ability to speak to so many diverse aspects of writing makes him a journeyman, in the old sense of being a well-rounded craftsman,” says Catacalos.
Barrios’s work also has made its way into the academy. His early articles on Chicano film are credited with recovering San Antonio film pioneer Efrain Gutierrez as the very first Chicano filmmaker. He has devoted a considerable amount of time, effort, and money to collecting vintage film posters and the films they advertise, signed first-edition books from authors all over the world, and of course, Chicano texts.
After restarting and retiring anew from his teaching and journalism careers, Barrios has finally found what he calls “my dream job”: he works as a part-time bookseller at a local chain bookstore, where he can be found in the literature section.
On a recent weekday afternoon, standing between the stacks, he was asked what is the role of the artist in society. As usual, he resisted an easy answer. Instead, he recommended a book by Vaclav Havel, another by Gabriel García Márquez, another by Carlos Fuentes, and then another by his all-time-favorite Chicano sexual-outlaw author, John Rechy (City of Night). And so on.
He does this four or five days a week, recommending title after title until his shift is over, and it is time for him to drive home. A recent heart attack gave him a new sense of urgency to bring closure to his lingering projects, but he continues to sneak in a new idea every now and then. “I’ll probably die dreaming of the outlines of another play,” he says with a wry smile. •
B.V. Olguín is a published poet, San Antonio educator, and frequent contributor to the San Antonio Current.