October 30, 2014

Notes from a China Chusma Fauxana: Part two of a two-part series on The Panza Monologues South Texas Book Tour

Note: This is the second post of a two part series on "The Panza Monologues Some Like it Hot South Texas Book Tour." This post is penned by Panza Monologues co-creator, Virginia Grise who read from The Panza Monologues, Second Edition in five South Texas cities in five days at diverse venues such as an independent bookstore, a university, an art museum, and also in people's homes. Read part one of the series HERE written by the tour’s producer, Joshua Inocencio.

Maria Salazar reads her poem
"Panza to Panza" from
The Panza Monologues.
A friend of mine jokes that I am not a real Tejana – I am more fauxana, he says. And he's right. My mother is a Chinese-Mexican immigrant, my father a working class white man from Goshen, Indiana and I was born in Ft. Gordon, Georgia. We moved to San Antonio when I was three because it was close to the border and my mother’s family in Monterrey and also because with 5 military bases (San Anto is known as Military City USA) my father and our family could enjoy all the benefits of his early retirement from the Army, including free healthcare. 

My family actually has no real roots or ties to Texas but like many Tejanos whose families have lived in Texas for generations, when Texas was Tejas, even before the battle of the Alamo, when Texas was Coahuiltecan land, I feel a connection to that tierra. A feeling that is more than just displaced nostalgia – home after all is a four-letter word. I think what that feeling is actually about is about fighting for something to call my/our own. 

While I grew up in a Mexican majority city, I knew from a very early age that there were men in suits making decisions about the future of the city without consideration for people like me or my family. I began organizing at age 16. From strategic planning meetings to international solidarity campaigns, from street theatre to federal lawsuits, from Marxist study groups to popular education models - multi-issue activism and community organizing was a central part of my life until I left TX at age 30. 

I was reminded of these early activista days when I returned this summer to launch The Panza Monologues South Texas Book Tour. Chicano theatre was born from political struggle and rooted in oppositional politics after all, but I didn’t grow up in theatre nor did I grow up listening to stories about the carpas and artists like La Chata Noloesca, and I didn’t attend the historic TENAZ conference in 1992, though I was living in San Antonio at the time. I did not yet know I was a theatre artist, but I did grow up in a home that valued poetry, storytelling, a wild imagination, ceremony, and of course the party. Our house was never starved for drama - though the theatre making would come much later…

On those long drives this summer, under the expansive Texas sky, I thought a lot about how my experience in community organizing influences my work as an artist and how being raised in Texas affects the way I think about theatre. These are just a few notes I jotted down in between book readings, panza parties, writing workshops, visits to the ocean, and chasing down UPS workers.

Thinking Beyond the Black Box

I had to chase down this UPS worker to get our 
second batch of books.
Performing Text. Before Photoshop and before I started losing my eyesight – I was a master zine maker. I could work magic with a box cutter and a roll of tape and I learned there is always a disgruntled worker at every Kinko’s in every city everywhere. Identify that person and you will make out with a ton of free copies. I think this old skool style of cut and paste influences the way I revise scripts today, often times with a pair of scissors. The final draft of The Panza Monologues book was laid out and organized on a wall of Post-its at Irma’s house – “Cut that paragraph. Move it here. No, there.”

Back in the day, me and my comrades/comadres made zines from political writings such as the Zapatistas, Mumia Abu Jamal,  and Errico Malatesta. We handed them out everywhere we went – on the bus, in coffee shops, at the club. We read from the zines out loud in places like bookstores and laundry mats. In addition to protest speeches, this is one of my earliest memories of staging text, performing literature. So when my play blu was published as a book, I thought artistic directors would be excited to do book readings and concert readings at their theatres but instead I was met with a lot of confusion – “How would you do that? You mean you would read? but there are multiple characters” – as if I had invented the radical concept of an author standing up and reading from their book out loud.

Too often I think we limit the possibilities of theatre to the play and the four to six week rehearsal process allocated to put on that play, when in actuality, the possibilities for performance are limitless. How do we create more opportunities for people to engage in theatre, beyond the performance of a play and how do we get more people to read plays as literature?

People watch clips from The Panza Monologues DVD.
DIY or Do it Yourself Damnit. So when The Panza Monologues was released last year I decided not to call on just theaters but on community centers and bookstores and anyone that had a free space big enough for me and our book. Not waiting for permission or invitation, I activated my community and networks. Since the publication of The Panza Monologues, we have done readings of the book at theatres, cultural centers, universities, bookstores, at The Perryville Women's Prison, and even in people's living rooms. Irma and I want to demystify what it means to make theatre and make the possibilities of producing your own work more accessible, which is why we created a DIY Production Manual in The Panza Monologues book. In the early days of touring The Panza Monologues as performance, we carved out rehearsal space often times in Irma’s backyard but also at poetry venues and, a couple of times, in between sets at a Jazz club. Teatro by any means necessary.          

Puro Party. I once invited my mother to a performance of mine. When it was over she politely asked, “No que iban a tener una fiesta?” At 73, my mother loves music, dancing and guato. She will be the last to leave the party despite my father’s pleading. 
—Emma, it is time to go.  
—Pos vete. I'll find a ride.

We bring the beer in buckets, the polkas danced counterclockwise in a circle, we can whistle real loud, and sabemos echar the best gritos – we ARE the puro pinche party! 

When I was in Austin (1994-2000), I worked with Accion Zapatista. In addition to organizing an international solidarity campaign - protests, a weekly radio station, a list serve for the dissemination of information coming out of Mexico, editing and publishing Zapatista communiqués, and work within our own communities – on top of all that - we threw a weekly dance party. Pushed the furniture to the walls and danced in living rooms sometimes until the break of dawn. These dance parties, that grew out of fundraiser “rent parties” that were thrown to support an alternative newspaper [sub]text, turned into weekly mitotes – food, dancing, guato, and a whole lotta for reals real life drama.     

Anel hosts a slammin Panza Party.
As part of The Panza Monologues South Texas Book Tour, in addition to public events, we also threw panza parties in people’s private homes. Artist Anel Flores bought together a crew of jotas, including her partner Erika Cassasola, PJ Aguilar, Candace Lopez, and Marissa Rivas to organize a panza party in San Antonio as a kick off to our South Texas Tour. Irma Mayorga often calls The Panza Monologues a love letter to San Antonio so it was extra special to read in the city that inspired and nurtured the work, in front of many of the people that supported The Panza Monologues from the beginning, including visual artist David Zamora Casas, who kept me fed while writing the original script and Maria Salazar who contributed many pieces to the performance text. Anel spoke to the importance of artists supporting other artists, reminding me that the real work of community happens outside of institutions. 

With the Poet Laureate of San Antonio, 
Laurie Ann Guerrero.
At least 25 of us  gathered in Anel and Erika's living room in Olmos Park - high school students (the youngest being 14), college students, young artists, and established artists like singer/ songwriter Lourdes Perez, Veronica Castillo (2013 NEA National Heritage Fellow) and the Poet Laureate of San Antonio Laurie Ann Guerrero. Erika and Candace, along with Anel and Erika’s daughters Klarissa and Jessica, cooked a slammin brunch buffet. Intergenerational collaboration at its finest – I still dream about those pumpkin pancakes. And PJ and Marissa held down the Bloody Mary and Mimosa bar all afternoon. Through panza parties – organized by friends and whole families – our teatro continues to inch its way into living rooms, casitas and communities, transcending its dependency on money, time and space. Irma often jokes that I will try to feed an entire community in one wok but these moments that we gather around food, drink, and storytelling spark collectively, conviviality, and conversation. Details on how to organize your own party can be found in The Panza Monologues book.  

Victor, Jaime, and Mike take pride 
in their panzas.
In the Rio Grande Valley, Victor Santos, Jaime Navarro and Mike Rodriguez threw the very first panza party hosted entirely by men, reminding us that everyone has a panza. Victor received his MFA in acting at CalArts a few years before I went there for graduate school. Now a drama teacher at Donna High School, he contacted me on facebook hoping to begin a conversation about theatre, community and teaching. Before traveling to the valley, I had actually not met any of the panza party organizers and, to be honest, I was a little scared we’d be drinking Lone Star and eating chips out of a bag with a can of bean dip but their panza party was so heartfelt and beautiful. Like true Tejanos, they also made a serious spread of food and they served beer not out of buckets but huge steel tinas. Jim’s mom showed up to the party and after the reading, shared her own panza monologue about the 30+ hours she was in labor with him. Can you imagine? I think I’d die! 

Jim Navarro with his fierce 
Our goal for the South Texas book tour was two-fold: to get the book in the hands of Raza, people we thought would recognize and connect to the stories being told and to also create points of access to theatre in nontraditional spaces. The majority of our audience (totaling close to 200) were Mexican American women, there was an extreme diversity in age (from teenagers to viejitas) and at least two of our events were organized by jot@s.  At the end of it all - we completely sold out of books.


Access to books is no small thing in South Texas. When I taught middle school, a group of us (including my close friend Marissa Ramirez, educators and students from the Southside of San Antonio) founded an organization called Books in the Barrio,  a collectively run community action group that rallied to get a bookstore in San Antonio’s largely working class Mexicano community in the Southside of town because there were no bookstores to speak of south of HWY 90. In addition to old skool issue-based campaign strategies, we held a rally inside the mall – a place we knew people would already be congregating on a Sunday afternoon – and instead of traditional protest speeches, we threw a huge literary event that included poets, musicians, teatristas and workshops on how to make your own books and write your own story. The event not only served to educate people about the campaign to get a bookstore in the community, it also disrupted a place of capitalism and commerce and created a space where art, culture and politics intersected, where we collectively participated in an act of claiming power through creativity.

One day we will buy our cake from 
Candace's bakery.
As an adult, I have now lived outside of Texas for more years than I have lived in Texas. In my 30s, I have lived in Brooklyn longer than any other city and yet something keeps bringing me back to this place that is no longer my home, if it ever was - and it's not the Lone Star. As a fauxana exile, I have continued making theatre in San Antonio, including acts of public intervention and large scale multi-media performance events that occupy and transform public space.  I have committed to making theatre in Texas because in Texas theatre matters, if not to institutions, to the young people that gather inside living rooms to hear stories, to the viejitas that came out to public events with their comadres and bought books for their sisters and grand children, to the high school teacher struggling to find material that relates to his students in Donna, Texas, to the high school students that fought for a bookstore on the Southside of San Antonio.  I have never been interested in a liberal discourse of inclusion at any institution, including mainstream and regional American theatre. Instead it is my desire to stay true to the oppositional politics that made me an artist, to stay rooted in community, and to create work outside the black box.

October 7, 2014

Panza Chusmology: Part one of a two part series on The Panza Monologues South Texas Book Tour

Note: This is the first post of a two part series on "The Panza Monologues Some Like it Hot South Texas Book Tour" this past summer. Panza Monologues co-creator, Virginia Grise co-ordinated and read from The Panza Monologues, Second Edition in five South Texas cities in five days at diverse venues such as an independent bookstore, a university, an art museum, and also in people's homes. You can find part two of this series, "Thinking Outside the Black Box," HERE.  

Reflections from Josh Inocéncio, Panza Monologues South Texas Book Tour Producer.   

A hotel room with a window that opens to the sea. Gulls squawk their songs, the wind blows and encourages the sand to roll through the sacate. Then: 
Virginia: Have you see the "Anaconda" music video? 
Josh: Ahhhh, not yet!
Virginia: And you call yourself a cultural worker...

My Anaconda don't...
My Anaconda don't...
My Anaconda don't want none unless you got buns, hun 

These lyrics bust out in a tranquil South Padre Island hotel room as Virginia and I eagerly watch Nicki Minaj’s "Anaconda" - a partial remix of the 90’s "Baby Got Back" - in between events on our south Texas tour of The Panza Monologues. Then we witnessed the Internet's heart attack as scholars and commentators struggled to decide if Nicki is feminist enough (for whom?) or, at least, what type of feminism she’s espousing in her newest music video. 

I’m a devout Nicki follower, from "Stupid Hoe" to "The Boys" feat. Cassie. What I admire most about her as a performance artist (yes, I went there) is the same thing I admire about the women whose stories are represented in The Panza Monologues: their unrelenting confidence in their bodies, whether it be Nicki’s embrace of her girls with a “big, fat ass in the club” or the Chicana celebration of the panza that centers the whole body. And Nicki even exudes this confidence as a craftswoman outside her work, as do Virginia Grise and Irma Mayorga in their professional lives.

This conversation around cultural work, as well as a praxis deeply nourished by chusma origins in San Antonio and Houston, characterized the colorful aventura/jornada/peregrinaje that Virginia and I orchestrated to share with Chicana/o communities in the Rio Grande Valley. 

From chasing down UPS drivers in dusty environs to busting flip-flops in hotels that were bien fancy, Virginia and I toured The Panza Monologues book for five days in South Texas. Our aim was to disseminate the play as a written text (a book) rather than as a full-scale performance to predominantly Chicana/o communities, in cities such as San Antonio, Brownsville, Edinburg, and McAllen. This relationship emerged when my thesis advisor Nia Witherspoon, placed me in contact with Virginia so that I could ask her questions about playwriting and living as a professional artist in New York. After a few introductory chats, Virginia and I discovered that we would both be in San Antonio during August, and she invited me to work with her as a producer for the tour. 

Then, through an impromptu, en chingas process, we contacted museums, cultural centers, universities, bookstores (all non-traditional theatre spaces), as well as anyone we knew in the Rio Grande Valley, in order to see who might be interested in hosting readings of The Panza Monologues.  

Dr. Marci McMahon invited us to do a reading at The University of Texas - Pan American. Anel Flores and Jim Navarro threw "Panza Parties" in their homes, and we organized events with the Brownsville Museum of Fine Arts and Paragraphs on Padre Bookstore. And through constant exchanges with more than two people named Jovita or Sally, we discovered one thing in ALL these spaces: Chicanas/os in the Valley are hungry for these cultural performances, and they want to fill their panzas with theatre. Indeed, we nearly sold out of all our books on the first day when a legion of viejitas showed up to Virginia’s reading at the museum. With only four books left, Virginia and I emergency ordered 25 more to sustain the rest of the events, but laaaawd, the chusma chasedown of the UPS truck that involved a security guard and a frigid postal worker who couldn’t handle Virginia’s San Anto heat is another story - one you can read next week in the second part of this blog series. 

Virginia and I may not be setting out to open theatres in the Valley or anywhere else in Texas, but we share a common vision of making Chicana/o theatre performances and texts more accessible in our home-state, especially in communities that do not have regular access to theatres that reflect Chicana/o cultural issues. 

Boy toy named Troy used to live in Detroit
Big dope dealer money, he was getting some coins
Was in shootouts with the law, but he live in a palace
Bought me Alexander McQueen, he was keeping me stylish     

Scramblin’ to find my own boy toy named Troy who can get me some coins, I’m investigating all the possible ways to live as an artist. Chistes aside, I’m a Master’s student at Florida State University finishing up my thesis before I make the big move to New York or Chicago to start networking and working professionally in the theatre. I accepted Virginia’s offer to work with her right away because I believe in her project aims. My primary responsibility for the tour was to produce the events and handle all the contacts we made. However, as the tour progressed my relationship to the panza activities transformed more into Virginia’s artistic apprentice as I observed her bold yet siempre norteada methodology (and, as Irma will tell you, that girl’s process, like my own, is always a “zig-zag”). Amid the events in each city, Virginia and I discussed making a life/living as a working artist and using personal stories as the roots for our writing.   

To be sure, Virginia and Irma’s Panza Monologues has influenced my own artistic work, especially for the solo play I just wrote and will start performing in spring 2015. For my play, Purple Eyes, which explores queer passages of masculinity and Mexican cultural inheritances among the previous generations of Inocéncio men and myself, I traveled to San Antonio to gather memories and stories from my family members who live there. I interviewed mis tías, mis tíos, y mis primos throughout the Inocéncio, Ynosencio, and Mendoza clans about their relationships to identifying as Mexicans, practicing Catholicism and/or indio beliefs, or negotiating hyper-masculine spaces such as the police force, the military, or the drug trades. I collect these stories and reawaken our indigenous P’urhépecha past in order to dream up ways of dismantling the racism, sexism, and homophobia that have pervaded my family’s experiences. 

As sources of inspiration, the urgency of “Political Panza” and the humor of “From Cha-Cha to Panza” remained in my mind as I wrote, yet Virginia’s [auto]geography in the The Panza Monologues book stuck with me the most, especially as she performed sections from this for our South Texas audiences. Rooted in the southern Mexican state of Michoacán and underneath the smoggy blankets of Houston, I’ve mapped an Inocéncio [auto]geography of my own in what I’m referring to as an “ancestral autobiography” where I position my own queer subjectivity in relationship to other instances where the Inocéncios have contested a machismo pero bien fuerte. Virginia told me that all of her work is, in some way, grounded in her personal experiences, and I can’t imagine another way of crafting stories for my own work.

And then there was the journey of the tour, which planted the necessary seedlings for me to imagine a long-distance, torrential love affair with Tejas. I originally planned to live in San Antonio longer, but as I worked with Virginia, my mind opened to other possibilities. As a queer playwright and performer invested in socially relevant theater, I position myself as a cultural worker. I carry my chicanismo everywhere I go (thank you, Virginia and Irma, for reminding me) but The Panza Monologues book tour helped me imagine new ways of working with la tierra natal while living states away. Certainly, the logistical process for South Texas was an enlightening one. My experience with Virginia demonstrated what I need to be mindful about as a traveling artist, and, more importantly, as an artist engaged in cultural reclamation. 

Yeah, he love this fat ass
Yeah! This one is for my bitches with a fat ass in the fucking club
I said, "Where my fat ass bitches in the club?" 

Lemme hear it from all my Latino jotos en el club, en el mundo, fuck y’all homophobic bitches tryna step ON OUR TRIP! 

Disculpame, gente, I get carried away sometimes.  

I won’t pretend to make an easy comparison with myself, Nicki, and the mujeres of The Panza Monologues. The story of my panza is my own. I’ve grappled with confidence issues, both in my work and in my body, as I’ve matured to where I am now. And my writings reflect these conflicts, whether it was being an awkward, scrawny joto who just wanted to “bang, bang, bang” or a güero with fair skin and blondish hair who sometimes wondered whether he was “Latino enough” (again, for whom?).      

In The Panza Monologues, in a piece called “Historia,” the performer retells the origins of the universe which is connected to the panza, and she even elaborates on the moon’s involvement in the creation. As a Cancerian crab, my spiritual, emotional, sexual energies are centered in the panza. And since I am a water spirit, my moods wax and wane with the moon like the mujeres in my family or the Galveston waters I grew up by. Reminiscent of the speaker in “International Panza,” I am Coyolxauhqui’s son long before I’m Huitzilopochtli’s. And I may be flaco, but I have a gordito appetite and a high metabolism (or I just spill my food a lot). But more importantly, mi panza y mi corazon have even larger appetites for love and sharing stories with other people, which is why I call out to my other jotos and Latinos in this club of the world. 

I referenced the South Texas tour as a peregrinaje, not just because we ended the trip at a curandero shrine, but because the cultural work we engaged in with the Rio Grande Valley has a sacred and urgent potency that I will continue as an artist. After the UT - Pan-American event, a young Chicana asked Virginia how she had gained so much confidence. "Have you always been confident?" she asked. "I ask that question because I am trying to learn how to be confident myself." And this is why we must continue this kind of practice. 

As the Chicano theatre historian Jorge Huerta instructed me at ATHE (Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference) in Phoenix, Arizona this past summer, “No more humble Mexicans, no more humble African-Americans, no more humble queers!” 

The time for our cuentos is NOW.

* * *

Read about The Panza Monologues at ATHE HERE.

Read Christina R. Garza's article about the South Texas book tour in The Brownsville Herald HERE.   

Contact panzapower@gmail.com to book a reading of The Panza Monologues in your community.

Buy your copy of The Panza Monologues, Second Edition HERE.