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.

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