Queering the Movimiento


Gregg Barrios's Theater of the Repressed, Recovered, and Revolutionized

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.


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