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Profile: Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Performance Artist San Francisco 2010 -

By Lauren Smiley

Performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña left his native Mexico City in the 1970s to start his "geographically eccentric" trek through the art scenes in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Yet when it came to deciding where to establish the headquarters for La Pocha Nostra, his Chicano performance troupe, 15 years ago, he chose San Francisco.

Why here? "San Francisco is like a city laboratory in many ways, no?" he says, puffing on a Marlboro Light in his home studio on Cesar Chavez, which could moonlight as a museum of Mexican and Chicano kitsch. "The city gives you that permission to experiment, and there is always a willing and generous audience that nurtures your madness."

Squatting in a filmmaker's studio after his move to the city in 1995, he was quickly reminded that questioning the status quo is the norm here. "A friend called me and said, 'Gómez-Peña, do you want to understand San Francisco? Come and join me tomorrow morning; there's going to be a demonstration against police brutality that's going to be protected by the police.'" He laughs. "That's when I said, 'Oh, this is different.'"

La Pocha Nostra is a group of far-out rebel artists focusing on Chicano identity and immigration and border politics. Past pieces have included Gómez-Peña dressed as a Native American chief stabbing a Thanksgiving turkey or as a Mexican macho with a fetish for wearing dresses and heels, and extraterrestrials interrogating viewers about whether they've ever hired illegal immigrants.

Gómez-Peña has a conflicted view of the Mission District. He's disturbed that many younger Latino artists have been priced out and have moved to Oakland, and that the neighborhood is becoming a "city of youth," sometimes to the exclusion of older artists. But he says his fears during the dot-com boom of it becoming "a bohemian theme park than a real place for artists to live and work" has subsided. Instead, he has found the Mission to be ground zero for the themes of cultural identity La Pocha Nostra explores in its work: "I love the daily coexistence between these designer youth coming from all over the world, attracted by the mythology of the Mission to reinvent themselves, and also the tensions that this community generates with the old immigration communities in the bars or in the streets."

He also loves the food, proclaiming his loyalty to La Taqueria at Mission and 25th streets: "Those gigantic quesadillas with carne asada, oh my God!" he says, touching his heart and looking to the heavens. "Good!" And at night, he'll often plan upcoming projects with other artists at "my traveling office" in bars like Rite Spot Cafe, Lone Palm, the 3300 Club, and the Attic.

Though Gómez-Peña says that San Francisco is a great workshop for young artists, he tells them to remember to test their ideas in other parts of the country that may not be so open-minded. "The city is such a pleasant place to be, such a human scale, such a great city life, so tolerant, that you can easily forget that the rest of the country exists."

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I remember stumbling upon Mr. Gómez-Peña's live art installation while I was visiting Sydney, Australia. It was wonderfully shocking back in the 1990's. I was lucky to experience his similar installation in San Francisco. And it's good to know that he and his collection of artists are still out there testing our sexual and cultural limits and helping to maintain and create our modern-day sexual culture. Bravo!

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