The second of a two-part interview with the influential teatrista
By Brent E. Beltrán
I recently sat down with playwright and actor Herbert Siguenza for an interview about his work. This is Part II of the two-part interview.
In Part II we discuss the 30th anniversary of Culture Clash, him being a political writer, non-Chicano perceptions of his and Culture Clash’s work, his legacy as a teatrista and what he would say to aspiring Latina/o playwrights.
Brent E. Beltrán: Next year will be 30 years of Culture Clash.
Herbert Siguenza: This year. We’re in the 30th year now.
BEB: You’re celebrating thirty years of Culture Clash. I assume there’s something coming up with you guys?
HS: We’re going to revive one of our classics: Chavez Ravine. It’s about the Dodgers coming to LA. We’re going to do that in February of next year at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Los Angeles. I’m happy we’re doing that one. I think that’s one of our best plays that we wrote collectively. It’s about a neighborhood close to downtown that was basically demolished for Dodger Stadium.
BEB: So, you’ve been with Culture Clash for thirty long years. Before you had grey in your beard there you were in Culture Clash.
HS: It’s unbelievable. I can’t believe it myself.
BEB: How is it collaborating for that long with two other people?
HS: We’re different people now. We were kids then out of college and whatnot. It doesn’t get easier. We’ve all been successful doing our own solo work. I think that’s going to continue. But I think we do need to celebrate our thirtieth anniversary and kind of reclaim our legacy. I can’t tell you how much longer we’re going to last or how many more new plays there’re gonna be. All I know is that we gotta celebrate this accomplishment.
BEB: All three of you have gone on to do great work. Ric Salinas has been in Placas, the play by Paul Flores. Richard Montoya has his movie Water & Power. You’ve got El Henry and the Abbie Hoffman piece coming up. Each of you have done great successful things. Do you miss performing and creating in a troupe like that?
HS: I gotta tell you. There’s nothing like a Culture Clash performance. I’ve worked with all kinds of different people over the years now. When we perform together there’s nothing like it. There’s a chemistry. There’s an excitement. There’s a love from the audience that I can’t get in any other performance. Yeah. I miss that.
BEB: I first saw Culture Clash’s A Bowl of Beings around ninety-twoish, somewhere around there. I was a Mechista at Mesa College. I saw it on VHS. Somebody had bootlegged it and copied it off PBS. We had a viewing. I was new to everything. You know born again Chicanos. You want to do everything. Like a born again Christian, right? You want to proselytize. When I saw this it really struck a chord with me.
HS: I think that’s a typical reaction. A lot of young people got their first taste of Chicanismo through A Bowl of Beings. That’s what A Bowl of Beings was about. Just questioning what Chicanismo was all about and the contradictions of it and how difficult it is.
BEB: And your guy’s willingness to almost be sacrilegious towards Chicano icons like Ché Guevara. I love that piece but a lot of people were kind of offended that you would think of Ché as almost this buffoonish character.
HS: Our philosophy is, why not? I think we were seeing a lot of what we call arm chair revolutionaries. People that talk about Ché, have their posters of Ché but they’re not really doing anything. They just have the poster. That’s what that sketch was about.
BEB: Your work has always been political as a writer and as a performer. Do you feel sometimes too constrained by that?
HS: No. That subject is never ending to me. I just can’t even think another way. It would be very hard for me to write a play about nothing or about a relationship or something very personal. Maybe later I’ll do that. Right now I don’t feel like that’s what I gotta do. That’s just the way it is. I can’t even separate art and politics.
BEB: Where did that come from? Was your family political at all? Were your family artists?
HS: No. I think it was growing up in the Chicano Movement – I was a teenager when the real stuff was happening – I got a firsthand view of it, and a baton was given to us by Luis Valdez and Teatro Campesino, the politics of San Francisco, there was a political theater group called the San Francisco Mime Troupe. All were very influential in me growing up. And also having lived in El Salvador as a kid I saw great disparity between the rich and the poor. More than here. That really influenced me as a human being. To me politics is about humanism really. To me there’s a right and wrong. I don’t even see it as political what we’re doing. I think I’m saying the truth. I think I’m just reporting the truth and people call that politics. To me it’s just showing the disparity, showing the injustices, the contradictions and the insanity, really, the insanity of the world. And people appreciate that we’re that honest and are willing to go there.
BEB: You’ve performed solo all over the US, you’ve performed with Culture Clash all over the US, what is the general perception to non-Chicanos to the work that you guys have put out.
HS: I think we’ve been successful because we’ve been real specific. When you’re specific, meaning we really come from a Chicano point of view, a Latino point of view. When you’re that specific you then become universal because we’re all human beings. So by being specific we’ve able to transcend and be universal. A lot of writers say, “Well we gotta reach the Anglo audience so I’m going to tweak my material a little to appease them or to reach them.” So what happens is then they get a watered down version of reality or of us. We don’t write for the Anglo audience, we write for ourselves and we try to be as honest to ourselves as artists. We don’t even write for a Latino audience really. We just write for us. To be honest and truthful we’ve been able to transcend race and everybody then appreciates our art. I think that’s what art should be. It should transcend your race. It can be specific. We’re Chicano artists but for Chicano arts to really transcend and be successful is to reach peoples core. Otherwise you’re just preaching to the converted.
BEB: I’ve never seen any kind of negative reviews here in San Diego towards your work or Culture Clash’s work. Has there been negative criticism from critics related to your work? And, if so, how do you deal with that kind of stuff?
HS: Not really. We’ve been pretty fortunate. People just really appreciate the work. Even if it’s critical they don’t criticize the art, the craft. When I go to colleges I tell [Latino] students over and over again, “You’re gonna have to work harder than anybody. You’re going to have to be better than everybody.” I just think the quality of our craft is good. It’s as good as anybody’s out there. Just because your Chicano or artists of color it shouldn’t put you in another category. You want to be right there with all the other artists. Your quality has to transcend. It has to be universal. It has to be excellent. And we’ve been very fortunate. People have liked our art. Critically acclaimed. I’m not used to bad reviews. [Laughter] I’d be devastated if we got a bad one.
BEB: In the early days you guys probably did a lot of M.E.Ch.A. conferences and events like that.
HS: Yes. Tons.
BEB: Now you’re doing theaters. How does it compare with the past when you had this audience that was different than say the audience you have now. The audience before, now they’re my age in their forties…
HS: But they’re coming. That’s the thing, the Mechistas we performed to in the eighties are now the professionals that are coming back to our shows with their kids. So that’s cool. Then people ask us, “Why don’t you go back and do M.E.Ch.A. again. Go back to the colleges.” We did that. When we were young we had the energy. We feel another group should do that. There should be another group that does that but I don’t really see another group doing that.
BEB: For over thirty years, pushing forty years, you’ve been involved in theater. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about your legacy. Have you ever looked back and thought of what you’ve done over the years? And kind of smiled and go, “Wow. I’ve done a few things.”
HS: I don’t really realize it until I get together with other teatristas. For example this theater communications group they have a conference right now. I’m in a room of forty or fifty teatristas and I realize I’m one of the veteranos. You know what I’m saying? Even though I don’t feel like a veterano because I’m constantly doing work. Not resting on my laurels. I am seen as a veterano. But I don’t realize that until I get together with younger people. And people come up to me and say, “I saw A Bowl of Beings when I was a kid,” or “I saw you when I was a kid.” That kind of blows my mind. We’ve just been busy working. Creating a legacy is not something you think about while you’re doing it. People have to remind me that, yeah, we created a legacy. I feel like it’s not over. There are many more plays to write and do. It’s nice to get that recognition.
BEB: To any aspiring Chicano Latino youth that may want to get into acting, theater, writing, what would you say to them?
HS: That they have to be open minded. Study everybody. Don’t just study and support Latino artists. You also have to know your other writers like Shakespeare, the Greeks. You’ve got to be a well rounded, well read person in order to create theater that transcends and reaches everybody.
San Diego is lucky to have a “well rounded, well read” Herbert Siguenza around to help “create theater that transcends and reaches everybody.” His willingness to share his knowledge with a younger generation of Latino actors and playwrights is something special while his commitment to writing and participating in relevant political theater is unparalleled locally. We could use a few more Herbert Siguenza’s wreaking havoc in the local theater/arts scene.
El Henry runs now through June 29 at SILO in Makers Quarter at 753 15th St. (buy tickets here).