Interview with Marlène Ramírez-Cancio
Sleeping Weazel cyber art gallery
October – November 2012
Adara Meyers: Tercer Impacto: Hispanacea was produced in 2009—a year into Barack Obama’s presidency. As we find ourselves in the midst of the election season and witnessing Arizona’s attacks on Latin@ populations and undocumented immigrant populations, what are your current thoughts about the piece?
Marlène Ramírez-Cancio: Tercer Impacto: Hispanacea was released on January 19, 2009, a day before Obama’s inauguration, but the script was written and developed in 2007, at the end of the much “misunderestimated” Bush era. The U.S. was obsessed with border security; the Minutemen were making headlines; a gargantuan 700-mile fence was to be built between the U.S. and Mexico; the logics against “illegals” and “terrorists” were being fused; there was a backlash against the pro-immigration rallies of the previous year; and “anchor babies” were populating the jittery national imaginary. This was, of course, part of the brew that would soon become the Tea Party of Obama’s time (Arizona I.C.E. Tea?), with its “Non-Negotiable Core Beliefs” such as “Illegal aliens are here illegally,” and other such intellectual gems. The changing demographics in the U.S. continue to induce fright in the white mainstream—in the words of our paranoid Assemblyman Perry Noidman in Tercer Impacto, “It’s an invasion, from within! It unravels the very fabric of our flag!”
Looking at the piece now, I think we felt it coming. The hostilities that were gathering momentum crested after the economy crashed and our first black president was elected. The G.O.P. has been radicalized, and the anti-immigrant sentiment we felt in 2007 has since become enshrined in law and policy, with the likes of SB 1070 in Arizona, HB 56 in Alabama, and the Secure Communities program. The strands of hate and paranoia we satirized in Tercer Impacto have been taken by a potent political force and woven into a distorted right-wing flag they call the “Real America.”
But I also know Doña Cuca laughs in their face. Latin@s are an integral part of this country, and no amount of tantrumy kicking and screaming will change the fact that by 2050 the face of this country will be a hell of a lot browner—and I don’t mean Romney’s brownface during election season, chasing “the Latino vote” so much that he got a fake tan to appear on Univisión. (Did he take too much Hispanacea?) I hope the Tea Party and its well-financed ramifications are finally seen for what they are: a pro-corporate, pro-1% ideology being fed as nativist “freedom” to disenfranchised, white working class Americans who don’t know who to blame for their hardships.
I hope we’re witnessing the freakout swan song that signals an imminent breakthrough . . .
AM: The piece shows satirical contrasts between beauty and ugliness, containment and invasion, desire and repulsion. Many of the female characters either speak about Latina bodies or have their bodies and movements centrally located in the video shots. Can you speak to this focus?
MR-C: Tercer Impacto is a parody of Univisión’s quote-unquote news show, Primer Impacto, where sensationalistic stories (”Ritual Sangriento”!) are dished out by hot babes like the ever so busty Bárbara Bermudo. This is the kind of TV show you see playing in corner bodegas, watched by men who don’t speak Spanish but tune in just to see the tight shirts and bare legs. It’s the Latina Bombshell Hour, and one in which Latina bodies are, for the most part, of the light-skinned and oft-dyed-and-straightened-hair variety. We were dye-ing to parody this show.
So when Cristina Ibarra (one of the original four Fulanas, who’s on sabbatical now working on a documentary) came in with a New York Times piece about ”The Hispanic Paradox,” we conjured the perfect chicas to report on it: Barbi Bermúdez and Fabi Fernández from Mundovisión’s Tercer Impacto. In our video, the camera itself is a character—it gets distracted and focuses on Fabi’s cleavage (made entirely by a sock-stuffed bra, by the way), or begins a shot only on her legs—as our way of commenting on Primer Impacto’s obsessive display of the female body, with all its separate parts, to be consumed by viewers.
In sharp contrast to these exoticized bodies, the 158 year-old Doña Cuca—the embodied Hispanic Paradox, that is, a migrant with no access to education or healthcare, who somehow outlives everyone else in the U.S.— has certain longevity enzymes that are being harvested by scientists and made into popular energy pills marketed as Hispanacea. (Tagline: “Feel the force that is sweeping the nation!”, a nod to the Latin@s in the labor force who are exploited daily for the benefit of the U.S. economy.) As a natural resource, Doña Cuca’s Latina body provides consumers the ability to “work 3 jobs” or “study 80 hours straight with no bathroom break,” which is acceptable as long as the Latino-ness is invisible. But when it seeps out and starts to manifest in their own bodies—sudden outbursts in Spanish, checking “Hispanic” on census forms, changing the local demographics—they draw the line. They say it’s an illegal invasion that threatens our democracy and our American identity. Sound familiar?
What I absolutely adore about the resilient Doña Cuca is her unbeatable sense of joy, her capacity for laughter. This was reflected in the original New York Times article, where the elderly Doña Irma says, “I am happy,” and Don Salomón shares his philosophy on longevity: “I believe that when you don’t feel happy in your heart or yourself that’s what shortens the life of people. I am not rich, but I have a full life for myself and my family. That makes me feel happy.” This is why our 158 year-old Doña Cuca is still smiling and longing for love and wanting a 24th husband (here’s looking at you, Mister T!), and why in some deep ways we manage to hold out hope, speaking in humor-tongues, looking forward to better days for the Latin@ communities in the U.S.
AM: Can you describe your work on Patriots for Self-Deportation at SelfDeport.org?
MR-C: My job as Associate Director of Arts and Media at The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics provides many pleasures. A recent one has been working alongside the Yes Men’s Andy Bichlbaum, who concocted the Yes Lab @ Hemi as a way to help activists brainstorm their way to creative “laughtivist” actions that grab media attention, via pranks or outrageous fakery, to the causes they care about. (I highly recommend their activist cookbook .)
In the fall of 2011, I co-created Patriots for Self-Deportation with a group of artists, activists, students and educators, as a satirical critique of the increasing criminalization and deportation of undocumented immigrants. The Tea Party-esque “go-back-home” rhetoric was so over the top—some even clamoring to change the 14th Amendment, so that U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants would notautomatically become citizens—that we thought parody was the only sane response. What if we took these nativist, far-right “repatriation” beliefs to their logical conclusion? SelfDeport.org was created in the fall of 2011 and officially launched in January 2012, the day after Mitt Romney said the answer to immigration issues was “self-deportation.”
But while the self-deportation concept invoked by Romney (like the prescient Daniel D. Portado in the 1990s) consists of making immigrants’ lives so miserable, they’ll give up and leave, our version of self-deportation was different. In the satirical universe of SelfDeport.org, we imagined a group of mostly young, white, radically anti-immigrant Patriots—the kind you see holding up signs saying “go home anchor baby”—who have just discovered a shocking truth about their own families: their European grandma or grandpa was also an “illegal alien.” Gasp! They jumped ship from Ireland! They came from Poland and never left! They didn’t bother to get naturalized because it wasn’t as big a deal back then. They had their kids, who were born American, and who later bred some more American kids . . . but, in the minds of these young Patriots, and true to their hardline beliefs, they should’ve never been granted citizenship to this great land. Their solution? Making the ultimate patriotic sacrifice: self-deporting to their ancestor’s country of origin. Their motto? “Stopping Illegal Citizenship Starts with You.” Hello, Poland.We’re going home! Dzień dobry!
Following the fake press release for SelfDeport.org, some visitors to the site immediately got the satire, but many were (gracias a dios!) outraged at the positions taken by the Patriots for Self-Deportation—they called them all kinds of names, argued with their beliefs, expressed their social justice views and defended immigrants in the U.S. On the other end of the spectrum, however, we got calls from reporters and individuals who were not just astonished, but sometimes even emotionally concerned for the young Patriots choosing to leave “their” country. “But you’re . . .American!”, some said. “Why would you leave your country?”
Through satire and “laughtivism,” the site sparked a conversation about “The Real America” and questioned mainstream assumptions about who belongs in it. Why do descendants of European immigrants feel their own immigrant past is somehow “different” from the DREAMers?
AM: What is Fulana’s collective process for creating video art?
MR-C: The Fulanas have been friends for over a decade (Andrea and me, for 20 years), so our work stems from hanging out, having conversations, and thinking together. The creative process usually involves, in one form or another, the question we always ask our students: What’s pissing you off right now? We bring in articles, news stories, advertisements, songs, videos we’ve seen. Once we’ve identified the issues we want to tackle, and what we want to say about them, we choose the best media form to parody to get our message across through humor. (We believe in the sucker-punching power of humor to open people up to new ways of seeing.)
So, for instance, what’s pissing us off: “How can there be Latin@ Republicans? How can they support the war!?” What we want to say about it: “Wake up and remember history!” What form would be good to parody: the ubiquitous “ask your doctor” commercials for Prozac, which urge us to pop a pill and forget all our troubles. And so was born our fake ad for Amnezac: The Most Powerful Anti-Historiamine on the Market®. That’s the gist of our collective work—thinking together, laughing together at each other’s apartments. Of course it’s not all as neat and packaged as I just described (sometimes we start with the form already in mind, or with a tagline in mind, and then it goes from there), but it invariably is collective in nature. When the scripts are ready and we’re ready to shoot, we’re lucky enough to be able to bring in brilliant friends who collaborate with us during production and post-production—the broader members of Fulanation. Once the videos are done, I put them up on Fulana.org, which has been our online home since 2003.
A note about the nature of collective work and its vicissitudes, in case anyone out there is also part of a collective and beating her head against the wall right about now. Come here, Iemme whisper something in your ear—you’re not insane . . . It’s not hunky dory whoopty-doo all the time for us either. We know what it’s like to disagree on ideas, to have to hash it out, to work through blocks, to accept pauses and hiatuses. It’s all part of it. Collectives have their own special rhythm, their own unique alchemy. We’ve been working together for 12 years now (count them!), and as time goes by and our individual lives get crazier (let’s call them “more complex”), we, too, find it harder to meet, to find the time to create, especially in a city as demanding as New York. But, somehow, we keep coming back to each other, back to the work, back to the conversations. So just go with it, trust it. As Paula Vogel said a long time ago and I never forgot: Circles rise together. Choose the people you want to work with, and work with them. Twenty years later, you’ll be sitting there drinking a beer together going, “Oye chica, remember how this all started with that cafecito in the Bronx . . . ?” And you’ll smile.
And then someone will say, “They tore that spot down, you know. It’s a T-Mobile now.”
AM: What is Fulana working on now?
MR-C: We have been fascinated by the Tea Party for a while. The year after we released Tercer Impacto, Guillermo Gómez-Peña invited us to share the stage with him at El Museo del Barrio in NYC with a live version of the show. So Fabi and Barbi revisited Doña Cuca, who, as it turned out, was still in love with Mister T—she’d gone online to buy a “Mister T Party Kit,” but she misread the label, and ended up ordering a “Tea Party Kit.” Pobrecita, instead of her desired hunky mohawk wig, out of the box came tea bags and flags and other protest-ready paraphernalia, such as signs with Tea Party “core beliefs” like “Gun ownership is sacred” (apparently, Jesus had a rifle). She sends the package back, sprinkling some Hispanacea on the tea bags.
Continuing on the Tea Party theme, this year we shot some improvised footage for a series of short ads for a dating service: TeaHarmony (tagline: Fall in Love for All the Far Right Reasons®), and we’re in the process of editing them now. This was the first time we’d shot mostly improvisations, so it’s taking us a while to see if we can construct something from them—pero ahí vamos. Some of the characters’s usernames on TeaHarmony are Jingle_Barb (she wants a man who will steep her in Freedom), Original Intent (he loves the Founding Fathers and can ride a horse all night long), and Sexy_Betsy_76 (she can do a proper 76 in the boudoir, and has the hand signs to prove it). We hope we can bring them to life soon.
We’ve also thrown around the idea of doing a parody on “merenguetón” (reggatón/merengue de calle, like this), starring our papichulo superstar Yoni Mentero (“I Am Clueless”), so, we’ll see . . .