Revolution & Reflection: Performing Americas Program in Mexico

January 25, 2018  •  10 minute read

Our International Program asks the question “What does justice mean in a global context?” This framework commits us to better understanding how our work upholds or subverts power structures, questioning assumptions about race and equity across borders, and challenging ourselves to ensure all our programs are rooted in justice. Eleven NPN/VAN delegates participated in the Performing Americas Program’s recent trip to Guadalajara and Guanajuato, Mexico, meeting with funders, cultural organizers, curators, and artists, as well as seeing work at Festival Internacional Cervantino.

This year’s festival theme was revolution, examining political and personal transformations and the outcomes and process of change. The Mexican, Argentine, French, and Russian revolutions were represented throughout the festival program, through humor, rage, shame, sorrow, triumph, and hope, offering complexity rather than absolutism. Never far from view was the image of the U.S. as colonizer, ideologue, or instigator. The festival setting itself raises critical questions of access and resources – Who gets to tell the stories? What histories are left out? And, particularly in the context of the Americas, where are the Indigenous voices?

We approach this work not in a vacuum but in the complexity of our own time, to respond with support to Latinx communities in the U.S., to resist nationalism and build community across borders, and to grow the seeds of revolution needed to transform our work for justice. Our delegates’ writings about the trip state this even more clearly, in reflections both personal and professional. Documenting this trip is just one demonstration of our intent to grow the International Program beyond the immediate groups of traveling delegates, in order to share, inform, and engage throughout the NPN/VAN network as a community of learning and activism, whether working locally, nationally, or globally.

Thank you to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and APAP’s Cultural Exchange Fund for supporting this work!

EDGAR MIRAMONTES, Associate Director, REDCAT (Los Angeles)

Guanajuato – the vibrant colonial city in the mountains where houses of every color appear to parade down the hills – was the setting of encounters with colleagues, artists, art, and conversation as part of the Festival Internacional Cervantino. It was also where the delegates engaged in re-imagining NPN’s Performing Americas Program’s important role on the international platform. The conversation surfaced several critical ideas, including the dwindling funding available for this and other international programs; the importance of equity and justice as guiding principles for this work; as well as the question of how this program can support the multiplicity that is NPN, given that few organizations within the network have participated in PAP as delegates. We unanimously agreed the program is vital, for a variety of reasons. For REDCAT, NPN has historically facilitated and allowed for international exchange to happen with artists from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America, and NPN’s role has been essential for our international work.

As an individual and a new U.S. citizen, the issue from our conversations most present for me is the importance of PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO MOVE. Given the alarming times we’re experiencing in the U.S., this value is critical to preserve and protect now more than ever. The movement of artists and colleagues facilitates many kinds of exchange. But disparities clearly exist: who has the right to move and why? In my geographic immediacy, the border between Mexico and the U.S. is further changing, while contractors build prototypes for border walls. As a presenter and an immigrant from Mexico, I question the importance of what I do, especially in this moment. What I keep coming up with is a call to resist, subvert policy, and fervently continue the work REDCAT has been championing: presenting international artists who challenge and enlighten our current state, and cross borders in their collaborations; and building stronger international relationships with other presenters, colleagues, and communities. That is my form of protest — one of many. Thank you NPN and the Performing Americas Program for facilitating this exchange.

ESTEVAN AZCONA, presenter, scholar, and educator (Houston, TX)

Mexico holds a constant point of attention in the U.S. public sphere, largely due to issues of immigration but also as a target in our now poisonous public politics. For the arts communities of the U.S., support for Mexican artists is an apt strategy to maintain and further explore the Mexico-U.S. relationship to better understand the political dynamics currently taking so much of our headspace. But, as we learned in our conversations with Mexican artists, the relationship is much more elemental. For generations, there has been a northward movement of Mexicans into the U.S. to the point that the vast majority of Mexican families have cross-border family relationships. (I also heard similar stories from people I met in Seoul, South Korea, during an NPN Asia Exchange trip in 2015.)

How do we think through the complex web of interests that further the impact of residencies and presenting programs with artists from Mexico? As arts presenters, we have the opportunity to explore with artists not only contemporary public discourse, but also the embedded histories that have formed regions, cities, and communities along the border and deep within both countries. While the geopolitical boundaries and limits of movement are being reinforced by the state, the boundaries of the lived experience of Mexicans broke down a generation ago. It’s time to see how artists and communities on both sides of the border are exploiting it.

SARAH GREENBAUM, Artistic & Community Program Manager, Dance Place (Washington, DC)

On challenging assumptions

I pull a folded schedule from my pocket as I pile into a cab in front of the Hotel Gran Plaza along with other delegates traveling with the National Performance Network’s Performing Americas Project. Quickly, my eyes drift from the day’s activities at the Festival Internacional Cervantino to the delicious hills of Guanajuato, Mexico, with innumerable, brightly colored houses nestled in jagged rows. We speed through the massive, looming tunnels under the city center and emerge in front of the Museo Casa Diego Rivera, paying five pesos each to explore the renowned artist’s preserved birthplace. A square staircase through the center of the house takes us to a third floor lecture hall with chairs facing Mexican writer Estela Leñero, who waits to speak to us about the creative process of the play Light Defeat, the Anarchist Revolution of the Magón Flowers.

I do not speak Spanish and have never traveled to a place where English is not the primary language. As a person who sees a great deal of performance – primarily dance – I was confident I could navigate on this trip to a point of understanding through performative context clues like physicality, sound, and costume. But I was worried how I would fare in this lecture without these clues to lean on. I was also acutely aware of my own travel fatigue, and dreaded nodding off disrespectfully in the cozy space.

As Leñero begins to speak, my anxiety evaporates. Her communication style emphasizes physical cues I recognize, like placing her hand on the table in front of her, lowering her eyelids, raising her shoulders up to her ears and releasing them with a deep exhale. By following these cues and picking up a word here and there – comunista, anarquista, familia nuclear – and by tracking the pace and emphasis of her speaking patterns, I get a sense of the lecture’s themes: how political leanings arise based on the family one comes from, how these different ideologies influenced and were influenced by the Mexican Revolution, and how they continue to affect Mexican politics today.

The lecture transitions to a Q&A and I recognize a universal moment of communication (or lack thereof) when a woman in the audience speaks with the stubborn passion of someone whose opinion will not be swayed. I cannot understand her exact meaning but her body language and tone are familiar, as I have attended other Q&A sessions where a participant takes the opportunity to belittle the presenter and state their own feelings as immovable facts. When the woman pauses, Leñero takes a breath to respond; the woman cuts her off before she can begin. At another pause Leñero interjects, and the woman speaks over her until Leñero concedes and allows the berating to continue. It is uncomfortable, but the Q&A pushes forward after the woman has her say.

The event concludes, we applaud, and I make my way out to the lecture space’s narrow balcony overlooking a breathtaking spread of Guanajuato’s streets, hills, and houses. I reflect on how thoroughly Leñero’s lecture captivated me, contrary to my expectations. I thought I might be hopelessly lost, but I enjoyed the challenge of piecing together meaning from context clues in Leñero’s engaging presentation.

I ask a fellow PAP traveler what the woman who responded with such aggressive passion during the Q&A was speaking about. It turns out she lost someone close to her due to political conflict and didn’t agree with Leñero’s presentation as it related directly to her situation. Grateful to have greater context for the woman’s commentary, my frustration towards her aggressive tone melts as I learn about the difficult history she has lived.

My shift in perspective on the woman’s reaction, as well as my positive overall experience at the lecture, reminds me to think deeply about the importance of regularly challenging my own assumptions as an arts manager and curator. In a social and political climate that is constantly evolving and progressing I must be comfortable with (and adept at) having my assumptions ripped from under my feet and responding quickly and proficiently.

This situation also pushes me to ask whether my own institution, and other presenting organizations in the U.S., do enough to challenge the assumptions of our patrons and to support artists who do this important work. Do we intentionally make space for work that has the capacity to help people see things in a new way, and do we foster engaged conversation around subjects that need to be interrogated? I admire the Festival Internacional Cervantino for including programming like Leñero’s lecture, which educates and sparks important conversation on sensitive, politically relevant subjects.

Over the course of the trip, my assumptions and expectations continue to be challenged and expanded. Throughout, I am grateful to be surrounded by fellow curators and presenters who help me understand and process the works we see, as well as the cultural differences we encounter. Going forward, I know I can reach out to them to continue conversations we began on this trip and to partner in new ways on future projects that push our audiences and ourselves to challenge assumptions and spark meaningful dialogue around societally relevant subjects.

ANDREW FREIRE, Exhibition & Operations Manager, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions / LACE (Los Angeles)

Notes on Mateluna and safe houses

I participated in this trip as both an artist and an organizer within art organizations (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and Los Angeles Contemporary Archive), looking for opportunities to learn from practices that are challenging, difficult, and often marginalized. I want to examine how artists are making work and understand the structures, strategies, and models of support imagined by ambitious and talented individuals at home and abroad. In the context of the partnerships we are building during this political climate, how can we learn from other platforms, such as those rooted in social justice or moral leadership? How do we keep each other healthy — as creative individuals and collective efforts — during difficult times?

While watching Guillermo Calderón’s Mateluna, I felt Teatro Santiago A Mil’s collective urgency, frailty, and scattered humor in comprehending the political circumstances surrounding the accusations and sentencing of their comrade to prison. How does one take care of this history and make sense of this type of trauma? The group powerfully conveyed their energy through an overall rapid delivery of sometimes indecipherable language (to my pocho-Spanish abilities at least!) and conflation of past, present, and imagined scenarios. I found myself continually catching up with their memories and reconstructions of spaces, often arriving, haphazardly, at these proposed, nondescript, safe houses. In this treatment I became more aware of the bare minimum setting of the theater as a secret place where we were all challenged to make sense of this traumatic series of events. I remember audience members laughing when the narrator would casually prefigure scenes by mentioning their location at safe houses. I can’t pinpoint what this collective laughter indicated; perhaps it made it easier for the audience to absorb surreal, dark, sometimes absurd events (when the group fights over whose turn it is to excrete into the home-made bomb, for instance). This process of fragmentation and messiness felt all the more necessary to challenge the established narrative.

It was also important to follow how transparently the characters operated in producing the scenes. As viewers we witness characters create music, propose ideas for new plays, project testimonial videos, and reflect on their own images. At one point characters stand in front of projected images of themselves and summarize what had been said in previous video recordings advocating justice for Mateluna. Some characters dictated their recorded messages verbatim with similar affect, while others were brief and seemingly exhausted in front of their own projections. Despite each individual’s intimate accountability to their own past actions in these moments, what I most strongly identified was a group dynamic. Their presentations became something not merely rehearsed, but a repetitive effort to communicate urgent ideas and expose precarious truths. In this way we glimpse what is truly at stake here – not merely a performance, but the very real political and social repercussions for those involved and the viewers newly implicated.

DEBRA GALLEGOS, Executive Associate, Su Teatro Cultural & Performing Arts Center (Denver, CO)

NPN/VAN’s International Program is based on core values of partnership, equity, and leadership development, and rooted in the belief that engagement with others outside our boundaries – whether political, geographic, national, aesthetic, or otherwise – is critical to building our empathy for others, our understanding of ourselves, and a more just world. The purpose of our trip is to re-establish relationships and forge new ones with artists and arts organizations in Mexico, and we’re especially excited about talking with artists and share our visions of social justice.

In Guadalajara we met with Diego Escobar, Secretary of Culture for the State of Jalisco. Although Mexico’s central government has cut arts funding recently and changed the process for artist support, Mexico (and the State of Jalisco in particular) is far ahead of the U.S. and Colorado in their financial support of artists and the arts. Public arts funding continues to be important because the community values and demands it, and the Ministry of Culture provides grants directly to artists in various disciplines, including dance, theatre, visual arts, music, and writing. As a result, there is a thriving contemporary and traditional art scene in Guadalajara. One of Guadalajara’s most noted theatre companies is Teatro Luna [link to: http://www.]. The company was established in 2001 and remains stubbornly independent. Their creative puppetry and unique and experimental performances have made them an established part of the Guadalajara theatre community.

Later in the day we visited the Instituto Cultural Cabanas and the Palacio del Gobierno where, in awe, we viewed the work of Jose Clemente Orozco. The murals that adorn these two building are truly magnificent, and provides the world with his unique view of Mexico’s history, wars, foreign intervention, and more.

As has been my experience in my past visits to Guadalajara, I continue to be moved by the brilliance and joy I feel when I visit. The City and the State of Jalisco have such historical significance and relevance to today’s world. From Orozco’s murals to other work from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, I see that Mexico was a leading voice for social justice. Their artists and intellectuals moved discussions forward and started the conversations necessary to make changes in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Our explorations of Guadalajara, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, and everything in between were the perfect time to discuss among artists and colleagues the importance of justice from a global perspective, as well as between the U.S. and Mexico specifically. We hope that our work will spur further discussions and a re-emergence of a revolutionary spirit among artists.

Deborah’s complete travel diary from the trip can be found here:

Thank you to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and APAP’s Cultural Exchange Fund for their generous support of the Performing Americas Program.

The travel team for Performing Americas Program in Mexico (October 2017) included PAP delegates as well as individual travel fellows:

  • Estevan Azcona, presenter (Houston, TX) – PAP delegate
  • Ever Chavez, Fundarte (Miami, FL)
  • Yolanda Cesta Cursach, Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, IL)
  • Elizabeth Doud, NPN/VAN (Miami, FL, and Bahia, Brazil) – PAP coordinator
  • Andrew Freire, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (Los Angeles, CA)
  • Debra Gallegos, Su Teatro (Denver, CO) – PAP delegate
  • Edgar Miramontes, REDCAT (Los Angeles, CA) – PAP delegate
  • Sarah Greenbaum, Dance Place (Washington, DC)
  • Janera Solomon, Kelly Strayhorn Theater (Pittsburgh, PA)
  • Caitlin Strokosch, NPN/VAN (New Orleans, LA)
  • Samuel Valdez, theater artist (San Diego, CA, and Tijuana, Mexico)