Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 1998
So, there’s this married couple, in a very dysfunctional relationship. And they’re in bed together. The male is very domineering, and the female is submissive…..
A scene from an X-movie? No, from “Culture Clash in Bordertown”. And it’s far more political than sexual. The macho male, you see, is San Diego (“the dominance of dollars”) and the female is Tijuana.
Herbert Siguenza, one of the trio that comprises the Chicano comedy group, Culture Clash (along with partners Richard Montoya and Ric Salinas) is discussing the new work, commissioned by and premiering at the San Diego Repertory Theatre (May 29-June 28). “Bordertown” celebrates and satirizes our region, considered by some to be the most active and heavily populated border zone in the Western Hemisphere.
Like the hilarious “Radio Mambo: Culture Clash Invades Miami” (San Diego Rep, 1996), “Bordertown” was created from interviews with more than 100 local residents (on both sides of the border), and then combined, edited and reconfigured, to paint a comedic, multicultural, multi-layered portrait of our populace and personality.
With their interview-based inspiration, Siguenza describes Culture Clash as “Latino Studs Terkels.” A recent cover story in American Theatre magazine said they “fuse an urban MTV sensibility onto [their] campy, iconoclastic outlook, influenced by ‘The Brady Bunch’ and Jerry Lewis as much as the San Francisco Mime Troupe and Teatro Campesino.”
Last month, Culture Clash celebrated its 14th anniversary, fourteen years of stirring up the political pot, making “comedy with a conscience,” on television, in the movies and onstage.
Together, they’ve written and performed seven full-length stage productions, several of which are about to be published by TCG Books (“Culture Clash: Life, Death and Revolutionary Comedy”). Now, they’ve got a cottage industry going with this city-thing. They took Miami by storm in ‘96, and they plan to attack Manhattan in ‘99. But right now, all their attention is on San Diego.
“Like everyone else,” Siguenza says matter-of-factly, “I just thought it was a laid-back, tourist vacation heaven, a conservative Navy town. That was my impression…. And after 100 interviews, it’s still the same.”
Though he’s manic onstage (you may remember him from the outrageous San Diego Rep production of “The True History of Coca Cola in Mexico”), Siguenza is low-key, deadpan and pretty laid-back himself by phone. “We didn’t really know the demographic here,” he admits, having been raised in the Bay Area. “I thought it was just WASPs and Mexicans. But then we found City Heights, this whole Ellis Island of the ‘90s, with 23 different languages spoken in the school district. That community really excited us, and really opened our eyes.”
The 30 characters that made it into the new show are composites of the well-known (talk-show host/former mayor, Roger Hedgecock; Charger Junior Seau; former police chief Bill Kolender; border musician Chunky Sanchez; José Montoya, the poet/father of San Diego-born Culture Clasher, Richard Montoya; and Shamu, who complains about “illegal killer-whales”) and the unknown (rich La Jollans; Ocean Beach surfers; border patrol officers; drag-racing Hmong teenagers; gays from Hillcrest; legal and illegal Mexican residents; Ugandan, Ethiopian and Filipino immigrants; and members of the Unarius Society, who believe that, in 2001, UFOs will come down to earth and take them away).
“The trick is to represent them without ridiculing them,” Siguenza admits. “You have to give them some dignity. We’re not writing jokes. But if we take stuff out of context, or juxtapose two different philosophies, it comes out hilarious. I think we did the characters justice.”
According to director Sam Woodhouse, “Bordertown” is “uproariously funny, startlingly insightful and deeply personal.”
“The thread that weaves through it all,” says Siguenza, “is the notion of borders — psychological, physical and personal. Those were the metaphors we were looking for. Personal borders like sexual preference, the border between ourselves and the general society, or even generational borders, between father and son. Almost everyone talked about putting up borders of some kind….
“We had this whole stereotype of a Tijuana as a sleazy border town. But the city’s rich, with world-class intellectuals and a tremendous respect for the history of the region. We recognized San Diego’s superiority complex toward them and their inferiority complex toward San Diego. But then there’s San Diego’s inferiority complex toward L.A.: how small it seems, how small it thinks, by comparison.
“We found the Latino population here pretty upset. They told us Barrio Logan used to be a real nice neighborhood that had this freeway rammed through it. A lot of people were displaced, and they’re still fuming. The Chicanos are kinda pissed off, rightfully so. Chicanos who grew up here get stopped on the street and discriminated against just because of how they look. They feel they’re constantly under scrutiny. I can see why a lot of them leave and go to L.A., where they can breathe. We don’t feel the border looming; those new laws are not in our consciousness in San Francisco, or in our home-base, L.A. The border issues are so volatile here. That’s why we wanted to do this show.
“We’d all like to think we’re border-free. But we all like to border up and be comfortable in our little cubby-holes, surrounding ourselves with familiar people. Those Unarians were kinda wacko, but they made sense; they believe in a borderless cosmos… Sure, I think there’s some life out there — but I’m not sure we’re worthy of a visit.”
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.