Transgenero Performance: Gender and Transformation in Fronteras Desviadas/Deviant Borders

While the bilingual script interchanged lines of Spanish and English in the women’s text, the Chamuco was predominantly in one language, depending on the country in which we were performing. Presenting the show to audiences in diverse places—some geographically far from the political, socio-economic and cultural situations in which the work was created—required a process of cultural translation as well as linguistic. In México, actress Maria Vale interpreted El Chamuco as a Mexican American from California, thereby implicating men of color in their participation in the exploitation of Mexican women. In the United States, however, as performed by a Latina actress, Raquel Almazan, the character became a Texan, with the particular inflections, tones and expressions of men from that state—which had a different political resonance, given that the performance was touring during the presidency of George W. Bush. Different publics may have recognized different symbols and icons, as well as the rituals and cultural elements particular to each country. Even though Dharmasiri raised these questions of legibility, she did acknowledge that the post-show discussions, even in Amherst, stimulated community dialogue on sex trafficking, locally as well as globally:

Arreola and Assaf perceive the performance as a form of activism, to create awareness among the spectators about the situation in Tijuana . . . While problematizing the dichotomy (here/there, self/other), the play likewise questions the political power structures that continue to oppress and exploit certain groups of people . . . The play made spectators question and think. It opened up a space to discuss issues related to contemporary political power and how they affect the lives of women on a global level.35

The use of abstraction and symbolism, as well as a kind of farce that pushes hyper-realism to absurdism, creates a political theater that is not narrative or didactic, and gives audiences the work of interpretation. The audience is called to make sense out of juxtaposed realities in which power is constructed, gained, and deconstructed in vastly different ways. Further, in Fronteras Desviadas, the audience is cast in multiple ways—in one reality as male, and in another reality as female—and left to reconcile the constant, unpredictable shifting between those polarized identifications. With Chamuco, the audience is cast as a group of male “johns” or clients, implicating all present as silent participants in a system of misogyny and exploitation. In the movement structure, the woman-identified characters cast the audience as women (as in the women-only workshops in which the texts were created). Meaning is realized in the audience’s perception of, not only what they have seen, but also who they are.

In North Carolina, where we performed excerpts of Deviant Borders at the Alternate ROOTS Annual Meeting for artists and activists, the piece sparked a heated debate about agency in sex work. A queer audience member from San Francisco argued for a more “sex positive” vision. Another audience member countered, “This performance is not about sex, it’s about exploitation.” In this way, we were able to facilitate a deeper dialogue about the various contexts of sex work, and the extent to which agency exists with regard to class and location, as well as to differentiate between voluntary sex work and human trafficking.

In a very different context, in Managua, Nicaragua, a review in La Prensa celebrated both the unusual aesthetic strategies and the audience impact of the play, particularly regarding the power of embodied knowledge and expression:

The International Festival of Theater [presented by Teatro Justo Rufino Garay] brought us a unique play this time. Fronteras Desviadas . . . left the public impacted. A rare mix of dreamscapes and allegories teaches us more than any research essay on prostitution in Tijuana, México . . . There are objects with phallic dimensions, reminiscent of copulation, receptacles as an allegory for the vagina, and very surprising solutions for visualizing the world of the brothels . . . The play is a denunciation of the complicity of the authorities that ignore what happens behind the curtains in the red zone of Tijuana, where prostitution reigns and tourists are received with open arms in every sex bar, where [men] haggle the price of the feminine body.36

While critics affirmed the clarity of the play’s intention, it is important to raise the question of activism, and where its true impact lies. Certainly work of this nature raises awareness of political issues. In this way, performances can support the work of local organizers in engaging concerned constituents and mobilizing for action. On an individual level, perhaps, the deepest impact is found among the women who actually participated in the creative process, including those who identify as artists, and those who participated as community members. This is the arena in which we bear witness to actual transformation, on a deeply personal level. The women of Casa de la Mujer in Maclovio Rojas, for example, attended the performance at the Autonomous University of Baja California in Tecate (January 2005). By working with organizers from their community, we were able to arrange transportation and tickets for them to attend. Many of them had likely never been to a university, and had never seen their stories spoken or represented on stage. After the performance, they gathered with us to reflect on their experience. This simple act created some small measure of access, by beginning a relationship between an academic institution and a community in crisis only a few miles from their campus. This project also began a multi-year relationship between Maclovia Rojas and Mujeres en Ritual. Perhaps more importantly, it left the participants with the experience, perhaps for the first time, that their stories were of value, were worth listening to, and had a place in the public sphere.