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

In the classic womanist text This Bridge Called My Back, Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga described embodied theory in this way:

A theory in the flesh means one where the physical realities of our lives—our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings—all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity. Here we attempt to bridge the contradictions in our experience . . . We do this bridging by naming ourselves and by telling our stories in our own words . . . This is how our theory develops.37

By speaking a story that has never been told before, by embodying an experience for which words are not sufficient, by seeing oneself represented on stage for the first time, or allowing oneself as a performer to break the taboos of gender representation on stage for the first time—these are the intimate locations where voice and agency begin to manifest. These are the ruptures in the status quo, where possibilities emerge through “deviance” from the norm. And once lived, they can never be forgotten.

Transgeneridad and The Question of Social Transformation

Theatre critic Sergio Rommel has described the work of Mujeres en Ritual as fitting within “the frame of hybrid and trans-genre traditions.”38 Writing specifically of Fronteras Desviadas/Deviant Borders, he has argued that “the transgression of borders in multiple ways (transgeneridad) is not only the central theme of the play, but at the same time the most effective vehicle for reassigning meaning to all the elements and signs of the performance . . . the same phrases contain an additional charge [double meaning] that in some way alludes to the theatre of protest . . . theatre-dance, anglo-latina . . . Spanish-English . . . sexual diversity (heterosexuality-homosexuality-bisexuality) . . . geographic borders. Like this, successively, other frontiers are deviated or transgressed throughout the performance.”39 Rommel’s 2008 analysis led us to understand and articulate the work of Mujeres en Ritual in a new way—as transgenero performance.

In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler asks, “Is the symbolic eligible for social intervention?”40 Yet this is precisely what artists do: performance and cultural production work to intervene in the symbolic, by working in the imaginary and subconscious realms, and creating alternative identifications. Even Butler asserts that “Fantasy structures relationality, and it comes into play in the stylization of embodiment itself.”41 As one might ask about the efficacy of symbolic interventions with regard to gender, the same could be asked of the “Leyenda Negra” and the real-life conditions of Tijuana. Is social intervention possible? “What operates at the level of cultural fantasy,” Butler writes, “is not finally dissociable from the ways in which material life is organized.”42

Fronteras Desviadas is one of these interventions, or in Butler’s words, “moments where the binary system of gender is disputed and challenged, where the coherence of the categories are put into question, and where the very social life of gender turns out to be malleable and transformable.”43 Transgenero performance opens spaces for symbolic intervention, not only in the binary of gender, but also the binary of the Tijuana vice/American virtue. Like gender, and the “Leyenda Negra” of Tijuana, the United States’ image of itself as “the greatest country in the world” is reinforced by its own “incessant and panicked” repetition, in the way that Butler describes heterosexuality: “That [it] is always in the act of elaborating itself is evidence that it is perpetually at risk, that it ‘knows’ its own possibility of becoming undone.”44 Trangeneridad, then, enters into the political field “by not only making us question what is real, and what has to be, but by showing us how contemporary notions of reality can be questioned, and new modes of reality instituted.”45

If we can imagine—moreover, embody—these new modes of reality, and envision how they might be instituted, perhaps we could transform the conditions that exist for women, and woman-identified people, at the most frequently crossed border in the world.

Dora Arreola is the founder and artistic director of Mujeres en Ritual Danza-Teatro and currently an Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University of South Florida. Arreola has more than twenty years of professional experience as a theater director, choreographer and performer. She has taught, directed and performed in México, United States, Nicaragua, Canada, Poland and India. She was a participant at Grotowski’s Workcenter in Pontedera, Italy (1987-89), and holds a MFA in Directing from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Arreola has received grants and commissions from the Ford Foundation, Cultural Contact, National Performance Network (NPN), and more.

[1] With special thanks to Andrea Assaf for assistance with translation and contributions to the English version of this essay.
[2] Maribel Álvarez, “The Border is . . .” (Guest lecture presented in New WORLD Theater’s “Knowledge for Power” series, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts, July 2006).
[3] The term “feminicide” here refers to the over 900 unprosecuted cases of female homicide in Juárez, Mexico, which has come to be understood as a gender-based genocide of women. Although there are precedents for the use of the term “femicide” in English dating back to 1801, Mexican anthropologist and feminist Marcela Lagarde coined the term feminicidio in 2004, to include “the impunity with which these crimes are typically treated in Latin America.”
[4] Maquiladoras are factories or manufacturing operations, generally unregulated and owned by multinational corporations, in so-called “Free Trade” zones in México, which were created in 1994 by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). As of 2012, it’s estimated that more than 3000 maquiladoras line the US-México border, with 937 located in the state of Baja California; estimates range from 560-800 in greater Tijuana.
[5] Virginie Magnat, in Grotowski, Women, and Contemporary Performance: Meetings with Remarkable Women, discusses my work in the lineage of Grotowski: “Arreola, who [has] chosen to research [her] own cultural heritage, provide[s] non-European role models for this younger generation of women . . . in the post Grotowski era . . . creative research influenced by his legacy will mostly likely expand in unforeseen directions well beyond its European lineage . . . the modalities of such expansion are already operational in women’s current creative research, precisely because the latter focuses on performance processes open to change and transformation . . . these artists support an alternative performance paradigm in which cultural, traditional and ritual practices significantly contribute.”(New York: Routledge, 2014), 165.
[6] Thomas Richards, At Work with Grotowski on Physical Actions (New York: Routledge, 1995).
[7] Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue-Ellen Case (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 273-275.
[8] Sergio RommelAlfonsoGuzmánis a theatre scholar and President of CAESA, the Council for the Accreditation of Higher Education in the Arts, México (at the time of printing), as well as a former Dean of the School of the Arts, Universidad Autónoma de Baja California(UABC), Mexicali. This is a translation of Rommel’s Texto maroma y representación: escritos sobre teatro (Mexicali: UABC, 2008), which I will later return to for further discussion.
[9] The creation of Fronteras Desviadas/Deviant Borders was supported by Contacto Cultural (US-México Foundation for Culture), which allowed Andrea Assaf to be an artist-in-residence with Mujeres en Ritual Danza Teatro in 2004.
[10] The June 2004 tour, organized by the Environmental Health Coalition, a leader in the environmental justice movement based in National City, California, included the communities of Colonia Chilpancingo, Colonia Murua and Nueva Esperanza, adjacent to Tijuana’s largest Maquiladora industrial complex.
[11] Humberto Félix Berumen, Tijuana la horrible: Entre la historia y el mito (Tijuana: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2003). Quote translated by Dora Arreola and Andrea Assaf.
[12] José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers Of Color And The Performance Of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999), 187.
[13] We did talk with some sex workers in the Zona Norte, and invited them to participate in interviews for the project; however, even when they expressed initial interest or enthusiasm, they did not show up for the interviews. Our assessment is that the conditions of their work are so dangerous, that they either were not allowed or dared not risk participating. Pimps and owners are the sector of this economy that no one talks about, and research is virtually non-existent.
[14] Assaf was fascinated by the Mexican expression “el otro lado” as slang for the United States; she was interested in exploring the multiple meanings of “the other side” and “crossing” in both cultures, with reference to the border, gender, and death.
[15] “Border issues incl. Maclovio Rojas press accounts,” 2002, (accessed 5 April 2014).
[16] Story Circles here refers to the community-based methodology developed by the Free Southern Theatre and Junebug Productions.
[17] Tijuana-based poet Laura Jáuregui assisted Assaf with the translations.
[18] Andrea Assaf, “Soy mujer cuando” (#1), Fronteras Desviadas/Deviant Borders (unpublished script, 2005).
[19] I am currently developing a performance based on the Dance of the Deer, which is traditionally performed by men only. I first performed this work as a solo, “Yo, Rumores Silencio” based on Telares (o el olvido) by Fabiola Ruiz, at the Grotowski Institute in 2009, and am developing it into full-length ensemble work.
[20] Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la solidad (México D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1989).
[21] Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 5th edition 2006), 147.
[22] As described in a review by Inés Izquierdo Miller, “Una funcion impactante,” La Prensa: El Diario de los Nicaraguenses (Managua, Nicaragua: Septemer 28, 2006).
[23] This phrase, literally, means “count how much/many, and become aware!” In its original marketing context, this slogan suggests that if you count how much money you save at Calimax, you’ll always want to shop there. However, in the context of the performance, our intention was to signify the consumption of women’s body parts, while suggesting that if one were to count how many women were being exploited and murdered, in Tijuana and Juarez for example, there would be no choice but to be conscious of the urgency of the political situation.
[24] Translation: “And now, let us receive with strong applause, the belle [celebrating her 15th birthday]! She, today, has arrived to the age of promises and illusions. She has left behind being a child, to be a woman. She celebrates her 15th spring. We present her to society . . . And to the Maquiladoras!” (Assaf, unpublished script, 2005).
[25] Ibid.
[26] Translation: “We await her with open arms!” (Ibid.)
[27] For a video clip of Fronteras Desviadas/Deviant Borders, visit
[28] Andrea Assaf, “Que hay en el otro lado?” (#1), Fronteras Desviadas/Deviant Borders (unpublished script, 2005).
[29] Rosa Linda Fregoso, meXicana encounters: The making of Social Identities on the Borderlands (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003).
[30] Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders, 24 and 108.
[31] Judith Butler, “The Question of Social Transformation,” Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 229.
[32] Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders, 82.
[33] Butler, “The Question of Social Transformation,” 229-30.
[34] Kanchuka Dharmisiri, “What is on the Other Side?,”The Organization of
Graduate Students in Comparative Literature (OGSCL) Newsletter,
Fall 2005, 6.
[35] Ibid.
[36]Inés Izquierdo Miller, “Una función impactante,” La Prensa: El Diario de los Nicaragüenses (Managua, Nicaragua: La Prensa, September 28, 2006). Translation by Dora Arreola.
[37] Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, “Entering the Lives of Others: Theory in the Flesh,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 2nd edition(New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983), 23.
[38] Sergio Rommel Alfonso Guzmán, Texto maroma y representación: escritos sobre teatro (Mexicali: Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, 2008). Quotes translated by Dora Arreola and Andrea Assaf.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Butler, “The Question of Social Transformation,” 213.
[41] Ibid., 217. Emphasis mine.
[42] Ibid., 214.
[43] Ibid., 216.
[44] Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” in Diana Fuss, ed., Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories(London: Routledge, 1991), 23.
[45] Butler, “The Question of Social Transformation,”217.

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