Dan Guerrero: Tending the Hybrid Histories of Chicana/o Popular Performance

Keynote remarks delivered at the public reception celebrating Dan Guerrero as the UCLA César E. Chavez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies’s “Distinguished Community Scholar” for Winter 2008.


I am privileged to stand before you this evening, invited to speak just a little about the extraordinary work of the César E. Chavez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies’s “Distinguished Community Scholar” for Winter 2008: Dan Guerrero. I am likewise honored to have this opportunity to acknowledge the important work of the “Distinguished Community Scholar” program itself.

When my friend and colleague Davíd Hernandez shared the possibility of this event, I was taken with the premise of the Distinguished Community Scholar program. How appropriate, how smart – I though – how at once forward thinking and respectful of tradition such a program is. And how glad I am that the nation’s premiere program in Chicana/o Studies chooses to contribute to the field’s future by so elegantly sustaining the field’s foundational imperatives.

Indeed, the mission to value the distinctive ways of knowing that developed within the Chicana/o community stands as perhaps the movimiento strategy that I hold in highest reverence. The ethical practice of valuing the Chicana/o community and its constituents as the authoritative sources of our history, our literature, our culture remains, for me, among the most essential gestures of Chicana/o Studies as an academic and cultural intervention. What’s more – it is precisely this gesture that comprises the basis of what is my first personal memory of Chicano Studies.

It is a memory that comes from my toddler days, from the family stories and jokes that spun around my great-grandmother Evangelista Trujillo and her first encounters with The Chicano Movement. It was the early 1970s in Las Vegas, New Mexico and it was that moment in time when some of the first college courses in Chicano Studies were being offered at Highlands University. My great-grandmother – who everyone called Gramma Tita, whether they were related or not – Gramma Tita was unsure what to make of all these college kids, in their black and khaki and camouflage. An unrepentant wearer of meticulous pin curls, Gramma Tita especially did not know what to think of all the Chicanas with their flat straight hair, the natural wave so carefully cooked out with a ferociously hot stove iron.

See, Gramma Tita – the reigning authority on pretty much everything in my family – let’s just say she did not exactly approve of Chicanos. Like many elder nuevomexicanos of the time, Gramma Tita did not endorse the Chicano politics, the Chicano activism, the Chicano styles, and – perhaps most of all – the very name: Chicano. (Indeed, one of the great apocryphal stories of my family comes from the explanation of that crack in the plaster ceiling of the rented house on 8th Street, that one stubborn crack that seemed never to stay repaired. That crack – so the story goes – marked the exact spot where Gramma Tita hit the roof when my aunt Lorraine came from college and proclaimed “Yo soy Chicana!”) No, Gramma Tita made no secret of her disapproval of all things Chicano.

So it must have surprised her when some of those same Chicano Studies kids from the college started poking around, asking her if they might ask her some questions, if they might hear some of her stories, as part of something called “an oral history” project in which these same young Chicanas and Chicanos gathered testimonios from elders in the community about the way things were and the way things had once been. My grandmother’s reputation in the community as an erstwhile curandera, as well as her family’s unusual history in the region, stirred the interested of these flat-haired, camo-khaki college Chicanas. And my Gramma Tita agreed to meet, and to talk, and to feed these young people the testimonios they seemed to crave.

Unfortunately, I do not know what Gramma Tita told these Chicano Studies students. We do know these interviews happened and, despite some concerted effort on my part, I have not as yet been able to identify Gramma Tita’s testimonios among those archived from these early Chicano Studies oral history projects archived at the Highlands library.

But I tell you this story tonight because, on the one hand, this story – Gramma Tita y Los Chicanos, or Gramma Tita’s Close Encounters of the Chicano Studies Kind – this story stands as my first encounter with the idea of Chicano Studies as an academic discipline. As such, this story remains a touchstone for me whenever I reflect upon the coordinating spirit, ethics and tactics of the historical Chicano Movement. The historical Chicano Movement prioritized, honored and respected the literatures, the politics, the analyses, the historical memories and the traditions of knowing practiced by the many “organic intellectuals” – like Gramma Tita – populating Mexican American communities across North America. This story also evokes what is for me the essence of Chicano Studies academic practice and reminds us how the practitioners of this evolving academic discipline have, since those early days, defined their method by finding innovative ways of bridging the gaps between “the academy” and “the community” – or, put another way, between “institutions of knowledge” and “traditions of knowing.” Finally, I choose to share my Gramma Tita story for the ways it might also underscore how fully the UCLA Chicana and Chicano Studies’s Distinguished Community Scholar program exemplifies the coordinating spirit, ethic and practice of Chicano Studies as an academic movement.

But I also remember my Gramma Tita with you tonight as a way of acknowledging the spirit, ethic and practice of your Distinguished Community Scholar for 2008: Dan Guerrero. Because – even if you have not seen his show, who even if you have only just met him – you likely already know one thing about Dan: Dan Guerrero Tells a Good Story.

Indeed, Dan’s work – which I know mostly through his one-man, autobiographical theatre piece, Gaytino! – builds around his telling stories. Good stories. Surprising stories. Smart stories. Heart stories. Many of which deal with Dan Guerrero’s incredible career in the U.S. entertainment industry, beginning with his being raised as a child of multicultural Los Angeles (before we even knew there was such a thing), the son of one of the first Chicano cultural superstars. Dan’s stories follow his journey as he – a young, gay, Latino musical theatre performer – forged his own path in chilly New York, a pioneering member of the East Coast Chicano Diaspora (again, before we knew there was such a thing), and document how he became politicized by the lack of opportunities for Latinas/os in the U.S. entertainment industry. In short, Dan’s stories tell his story – his history.

When I began to organize my own remarks for this evening’s celebration, I expected that I would talk about Dan Guerrero’s history, especially how Guerrero’s pioneering career as an activist/entertainer working within the U.S. entertainment industrial complex charts an important and under-studied thread within Chicano labor history. I suspected that I might spend some time tonight discussing how Dan Guerrero’s work and career fit within an easily disregarded protest tradition wherein Chicano/Latino entertainers and industry professionals self-consciously stand both within and outside the Hollywood and/or Broadway apparatus, enacting a complex dialectic of professional advocacy and strategic creativity. For Dan Guerrero’s life, work and stories do chart what I consider to be an important, unexamined thread within the history of Chicano cultural activism.

But as I was developing my material for a talk that might match my promised title (“Tending the Hybrid Histories of Chicano Popular Performance”), I found myself writing sentences like: “Guerrero’s work reflects a dialectic of creativity and critique borne of the autochthonous epistemological foundations of the Chicano movement.” And as I found myself writing THAT sentence (“Guerrero’s work reflects a dialectic of creativity and critique borne of the autochthonous epistemological foundations of the Chicano movement”), I could just hear Dan’s voice – remember it has been nearly two years since Dan and I last spoke – but, clear as day, upon hearing my “autochthonous epistemological foundations,” I could hear Dan say: “I do all THAT?!” Or: “I had no idea I was doing all that. I’m just telling stories…”

Which caused me to pause. Yes, Dan Guerrero’s work does do all that. And, yes, Dan Guerrero is “just” telling his story. But in telling his story, and in doing the work he will be doing this quarter leading students in telling their stories in his course, “The Power of One,” Dan Guerrero’s work is inhabiting the conventions of one of the foundational gestures of Chicano Studies practice: the testimonio (a complex genre of oral history and ethnography innovated by Chicano Studies and Latin Americanists since the later 1960s).

Dan Guerrero’s work as a solo performance artist redeploys the core conventions of the testimonio. As Guerrero relates his personal story and his history directly in dialogue with his audience as his interlocutor, Guerrero neither speaks for, nor offers himself as representative of, any of his particular communities. Rather, Dan Guerrero performs what literary scholar George Yúdice has termed “an act of identity-formation which is simultaneously personal and collective” (15). And while Guerrero’s work might seem to be straight up solo performance of the sort performance artist and cultural commentator Holly Hughes describes as “a particularly American tradition of testifying, of witnessing history in the first person” (2), I would submit that Guerrero’s work operates as an especially 21st century riff on the testimonio as an essential genre of Chicano Studies as cultural practice. By so foregrounding the theatrical dimensions of the performative genre of the testimonio (or relating a single story to a specified interlocutor) in Gaytino!, Dan Guerrero utilizes the theatrical frame to stage the testimonio encounter as performance. And as he shares his testimonios with his many audiences, Dan Guerrero reminds us all of the coordinating spirit of the Chicano Studies movement and welcomes us once again to those traditions of knowing that are among its most generous legacies. A truly distinguished community scholar, indeed.

Holly Hughes and David Román, O Solo Homo: The New Queer Performance (New York: Grove Press, 1998).
George Yúdice, “Testimonio and Postmodernism,” Latin American Perspectives (Summer 1991): 15-31.

30 January 2008. UCLA Faculty Center, Los Angeles, CA.