Paving the Way for Festival Latino : Theater producer Jose Armand wants to bridge the gap between clashing art worlds

It's midnight in Tijuana, and the border town is hopping. Jose Armand, a Los Angeles theater producer, is guiding a cadre of associates through the touristy Avenida Revolucion, a boulevard about to vroom into high gear.

Drunk American jocks tote six packs; donkey-cart drivers offer Polaroids and the promise of immortality; and lost suburbanites who've been separated from tour groups whine helplessly.

"It's T.J.," Armand comments to his L.A. compadres . "And anything can happen."

He's not fooling around. As Armand spirits his group into the Rio Rita disco across the street from Denny's, the punk band Mercado Negro (Black Market) strums an eardrum-shattering note throughout the three-story club, warning the uninitiated that when they leave Rio Rita, they'll never be the same.

Tijuana may seem like the trinket capital of the world, but this city of 1.5 million has always been a hotbed for rock and experimental art making.

No one knows this better than Armand, 35, who makes monthly trips between Tijuana and L.A., trying to build "bridges." He's also the director of Los Angeles' Festival Latino, an unprecedented gathering of Pan-Latin American experimental performance works, scheduled for next May--a few months before the more Pacific Rim-oriented Los Angeles Festival being put together by Peter Sellars.

Although Armand has far less financial support than Sellars, his goal, while modest, is similar. He says he wants to make L.A. "pay more than lip service to the multicultural rap."

One way of doing this, he says, is to bring audiences from different and traditionally segregated communities together through art--in his case, that means producing innovative theatrical events.

Armand's dream is to create the kind of cultural exchange where Anglo and Latino artists would "be blown away by their common cultural bonds. . . . I'm searching for the bridges," he admits, "the uncharted one between various Latino cultures and the one between the Anglo and Latino experimental theater scenes."

Usually, he finds it. For Tijuana literally quakes with acoustic electricity and poetic justice. The scene dares all would-be rockers to break the sound barrier with a quasi-Jesus and Mary Chain metallic Latin style.

Guitarist Carlos Santana used to jam in Tijuana, a fact that does not go unmentioned by the four cool dudes who form Mercado Negro and who rattle off bands that inspire them--the Dead Kennedys, the B-52s.

When Armand shows up, the rockeros are so jazzed that they stop tuning up and flirting. To the members of Mercado Negro, Armand represents the bridge between the "big time" of L.A. and Tijuana avant-garde.

It all sounds so rosy until you see the thorns.

Armand is Cuban. And among Chicanos who have struggled hard to establish cultural pride in Southern California, Armand often feels like an uninvited guest.

When he first went to Tijuana, he was braced for the standard, if traumatic, discrimination he says he's been subjected to from Mexican-Americans here.

But the border writers, musicians and performers who make up the burgeoning art scene that tourists seldom see had nothing against Armand.

Why? Armand can be both a placid and passionate man--a bohemian with hip-length hair; his integrity is apparently catchy. He has endeared himself to the kind of experimental artists who hang out at Rio Rita. His monthly trips to Tijuana have made him a familiar face. He says he and his associates are there to check out the "wound" between the two countries--and that impresses the people there.

In the nightclub, Tijuana rockabilly music starts up to announce the entrance of a Tijuana star: the torch-bearer of the Baja performance art world, Carlos Niebla.

Niebla cries out in Spanish, and the spectacle begins. Mercado Negro punctuates Niebla's performance with harsh chords and delirious drumming.

"The performance work is called 'Dios en la Tierra,' or 'God on Earth,' " Armand says, narrating calmly to his friends and a reporter, even though he has to scream to be heard.

The piece's message--that liberty is the most precious possession in life--has moved many viewers, including Armand, to tears. After the performance, Armand greets Niebla warmly:

"I'm crazy about your show," he says in Spanish. "We'd love to produce you in L.A., because there's just no one like you there."

And, in fact, he did, last Wednesday night at Jack's Placita in downtown Los Angeles.

Armand's life has been a crash course in independence, and his main teacher has been art--specifically, the theater.

In 1962, when Armand was 8, the revolution had reached a climax in his native Cuba. He and his family, who were preparing to leave the island, lived in a poor town.

To protect himself physically and mentally from arbitrary cross fire, Armand would gather friends in his house and direct little plays about war.

This combination of politics and art came in handy years later, when at the theater department at Miami--Dade Junior College, Armand found himself leading classes with the Promoteo Players, an influential theater troupe.

But this legacy also had its drawbacks. When Armand moved to L.A. in the late '70s to complete his theater degree at Cal State L.A., he realized that he was practically a stranger in a city with one of the largest Latino populations in America.

"I felt like an outsider both as a Latino in the white world and as a Cuban among clannish Chicanos. . . ," he recalls.

This "constant state of otherness" provided him with what many see as his obsession for "multiculturalism," an appreciation for "the entirety of our Latin-American roots, not just that of a particular country or a particular sexuality or a particular ideology."

In 1984, Armand founded the Latino Ensemble, a nonprofit Pan-Latin American production entity that produces experimental Latino plays in various locations around the city.

Armand, who makes his home in Echo Park, has been the artistic producing director since 1984, presenting plays on subjects usually considered taboo by his Latino colleagues: racism and homosexuality.

His collaborators are "Que Pasa U.S.A" star Connie Ramirez, designer and graphic artist Angel Ramirez, technical director Mario Martinez, administrator Derrick Washington and actress Norma Maldonado.

During the Olympic Arts Festival, the Latino Ensemble staged its acclaimed "The Night of the Assassins" at the Inner City Cultural Center, a venue in the heart of the black community.

In 1985, the Latino Ensemble produced the bilingual "Paper Flowers"--which dealt with class and sexual struggles--at the Boyd Street Theater downtown. And then during the 1987 Fringe Festival, Armand produced "Garden of Delights," under the auspices of the Gay and Lesbian Theater Alliance's "Purple Stages" series.

Armand has also emerged as the most vocal spokesman for Latino arts and multicultural dialogue in Los Angeles.

Partly because Armand has not played a dominant role in the L.A. theater scene for very long, his colleagues have few criticisms.

He has just taken on a leadership position in the Arts Congress, a 1,000-member multiracial ad hoc group that recently banded together to advise Al Nodal, the new general manager of the city of Los Angeles' Cultural Affairs Department, on how to spend the new $20-million Arts Endowment.

"I have nothing but the greatest respect for him, both as an artist and as an organizer," Nodal says about Armand. "He's been working to bring different audiences together for years, and I think he's great."

Adds Aaron Paley, director of the 1987 Los Angeles Fringe Festival: "The work Jose is doing with the Latino Ensemble of bringing people together from different communities is admirable and worthy of the Latino community here. I am highly supportive of his Festival Latino; it could really revolutionize the L.A. theater community."

"Latino artists hardly ever talk to each other," Armand admits. "If anything, our interaction is characterized by suspicion and anger."

Armand is referring to a major bone of contention within the Latino art community: The venues that cater to Latino needs are rigid, rarefied and ruthlessly exclusive.

"Everyone talks about multiculturalism," he explains, "but very few people do anything to cultivate it."

In April, Armand organized a rare occurrence in the Latino theater scene: a conference to discuss multicultural issues. The list of prominent panelists included Nodal; Jose Luis Valenzuela, director of the Latino Lab at the Los Angeles Theater Center; and Judith Hoye, of California Lawyers for the Arts.

There was an easily reached consensus on such safe issues as "non-traditional casting," where it was argued, for instance, that mainstream theater should be less uptight about having a black woman play the wife of a white husband. But when Armand, as the moderator, brought up the idea of multiculturalism, "anger filled the room."

"As far as I'm concerned, everyone still operates in their own segregated and ghetto-ized cliques," Armand said. "People have worked so hard to get grants and funding that they are afraid that this new word--multiculturalism--might take hard-earned goodies away from them.

"Oppressed groups," he answers, "sometimes feel that they have to consolidate power . . . before reaching outward. "It seems that Los Angeles Theatre Center is cleaning up its act," Armand observes, referring to LATC director Bill Bushnell's Latino Lab, which had the reputation of working only with Chicanos. "And while Chicanos make up the bulk of Latinos in L.A., that was very discriminatory to the thousands of us who are not."

"Only one venue, Bilingual Foundation for the Arts, seems to program Latino Theater regularly," Armand says. "And there's no Latino theater award that would unite us, like the Drama-Logue awards. The Nosotros Foundation only awards (to) film and TV figures."

But Armand doesn't want to be "bogged down in negativity." He believes that criticisms "must be made," but also feels too "much time is wasted in fighting to get in tired institutions rather than creating our own."

So with the Latino Ensemble and Festival Latino, that's just what he did.

There's been a new birth of Latino activism in the arts, according to Armand. It parallels what he calls the explosion of activism that began in November, 1988, when the Los Angeles City Council passed four ordinances to create the $20-million L.A. Arts Endowment.

Armand remembers being shocked that 300 Latino artists had showed up to the Arts Congress meetings that took place on March 5 at Self-Help Graphics. People like performance artist Gronk and visual artists Patssi Valdez and Dolores Guerrero Cruz had crowded into the standing-room-only reception room. And people talked to each other! Old grudges seemed forgotten!

Armand had decided not to speak. He and his collegues had wanted to show a united front; criticism could only hurt their case, they reasoned, and could be used as fodder by the mainstream press to show Latinos fighting each other.

But toward the end of the evening, Armand grew livid at mock harmony.

"What I have to say here tonight is not easy for me," he intoned. The room grew incredibly still.

"Previously, when I have addressed Anglo crowds to raise issues of Latino rights, the task has been easier, but I find now that I must express my outrage against the few major institutions that supposedly represent Latino artists. All of us here know about these institutions, mostly because their doors have been locked and the houses dark for too long, and we have been kept out from them."

"I must challenge this unspoken complicity. . . . I question how long these institutions will keep on getting funded. We need access to space for rehearsal, performances and showcases for our work as Latinos."

The crowd burst into applause. Afterward, artists who had kept their criticisms to themselves, began speaking up, supporting Armand's brutal slap in the face to the Latino arts scene. Artists recounted hellish stories about some Latino organizations keeping out non--Chicano artists or discriminating against artists who seemed to be avant-garde or gay.

Valdez, the visual artist, reminded the crowd that a group of Chicano artists had picketed Plaza de la Raza two years ago with these chants: "Plaza, Open Your Doors."

Artists fired by Armand's speech approached Nodal and City Councilman Joel Wachs, asking them this question: "If we have no access into the Anglo avant-garde and even less into Latino institutions, where do we do our work? What good is an arts endowment if we have no place to show our art?"

Armand's answer is simple: "We should criticize places like Plaza de la Raza and the Los Angeles Theatre Center's Latino Lab, but we should not stop there. Our challenge is to present work anywhere and any way that is feasible, whether it's in the street or in a bar or in our homes. . . . No one else can do it for us."

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