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Culture Clash: in a class of its own at UCLA

Times Staff Writer

On a recent Monday afternoon, two UCLA students stand before their class, performing a skit they’ve written about a pair of high school friends on graduation day in East Los Angeles.

“I want to get out of the ghetto,” one young woman excitedly tells her friend. “I think East Los will bring me down. It won’t take me anywhere. I just see something bigger for myself.”

The other student is dismayed. Success doesn’t mean forgetting your roots.

When the two characters meet again, they’ve made it to UCLA. But the first girl has changed her name from Juana to Jane and is wearing a cheap blond wig, a ludicrous attempt to pass for white, which draws the biggest laugh of the day.

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“Why do you want to lie to yourself?” asks the barrio loyalist. “This is not who you are.”

To the great relief of the students, grades in this class aren’t based on the quality of the acting or the writing. This is not drama school. It’s Chicana and Chicano Studies 188, billed as the first university-level course focusing entirely on the works of Culture Clash, the provocative Chicano trio that for 22 years has carried the banner of barrio-based theater, a form traced to Luis Valdez’s Teatro Campesino. Many students have enrolled in the weekly seminar, taught by professor David G. Garcia, to satisfy a history requirement, using the trio’s work as an academic window on Chicano life and times.

The young women -- Jennifer Morales and Ifath Hernandez -- end the skit with a line that’s a flashback to the race-based issues of the ‘60s: “Our minds are blown. We fight against our own.”

As if on cue, the members of Culture Clash -- Herbert Siguenza, Richard Montoya and Ric Salinas -- slip into the room, quietly but hardly unnoticed.

“Any comments?” asks the professor, seeking feedback on the sketch. The class is silent, obviously star-struck.

Nos salio la verguenza,” one student confesses, using the Spanish word for “shame” to mean that they all got a little shy.

Culture Clash has no trouble breaking the ice. The actors-playwrights lead a discussion of their group’s history and evolution, starting on a Cinco de Mayo weekend in 1984 at an art gallery in San Francisco’s Mission District.

“We used to say we never sold out because nobody was buying,” cracks Montoya.

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Today the group performs at major venues and regional theaters across the county, serving as a role model for Chicanos seeking success without selling their souls. Rather than fading away with the Chicano Movement in which their art is rooted, Culture Clash has found growing success with increasingly sophisticated works that stick to their core concerns.

In a trilogy of recent plays, the group has skewered Hollywood’s treatment of Latinos (“Zorro in Hell”), the Dodgers’ razing of a barrio to build a stadium (“Chavez Ravine”) and a father raising two sons from working class to ruling class (“Water and Power”).

“There’s no other group like them,” says Garcia, a lecturer in Chicana and Chicano Studies who last year earned a PhD in history from UCLA with an exhaustive dissertation based on the trio’s 12 plays and fleeting TV show. “I think that’s why their work is so important, because they continue to push that envelope.”

Culture Clash has remained relevant, in part, by expanding beyond its Chicano base. Since 1994, the group has produced “site-specific plays,” which have allowed it to explore the people and history of cities across the country. They start by interviewing residents of various ethnic backgrounds, then create a montage of monologues based on the interviews.

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The first such work, “Radio Mambo,” was commissioned by the Miami Light Project. As the UCLA students watch, Siguenza and Salinas bring to life two characters from that play -- an old Haitian man and an ambitious Cuban businessman who owns a furniture store.

The success of “Radio Mambo” opened the doors for the group, which went on to produce ethnographic works about the twin cities of San Diego and Tijuana (“Bordertown”), New York (“Nuyorican Stories”) and Washington, D.C. (“Anthems: Culture Clash in the District”).

Through the process, the group’s obsession with being Chicano, which critics called navel-gazing, gave way to a broader view of the world.

“Some critics are correct in that we’ve been spending too much time wondering if ‘I’m Chicano enough,’ ” Montoya tells the class. “The challenge for a group like ours in the next five years is: How do we keep our authenticity and participate in the larger conversation?”

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At stake is the creation of a Latino-based theater movement that will endure.

“It’s an experiment, and you’re a part of it,” Salinas tells the class.

In fact, their grades depend on it.

For the next assignment, Garcia asks his students to interview a person and bring the transcripts to class. Culture Clash would then work with the students to turn the raw material into monologues, or, as Salinas puts it, to “help you find what we call the gold nuggets in the interviews.”

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Two weeks later when the class reconvenes, students share their interviews with Culture Clash.

Victoria Rueda, a single mother who plans to get a law degree and work in the entertainment industry, has chosen a Mexican American barber whose shop is in the Santa Monica building where she banks. She used to chat with him occasionally, so she knew he always had a tale to spin, like any barber worth his shaving cream.

The barber had seven uncles who fought in World War II, for example. Now in his late 60s, his past included a stint as an artist, a karate instructor and a poet. He was working as a gardener when he decided to save money for barber school because “he got tired of working outside in the hot sun.”

“He’s perfect,” thought Rueda, who prepared 10 questions for the interview. “I don’t want to mess up and let a bunch of information get away.”

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The trick comes in knowing what makes for good theater. Rueda is touched by the man’s memories of his mother, but Culture Clash members say it’s “endearing but not good monologue material.”

Instead, they point to part of her interview that she had overlooked -- her subject’s struggles to pass the state’s licensing exam for barbers. He failed it several times, because reading and writing are not his strong suits. At one point, he talks about how he considered a career as a car thief if he didn’t make the cut as a barber.

Culture Clash saw the drama and the humor in that.

“The guys are wonderful,” says Rueda of her famous instructors. “They’re so helpful and so honest.”

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The class, she concludes, has helped her understand that in the right hands, theater can be a powerful tool for social change.

“A person can stand on a pedestal and preach, ‘Let’s all get along,’ ” she says, “but it’s not going to make a difference unless we examine the prejudices we have within ourselves. That’s what Culture Clash does -- break down the stereotypes.

“And we laugh. But after we laugh, we think.”

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agustin.gurza@latimes.com


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