R O B E R T O. M. S I F U E N T E S '89
The following feature story appeared in the campus publication MOSAIC in March, 1999.
BRINGING INTERCULTURAL ISSUES CENTER STAGE
While some people hide their fears, performance artist Roberto M. Sifuentes '89 brings them center stage. For example, in October 1996, parodying religious reenactments displayed in colonial Mexican churches, Sifuentes posed as a holy gang member by sitting inside a Plexiglas case in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, with his face and arms covered in tattoos and his bloody shirt perforated with bullet holes. His goal? To have viewers reevaluate their beliefs, step up to the microphone in front of the case, and confess their prejudices or fears "intercultural sins," as Sifuentes describes them.
Known as "The Temple of Confessions," the interactive performance/installation was created by Sifuentes in collaboration with performance artist and author, Guillermo Gómez-Peña. It succeeded in eliciting the innermost fears and fantasies of scores of people via in-person, phone, and "techno-confessions" through a Web site during the two years it toured museums and art galleries in the United States. Chronicled in documentaries by Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio, and in a book the pair co-authored with Philip Brookman entitled Temple of Confessions: Mexican Beasts and Living Santos, the project also succeeded in achieving Sifuentes' goal of bringing fear center stage.
"Our work deals with specific issues of xenophobia, fear of otherness, particularly the fear that North Americans have towards other cultures, such as Mexicans, Chicanos, Latinos, and other indigenous people," Sifuentes explains. "Fear of other languages, particularly the Spanish language and 'bastardized' languages 'invading' the country, is a fear of being misunderstood or not being in control."
Sifuentes, who describes himself an interdisciplinary artist, and Gómez-Peña, a MacArthur "genius" grant winner, have performed and lectured throughout the United States, Europe, and Latin America. Last month, the pair joined with choreographer Sara Shelton Mann to bring "Borderscape 2000" to Trinity's Austin Arts Center. Described as an Aztec-Spanglish lounge operetta, it, too, examines issues of race, specifically both the fear and fascination Latinos hold for North Americans.
Raised in a politically active family in Los Angeles, Sifuentes initially thought that film would be the venue he would use to deliver his own message. He was drawn to Trinity by its open curriculum at the time and the wide variety of disciplines he hoped would help to shape his artistic voice. Courses in anthropology, religion, science, and English all helped move him toward his goal. But it was his exposure to New York's experimental theater scene through the Trinity/La MaMa performing arts program that sealed his fate. He enrolled in the program as a sophomore and returned as a junior to serve an internship with Judith Malina, co-founder of the Living Theater, the avant-garde company known for its revolutionary work. "I really didn't understand live art until I went to the Trinity/La MaMa program and saw some really incredible performances, particularly by the Living Theater," he recalls.
The Trinity/La MaMa program captured his imagination and set Sifuentes on a career path. And the faculty in Trinity's theater and dance department provided him with inspired instruction in the performing arts themselves. "Associate Professor of Theater Arthur Feinsod teaches with such vigor that even an introduction to theater course is extremely exciting and informative," he says. "You can't possibly miss a word because he performs his classes." Sifuentes also recalls fondly classes with Professor of Theater and Dance Judy Dworin, who taught him about movement and improvisation.
Sifuentes' success as an artist comes as no surprise to his former professors. Feinsod, recalling his former student, says, "Roberto excelled in the directing class he took with me and showed signs of the artist we know and love today. I remember him sitting in class, listening, absorbing, and learning by leaps and bounds. He was a courageous kid who wasn't afraid to try things." Dworin describes Sifuentes as "a person who is a pioneer. Roberto was one of the first students to go through the Trinity/La MaMa program. That same pioneering spirit is evident in the important work he's doing today."
After graduating from Trinity with a degree in theater and dance, Sifuentes went to Paris, where he was exposed to the work of experimental theater companies, and traveled throughout Europe for a year. He returned to New York to work in the city's experimental art community for a year before joining forces with Gómez-Peña in 1991 as the designer/stage manager for a performance piece at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's "Next Wave" festival. The two of them began collaborating and performing together on a full-time basis in 1993. They will perform "Borderscape 2000" this month at the "The Magic Theater" at San Francisco's Fort Mason Cultural Center before taking the production to the University of Wales for an international performance studies conference next month. Sifuentes and Gómez-Peña also will appear in a Home Box Office television documentary on Latinos in America scheduled to air this spring.
Does Sifuentes foresee the need to change his message? "We've stumbled upon a methodology that allows people to reveal themselves, so we can begin to scratch the surface of people's barriers and boundaries," he observes. "People often say that race relations in America are a problem that's been solved. But it hasn't. It's been our experience with our performances that, after you've scratched the surface, it's remarkably revealing how much still needs to be done."