One Entity, Three Heads

Culture Clash prepares for their touring show, in LA beginning August 18

By Julio Martinez
Published on LatinoLA: August 17, 2004

One Entity, Three Heads

Talking to Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, more commonly known as Culture Clash, is like talking to one entity with three heads.

While discussing the upcoming Los Angeles premiere of their high-powered national touring show, Culture Clash in AmeriCCa, at the 300-seat Assistance League Playhouse in Hollywood, their discourse bounces back and forth like little ping pong balls of fact and humor, never completely settling down in one place. The easy flow of banter amongst the three has been will honed through myriad productions they have developed and produced over the last two decades since joining forces to form Culture Clash on Cinco de Mayo, 1984, in San Francisco?s Mission District. During the subsequent 20 years, Culture Clash has become the most prominent Chicano-Latino performance troupe in the country.

Much like the great performers from early vaudeville, Salinas, Montoya and Siguenza project a distinct ensemble personality that infuses their work whether it is working on stage, in concert or on television, where the ensemble set a milestone for Latinos. In 1994, Culture Clash filmed 30 episodes of Culture Clash the TV show for Fox, the first variety TV show with Latino themes, produced, written and performed by Chicano/Latinos. Returning to Los Angeles for the first time since last year?s smash hit Chavez Ravine at the Mark Taper, Culture Clash is giving L.A. audiences a sampling of five ?site specific? shows they have developed in five separate areas of the nation.

?Culture Clash in AmeriCCa" is actually a compilation of individual full evenings of theatre that were commissioned by theatre companies in Miami, San Diego, New York, San Francisco and New York,? explains Salinas. ?Each of the shows was developed to reflect the unique Latino experience in those specific communities.? Directed by Berkeley Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Tony Taccone, Culture Clash in AmeriCCa, interweaves narratives from critically acclaimed Radio Mambo (Miami); Bordertown (San Diego, Tijuana); Nuyorican Stories (New York); Mission Magic (San Francisco); and Anthems (Washington, D.C.). The shows represent the bulk of Culture Clash?s work from 1995 to 2002.

?The idea for doing site specific theatre came out of our Chicano-centric show, A Bowl of Beings, which we brought to Miami, Florida during the early ?90s.? recalls Montoya. ?That show spotlighted the Mexican American experience, principally on the West Coast, but it turned out to be a huge hit with the South Beach crowd, which was composed mainly of second generation Cuban Americans that were born in Miami.?

?We found ourselves talking to a lot people who came to see Beings and then wanted to discuss the issues we presented in our show,? add Salinas.?

?That?s right,? interjects Montoya. ?It was within those discussions that we met some Cuban Americans who encouraged us to come back to Miami with the idea of interviewing members of the local populace and developing a show out of those interviews. We then pitched a local theatre company, Miami Light Project, with the idea. They commissioned us to do it and that?s how Radio Mambo, Culture Clash Invades Miami came about.?

When the trio returned to Florida to immerse themselves within the local South Beach culture, they expected to find a colorful melting pot. ?We thought we would be lampooning the whole experience of Cuban exiles in Miami,? says Salinas. ?But when we got going on our interviews we discovered there were a lot of important issues that needed to be dealt with that did not just involve Cuban Americans.?

?What we encountered was a societal Molotov Cocktail,? laughs Montoya. ?It was an explosion of cultures all bombarding one another.?

?That?s when we started developing characters that were not only Chicano or Latino,? picks up Salinas. ?South Beach voices began to emerge that were Jewish, African American, Haitians, Anglos, every mix imaginable. As Radio Mambo started to come together, we realized that something very special was happening. As a performing ensemble, we just found ourselves expanding tremendously.?

?What was really liberating about the site specific shows was they forced us to finally live up to our moniker,? says Siguenza. ?Through our interviews with people from all the races and ethnicities within a community, we were actually presenting the true ?culture clash? that these people lived through on a day to day basis. It really opened up the palate for us because we now were reflecting the true community. We weren?t just dealing with Latino identity issues. We were dealing with American identity issues in all its variations.?

Since the three of them were inventing their fact gathering procedure as they went along, they decided to be completely open to whatever came their way. ?There was always that uncomfortable moment when we went into a business, a caf?, a bar or a home,? Montoya explains. ?At first, people wondered what was going on with these three guys with tape recorders. But there always came that moment when a relaxed dialogue emerged between them and us. And our questions were pretty simple. We asked about their race and culture. Why did they live in their neighborhood and how long did they live there? What do they think of their neighbors? We discovered that fascinating opinions and ideas would start to emerge. People really wanted to talk about their lives and wanted to express their ideas about living in general. And we pretty much discovered this openness in every site we visited.?

Having been born in New York?s Puerto Rican Harlem, I was quite curious how facile it was for three Chicanos from the west coast, tape recorders in hand, to invade Latino neighborhoods in New York City. They admitted that the Big Apple presented some problems they never had experienced before.

?In New York, we were commissioned by INTAR, the Hispanic American Arts Center of New York, through a Theatre Communications Group grant,? recalls Siguenza. ?New York was really difficult for us because it was so large and diverse. There were a million stories told about New York already. What was going to be our angle?? Quite frankly we were lost. We didn?t know what we were going to do in New York??

Culture Clash got its focus when they discovered the Nuyorican Poets Caf? and its founder, Miguel Algarin. ?One afternoon we sat around at the caf? in the Lower East Side talking to Miguel. We received so much rich cultural and historical material from him that by the end of that afternoon we knew what direction we were going to take,? adds Siguenza.?

?I?ll tell you, even though we knew what our approach was going to be, it was not easy getting interviews in New York City,? Montoya admits. ?We had to figuratively stop the world for some people to get them to sit down and talk to us. We even had some people get up and leave because they thought we were the CIA. We ended up concentrating primarily on the Nuyorican experience, the generations of people who had originally come over from Puerto Rico.?

To help solidify the varied elements of Culture Clash in AmeriCCa, the ensemble enlisted the aid of Tony Taccone of Berkeley Rep. As much as Taccone is impressed with the comedic pizzazz of the trio, he admits to being completely in awe of the depth of the material they have created. Taccone affirms, ?In these stage works, Montoya, Salinas and Siguenza have developed a comic approach that examines cultures in flux and opposition, driven by an imperative to give voice to those who are largely unheard in America.?

?I guess you can say we are our work,? concludes Salinas. ?You know, I don?t even have an individual picture and resume. All I know is that we are three Latino performers that get to perform the complete spectrum of American life, all ethnicities and races, all ages, both sexes and varied animals, usually within the same show. We would never get that opportunity working in television or film. It is a great way to perform?

Produced by C. Raul Espinoza, Culture Clash is presenting a special 12-perforamnce 20th Anniversary presentation of Culture Clash in AmeriCCa, beginning Wednesday August 18 through Sunday, September 5, at the Assistance League Playhouse, located at 1367 N. St. Andrews Place in Hollywood. The number to call for tickets and information is 800-595-4TIX (4849).

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