Ricardo Gamboa is a trip. The kind of guy you always ended up squirtting milk out your nose in grammar school because of. Guess what boys and girls, your favorite crazy yet socially conscious, theater-activist, Chicago-born miscreant is at it again. With the recent release of his second comedy-spoof in the The Border Jump-Off Short Film Series, our WTTW morning TV star, Mr. Roberts takes on the invasion of the Aliens. Having worked with a reported million-trillion youth in Chicago and now New York his new, super trendy home base, Gamboa’s dedication to community based theater and art as politics stems from his childhood days of playing make believe. In this Gozamos exclusive, Gamboa strips down and bares all about his education, his avid addiction to Chihuahua cheese, his ardent love of the Obama administration’s ruthless support of the Latino community, and of course, his mad love for The Chi.
Gozamos: Thanks for the interview Gamboa. So tell us a little about this new video. Where did the idea come from?
I spent my last two years in Chicago running a theater company dedicated to exploring issues of the city’s Mexican immigrant community and diaspora. I’m still passionate about these issues in NYC–I’m Mexican(-American) and it’s a really dangerous time to be Mexican in the U.S. There’s so much nuanced injustice around the immigration “problem” it makes me want to cry. I can’t just make “art.” That’s not how I’m built. It’s important to me to make work that is trying to do something. I want to be useful and these films are one of my attempts at achieving utility.
When I moved to New York City, I was a participant in NYU’s Hemispheric Institute’s EmergeNYC program to explore the intersection of arts and activism–”artivism.” There was a workshop with the Latina performance collective FULANA on parody that culminated in creating in groups an ad-hoc parody performance. I got with my group and was like, “We’re doing children’s television and immigration: How about Mister Rogers in Arizona?” Everyone was down.
After we performed, we got great feedback and I was like, “Let’s do this f’real guys.” Heather Morowitz and Giovanni Vargas, my writing partners for this film and The Border Jump-Off Short Film Series, were part of that original group. Mister Rogers SB1070 Neighborhood is our second film together. We wrote in New York City and shot in Chicago. We worked with my film-making collaborator Ben Kolak, close friend Sadie Woods, and… my uncles. (They play the majority of the film’s immigrants.) The whole film was a cool grass-roots effort which is always part of the point with my work.
How’s New York? Why’d you leave Chicago?
May Anuntarungsun, a friend and artist, told me New York is an Aquarian city. Uranus, the ruling planet of Aquarius, is all about intensity, speed, surprise–in short, a damn craze. That’s New York to me. It’s intense. And it’s been hard. Essentially, I uprooted myself from Chicago where I’m deeply integrated as an artist and person. I lived in Chicago my entire life. I never thought I’d be there as long as I was. But I felt so committed to my communities, youth, and my work that there was this whole “just one more year”-thing going on. Finally, I felt there were things that I needed to do for myself and wanted to grow as an artist.
New York City certainly forced me “to grow.” People always say that they “want to grow.” I had this romanticized notion of “growth” that didn’t imagine the hardships I encountered here. I was like a kid from the rancho. I came to New York naive and really feeling myself and this place yanked me from under me and humbled the hell out of me. It’s been tough. But, it is mos def the best decision I’ve made in my life.
I feel settled here. (Maybe it’s because I’m an Aquarian too.) It’s crazy here but there’s a palpable sense of possibility, you feel it just walking down the streets. It works for me: I like chaos and I like potentiality.
What does New York have to offer that Chicago doesn’t and vice verca?
This is hard. Especially for me, I’m ciento-por-ciento Chicaguino. I have a t-shirt that I made years ago, it reads: I Am Chicago. My Chi-city pride is thicker than blood at an Aztec sacrifice. And it was really hard to move beyond that when I got to New York, particularly because queso Chihuahua does not exist in NYC! I have travelled through all five boroughs looking for it like a crystal skull to no avail. (Como haces la quesadilla sin queso chihuahua?) I digress…
Chicago made me. The people, they’re so real and honest there. And, you know, I have over 80 family members and friends of for over 15 years there. It’s my memories. It’s the home and life that was given to me and that I definitely made the most of. But, New York City represents something else: It is the home and life that I chose for myself and building on my own. There is so much going on and you’re so close to everything. In a year, I’ve worked alongside Hollywood directors, Skyped with my performance heroes, and been on the streets where A Bronx Tale was shot and Biggie grew up. I mean, c’mon…
What’s this theater of the oppressed business I’ve been hearing about?
Ha! Theater of the Oppressed is a form of theater developed by Augusto Boal to allow marginalized communities to utilize performance to address issues affecting them. It’s great and I definitely draw from it, but I also draw from Viewpoints, Suzuki Method of Actor Training, and other artistic mediums in performance-making. For me, it’s not just important what you do but also how you do it. All of my work is non-hierarchical, collaborative, involves direct community action, and developed over time, with research, and constantly improved upon. For me, making work this way becomes about seeing how society should be.
For example, when working with teens if they say violence over materialism is a problem they face then we might agree that no one can wear visible brand names or labels on their clothes to rehearsal. Or, I don’t let my teens ask me questions, they have to figure things out on their own or together, learn to be their own leaders. In this way, performance-making gives us a chance to practice how we can be.
I say this and people just think I’m acting passionate-crazy, but it’s real: I honestly believe performance, performance-making, and performance-audience interactions can change us and our world.
Where’d you study theater?
On the streets. I’m kidding, but kinda not. I’m self-taught in a lot of ways. I would say that education began when I would memorize Greek myths, comic books, and horror films and jump on my parents’ bed for hours acting them out. They went through so many beds. I would direct kids on the block in plays. And I always wrote and did visual art. So these things that I do, I’ve been doing them since I was three–literally. I had some formal training at Piven Theater and also with Anne Bogart’s SITI Company.
I mostly learned by doing. My work with Barrel of Monkeys was really informative. And I am indebted to Coya Paz who has a profound effect on my work. How she works is so admirable–She’s not just about getting her name out there or her work is not confined to theater/performance worlds like most Chicago theater/performance. She’s preoccupied the impact of her work. She’s a great friend now and really changed my life.
How can regular folk and especially youth get involved in theater in Chicago?
Call me. Add me on facebook. And ask. It sounds like I’m kidding, but I’m not. I am really invested in not just putting real people’s stories on stage, but putting real people bodies on stage. With Teatro Americano we always worked with a mix of community and professional actors.
There’s that saying, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” A different fight that gets worked out when everyday individuals assume the stage. It’s important to note that these people are not just “regular.” I always say to my youth when directing, “I want gods or animals on stage.” That’s my way of being hard and asking them to be extra-ordinary. But the truth is when you think about everything we people from disenfranchised communities endure, we’re already heroes. There are great places letting young people realize that in the Chi, like Albany Park Theater Project. Proyecto Latina and Biblioteca Popular’s Open Mic give “regular folk” space to share stories.
Why theater, performance and now ultimately short comedy films?
As an artist, I use what I need. My best friend’s dad is Rudy Lozano, the community activist assassinated fighting for immigrant rights. It’s important to fight. But, I don’t want to die doing it. I love life, people and vodka too much. But, I’m not going quietly–theater and performance allows me to work to effect change. It makes a vacuum, a place to protest, without fear of getting arrested or attacked.
As an artist, I don’t just use what I need, sometimes I’m stuck using just what I have. In New York, I didn’t have much in terms of resources and support. So I had to think of something else. I had Internet and I had collaborators and I had just won the Chicago Latino Film Festival for “Best Short” and knew I had the people and know-how to make short films.
I want all my work to be accessible to all people. Like television, comedy is ubiquitous–everyone gets it and can access it. The immigration problem is a national hot button–an everyone thing–and so parodying popular television programs with comedy in a way that’s accessible but sophisticated was a way to bring all people into the conversation.
Tell us about this Fresh Prince spoof?
The Fresh Prince of D.C. is the first film in The Border Jump-Off Short Film Series. It parodies the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song with Barack and a busboy rapping about Obama’s lack of response to immigration reform.
Barack’s presidency was so disappointing for Latinos. I saw Chicago’s Mexican immigrant community get so excited about his progressive platform. However, his presidency has been disheartening for the many Mexican immigrant adults and youth that I work with. Actually, there’s a great documentary, “Immigrant Nation” by Esau Melendez that highlights this. There is the notion that he cannot engage the issue at the time, part of politicking for the possibility of re-election.
The Fresh Prince of D.C. tries to address this reality, the flash and promise of Obama’s candidacy, and (what I think) is a disappointing, compromising actuality with Republicans and a xenophic U.S. I am lucky Giovanni and Heather work with me, they’re smarter than me and made me really look at all angles of the issue to provide fair critique. Really, none of these films could happen without them.
Couldn’t agree with you more, seems like with the whole Bin-Laden thing, Obama’s turned into a real cowboy. What’s next in the Border Series?
Well, the next installment of The Border Jump-Off Short Film Series will use Dora The Explorer to further address immigrant realities and the conditions that cause immigration. We will be working with Chicago animator Jay Patton and Sadie Woods will be score the short. It will be a three minute cartoon and we’re all excited to do voice-overs. After this film, I think we have one or two more in the series.
The Fresh Prince of D.C. incited a partnership with the National Museum of Mexican Art. This summer, I will be working with collaborator Ben Kolak to teach performance and film making to teens at their Yollocalli ArtsReach center allowing them to use grass-roots short film-making to address issues affecting their lives.
I’m excited to be back in Chicago for the summer. I’ll also be working on writing my first feature film and workshopping a series of plays, “The Real Life Adventures of Jimmy de las Rosas,” “Chicagones, Chicaguitos,” and an untitled play, all three about Chicago’s Mexican-American community. I might be doing some other performance work. Nothing is sure, but let’s just say don’t be surprised if you see me walking down 18th Street dressed like Charlie Chaplin with vaquero boots pushing a paleta cart.