Coolness collision! Alice Bag, founder of the infamous + classic punk band The Bags and author of the memoir Violence Girl, interviews Raquel Gutierrez, aka Raquefella, founder of the infamous + classic queer performance duo Butchlalis de Panochtitlan. Raquel regularly performs with Sister Spit in Los Angeles and has read at RADAR Superstar; check out Alice Bag at RADAR on January 11th at the San Francisco Public Library!
- This is Raquefella.
- I believe I first met Raquefella on MySpace, which should tell you how long ago it was. The name Raquefella intrigued me. I had known someone in Jr. High School who everyone called Rockefeller because she used to bring expensive things to school and flaunt them in front of our poor asses. Rockefeller was generous and would sometimes buy us things we couldn’t afford ourselves, so although we liked her well enough we harbored the tiniest bit of resentment towards her that arose from seeing ourselves as recipients of her charity. I wondered if Raquefella was like that. I wondered how she’d earned that moniker.
As I started interacting with Raquefella, I decided the two ladies were not alike at all. I realized that Raquefella’s wealth consisted of her words and wit, which she generously shared with me online. After a while we became good friends. Every now and then we’d see each other around town in LA but more often than not we corresponded. From MySpace we moved to Facebook, then to Twitter where she can be found under the name @Raquefella, but it was one of our rare face to face encounters that led to the publication of my memoir, Violence Girl. If it wasn’t for Raquefella throwing down a challenge over beers in a San Diego bar, I would not have written my book. And that is the beauty of Raquefella: she always seems to be challenging people in one way or another, with her work, her physical appearance, her ideas or, in my case, by asking me to do the one thing I didn’t think I could do. She shared her wealth with me in a way that only the richest and most generous people do, by showing me the source of my own wealth.
In keeping with our tradition, I set up the interview on Twitter and then interviewed her online. A founding member of Butchlalis de Panochtitlan, Raquel plays Chonch in their stage presentation of The Barber of East L.A. Please allow me to share with you the wit and wisdom of Raquel Gutierrez, aka Raquefella.
- This is Butchlalis.
ALICE BAGS: Please tell us a little about your upbringing, when and where were you born?
RAQUEL GUTIERREZ: I was born in June of 1976 at Los Angeles County Hospital in Northeast Los Angeles, in a community called Lincoln Heights. I grew up in Southeast Los Angeles, in communities named Huntington Park and Bell Gardens.
My parents are immigrants–father from Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico and mother from a small village in El Salvador. They met in East Los Angeles at a Valentine’s dance in the grand ballroom of the 3rd floor of El Mercadito, on First and Lorena Street across from the Evergreen Cemetery.
I grew up between cultures–my parents each bringing their customs, anxieties and habits and whatever was on television. I grew up addicted to TV–I credit my learning English to watching Popeye, Gilligan’s Island, Mighty Mouse, Laverne and Shirley and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (I always watched those horror movies through a braid of fingers over my face, too scared to actually take in those macabre images.) My folks were always fighting, my mom endlessly annoyed with my dad’s lack of presence of mind or maybe the choices she made. But there was always an air of dissatisfaction in the house and an anxious energy to the way we would engage with each other. My mom had endured her bit of trauma back in El Salvador, with her first husband and my half-brother (13 years my senior) so because of that she never let me or my sister out of her sight. In order to go on adventures but be spared her motherly wrath, I turned to books.
AB: Which cultural, social or political events from your formative years stand out as meaningful to you now?
RG: I think seeing how weirdly grateful my mom was to Ronald Reagan made me want to examine his role in her country’s economic and social policy and try to understand why she so blindly took everything at face value.
I was always a curious child but I wanted something deeper and wasn’t getting the encouragement to think critically from my parents or my teachers. I went to Catholic school and learning about the Crusades really freaked me out because it encroached on peoples’ basic freedom. Punk and meeting people I respected compelled me to feel empowered to have different opinions from my family and feel okay with those tensions.
AB: Can you tell us a little about Butchlalis de Panochtitlan? To me the name sounds like Butch Stars in Aztec Pussyland, what does it really mean? Do you all write together?
RG: Butchlalis de Panochtitlan was an experiment in gender performance, at least, I can look back and say that now. At the time, the core four members–myself, Claudia Rodriguez, Mari Garcia and Nadine Romero–were all friends who met at a latina lesbian support group in East Los Angeles. It turned out that we as individuals were interested in art, politics and sex. We had been friends for a while, going to each other’s events. Claudia and I were writers doing the coffeehouse circuit, Mari was involved in theater and hip-hop and Nadine was a visual artist and sculptor. We introduced each other to new works, venues, community activist-minded events and the like.
I was working full-time when I met everyone, doing retail promotions for a music industry publication–a gig I landed because I was deeply involved in the independent music scene in L.A., but I felt a void around my political and social justice-y well-being. I wanted to be around people working towards justice but felt like I didn’t have the guts to do it myself. I really loved being in the in-between space of art and politics but was still unsure about calling myself an artist. It was the same with my gender presentation. The uncertainty is easier to deal with when there’s a support system in place and I think as young, brown butches, we were especially vulnerable. So in order to suit up psychically, we had to have our best buds in our corners and how better than to start an arts performance group and perform these anxieties, failures and triumphs in public.
AND YES, that’s what our name means–the Butch Stars of Pussyland–a take at combining English, Spanish, Spanglish, Nahuatl to create a label. Since that self-naming portion of identity is so important, why not have some fun with it and imagine the radical possibilities?
AB: Claudia of Butchlalis described the first butch haircut as a sort of rite of passage, can you elaborate on that? Did that have anything to do with you choosing the title and the concept of The Barber of East L.A.?
RG: The first haircut for a butch is pretty life-changing–you decide, YEP. THIS IS THE LIFE FOR ME! Or you decide that maybe it’s not. But the feeling that comes with taking the smock off and seeing your new hair with your body – there’s a certain congruence that takes place that is pretty amazing, scary or shocking. I’ve been pleased of course and saw it as a rite of passage. There is so much psychic energy attached to hair–everyone feels it to a degree. Of course all of that emerged organically as I put the story of a butch barber together. I didn’t set out to create that when writing the story of Chonch Fonseca, the main character in the Barber of East L.A. She was inspired by the life story of Nancy Valverde, a 78 year old butch Chicana that had a barber shop on Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar Chavez) back in the day.
AB: When I was growing up in East L.A. I had the impression that gender ambiguity was seen as threatening and any deviation from gender norms was swiftly and overtly suppressed. Were you living in East L.A. when you came out? Did you find the hood any more or less hospitable than other places?
RG: I grew up in Southeast LA when I came out and I was still pretty androgynous but not looking like what I look like today. Being a young person is hard enough–no one respects you and you have lots of hoops to jump through to ensure making it to 30–to add gender and queer desire in to that matrix is tricky and scary. I dabbled with wearing skirts, dresses and make-up and I was a really beautiful woman but I fucking hated the unsolicited attention. Some women like it. You have to really like it, I guess. I did it because I wanted to date women that looked like that and I had my own bouts of butchphobia to deal with–the usual internalized homophobia bit that went like If I Wanted To Date A Man Blah Blah Blah…But that wasn’t my speed anymore. Music saved my life and art gave me a voice to be real. So now I look like an adorable young cherubic boy and I get stared at but I don’t know, I just ask my ancestors and the ocean for strength. I’m just lucky and a smart cookie and that’s always given me strength. I forget that I can also look tough to people. I’ve always been a person of few words when you first meet me and maybe now I look like someone you don’t want to mess with. Who knows–but my exterior has always served me well.
AB: How have things changed over the years for a butch in East L.A.?
RG: Well, it’s hard to find work no matter what or where you are when you’re butch so I don’t know. I mean, women get beated and killed all the time. It’s a case by case thing, I think, if certain places have gotten easier for butches or other gender outlaws. People are still targeted by their own family members and neighbors. I have a friend, she’s white, beautiful, totally middle class and owns her own home in Altadena with her butch/genderqueer partner and their car gets eggs thrown at it because they live in the same area as a bunch of assholes. In the inner-city and working class communities–you’d think it would suck and be oppressive and all that, but in the end, you should just always be aware of your surroundings. Even if you’re just lounging on your couch and reading a book.
- This is Vaginal Davis.
AB: What are your theatrical influences?Are you aware of any cultural or artistic antecendents to what Butchlalis is doing?
RG: Theatrically, I love Luis Alfaro. Performance art-wise, I love Elia Arce, Ruben Martinez, Julie Tolentino, Ron Athey, Vaginal Davis, Ana Mendieta. Antecedents–Cyclona, from East LA. Scaring the hell out of East LA with her gender fury and a tasteful eye shadow palette.
AB: How did you become involved with Luis Alfaro?
RG: Through a Humanities initiative through USC–we got funding to pay a director we wanted to work with and it was a total no-brainer that we wanted to work with him. Luis has influenced both Claudia and myself over the years and he’s a master story teller that involved LA as a character.
AB: How has your work evolved over the past few years?
RG: I am more comfortable with the vernacular of theater and its conventions. I feel comfortable pushing against them openly. That’s what comes to mind.
AB: What’s next for Butchlalis?
RG: A text containing our work and ephemera. Currently seeking support and funding to allow us the time and resources to sit down and make sense of the last ten years+.Catch Alice Bag with Bill Basquin, Ishmael and Tennessee Reed and Joshua Mohr at the RADAR Reading Series, January 11th at the San Francisco Public Library, Latino Reading Room, Basement Level, 6pm, Free.