If Jesusa Rodríguez could be described with only one word, it would be sui generis. However, it would be extremely difficult to reduce this Mexican artist to a simple tag, which though descriptive, fails to fully capture in its totality her various dimensions. She sails across diverse artistic genres with ease and perfection: from street to classic theater, from cabaret to performance art, or from the pre-columbine tradition to the opera. Director, actress, playwright, performance artist, scenographer, businesswoman and social activist, Jesusa is a multifaceted woman. In her performances, power is a recurring theme, and where satire, humor and social critique dominate. Her performances have circumnavigated various parts of the world with success. Her most recent performance, Dialogues between Darwin and God, is, as the title indicates, a half-jokingly, half-serious mediation about the existence of God.
Vaffanculo Magazine (VM): In an interview, you expressed that Dialogues between Darwin and God has its origins in the streets, in public performances. Could you describe the creative process and how it was transformed into Dialogues between Darwin and God?
Jesusa Rodriguez (JR): Dialogues between Darwin and God became necessary in order to defend our condition as atheists, because in Mexico, there is still discrimination based on creed. Along with the show that we presented on Alameda Central, we demanded the reinstitution of the original phrase "God does not exist" by El Nigromante (political author Ingacio Ramirez, known as The Necromancer) on the famous mural by Diego Rivera, "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon on the Alameda Central," which was substituted with "Conference in the Academy of Letrán of 1836." Subsequently, we began La GULP (La gran union de libres pensadores or The Great Union of Freethinkers). Later, the performance was staged at the Universum, Museum of Sciences at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico).
VM: In Dialogues between Darwin and God you criticize Pinochet as well as Pope John Paul II (at least in the version presented at UCLA). Within a Mexican context, who would be the Pinochets and John Pauls?
JR: Pinochets and John Pauls abound in Mexico, but generally speaking in more diminished versions. There's an inferiority complex that holds a grip over presidents, generals, and many governmental civil servants. This can make them equally sinister. I'd put Father Maciel instead of John Paul, and in the place of Pinochet, Echeverría. Calderón is basically a puppet, and now they want to impose Peña Nieto, who is a sort of Barbie for the Opus Dei, and is operated via remote control by Salinas de Gortari.
VM: During the performance, you survey your audience's faith in God. In Mexico, where Catholicism is deeply ingrained in the public and private sphere, what has been the audience's reaction to this part of the performance and to the performance as a whole?
JR: In general, people don't feel attacked by this question, though rarely does anyone raise their hand in either case. The public's reaction has been very positive, especially when they see God because it is in that moment that they realize that He does not exist.
VM: If Jesusa does not believe in God, why talk to Him? Or, why talk about Him?
JR: I talk about God because, although an invention, it has given rise to many destructive things. It's like speaking about instruments of torture, or weapons; I don't believe in them, but you have to get to know them.
VM: In Mexico, justice is a business monopolized by higher powers (as evidenced in the documentary Presumed Guilty, for example); misogyny prevails in Ciudad Juarez (like in the rest of the country); hatred towards the gay community remains deeply embedded and rekindled with the panista government in the last few years; cárteles control several parts of the country… Don't you think that to believe in God in Mexico—a country that has no news of Him—is a great contradiction? Why does Mexico insist in representing a Catholicism lacking in authenticity and that is unfounded? To what extent has organized religion continued to influence the obscurantism perpetuated since colonial times?
JR: Mexico is the land of simulation and religion is the perfect instrument to achieve that purpose, and there is nothing more hypocritical than Catholicism.
VM: The performance of First Dream is, without a doubt transgresses and it is radical because the theme of the piece, Sor Juana, and you are progressive and radical as well. Where do you think the journey and desire for knowledge fit in today's society?
JR: This poem is a pinnacle, and one must admire it as one admires Popocatépetl, or Iztaccihuatl, as no one questions the validity of those two volcanoes. That might explain why Sor Juana was born in Nepantla, because she was destined to write about the highest reaches of thought. With regard to Mexico's current state, I believe that ignorance is the thing that keeps us in poverty.
VM: What's your intention in making Sor Juana's desire and pleasure for knowledge relevant in our current times?
JR: There are treasures, like Sor Juana, that cannot be privatized or sold abroad. They must always be cherished.
VM: If for you, "poetry is a form of salvation", what do we do in Mexico if people do not read, particularly if they do not read poetry? How can you transform the thought of a population that was not taught how to think, question, and much less read?
JR: I believe that we must nourish ourselves from original sources, that is, the ancient cultures of Mexico; After all, an entire worldview and wisdom remains embedded within indigenous people.
VM: We have a government that despises culture and the arts, people in political spheres that do not know about literature (for example, Fox during his presidency citing "José" Luis Borges; Peña Nieto maintaining that La silla del águila (The Eagle's Throne) was written by Krauze); and cabinet members and current administration making decisions that obliterate this desire for knowledge and strive instead to reduce academic standards (as demonstrated by the elimination of certain subjects, like philosophy). Then, how do you fight ignorance if our leaders and pseudo-rulers advocate for a population (or a mass) that continues to be immersed in ignorance and television?
JR: Today, we are faced with the threat of a return of the PRI, and with one candidate, Peña Nieto, who has already publicly demonstrated that he doesn't read. As such, we are faced with two possibilities: 1) a country of functional illiterates, or 2) a new republic in which there are literacy programs and all people are given the opportunity to lead dignified lives. This is what we are working towards with the Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional: MORENA with Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
VM: Why do you think reality shows are currently so popular? Do you "really" think what the camera captures is about reality or is it a kind of performance by the subject-actors? Where do you think this seemingly need for fame comes from?
JR: Reality shows are additional garbage to what's already being spewed out by the ton on television. When a population lives in both material and moral poverty, it's obvious that they should only want to watch more television. These programs are like the dumpsters where the poorest go pick out the scraps that society leaves behind and with which they nourish themselves. Although there is a difference—at least dumpsters nourish in one form or another, while these programs only poison them. I don't think it's a question of fame, but rather that these people are paid a little money in order to humiliate themselves in public, in the same way that they sell their votes for a little bit of money.
VM: In postmodern studies, it is thought that female performances are derived from the relation between women and the dominant system of representation as well as a patriarchal culture (within the framework of feminist criticism). Furthermore, the evident subversive strategies and the intent of deconstruction are inherent in the majority of female performances. How do you think the performances you do fit with this definition? Do you believe you do or do not prove this theoretical fundamental?
JR: What I do is the result of the indignation that I feel towards various forms of injustice, corruption and social and political decay, which sometimes has to do with patriarchy, other times with religion, and sometimes with plain old government stupidity. I don't think being a woman, a lesbian, short, or a troublemaker will always be what determines my work. I don't see much of a difference between male and female performances.
VM: From its inception, performance possesses a political nature par excellence (1960s feminist performance, for instance). Do you have interest in defining yourself politically once you are offstage or do you prefer that the audience deduce your political position from your art?
JR: It has never been my intention to define myself, as my political stance is quite clear and I think you can detect it in each one of my works from the first scene.
VM: Your social and ideological commitment, which is anti-establishment and progressive, is obvious on stage. Do you hope that this spreads to your audience so they think and question after seeing one of your performances? What does Jesusa expect from the spectator?
JR: I don't expect anything from the spectator. I do what I do, because it gives me some sense of being able to understand my reality. For me, the theater has been an instrument of revelation, so if it speaks to someone else, then all the better.
VM: Do you think the political labels of "right" and "left" still mean something, not only in Mexico but the rest of the world?
JR: Definitely. I believe that the right is shitty in all parts of the world.
VM: You personify contradiction: On one hand, you are considered a strong woman, valiant for doing what you do, for expressing in the way you do, and for being blunt in your criticisms towards society. Yet, at the same time, the instrument with which you work is your body, the most vulnerable space we all have. How do you protect yourself, protect your body when you extensively utilize it to express yourself artistically while you criticize and rebel?
JR: The body is the instrument upon which we all as actors depend. Its fragility and strength are part of its nature. I only have my own body, and not only do I put it on stage, but I've had to put it in front of the police, and against the powers that be. I believe that physical force is a vulgar weapon. Intelligence is a marvelous instrument and humor is its best vehicle. I am vulnerable only when I stop doing what I believe in.
VM: Many of your performances have direct allusions to Mexican culture that are necessary to understand the references, and thus the social and critical commentary you elaborate. The audience's recognition of the references is immediate and necessary in order to establish complicity or a kind of contract between you and them. What contract or complicity do you establish with a Spanish, French, Italian audience, or of any country? Without a doubt, your art transgresses cultural boundaries, but what do you think makes the translation effective?
JR: There are a lot of things that cannot be translated and which are only understood in a certain culture or moment. There are other things that are universal and recognized by any human being that is addicted to oxygen.
VM: Your performances are irrefutable proof that your handling of playfulness is masterful. How do you approach the comedic material and what relevance do you give it when you are working on a concept for a performance? It's obvious that it is important, you can see it on stage, but on a theoretical level, how do you conceive the playful and humoristic element, as well as the strategies that you use to communicate a message that at first sight is "light" and "comical", but which carries powerful critical implications.
JR: The process is actually the other way around: How do I make a difficult subject heard? There is no better way than humor, because when people laugh, they decide to listen. On the other hand, we as humans need to laugh. We seek out laughter in the same way we seek out health. That is what attracts people to performances, much in the same way as people are drawn to rural clinics or hospitals—there's no need to publicize.
VM: Are you planning to collaborate with Andrés Manuel López Obrador's presidential campaign this 2012?
JR: As I said before, we will keep working towards a movement of peaceful civil resistance, known as MORENA, and we will continue to work for the regeneration of public life in Mexico. 2012 is a new opportunity for Mexico.
VM: Are you working on a new performance piece?
JR: I'm working on a new show, though I don't know if I can finish it this year, or if we'll throw ourselves completely into the political-electoral vortex.