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Paving the Way for Festival Latino : Theater producer Jose Armand wants to bridge the gap between clashing art worlds


It's midnight in Tijuana, and the border town is hopping. Jose Armand, a Los Angeles theater producer, is guiding a cadre of associates through the touristy Avenida Revolucion, a boulevard about to vroom into high gear.

Drunk American jocks tote six packs; donkey-cart drivers offer Polaroids and the promise of immortality; and lost suburbanites who've been separated from tour groups whine helplessly.

"It's T.J.," Armand comments to his L.A. compadres . "And anything can happen."

He's not fooling around. As Armand spirits his group into the Rio Rita disco across the street from Denny's, the punk band Mercado Negro (Black Market) strums an eardrum-shattering note throughout the three-story club, warning the uninitiated that when they leave Rio Rita, they'll never be the same.

Tijuana may seem like the trinket capital of the world, but this city of 1.5 million has always been a hotbed for rock and experimental art making.

No one knows this better than Armand, 35, who makes monthly trips between Tijuana and L.A., trying to build "bridges." He's also the director of Los Angeles' Festival Latino, an unprecedented gathering of Pan-Latin American experimental performance works, scheduled for next May--a few months before the more Pacific Rim-oriented Los Angeles Festival being put together by Peter Sellars.

Although Armand has far less financial support than Sellars, his goal, while modest, is similar. He says he wants to make L.A. "pay more than lip service to the multicultural rap."

One way of doing this, he says, is to bring audiences from different and traditionally segregated communities together through art--in his case, that means producing innovative theatrical events.

Armand's dream is to create the kind of cultural exchange where Anglo and Latino artists would "be blown away by their common cultural bonds. . . . I'm searching for the bridges," he admits, "the uncharted one between various Latino cultures and the one between the Anglo and Latino experimental theater scenes."

Usually, he finds it. For Tijuana literally quakes with acoustic electricity and poetic justice. The scene dares all would-be rockers to break the sound barrier with a quasi-Jesus and Mary Chain metallic Latin style.

Guitarist Carlos Santana used to jam in Tijuana, a fact that does not go unmentioned by the four cool dudes who form Mercado Negro and who rattle off bands that inspire them--the Dead Kennedys, the B-52s.

When Armand shows up, the rockeros are so jazzed that they stop tuning up and flirting. To the members of Mercado Negro, Armand represents the bridge between the "big time" of L.A. and Tijuana avant-garde.

It all sounds so rosy until you see the thorns.

Armand is Cuban. And among Chicanos who have struggled hard to establish cultural pride in Southern California, Armand often feels like an uninvited guest.

When he first went to Tijuana, he was braced for the standard, if traumatic, discrimination he says he's been subjected to from Mexican-Americans here.

But the border writers, musicians and performers who make up the burgeoning art scene that tourists seldom see had nothing against Armand.

Why? Armand can be both a placid and passionate man--a bohemian with hip-length hair; his integrity is apparently catchy. He has endeared himself to the kind of experimental artists who hang out at Rio Rita. His monthly trips to Tijuana have made him a familiar face. He says he and his associates are there to check out the "wound" between the two countries--and that impresses the people there.

In the nightclub, Tijuana rockabilly music starts up to announce the entrance of a Tijuana star: the torch-bearer of the Baja performance art world, Carlos Niebla.

Niebla cries out in Spanish, and the spectacle begins. Mercado Negro punctuates Niebla's performance with harsh chords and delirious drumming.

"The performance work is called 'Dios en la Tierra,' or 'God on Earth,' " Armand says, narrating calmly to his friends and a reporter, even though he has to scream to be heard.

The piece's message--that liberty is the most precious possession in life--has moved many viewers, including Armand, to tears. After the performance, Armand greets Niebla warmly:

"I'm crazy about your show," he says in Spanish. "We'd love to produce you in L.A., because there's just no one like you there."

And, in fact, he did, last Wednesday night at Jack's Placita in downtown Los Angeles.

Armand's life has been a crash course in independence, and his main teacher has been art--specifically, the theater.

In 1962, when Armand was 8, the revolution had reached a climax in his native Cuba. He and his family, who were preparing to leave the island, lived in a poor town.

To protect himself physically and mentally from arbitrary cross fire, Armand would gather friends in his house and direct little plays about war.

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