Monday night, when Hollywood troops to the cultural Acropolis on the hill, there'll be another awards show going on just a few miles to the east. In distance, the two events aren't far apart. Culturally, though, there's a world between them.
The second annual Nopalotes--produced by downtown's Troy cafe at Plaza de la Raza--is an awards show of a different color, so to speak.
Part send-up, part counter-celebration and part serious tribute to the achievements of a burgeoning creative community, the Nopalotes toast (and roast) the talent and sense of humor of an up-and-coming generation of primarily Latino/Chicano performing artists.
Loosely based on the academy format, the show intersperses live entertainment with the presentation of the prizes and requisite video clips of the nominees and nominated performances. Instead of Billy Crystal and cohorts, you'll get Raul Raul and a host of entertaining others. There may be fewer paparazzi at the Nopalotes, but you'll probably be able to buy a ticket at the door.
Named after the Mexican cactus--a slang expression for a country bumpkin--the Nopalote Awards began as a group of Chicano artists' irreverent response to the Academy Awards, and especially the lack of Latino representation there. (Why the Nopalote? "Well, it's my favorite loteria card," quips producer Sean Carrillo.)
Categories in which the prestigious prickly will be awarded range from the familiar (best film, lifetime achievement) to the more esoteric ("Best Torment by a Young Sensitive Male Chicano Named Ruben"). The program is written by Taloo Carrillo, Jesse Nunez, Pablo Prietto and Bibbe Hansen, who also directs. The handsome Nopalote itself is designed by artist David Serrano.
It'll be a droll evening all right, but there's a serious point to it too. "A year ago, someone asked if I was going to be watching the Academy Awards," recalls Carrillo, who, along with Hansen, co-founded Troy, a downtown performance venue/gallery/coffeehouse that serves as unofficial headquarters for many of L.A.'s premier Latino artists. "I asked if any Chicanos were nominated and the answer was 'No,' as usual. At that moment, the Academy of Chicano Arts and Sciences was born."
According to the Academy of Chicano Arts and Sciences' mission statement--which is traditionally included in the proceedings--the organization was launched "in order to create a nepotistic, self-congratulatory, incestuous forum within which to shamelessly pat ourselves on the back in a public display of wife swapping and cheap shoes."
The academy membership runs to "Chicano Wunderkinder and retired Shaklee distributors." And as for who is eligible to receive the sensational succulent, "Non-winners of the Golden Eagle Awards are given priority."
The best part about the Nopalotes, though, is the live entertainment. Raul Raul is one of the fictitious personas of Robert Lopez, the actor-performance artist best known as El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. The Vanidades are a sort of Chicano En Vogue, a musical performance-art "girl group" with a gender-role twist. The comedians of Chicano Secret Service will provide the laughs. And Charles Lane--a master cabaret singer in the European style--and Mario Prietto, an alternative pop artist, will contribute to the musical portion of the show.
Yet while the Nopalotes may have been prompted by these artists' dissatisfaction, they have grown into something more than simply a rejoinder.
The artists involved are part of a cadre of talent that has begun to reconsider the viability of careers in the performing arts. It isn't just that theater and music are becoming somewhat more receptive to non-Anglo women and men, but also that the performing arts do not require the same resources as film and TV.
Film, after all, is hardly the only art form in which Latinos are proportionately underrepresented. Despite increased attention to the imperatives of multiculturalism, the mainstream stage and the music industry also have yet to catch up to the new L.A. The Mark Taper Forum, for instance, has not produced any mainstage work written by a U.S. Latino since Luis Valdez's 1978 "Zoot Suit." (Valdez's "Bandido" is said to be on the roster for next year, although a spokeswoman for the Taper said the schedule for next year has not been set.)
Prompted in part by California's revamped demographics--especially in L.A., where 40% of the population is Latino--Chicano comedy is fast emerging as the latest incarnation of American outsider humor.
Just as Jewish humor was when it started out in the Catskills 60 years ago, this comedy is put forth by people who are often the children of immigrants and the disenfranchised. It's also heavily media-influenced, as befits a generation weaned on sitcoms.