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Performance Art | Weekend Chat

Fernandez & Friends' Multiple Personalities Go on Parade

May 04, 2000|DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four years after she delivered her well-received poem "Confessions of a Catholic Cha Cha," Maria Elena Fernandez has returned to the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena. The L.A. native and two friends will perform a trilogy of autobiographical monologues. Fernandez, 34, said the pieces explore three stereotypes and lay bare the confluence of racism and sexism in each one. Fernandez, a Yale University graduate, performs around the country and teaches Chicano literature at Cal State Northridge. From her apartment in the Little Armenia section of east Hollywood, she spoke about the history leading up to "Catholic School Girl" and its place alongside the other performances, "Chola," by Linda Gamboa, and "Cha Cha," by Consuelo Flores.

Question: How does someone discover they have talent as a spoken-word performer?

Answer: I was in grad school getting a PhD in American history at UCLA, and it was a big disaster. I failed my exams, and I had to sort of remake my life. I decided I would go back to my secret dream, and that was to be a writer. So I did some poetry and did an internship at the L.A. Weekly, where I wrote a lot about rock en espanol and book reviews on Latino culture from 1994 to 1997. And then I made a go at doing freelance writing, which totally didn't work out either. Then I started doing more creative stuff. I had done some poetry readings around town. Then I wrote a monologue, which my friend Consuelo convinced me to do as a performance, and it was a big hit.

Q: What was it?

A: "Confessions of a Cha Cha Feminist." Do you know what a cha-cha is? A cha-cha was a term used in the 1980s for Latina club girls. I couldn't be that because I was a Catholic school girl, and my friends would have to just tell me what it was like. My parents wouldn't really let me out of the house.

Q: Where did you first perform it?

A: I did it at the Popular Research Center, which was started by young Latino activists looking to tie politics and arts. It was in a warehouse base in Highland Park. They were doing a fund-raiser for Zapatista women. They said, "Anybody can do whatever you want." They gave you 20 minutes, a stage and lighting. That was my debut.

Q: So, now you're a veteran of the monologue. Tell me about what's different this time.

A: Four years ago it was more of a poetry reading. What we've done now is make it more elaborate and more performative.

Q: Do you approach the Catholic school girl character differently than you did when you started with her?

A: Because I've concentrated more on performance over these past few years, I've gotten more confident and bolder about my character and how to use my body. This piece is about becoming comfortable with your sexuality and your body. I've found a way to reconnect with my body through music and dancing.

Q: Do you bust out and start dancing during the performance?

A: Hell, yes! I trace my relationship with music. I start with "Brick House" and Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and Latin house music from the '80s.

Q: What do you look like on stage?

A: I start off as a little girl. I wear a poofy white frilly dress. I change on stage and then wear a plaid skirt, your typical uniform. And then each of us becomes this goddess of emancipation from each of these stereotypes.

Q: Do you place yourself in any genre?

A: I absolutely identify as a Chicana and with the Latino artists-activists based in East L.A.

Q: Do you come from a family of intellectuals or performance artists?

A: My parents are immigrants from Mexico City. My father's a silversmith. My father has an eighth-grade education, and my mother has a sixth-grade education.

Q: So, what happened to you?

A: When I was a freshman in college, I started reading Chicano literature and African-American literature and Third World women's literature, and I was so turned on. Those works really helped me understand my own experience. It really was a moment of consciousness.

BE THERE

"The Chola, the Cha Cha and the Catholic School Girl," Friday at 8 p.m. at the Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena. Admission is $5, free for Armory members. (626) 792-5101.

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