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It is 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 12, and Guillermo Gómez-Peña has been sitting in a wheelchair inside a Plexiglas box for over four hours. As he staggers out of the box, his eyes have a dull sheen, making him look both dazed and high. His pre-Columbian facial markings, carefully drawn with eyeliner pencil, have faded. Only his glittering bustier still sparkles. Nobody said being a transcultural saint was easy.

“Welcome to the Temple of Confessions,” a cheery female voice calls out from a loudspeaker, her greeting layered with monastic chants and mariachi rhythms. Scented votives cast flickering shadows against the walls and high ceilings painted blood-red. The candles’ vapors commingle with the smell of sacral incense. Comical portraits on velvet hang solemnly on both sides of the room. In the center, a taxidermied chicken hangs by a noose over a body bag emblazoned “I.N.S. Indocumentado.” A cigar-store Indian looks on.

Inside the box, Gómez-Peña becomes “San Pocho Aztlaneca,” a mystic shaman, one of the last living saints of an invented religion. The Corcoran’s Gallery One is his religious abode. Art patrons become San Pocho’s supplicants. All day he invites them to view his religious artifacts and tchotchkes and to reveal their intercultural transgressions.

This exhibit is about fear and desire—of Mexico, of immigrants, the Spanish language, the U.S.A.’s changing face. Gómez-Peña and his partner in art, Roberto Sifuentes, conceived the piece in 1994 as a response to the anti-immigration backlash. But the interaction between performers and audience soon becomes more than a survey of people’s attitudes toward illegal aliens. The two artists tap into a deeper spiritual longing within the public. In the process of creating the piece, Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes discovered that “America was obsessed with confession.” The glut of talk shows on TV and radio was just the tip of the iceberg.

In the gallery, people kneel at a prie-dieu before the encased saints and whisper into a microphone. Others write confessions on “Fear” or “Desire” cards and drop them into an urn. Confessions can also be given via the World Wide Web (www.sfgate.com/foundry/pochanostra.html) or by calling a special hotline, (202) 833-VATO.

“First, people are a little bit distrustful and stepping back,” says Gómez-Peña. “And slowly they are getting into it, and at the end you just cannot take them away from the mike.” He’s right; when I was there, I saw a guy confess three times in about half an hour. It was as if he kept remembering things he had forgotten and had to go back and add them to the list.

The confessions, like the people viewing the exhibit, run the gamut. Written and recorded in English and Spanish, ranging from the serious to the surreal, they are sometimes shocking in their candor:

“I confess that I thought I could become an Other by loving him. He is a Bolivian that I thought I could help—no, just Other.”

“No tengo miedo. Comeme, devorame.”

“Chicanos scare me or used to—still do—the men—they scream at me—I think rape—I feel this is wrong, but I can’t help it.”

“Washingtonians have been very willing to confess. Perhaps,” muses Gómez-Peña, “there is a lot of sin in the city of Washington.”

Originally from Mexico City, Gómez-Peña now spends most of his time on the road. Though he keeps an apartment in San Francisco, last year he spent almost as much time in D.C. as he did at “home.”

“I love Washington,” he says unequivocally. “Throughout the years I have had the privilege to collaborate with many D.C. artists who are of the first order. People like Silvana Straw, like B. Stanley, like Quique Aviles, like Michelle Parkerson.” He cites GALA Hispanic Theatre and Dance Place, where many of his earlier performances took place, as “crucial nerve centers of activity in town.”

The trouble with D.C., according to Gómez-Peña, isn’t the artists—it’s the lack of a supportive culture. “We need the complicity of many sectors for a performance-art milieu to develop,” he says. “There has to be a collaboration with the alternative media; there have to be art critics and writers. There have to be meeting places—cafes, bookstores. There have to be publications. There has to be a whole culture.”

Gómez-Peña has been fortunate enough to find support for his work here. Part of it may be the “new boy in town” excitement his work generates. And winning a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1991 certainly didn’t hurt.

“It gave me more of a national voice. It also gave me more responsibility, because I was being carefully scrutinized by the art world and by the political establishment,” says Gómez-Peña. “Being the first Latino performance artist to ever receive a MacArthur, being the first politicized performance artist to ever receive a MacArthur, gave me tremendous moral weight, and at the same time moral suspicion.”

Gómez-Peña creates consistently challenging work that pays acute attention to aesthetics. The environment he creates in Temple of Confessions—the music, the sounds, the colors—has a disarming effect on viewers. Entering the gallery, they see Gómez-Peña in his box. The room he occupies is called the “Chapel of Fear.” His temporary home is filled with all manner of bizarre artifacts: a bottle of Pepe Lopez tequila, sombrero-shaped gummy candy, an accordion, and a clay South American flute wrapped in a condom. On the other side of the gallery, in the “Chapel of Desires,” Sifuentes occupies another box as “El Pre-Columbian Vato.” His character, a “holy gang member,” wears jeans and an open plaid shirt buttoned at the collar over a blood-stained, knife wound-riddled T-shirt. Around him, Catholic iconography joins drug paraphernalia, weapons, a half-empty bottle of malt liquor, and a can of spray paint.

During their three-day stint in the living diorama, Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes are joined by Norma Medina and Michele Ceballos, who play the role of chapel caretakers. Medina, dressed as pregnant nun, and Ceballos, as a dominatrix nun, walk through the chapel encouraging visitors to confess. They light incense and polish the cases.

“[The audience feels] a certain safety and distance from us, even though they’re, like, surrounded by wild imagery and smells and sounds, because at least we’re behind Plexiglas boxes,” explains Sifuentes. “But then there’s Norma and Michele, these caretakers, moving around like ghostlike figures, so people really, really feel surrounded.”

After the three days of performance, the candles and incense are put away, and human-size effigies replace the “saints” and “nuns.” The exhibit is overwhelming enough as an installation piece, but the combined performance of the four artists creates the kind of sensory overload that makes people want to spill their guts.

Medina sings “Ave Maria” in mournful tones as she kneels in front of a velvet portrait of “Santa Frida de Detroit,” Frida Kahlo with a whitewall tire for a halo. At the same time, Ceballos wipes the shoes of a patron with her black veil. Sifuentes stands in his box, repeatedly jabbing his stomach with a nightstick before holding it against his neck, chokehold-style. Across the room, Gómez-Peña, holding a mirrored compact, powders his face and reapplies his facial tattoo. He then holds a rusty knife against his face, threatening to cut out his tongue.

“I am afraid of these grotesque images which you have not created. I haven’t the courage to face a nun as of yet.”

“My desire is to be white for a day.”

“Jesus loves you, repent, be baptized in Jesus’ name. (Phone number withheld)”

“A lot of people came up to me and said how the show was extremely tragic and erotic at the same time. At different moments they were very turned on and at other moments repulsed, sick to their stomachs,” says Sifuentes.

The kinds of responses the performers get also depends to a great extent on where they are performing. Group members were attacked by white supremacists in Rhode Island. They’ve been ousted from several cities. And everywhere they go they receive hate mail and angry phone calls.

“I never used to think that to do political performance art would be dangerous,” says Gómez-Peña. But, he continues, “Once we leave the major urban centers and we decide to venture into conservative and monocultural parts of America, then suddenly to be a Latino artist becomes a dangerous proposition.”

Security is a serious issue. Especially for Medina and Ceballos, who have to deal with the public directly. “A lot of times people wonder if I’m a mannequin or real, and they kick me,” says Ceballos. Medina often encounters people who think she’s actually pregnant. Once a woman wanted to report her to Child Protective Services because she felt Medina was abusing her unborn child by performing with Gómez-Peña. “People ask who the father of the child is,” says Medina. “I say, ‘Jesus Christ’ or, ‘San Pocho.’”

At the Corcoran, the performers haven’t encountered the kind of threats or outright hate they have faced in other cities. They chose the weekend of Oct. 12 to coincide with events like the AIDS quilt display and the Latino March. When the cast members found out that the march was routed to go right past the Corcoran, they did an impromptu performance on the gallery steps and cheered in solidarity with the marchers.

“This particular weekend was really powerful and timely. The march…created an incredible kickoff,” recounts Sifuentes. “There we were, standing on the steps of this high-art museum in costume and character for a piece dealing with a lot of the same issues as the march.”

But some activists disapproved of the exhibit’s being in the Corcoran and used the confessional as a soapbox to present their views on what they saw as co-optation. “If you were congruent with your politics, you would be doing this on the streets,” Gómez-Peña recalls them saying. “Basically what they were saying is that they want us to be marginalized. And it was non-Latinos saying this, of course. The Latinos were in support of us.”

“I saw it as a victory. Latinos in the Corcoran! Instead of seeing it as the Corcoran opening up to new ideas, they were ready to moralize,” says Gómez-Peña. “At that point, as an artist, I just have to fight for my right to make good art wherever I want to.”

While his definition of good art may not jibe with those of the usual Corcoran set or traditional leftists, he certainly has created something that won’t soon be forgotten. As a final send-off, Gómez-Peña and cast will return this weekend, just before the elections. And they’ll be bringing along some guests from Mexico City. Lorena Orozco will play a third nun. And on Nov. 3, Cesar Martinez will present a life-size man made out of Jell-O, which he will invite the audience to partake of.

“It’s hyperrealistic,” says Gómez-Peña. “You can see his pores. You can see everything, you know, naked. And the insides of the man are going to be made with tropical fruit—the lungs, the stomach, the liver.”

“At first the audience says, ‘No, no, no, I won’t eat,’ and then he starts serving them, cutting body parts and serving them. And then,” Gómez-Peña says in a confidential tone, sheer delight in his eyes, “people begin to fight for the food. And people begin to fight for the genitals and people begin to fight for the eyes, for the mouth, for the brains.

“And it becomes a really strange cannibalistic ritual. And it is only at the end that people realize how they have been implicated, you know. And then they feel bad,” he says laughing.

The artists estimate that they have received more than 100 recorded confessions in three days and as many written, not including phone and e-mail confessions. “Most of the confessions were very articulate and sincere,” says Gómez-Peña.

“My desire is to taint my white blood with the blood of another race. I desire to be with a woman of foreign origin, to overcome the shame of my heritage and mingle with the world of secrets.”

“Tengo miedo a la soledad, al SIDA, y no sé quien soy.”

“I am insulted by the assumption (which is also founded in prejudice) that all white women want to get fucked by Latino men or women.”

“My biggest fear is that I will not be able to go home again—trapped in the U.S.A.”

Sometimes people confess actual sins, and like a Catholic priest, Gómez-Peña must listen without judging, accept without condemning. Other confessions are obviously the work of wise-asses out to scandalize and shock. But Sifuentes says there is value in these fantasy confessions also: “Even in joking, people’s imaginations are revealing. They say something about how they feel toward people of color.”

“We’re working with things that have to do with the world of dreams and archetypes,” says Gómez-Peña. “If a journalist were to ask someone what was their opinion of Mexican-Americans or immigrants, they would be very guarded. But here we create an environment where they can reveal themselves.”

“It tends to be the case that through word of mouth, people who never visited end up visiting—the city subculture, the rockers, fringe religious groups, the S&M crowd, a lot of teens…because they’re attracted to the imagery,” says Gómez-Peña. “Once they visit, they realize that it’s not just an exhibit of the exotic and bizarre, but a highly politicized, complex artwork.” CP