Carla Corona
Hemispheric Institute
3rd Annual Encuentro Lima, Peru
Seminar Course Project
Interview with Renato Rosaldo

 

As a current student of New York University, Department of Performance Studies, I have participated in an interview with Prof. Renato Rosaldo of Stanford University. I have set up the interview into two core questions and after the initial responses follow up remarks and questions help in a more comprehensive understanding of Prof. Rosaldo's answers. I was interested in interviewing Prof. Rosaldo because he is significant in understanding a connection with anthropology, Latino Studies, and performance. I was interested in hearing his remarks to performance and politics within identity and cultural citizenship. Also, I think it is important to have a dialogue with him because he has a history in theater as a director and actor, as well as a poet. This helped in grasping a creative as well as academic translation of thoughts about performance in correlation with the Hemispheric Institute Performance & Politics.


Carla Corona-
This is an interview with Renato Rosaldo Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
My first question for you is: what relevance does performance have for you in your field of Latino Studies and Anthropology? And more specifically, how do you relate performance to the construction of cultural identity?

Renato Rosaldo-
I'm not even sure I know what "performance" is exactly…I noticed from a question after I gave my talk the other day that somebody seemed to be suggesting that because I thought the "Pachuco" [character in Luis Valdes' Zoot Suit] who is flamboyant (played by Edward James Olmos), they seemed to think that was "performance"…you know…all of these gestures, very big gestures and bright colors and so on…and I thought more about the question I was asked because they were saying, well, that it seems to get less performative.
But then I thought that the man of few words, the classic rural Mexican, the guy who is supposed to be strong and concealing all the strong feelings that he was strong and never showed any emotion I thought that that figure was as performative as the flamboyant one. So, I almost wonder what, that's human, cannot be performed because I don't think of performance as flamboyant, arm waving, big gestures colorful, extravagant but it can be very low key or a very low key gesture like the greeting that I did almost nothing, and that's performance.

And when I think of Latino Studies or identity, one of the things that I'm always trying to get across is that it exists in the body, that it is something that is always lived, always performed that it doesn't just exist in words.
I remember I was trying to convey to an African-American scholar the idea that---that I could know if someone was Latino by watching their body language and by hearing their speech for a little bit, that it wasn't written on the skin that it had to do with some way of acting in the world and that it wasn't necessarily anything as simple as speaking a language, although it could be that. If someone is speaking Spanish, usually I will know if they are Puerto-Rican or Mexican or they are from this or that part of Mexico and somehow he [the African-American scholar] wanted to see this written on the skin almost as if you could do a mug shot and I am saying that's Not it, it is a lived performative kind of thing and that I would be trying to convince him that even seeing a Chicano or Chicana who had no Spanish, I would recognize them as such and I could tell by body language, gestures, and other kinds of reactions things that Mexicans will call "el trato" the way that they treat other people.
And so if I am at a party and I see somebody who as they leave going around saying good-bye to everybody at a party, I know that they are Chicano, right? And I know that usually Anglos would slip out, right? And so that isn't necessarily a linguistic and it is not necessarily quit in the body, but it is a way of dealing with other people and way of feeling that they should be treated, and I always see that as performance and deeply connected to identity.

CC- In the United States, how do the arts and politics reflect the changing idea of citizenship? Do you believe in an "authenticity" of art?

RR-
Well, that is a pretty good question; I think I have done about 7 fifty-minute lectures on that (laugh.) I'll see if I can say it in a few words…

The first thing about citizenship is that I always try to separate the formal from the informal citizenship…or maybe lived citizenship from an official citizenship. An official citizenship meaning do you have your documents, do you have your voter registration card, do you have a passport, do you have this or that? Those things are not trivial, especially if you don't have them. They can seem trivial if you have them, but if you are an undocumented worker in the United States you know very deeply what those things mean to you, the freedom that they give you, the access that they give you, so I don't want to trivialize them, but what I am really and most deeply concerned with citizenship is about how a person herself or himself thinks about what it would take to make a person feel like they belonged, what it would take to make them feel enfranchised. And what I have thought through a lot about with talking to people…..research we call it (talking to people) …it's one of our two anthropological methods one is asking questions and the other one is hanging out. Through asking questions, talking with people, listening very hard to what they are saying I have realized that they have a very clear sense of what makes them feel like they belong.
What makes them feel that they're members? What makes them feel first-class as opposed to second-class citizen and when they move from one kind of citizenship to another, obviously they don't use the word "citizen.
Let me give you an example, a woman who dropped out of the Catholic church because she said it gave no place/space for her said I was going to the Catholic Church, and then I realized I was participating in rituals of my own exclusion. And, I said, "wow, I get paid for saying stuff like that…" and so I was really impressed because she was so aware of when she was being marginalized, or excluded, shut out. And she was very articulate about that, and I found that many people are.
And so the citizenship that I am concerned with is with, well, if you are with a group of parents in school you feel that you really should have a voice, you feel if you are really getting heard, do you feel like you really have a sense of belonging. How aware of those kinds of issues are you and people are very aware and acutely aware of how it shifts from one context to another and one social setting to another.

I have a feeling that you asked about something else…

CC-
The second part of that was, do you believe in an "authenticity" of art?

RR-
An "authenticity" of art? Nay. I don't believe in that.

Do I believe that art gets you to deeper places then much that is done in the social sciences? Yes, I do.
I feel as though art is usually thinking one step ahead of research. Why is that? It is fairly simple, but it may have a deeper reason.
The simple reason is if you are going to do a research project it's a decade before we'll hear about it. I mean that you have to get grants, you have to work out the methodology, you have to go do the research someplace, it has to be systematic and take certain amount of time to have credibility, that the person really was reliable and checked and crosschecked and did all the work that they should do so that it has a stamp of approval from the "union". And if you are an artist, you can be listening to people very carefully in certain neighborhoods and you can be quite aware of what is going to happen next because people are telling you. For example, in Mexico people would be saying that
Vicente Fox is an idiot that he doesn't know what he's saying, right? You hear that in jokes and so you tune into that as an artist. And, then you don't have the same rituals of proof that you do in social science research and research oriented fields.

Now what should we do about that as anthropologists…and I have two answers to that, and the first answer is that we ought to listen to what the artists are saying and we ought to then say, 'how can we translate their perceptions, their insights, how can we translate this into research because my experience has been in a class that, if I have a class that is ethnically, racially, and in other respects diverse and I say to them why don't' you bring in something to the class that says something about what you think is your group, your identity group, and people invariable bring songs, they bring poems…they don't bring the latest, hot social science article.
Never has that happened. They always bring in some other type of material.
Then I say, class, what should we do with this? Let's figure out what makes this song, this poem, or whatever has been brought in such a good and insightful piece of work that people say that this piece of work really tells me who I am. So you get something that really tells me who I am and then you say, how do you translate it into research?
I remember, for example, Doreen Condall (sp?) a woman anthropologist…she describes how she went to a play that was getting panned as an Asian-American piece of theater and she went into the play. People had said it was awful and that it "truly" wasn't an Asian-American….dah…dah…. and she went into the play and was just overwhelmed and came out in tears and she said I had never seen myself represented anywhere because she's third-generation and she said that they all talked like "Val-gals", a valley girl as they are called, and so that it was a very California form of speech, but it was just inflected with a third-generation Asian-American presence. And she said that finally somebody had captured the subtlety of who she was because the other representations that some people saw as more "authentic" were really not speaking to her generation or her situation or her identity. And so she suddenly saw herself reflected in a work of art and then said, well, then how can I translate this into anthropology, but she also made another move. She said that she wanted to do theater and so she is doing theater.

And I guess that my second answer would be that I am also doing poetry because I feel that a good poem is like a good Mexican corrido that you just jump in, right in the middle of it, where somebody is falling desperately in love, or somebody is dying, and then you are right in the middle of things, and you don't have to write a review of the literature or all the other stuff. You will right the heart of the thing that you want to get out and what you want to communicate about.
And at least in my case, I feel through the process of writing is something I want to understand. So I often feel a strong feeling that's puzzled me, that I said I am overwhelmed with feeling, but I don't know quite what I am feeling or why or where it's coming from. I want to go deeper into the feeling and so that would be the kind of exploration and work I want to do through the medium of poetry and so in that…. I guess that says it….

I am not sure about the authenticity of art, I am more sure about the way in which it can explore certain feelings, certain issues, certain social perceptions of greater depth and usually the way it's more perspicacious then what I see happening in the more academic work. Academics maybe take a longer time to get there and by then it's old news…..(laugh)

CC-
Okay, thank you. I now have a follow-up that was the first part.
You were saying a bit about how you can tell, for instance, if you were at a party that you can tell by that if somebody says good-bye to everybody as a Chicano, but then usually the people that slip out…and, I am wondering….
Do you feel that those sorts of notions perpetuate the stereotypes of cultural identities in any way?

RR-
I think…let me see if I can translate your question…There could be a way in which with the example that I just gave at a party means that says that if somebody just slips out that they are not a Chicana or Chicano that they are not doing their "Chicano" thing, and so they are not truly a Chicana/Chicano… I think that would be a mistake.
I think that we have a big, big problem right now with the notion of culture.
Because I think that at one time when we studied culture, we were studying clichés or conventions or stereotypes. And then what people did was they said…"Let's go to some far away place" so that what they'd come up with are the stereotypes, even the self-stereotype of members of their culture. Of course, then the obvious thing is that many people don't conform, that they feel themselves equally Chicana/Chicano or whatever, right?
And I think that the thing that we need to do is not be producing these stereotypes.
Another place where they do the same things is on campuses so they say, if you are going to be African-American here, 'you have to like this kind of music and not that kind of music, but I really like that kind of music, but I don't want to feel like I am being put in a straight jacket'.
I don't want somebody to be telling me how to be Black. And there are lots of ways of doing it, and I don't want to be put in a stereotype like that and told to conform.

Then the problem is what language do you have for talking about culture?
And right now, I think what I think is the way to do it is to actually look at different people in clusters of ways of doing things and the notion of culture wouldn't be something that you would automatically generalize to the group as w hole.
That you would generalize it to one speaker, three, or ten speakers, wherever you thought it was justified. And probably you would almost want a notion that is probabilistic. These sorts of people tend to do it this way…and so the sense in which you would be studying cultures is that there still would be the categories people use, how they classify the world, how they organize it, the kinds of assumptions that they make, what's placid or licit culture. how they categorize but you wouldn't be necessarily generalizing to a wider group.
You'd be saying here is where I studied this, here was the range of variation here is the
Doing something and I think that would be a beginning of how to break the stereotypes of culture that is being produced. I think that you probably would want to make a distinction (and I am not sure how you would do this) between reception and production. By this I mean, what is it that people actually perform? Do people actually perform the good-bye at a party? Or not? Then the second question: Do you that when somebody is going around the room saying good-bye to everybody that they are being a certain kind of Chicano and do you recognize that? So there is a difference between what is produced and what you understand, right? So does somebody recognize this and what is their reaction to it? You could have any reaction, any extreme or any point in between.
And so what you'd want to do is should distinction between and the things that they recognize as being part of some…repertoire that's possible, that's distinctively saying….
Violation of some expectations and then you go and talk to them but then you go and learn about it.

I think it is very important and that there are many interesting things going on right now, I hear that MY music, but then what you notice is that you could probably do some ethnic identification in terms of people's music is. And I don't know in what sense you could or couldn't do, but it would be something I would love to explore, and, of course, a music that Chicano student might like may not be what is seen as Chicano music, (whatever that might be…being those that is produced by Chicano singers/artists), but still I can begin to place that person and get a sense of where they grew up, who they are and stuff like that.

I am not sure if the old fashioned sense of culture that is 'This is 'authentic' or that is 'authentic'' would be ones that would actually hold, and I think what is going on now is much more subtle than that. I think what is going on is not a culture and a habitat so that the world's divided into this mosaic of a culture here and a culture there, but that
And realize that people are all mixing together, what ever is going on is much more subtle and probably much more important than what was going on before. That's it's not making our lives as people trying to grapple with this any easier or comfortable, but I do think that something is going on that is more deeper than what was happening before.

CC-
Thank you very much!

Interview taped on July 10, 2002