Canto CCCLI: Culture Clash’s 40th Anniversary Bash!

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Or: The Chicanada shows up


May 11, 2024

Gentle cabrones:

It was 6 p.m. on a Saturday evening at The Soraya at Cal State Northridge, but people were already milling around the entrance two hours before showtime.

The occasion: the one-night-only 40th anniversary the legendary performance troupe Culture Clash.

I knew it was going to be an incredible night, because DUH. Culture Clash. Herbert Siguenza, Ric Salinas, Richard Montoya. Chicano comedy icons — and yea, Herbert and Ric are Salvis, ¿y que? Chicanidad is a mindset, not a birthright, and they’ve made a career out of it.

And, of course, they’re so much more. Satirists of their adopted homeland of Los Angeles. Chroniclers of local history. Indefatigable promoters of the stage, new and ancient. Pioneers with their gone-too-soon TV sketch show in the early 1990s, which is how I first heard of them. Brilliant minds. Artivistas to the max, which goes with that Chicanidad.

Most importantly? Funny ass motherfuckers — some of the funniest SoCal has ever seen. Who else would’ve done a skit about the Mexican hockey team going bravely into the fourth period?

Northridge is basically a galaxy away from Anacrime, but I was going to make it — both out of #respect, but also at their invitation, for a specific reason. So I showed up early, went to some mixer that had champagne that I ditched because there was no booze, then went down to the first floor.

The Chicanada!

Comedian Ernie G. Playwright Josefina Lopez. Cartoonista Lalo Alcaraz. La Opinión scion Mónica C. Lozano. Artivista Dan Guerrero. Former L.A. councilmember Gil Cedillo. Cal State Channel Islands Chicano Studies chair José M. Alamillo. Cal State Northridge Profe and lowrider leyenda Denise Sandoval. TV producer extraordinaire Flavio Morales. NPR icon Mandalit del Barco. L.A. politics reporter legend Pilar Marrero. Playwright Roberta Martinez. Cal State Fullerton Chicana and Chicano Studies profe Gabriela Nuñez.

Those are just the people I ran into in about 20 minutes before and after the show.

The ebullience! Some people hadn’t seen each other in person since the pandemic. Some hadn’t seen each other in years. Josefina and Lalo independently called it “Chicano prom.” I kept telling people, “Look at the Chicanada!”

Look at this room filled with great Chicanos!

It was more like a class reunion of Latino L.A. The guayaberas and Pendletons and huipiles were ironed and starched. Everyone was dressed to impress. Everyone was proud of what they had done individually, but they weren’t there to show off. They were there to praise each other. They were there to honor Culture Clash, the embodiment of all we have striven to do in our personal and professional lives as Chicanos in SoCal and beyond.

We were there to do something I loathe to do, but is vital to do so every once in a while.

Reflect on a job well done.

Pre-game. Were they ever so young…

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“May the 40th be With You” didn’t start at 8 p.m., of course. So we got to chat and see a slideshow of Culture Clash’s history. One of the people who appeared was the late L.A. political powerhouse Gloria Molina.

The Culture Clash TV show was brilliant on many levels — they showed excerpts, and it was even funnier than I remembered — but one of their best bits was the “Chicano Word of the Day.” A celebrity — Dolores Huerto, Alfonso Ribeiro, back when everyone thought he was Latino — would be in a chair, hold up a word, and give a Diablo’s Dictionary explanation. I remember when Gloria did it, a few years (months?) after her historic L.A. County supervisor win. The word was “jefita,” and Gloria seamlessly pulled it off in a power suit of — what else? — purple. See it for yourself.

Monday, May 14, will mark one year since Gloria left us. After she died, someone close to her told me we need to hold events for our giants while they’re around to let them know as a community how much they’re loved and to thank them for what they did.

Culture Clash’s 40th wasn’t that — and yet it was. The Soraya’s capacity is 1,700. Nearly every seat was filled — we had to show up for the clasheros.

The show! Sabina Zúñiga Varela was the sharp, well-humored master of ceremonies. They began by doing a bunch of ‘60s dances — the Mashed Potato, the Watusi, the Pulp Fiction — scored to “Wooly Bully,” that party anthem howled by that secret Chicano Domingo “Sam the Sham” Samudio. Then they segued to 90s dances. More dancing — a flex. These 60-somes still had the lung capacity of Usain Bolt, you know?

Then some tuxedo chatter around a baby grand played expertly by a pianist associated with Randy Newman or someone. The clasheros gave their thanks, then on with the show, with a show of shows.

The brilliant, bilingual “Who’s on First” bit from Chavez Ravine. Siguenza’s resuscitated Che Guevara, now in the Latinx era. His Julio Iglesias, kidnapped to atone for the sins of the conquistadors. Others I can’t remember because I didn’t take notes because I was just there to enjoy something for once — but then the mortality of us all sunk in.

The show slowed down when Ric played José Antonio Burciaga, someone who initially didn’t resonate with the audience. Nor did Ric’s routine, which consisted of José going to the swap meet and explaining what he bought in a corny tío way. But it was beautiful. Gen X and boomer Chicanos will remember Burciaga more for his columnas, even if they don’t remember the name — gente, they were compiled into the essential books Drink Cultura and Spilling the Beans.

Burciaga was a founding member of Culture Clash. He died before my time, but I knew who he was and I immediately caught on to Ric’s touching tribute. At the end José/Ric broke the fourth wall, spoke of his importance, and the audience applauded with wet eyes.

The guests! Aztlán Underground. Comic Marcella Arguello, who showed off a forearm-sized tattoo of San Oscar Romero, then unleashed a delightfully vulgar set (my favorite joke was the Bakersfieldian mocking the Modestan, which had the huge contingent of Central Valley fans HOWLING; the best joke was the super-tall Arguello describing her guy as a different font when they, um, love. Vaneza Calderon y Los Tres Perdidos, as soulful as always (one of the few disappointments of the night: the audience wasn’t clapping along enough, let alone singing, to “Un Puño de Tierra.” Too zacatecano a tune for the Chicanos? Come on, raza: If Garrison Keillor can brag about his adoring audience warbling along with him to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” we can do better next time).

Best joke of the night: Montoya — ever the Loki of the trio — praying for a two-state solution between Boyle Heights and Pacoima.

Worst: Veteranos need to stop with the mention of cancel culture at every set. Culture Clash was gleefully un-PC that night, so no need to tell us you are.

Tributes to the women who shaped Culture Clash. Awarding of Golden Jalapeño awards, which Montoya of course compared to a penis, but then noted that in New Mexico, it also has yoni properties once you cut it open — don’t tell that to the TERFs of the world!

Best reveal of the night: Kirk Ward. The token gabacho in Culture Clash’s TV show. I remember him well, alternately evil and pathetic, bumbling, and scheming — the Washington Generals of the program. Ward read his moving monologue — white boy from Hollister who found religion at El Teatro Campesino, salvation via Culture Clash. Poignant, touching, and a warmup for him to play — who else? — Donald Trump.

It’s federal prison. Kirk Trump is in with…disgraced L.A. councilmember José Huizar, played by — who else? — Siguenza. The groans! Siguenza played Huizar as a mop-topped, bug-eyed sheepish Buster Brown. They began talking about Latino support for Trump, which Montoya — dressed up like a Homies figurine, except more so — denied while Kirk Trump insisted was real. “Let’s ask a Mexican,” Montoya remarked.

Enter: ME.

Before the performance, Montoya — who wrote on FB after Gloria’s funeral one the kindest things anyone has ever written about me — reached out to me to make sure I was going, because they wanted to shout me out in the script (lot of shoutouts to friend and collaborators — truly, a career-spanning show). It would be the third time I ever appeared in a Culture Clash skit. Previous appearances: Their Orange County version of Culture Clash in AmeriCCa also said “Let’s ask a Mexican” to audience applause (for that, we talked for an hour at El Chinaco in Costa Mexico), then a quick bit during an LA Weekly theater awards (back when people cared about LA Weekly) where I blew my line.

Now, the Soraya.

Montoya did a toss to me by name and title, and I was supposed to stand up and shout “Hell no!” from my seat to Trump’s insistence that Latinos love Trump. Well, I yelled “HELL NO!” I yelled it so loud that Montoya asked I say the line again. I yelled “HELL NO!” again. No one could understand me, no one got the line or the reference.

I blew the line — UGH.

Thankfully, Frankie Quiñones of the recently, criminally canceled This Fool was there to redeem the sketch with his Cholo Fit routine. Then Montoya was going to give a Golden Jalapeño to recently retired Cesar Chavez Foundation president Paul Chavez. Just as he was about to do this, Montoya remembered he was dressed in cartoonishly large blue jeans, bandanna and T-shirts and laughed at his predicament. Genius.

I figured the show would last 90 minutes. Nah. More like two hours getting up to 2.5. No one complained. Everyone laughed loudly and applauded with pride and would’ve stayed there the whole night, but the show had to end.

The End! Finally, a callback to the Star Wars-themed title. Zúñiga Varela appears as Princess Loca, complete with a wannabe light saber (was there a shoutout to the Pacoima Swap Meet at some point? I think so, but there was definitely a diss at Simi Valley, because those are the ricos whom Chicanos out in the San Fernando Valley ridicule, not Zooporters). Princess Loca tells the clasheros to kneel — it’s time for them to say goodbye, and time to go into the future.

Time for the dawn of the Sixth Son, I would’ve said.

I think someone on stage asked where was the future, because Princess Loca commanded Herbert, Ric, and Richard to turn around and see it. We — the audience — was their future, the people who would keep them forever young, the ones who would keep them immortal. This is my analysis, not the actual words, but I’m right. Because the guys slowly turned around, and looked at us as if it was the first time they had noticed we were there. Their look of joy, gratitude, amazement, and relief that people cared was real.

Thunderous, well-deserved standing ovation.

The entire cast returned on stage, to the tune of “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin. From the front-row seats, someone handed Montoya his young daughter. She was crying from all the noise. Montoya laughingly pleaded for everyone to wind down their applause because she was crying — our immortals are oh-so-human and oh-so-loving.

Congratulations, Culture Clash. Congratulations, la Chicanada. Se miran bien, y sigue la lucha. When we show up, WE SHOW UP. Let’s catch up for other legends sooner rather than later, you know?

**

Enough rambling. This was the semana that was:

FAAAAAADED…

IMAGE OF THE WEEK: Cerveza Cito truck in downtown SanTana.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." — Mike Tyson

LISTENING: Workin' on a Groovy Thing,” Patti Drew. Underrated soul voice. Only two hits, really, and this is one of them — hadn’t heard it in YEARS until it popped up on Smokey’s Soultown on SiriusXM. Doo-wop meets Chess. Who gives a fuck about Drake versus Kendrick when you’ve got this?

READING: “How Viking-Age Hunters Took Down the Biggest Animal on Earth”: The only time I ever went to the Smithsonian, I saw a great, if sad, exhibit on the history of American whaling. That era has intrigued me ever since (one of the great words: “scrimshaw,” which refers to art done from whale bones and ivory. Art from butchery — the human experience), along with mankind’s folly of over-whaling. A prologue to what I loved about this story — but let the whales swim!

BUY MY NEW CO-BOOK! People’s Guide to Orange County tells an alternative history of OC through the scholarship and reporting of myself, Elaine Lewinnek, and Thuy Vo Dang. There’ll be signings all year — in meanwhile, buy your copy TODAY. And, yes: I’ll autograph it!

Gustavo Events  

May 18, 7 p.m.: The Mark Taper Forum will hold a reading of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, a legendary play based on the transcript of a federal trial against Catholic activists that saw them jailed for their activism against the Vietnam War (you’re going to have to go to see what they did). I’ve been asked to give a talk after the reading about the play and its times — WHOA… Buy your tickets here.

May 31, 11:30 a.m.: I’ll be part of a panel about the OC media landscape as part of OC Forum. At the Irvine Hyatt. Cheapest ticket is $125 — WTF?

June 6, 7:30 p.m.: I will be the emcee for the Exposé Awards, the annual gala on behalf of the fine news nonprofit Capital & Main held at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA. Tickets ain’t cheap, but don’t be a cheapskate — it’s a damn fundraiser, and you get to see me do my best Billy Crystal impersonation. Buy TODAY. (I was also plugged in one of their newsletters)

Gustavo in the News

The Pete Wilson legacy in 30 pieces”: My interview with the former California governor gets shouted out in his hometown alt-weekly, the San Diego Reader — um, yeah.

Latinx Files: The Turkish dramas taking over señoras’ lives”: A newsletter you should subscribe to plugs a columna of mine.

UFW leader Teresa Romero honored with Presidential Medal of Freedom“: The same newsletter plugs me in a different edition.

Alta Journal Scoops Up 21 Nominations for the L.A. Press Club Awards”: I’m up for Columnist of the Year for digital publication!

Gustavo Stories 

Grítale a Guti”: Latest edition of my Tuesday night IG Live free-for-all.

Anaheim teacher layoffs: Who stays, who goes?”: My latest KCRW “Orange County Line” commentary talks about my high school district.

How the Jalapeño Lost Its Heat”: I appeared on Slate’s “Decoder Ring” podcast to talk about the subject at hand.

"#michetalks”: My honey’s monthly interview series sees her sit down with Rancho Gordo owner-founder Steve Sando, with a cameo by me and Hook!

Pringles, plywood and chalk: The supply chain sustaining the Cal State L.A. encampment”: My latest L.A. Times columna talks to folks delivering the goods. KEY QUOTE: “When you see it happen at a commuter school — it’s big. It’s a powerful statement.”

Disneyland has already turned my hometown into a giant tourist trap. What’s next?”: My next latest L.A. Times columna trashed DisneylandForward because SOMEONE has to. KEY QUOTE: “They’re celebrating like Ewoks at the end of “Return of the Jedi” at the thought of more rides to enjoy and swag to grab.”

You made it this far down? Gracias! Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram while you’re down here by clicking on their logos down below. Don’t forget to forward this newsletter to your compadres y comadres! You can’t get me tacos anymore, but you sure as hell can give them — and more — to the O.C. Catholic Worker!