Through Their Eyes and Bodies:
Mexican Women Performance Artists, Feminism, and Mexican Astrid Hadad

Roselyn Costantino
Pennsylvania State University-Altoona

Prepared for delivery at the 1995 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, the Sheraton Washington, September 28-30, 1995

NOTE: This essay, under the title of "AND SHE WEARS IT WELL: FEMINIST AND CULTURAL DEBATES IN THE PERFORMANCE ART OF ASTRID HADAD" is forthcoming in Latinas on Stage. Alicia Arrizón and Lillian Manzor-Coats, eds. Berkley: Third Woman Press (November, 1995). Citations should refer to this version.

In recent feminist criticism the analysis of gender is often aligned with considerations of race, ethnicity, class, and, national identity. In Latin America, however, cultural criticism questions the way in which we conceptualize and speak about these mistakingly assumed seamless categories[1]. In Mexico, the indigenous uprisings in Chiapas and Guerrero occur in the precise moment in which the North American Free Trade Agreement is increasing the influx of foreign cultural products and influences--both events challenging and destabilizing an already questionable national identity.

In Mexico, the work of actress and singer Astrid Hadad is an example of how these issues are aligned with the search for theatrical forms capable of articulating critical issues at the heart of Mexico's crisis. This essay considers the artistic forms Hadad employs, examines one performance, and poses questions that might frame the analysis of that performance within the context of contemporary debates. I propose that, by way of Hadad's work, we can enter into a discussion of 1) the concept of "valid" forms of feminist art and criticism, especially in relation to Mexican/Chicana/Latina women; 2) how we might develop critical tools in order to analyze these artistic products and contextualize them, considering reception as well as production; and 3) how this performance art fits into the panorama of a Mexico clamoring for democracy.

Hadad's works are motivated by a series of aesthetic and political considerations: the rejection of the bureaucracy, elitism, and inflexibility of worn-out forms and commercial interests that characterize much Mexican theatre; the establishment of direct contact with the spectator; the resuscitation of traditional Mexican scenographic forms such as review theatre, cabaret, and teatro de carpa[2]; the representation of elements of popular culture shared by all Mexicans; the criticism of repressive systems of power; the highlighting of the ephemeral nature of real-life and artistic experiences; the search for language capable of articulating the complex reality of Mexico at the end of the millennium; and the recuperation of women artists for Mexican history and for a new generation of Mexican women. She refers to her work as "performance," and, as Antonio Prieto explains, this art form differs from theatre in that where

theatre is based on a text, the director, and repetition, performance is centered on the body, the actor, and the ephemeral. In theatre actors portray characters; in performance, the actor refers to himself. Theatre represents; performance presents. Theatre is sedentary; performance nomadic. Theatre plants and harvests in the patio of a house; performance goes hunting and ambushes its audience from the most unexpected places. Theatre originates in myth and is secular; performance moves toward ritual and is, at the same time, both sacred (without being religious) and sacrilegious (without being profane). Theatre seeks to transcend; performance seeks to transgress. (1-2[3])

"Performance" in Mexico has origins in pre-Colombian society and departs from the spirit of involuntary actions and conduct seen within the popular urban culture such as merolicos[4], street-peddlers, fire-eaters, street theatre, etc.: "It is a form that permits you to be an alburero, to be subversive, humorous, witty, iconoclast, and myth-breaking" (in Prieto 5).

Hadad comments: "My show has its roots in cabaret. [...] My style is syncretic, aesthetic, pathetic, and diuretic, and demonstrates, without shame, the attitudes of machismo, masochism, nihilism, and 'I-could-give-a-damn' inherent in all cultures" (in Beltrán 16). Along with "borrowing" from traditional forms, possibilities for new modes of representation are created by the ruptures in form, satirical and ironic tones of critical commentary of the content, and a break from the cultural institutions which many insist depend upon hegemonic and masculinist programs of the government, cultural elites, and commercial interests. In Hadad's fast-paced, fragmented, non-linear unveiling of traditional Mexican song, dress, dance, and political satire, the focus of work is the female body and its position and representation in these critical discourses.


Hadad, of Lebanese parents, was born in the southern Mexican state of Quintana Roo (bordering Guatemala)--and, thus, is a member of several marginalized groups. She moved to Mexico City in 1980 and studied theatre at the National Autonomous University. In 1984 she debuted in Jesusa Rodríguez's[5] production, Doña Giovanni. After this production, Hadad developed her own show incorporating traditional ranchera and bolero music into political satire in the style of cabaret popular during the 1930s. Nostalgia Arrabalera and Del Rancho a la Ciudad were performed in (then) Rodríguez's Café-Bar El Cuervo, and La Mujer del Golfo Apocalípsis and La Mujer Ladrina in various cantinas in Mexico City. From that point, the artist broadened her show to include the "sketch" of review theatre[6], a form popular from 1910 to 1940--humorous sociopolitical criticism in which national and religious icons are represented with the intention of celebrating the sexuality and human desires suppressed by the morality imposed by these institutions.

From this beginning emerge Heavy Nopal (Ode to Lucha Reyes), Letters to Dragoberta, and Faxes to Rumberta. With the influence of Caribbean culture (dance and music) found in Quintana Roo, in each piece the female body is both the vehicle of communication and the message. It is a body that continuously re-presents and constructs its gender; a body, according to Hadad, always the recipient of social signs of femininity. Astrid found inspiration in the pioneer of vernacular song in Mexico, Lucha Reyes.[7] In the 19930's Reyes (1904-1944) introduced a bravía style of singing-- a feminine interpretation of ranchera music. "Feminine" here refers to Reyes' biological sex, not the gendered image of the submissive, negated, suffering Mexican woman. Reyes flaunted her deep, hoarse voice until it sounded as if it would tear. The public loved her although critics knocked her "lack" of refinement. The "Mexican Diva symbolized and personified the temperamental, 'unpolished' woman that stood her ground against the macho Mexican bossman". She became the figure of the times: her plays on words and spicy jokes were popular, her "aggressive" appearance and her enormous capacity for affection symbolized a general feeling in Mexico, especially among Mexican women. Friend and, according to some, lover of Frida Kahlo, Reyes was tagged the representative of revolutionary Mexico (Novo in Ramírez 21). Critic Ramírez comments:

Lucha Reyes erupted on the stage. She was a cry that gave cover to a collective sense of alleviation and defiance. If her life was marked by intensity, she took this to its ultimate consequences in public and in private. She practiced her sexuality freely, [having] affairs with one or the other sex. (Ramírez 21)

Considered by some, both then and now, as a femme fatale, for others she personified a strong woman taking responsibility for, and claiming as her own, her sexuality, her career, her public and private identities. In a country where the citizens are criticized and criticize themselves for their often "sheepish acceptance of authority, Reyes still offers a model of expression and resistance for both men and women.

Hadad's attraction to Reyes' reflect a desire to recuperate female historical figures and elements of traditional Mexican culture. Similar to Chicanas' work with the figure of La Malinche, Hadad seeks to resignify and to situate these icons, myths, and real women within a new sociocultural history. I begin the examination of her efforts with observations from which emerged the questions that frame this study.

In 1993 I went to see Astrid's Letters to Dragoberta at the restaurant, La Bodega, in Mexico City. Located in the Colonia Condesa, an historic, fashionable section of the city, it was obvious that the spectators in this expensive, small, but packed dining room were from the middle- and upper-middle class. Astrid climbs onto the stage and joins her musicians, Los Tarzanes. What follows is a mixture of parodied artistic forms: visual art, dance, music, and theatre of different genres. As in Heavy Nopal (1990) and Faxes to Rumberta (1994) Astrid is dressed in a 19th-century style green, full, "peasant" skirt of the century with a "feminine" white blouse with red trim--the colors of the Mexican flag which are also visible in her glittered eye make-up and earrings. The folkloric image of the china poblana (a popular 19th-century image of women's dress in the province of Puebla) is completed with her hair in two long braids and giant white lilies attached to her back, forming a type of crown over her head--as in the Diego Rivera painting of a young indigenous woman holding such flowers. Astrid dances and sings well-know lyrics of a traditional song "I am a virgin watering my flowers/and with the flowers, my identity."

On one hand, Astrid's costumes are beautiful, many of historical value. On the other, the image created--in which objects of popular culture are represented and repeated, forming part, one might say, of Mexican "kitsch"--exemplifies, according to some cultural critics, the inscription of the indigenous and provincial as folkloric, natural, and exotic. Such icons distance "ethnicity" from the reality of, for instance, the armed indigenous insurgents, who, are willing to die for land and dignity. The contradictions suggested by overlaying these images with humorous gestures and critical commentary implicit in props and make-up create satirical tones that permit Astrid to resignify these symbols to reflect the pluralism that marks Mexican culture. At the same time, she hits a cord in the illusive ser mexicano or Mexicaness: not being nostalgic, she underscores those sights, sounds, smells, traditions, and historical realities that do create a common bond within a shared geographic space.

Laughter erupts as Hadad, acting out letters written between lovers, parodies rhetoric used by the Mexican power structures (the government, the Catholic Church) since the late 19th century as part of a strategy of nation-building. Highlighted in this rhetoric, that she both mocks and utilizes, is the appeal to "good" Mexicans inscribed upon the symbol of the Mexican flag and the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, here clearly visible on her costume--a costume that was censored when Hadad appeared on national television, a medium with close ties to the 65-year ruling party, the PRI[8]. The PRI has a legal monopoly on the colors of the flag--no other political party can use the red, white, and green in their logos, a fact that underscores the power of image that is so much a part of social control in that country. During the 1994 presidential elections, along with, and as a symbol of, the calls for election reform as part of the process of democratization, opposition political parties and the rebels in Chiapas demanded the "release" of the flag to all Mexicans.

There is a complicity between Hadad and the spectator--a relationship, critic Rosa Beltran notes, which enhances solidarity among the various groups represented in the audience as she becomes the iconic referent of the national symbols as she interprets, to the letter, the songs to which we Mexicans usually cry with more pleasure. Hadad juxtaposes the image of the "suffering Mexican who revels in the martyrdom evoked in the lyrics of the corridas and boleros that forged our nation" (Beltrán 16) and that of Lucha Reyes--a figure representing other possibilities of being.

Laughter becomes a release of the frustration Mexicans experience when they, as individuals, feel powerless to change systems operated by those whose calls for "democracy" and "plurality" prove to be another exercise in public theatricality, a circus. Astrid forces to the foreground the connections between various discourses tossed around in the public spectacle, most importantly, gender and ethnicity as related to economics and power. She incorporates condoms, basketballs, and musical instruments that evoke such diverse discussions as AIDS, the U.S. economic and cultural "imperialism" that has intensified in Mexico since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico's painful steps toward "democratization" of the authoritarian sociopolitical systems, and the appropriation of popular art forms by the intellectual and artistic elite without a re-valorization of their original context. Laughter seems to the observer to be a strategy to make painful issues approachable, to convert the overwhelming into collective resolve and energy.

Astrid's parody, satire, and irony encompass a full range of possibilities of intent--at times respectfully reinscribing the text parodied, at times deconstructing the text in a mocking, critical tone. The text is 'pinned down' into the specific historic context which generates it, and the spectator engages in a process of decoding and interpretation that underscores his or her complicity in the wide variety of social and aesthetic practices being critically represented. Layers of clothing and props evoke the layers of meaning of seemingly innocent elements of popular culture that the Mexican audience obviously recognizes and responds to with enthusiastic laughter. The "discourses of power" are visually situated on a strong female body--a body whose sensuality Astrid emphasizes and takes pleasure in, although in Mexico, it is a body that all structures of society attempt to regulate. No one escapes Astrid's criticism: the Catholic Church and the Pope, the President and other well-known politicians, and of course, macho men and submissive women, some who comprise tonight's audience. Astrid puts on a moustache as she speaks certain lines and, thus, acquires or appropriates "the power of the word" that dominates all official discourse in Mexico, be it religious, social, or political, thus visually representing the arbitrary and theatrical aspects of gender construction in her culture.

The attitude of Astrid toward her female body and her feminine self can be seen as a change from many of the recent representations of women on the Mexican stage. It varies from portrayals (still common) of the suffering, repressed female as victim, or from those in what she refers to as "sordid" strip-tease shows where the naked woman's sexuality serves economic interest and male-pleasure. Within a critique of institutionalized gender-bias, Astrid derives pleasure from her sensuality, and evokes an eroticism seemingly created by and for her while she underscores the individual's responsibility in her "victimization." She also presents identity, be it national or gender, as a space in which contradictions and idiosyncracies exist and are constantly being reformulated. In her work and her life, Astrid demands an open reading of that identity-in-process and urges others, women and men, to do the same:

I express the myriad contradictions which we are, all the variations on character and personality, moods and moments that define us and in which we exist. If there is a contradiction between the words of the songs I sing and what happens on stage, it is because we are that contradiction. (in Beltrán)

Questions arise, however, on how to analyze, from a feminist position, what Astrid presents on stage or the reactions of the audience. Is this feminist art? If not, why? It is a show that obviously entertains and affords intimate contact with audience members. The analysis becomes complicated the moment Astrid suddenly removes her blouse to reveal a red corset; that is, we see her in a corset with the china poblana skirt, which she eventually takes off leaving her in sexy intimate apparel, obviously enjoying the sensuality of her performance. Much feminist film and theatre criticism centers on the presence of the female body in performance and emphasizes the need to break the "male gaze" dominating all visual arts--a task hindered by forms that have trained men and women to see indiscriminately and uncritically the female body as object. The spectator's self-conscious position is important in feminist aesthetic and social critique, as it moves to avoid identification and leads to critical distancing. This pattern of seeing, argues Laura Mulvey, is a human construct, and authoritative only to those who have constructed or at least accepted them a priori--therein lies possibilities for change.

Astrid moves toward disrupting that gaze; she attempts to make the spectator aware of his or her position as voyeur, and complicit participation in the systems criticized. This is achieved, for example, by first seducing the spectators with the Latin rhythms (many are dancing in their seats) and then suddenly speeding the music's beat and her dancing to a comical, frantic speed and, at times, literally beating herself with her fists. These actions, metaphors for the inhumane rhythms of life in the megatropolis, Mexico City, also comment on the representation of Woman in Mexican song and film--a suffering woman who beats herself up by subscribing to the role that history designed for her--an image that Hadad re-presents and subverts on the stage. The actions express a defiant, contestatory, mocking stance toward the abyss between what society says she as a woman is and should be, and what she decides about herself as woman. Alternating between sensual and hysterical gyrations, Astrid takes the audience from pleasure to a sudden uneasiness and denial of that pleasure.

Other details of the show, however, leave the critic uneasy regarding just how resistant her work is. Along with questions of just how successful such art is at generating real transformational social action, judging from the obnoxious response of various males in this audience--for them, she is just another half-naked woman dancing for their pleasure.[9] Her goals are realized, perhaps, by the already "converted." Astrid admits that in early shows (often staged in cantinas in Mexico City) she frequently moved among and interacted with audience members. She no longer does, however, since both in Mexico and abroad she has been verbally and physically accosted by drunk aggressive men who felt free to grab her body, and by jealous wives.

Problematic also is the inclusion of elements of Mexican popular culture, such as traditional Latin American musical forms, that I refer to as "democratic"; that is, songs that all Mexicans, in the urban centers, in the provinces, from the working class to the economically well-off sing and even cry with. It is a phenomenon, in my opinion, without an equivalent in the U.S. These songs, however, reveal Mexican machismo in the same manner as did Mexican film during its "Golden Age" of the 1940s and 1950s. Women are portrayed as either helpless victim or seductress--femme fatale or violated virgin. Mexicans--women included--sing these songs with emotional gusto. Why, then, would a self-declared feminist and lesbian revive a bastion of gender education essential to the construction of a mentality and society characterized by its machismo?

When asked about these aspects of her work--her use of the female body possibly reinscribing woman as object for male pleasure--Astrid notes that her position was challenged by some critics in the U.S. When she performed in San Francisco during July, 1994, harsh criticism was levied by feminists who questioned the possibility of "feminist" performance when the performer flaunts her body--a marked body, according to them, with no chance of recuperation in existing systems of representation. Her reply: she demands, as a woman, her right to enjoy her body and sexuality, and offer them for enjoyment to others--men or women. She claims that women can enjoy other women, even if they are heterosexual, Astrid maintains that the whole of her performance within its Mexican context is what must be examined. She noted that the U.S. feminist position expressed in San Francisco is a point of contention for many Mexican feminists. Astrid insists that to remove the female body from the stage is only to deny access to it by females; to attempt to force such choices upon a work in order to be considered feminist is as authoritarian as the systems she attempts to dismantle. She argues that the history and reality of women in Mexico--as slippery a category that "women" is--are not the same as in the U.S. context and, therefore, feminist strategies will be different (PI).

I posit that insight? partially be found in one of the motivating forces in Astrid's (and, similarly, other Chicana, Latina, and Mexican women's) work--that of recycling and reinterpreting the very images, forms, and spaces which have constructed the categories of "female" and, by extension, national identity. The figure of the Diva in Mexican culture and the space from which she emerged (cabaret, review theatre) have historically been considered "marginal" in both national, social and artistic histories. However, as critics like Carlos Monsiváis, José Agustín, and Maris Bustamante have shown, these women were instrumental in providing alternatives to the mainstream images of women as far back as during the emergence of modern Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and offering models for men and women in challenging and defying authority. Monsiváis points out that, for themselves and their female audiences, as they existed in a man's world that excluded them, Divas created a space "by simultaneously using frantic movement and stillness of a statue-like body in a trance of hysteria, and a facial expression that was the equivalent of adultery and the loss of reason. They wore on the exterior, in order to learn their access to and the authenticity of, all passions ignored or suppressed (Escenas 27). Monsiváis suggests that the Divas, like Celia Montalván, along with other notable (and, in some's views, notorious) women such as Lupe Marín, Tina Modotti, Frida Kahlo, Antonieta Rivas Mercado, Nahui Olin, Isela Vega, Lola Alvarez Bravo, and later on, Chavela Vargas, demanded sexual and professional autonomy. They were models for women of all classes as they broke with conventions and found spaces for behaviors and ways of being previously inconceivable for women in Mexico--this by way of two determining forces: art and politics (29). They showed that the spiritual is not the opposite of the corporal, but that the body, with its sensuality, sexuality, passions and desires, is a sacred entity to be enjoyed by the woman to whom it belongs. It is not a coincidence that they are presently being revived, studied, and re-situated in Mexican history--a departure point for new generations of Mexicans to construct identities in sync with their realities and times.

The questions raised here, as the spaces and issues to which they refer, are not rhetorical or frivolous, as the 1995 economic and social crisis of Mexico make clear. We need to develop critical paradigms capable of reading art and artists such as Hadad within their particular context and historical moment. Perhaps the questions we as critics ask will permit us to expand the field of inquiry to be more inclusive of the full range of issues at stake.

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