4.25 / From the Archives: Worse Than Queer

Interview with La Chica Boom

By Marta Martinez April 11, 2011

Image: Token, 2010; performance. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: by Brian Buck.

La Chica Boom is a drag performer and community organizer whose cabaret performances explore issues of race, gender, and sexuality. She is the founder and producer of Kaleidoscope, An Annual National People of Color Cabaret, an event dedicated to neo-burlesque performers of color. The Fourth Annual Kaleidoscope was held on October 30, 2010, at San Francisco’s Brava! for Women in the Arts. Marta Martinez began her conversation with La Chica Boom discussing her artistic background and how she got involved with burlesque.

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La Chica Boom: My background in performing is in musical theatre. I did a lot of that early in my adulthood. I did musical theatre, and then just regular boring theatre, and then participated in experimental theatre. One thing that kept happening in my work is that I wanted to explore sexuality. But the response from most of the theatre community is that performing sexuality or anything about sexuality is cheating for attention. I was completely insulted. But I also thought it was unfair because they were ignoring sexuality as a part of art.

At this time, I was also participating in the sex-work industry. So a lot of my thoughts were around and about sex and sexuality and power and failure. Also, I was finally coming out. I was in my early twenties, so sex was all around me all the time. I was thinking about sex, sexuality, and sexual violence in particular because I organized with an anti-rape agenda with INCITE! and CARA (Communities Against Rape and Abuse) at the time.

I was dancing with someone at a queer bar, or more like a lesbian bar, in Seattle, and we were improvising on the dance floor. And I don’t mean improvised dancing, we were acting like fools! It was theatrical! She said that she was a burlesque dancer and she wanted me to try doing burlesque. So I went to a burlesque show that she was in, and the women performing with her claimed to be the first queer burlesque troupe in the country. Well, that’s what they said. Everyone says that they're the first and only everything in burlesque. 

Her name was Sheu Sheu Le’Haure, and she took me under her wing and showed me a little bit of burlesque. What was great about her was that she did a lot of comedy and she was really hilarious. This is what I was really drawn to about burlesque, because I felt like a comedian myself. This is how I got stuck in burlesque. I say stuck because I still did some experimental theatre and traditional theatre, but I feel like burlesque is where I’ve stayed. It’s probably because I can perform things around race and sexuality. It’s the best place for me to do it and it’s also the worst place for me to do it. 

Marta Martinez: What do you get out of burlesque specifically as a form? Maybe you could talk about what you don’t get out of it—why you feel stuck in it.

LCB: What I get out of burlesque is being able to unabashedly perform sexuality and race. It’s expected for me to play with themes around sexuality. The other thing that I get out of it is that I can be silly, which is how I think about my sexuality. It’s either super silly or super dark, although I don’t really bring that to the burlesque stage. I keep the work pretty happy and light, but my fuck you message is still in there. I guess what I get out of burlesque is being able to have a platform for performing what I call Ethnic Drag and Camp. 

MM: How do you find it limiting?

LCB: That the audience is white. Almost everybody is fucking white. Backstage is mostly white, too. I don’t like that I have to be a “burlesque professional,” all bubbly and really happy—as if the person that I play onstage is also the person backstage. I think professionalism is part of whiteness. And there are a lot of burlesque performers that practice this sort of professionalism, and I think that’s great, but it’s just not my cup of atole. I think that I'm just not good at that and perhaps I'm just not that kind of a professional person. 

It’s also limiting in that it’s really focused around sexual liberation within white women’s terms. I'm also not saying I use burlesque to sexually liberate myself, because I don’t think that I do. I use it to explore certain Chicana/Chicano iconographies and non-iconographies. Many times it’s not intentional; I want to perform whatever I'm going through at the time, and most of the time that’s what I perform within a silly lens. I’ll be going through something and I'm pissed and when I perform it, it just turns out to be funny.

I think before—maybe in the mid-’90s—there were more avenues to perform more experimental things in burlesque. Right now there is this huge resurgence of people becoming extremely classic and spending thousands and thousands of dollars on their costumes. It’s really boring to me. I enjoy watching classic, too, but you have to be really good, or else perform a failed classic—that’s always interesting.

MM: Why did you start putting on Kaleidoscope? How did that all come about?

LCB: I always wanted to put together a platform for burlesque and cabaret performers of color. Since I had been organizing with the Latino community, queer folks, and with people of color in general since I was sixteen, I thought burlesque could be used as a platform for organizing. So when I joined burlesque, it only seemed natural for me to go ahead and organize with people of color because I already was thinking critically about race and sexuality. It was a dream of mine for a long time. 

I had been talking to a lot of performers about it, and a lot of them were like, “Hmmm, I don’t know what you're talking about.” Because you can't just talk to performers of color about race just because they're folks of color and expect them to be all like, “Yeah, white feminist supremacy is a bitch,” without their having a background in thinking critically about race, sexuality, and performance.

I started Kaleidoscope because I thought that neo-burlesque needed critical thinking about representations of race and minstrelsy within the genre of burlesque. I wanted us to really critically think about what we were watching onstage and how we were consuming and performing certain images. I also wanted performers to start thinking critically about ourselves and how complex it is to perform camp when you're a person of color. Because no matter what you're doing, you cannot escape certain historical representations and narratives about yourself.

So I didn’t found Kaleidoscope just for the audience, I founded it for performers. Also, I really, really hoped and I still hope—and I think it will take a long fucking time—that performers of color will somehow become organized. I don’t want to lead the organizing, but hopefully they’ll organize around certain issues and support each other and create a real network. It seems like it’s going to take a little bit more work. There are some competitive-ass bitches in burlesque, so it’s going to take a long time.

MM: Do you think that Kaleidoscope is helping in any way with that at all?

LCB: I couldn't tell you because I would be biased, right? I guess for me, I would say yes. Ever since I started doing Kaleidoscope and opening my mouth about minstrelsy and race representation, people have been like, “Oh, there’s a show just for people of color. Why?” I think it got a lot of white folks talking; it got a lot of people of color talking. They were asking, “Why is there a need to have a show produced this way?” And when they read the mission and how the discussions included making pasties and talking about feminist white supremacy in burlesque, they began to talk. So I think I got a lot of people talking, and I think that was a success for sure.

So in that way, I think Kaleidoscope did produce a lot of conversations about race, sexuality, and performance. Not only for people of color, but for white women in particular, which is important since race is always, always ignored within

burlesque. And when it does come to the forefront—it’s a big blowup. It’s like when a non-black person says the N-word on TV; everyone blows up for about two minutes. They dehumanize the person who said it, and then everyone’s over it. Then we just go back to racist business as usual. So I think Kaleidoscope keeps this type of discussion alive. It keeps the discussion about race and sexuality and gender within burlesque alive throughout. It’s not just a hot topic for a minute. It’s being sustained, and people have to talk about it. So I do think it has created an opportunity for people to discuss issues of race, either because they're girls of color or because they're white girls.

MM: What impact do you think your performance and/or Kaleidoscope has on the burlesque community? Also, where are you located in the bigger [burlesque] scheme?

LCB: Where I would locate myself right now is … I have removed myself from mainstream burlesque since 2005. I just started to create my own style of burlesque. Also, a lot of neo-burlesque performers would not consider a lot of my work burlesque. 

In fact, I've had people—girls of color who are part of the mainstream world—call most of my work performance art, which might be true. In a lot of my acts I don’t take off clothes. Sometimes I don’t even remove my gloves, so I don’t know where I would locate myself, except to say that I'm definitely on the margins of the neo-burlesque scene. I'm definitely, definitely on the margin of margins. On the fringe, if you will.

I think it was great that [New York–based troupe Brown Girls Burlesque] started in 2007, the same year Kaleidoscope was born. Hopefully they will have an impact in New York, and I think that more troupes of that sort are probably going to start popping up. I know there’s been discussion about having another people-of-color burlesque festival of sorts. Like Kaleidoscope, like a weekender. I'm hoping that things like that happen so there’s not a lot of pressure for Kaleidoscope to happen every year! Hopefully [Kaleidoscope] has been a catalyst for troupes of other people to get started and group up and do something together. I think, of course, there will be a lot of different types of groups within girls of color, but that’s good because then we will at least have a choice.

MM: When you create your pieces, who are you creating them for in your mind? What kinds of people are you creating them for?

LCB: I really don’t think about the audience when I put stuff together. I would say that everything that I do is for myself. I know that sounds really selfish. I don’t really do it for a white audience. I don’t do it for a Latino audience and I don’t do it for a queer audience. I just do it because it’s something that I wanted to do at the time. So I wouldn't say that I sit there and think about the audience. If you are critical thinker about race, then you see things about race within my pieces and you're like, “Oh, that was really cool!” Then I can also perform that same number for a white audience, and the white audience will be like, “Oh my god, I don’t know what that was,” or “That was totally entertaining. That was a really hot, thin Latina,” or “That was disgusting!” 

Acts like my piñata or Tapatio [Dominatrix of the Barrio and La Tortillera] pieces always work well with white audiences because they don’t read anything more than “sex” and “hot Latina” in those pieces. So those always work for them, no matter what happens.

Tapatio Cum Shot, 2010. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Bousa Concepts and Miguel Ibarra.

MM: What do you think your audience gets from your performance?

LCB: I'm generalizing and I'm assuming, but I think that the white audiences see a hot girl doing something out of the norm. And they see me using symbols to them that represent Mexican. Maybe not even Mexican. To them it’s just like an undifferentiated mass of “Latino” performed.

For a queer white audience, I feel like they see the fuck you in the performance. And for people of color, a lot of times it’s a mixed bag. Some Latinas will come up to me, and tell me that I'm perpetuating whore stereotypes about Latinas. And I always say the same shit, “Well, what’s so bad about whores?” Because they don’t know that I'm a sex worker and that they're insulting me. There will also be dudes that come up to me, Latino dudes who say similar things or just call me a ho behind my back.

And then there are other people who come up to me and they're like, “Oh my god, that was so amazing! I've never seen Latinas or my Mexican-ness sort of made fun of, or played with in that way—sexually. It made me feel fucking powerful, and I feel so fucking good right now.”

I always have the people come up to me and say that I'm disgusting and that I am really beautiful and I should really focus on that in my acts. So yeah, I've had to learn how to say “Well, thank you!”  

Some white burlesque performers come up to me, and say that I'm a hypocrite about race, because they say I perform racist performances about my own people, which of course is completely laughable to me. I think a lot of white people think I'm really annoying, because I always play with Mexican iconography, and they think it’s my shtick. But, we perform whiteness and white sexuality 24-7 and nobody ever says it’s their shtick. And it’s really annoying because then being Chicana/Mexicana is considered a shtick. I am Chicana; I am Mexican. I grew up around 98 percent Mexican people—immigrant families on the border. If I happen to think about Mexican iconography, I think it’s completely natural because it was my surrounding almost my entire life. So, yes, I have a humor and style that reflect my upbringing.

MM: Going back to your being a solo performer, do you feel like there’s a freedom in being independent?

Fist and Piñata, 2010. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Bousa Concepts and Miguel Ibarra.


LCB: Hell yeah. Hell fucking yeah. Absolutely. I was part of a troupe in neo-burlesque, and I have been part of theatre troupes, and I've been part of women’s theatre groups and other performance groups. One of the most important things for me is for all of us to be on the same page politically and be good at what we do in our artistic practice. 

I think working within a troupe is very difficult for me in any kind of performance genre because it’s usually not around politics. The reason why I feel so strongly about politics in particular is because of my being immersed in community organizing. I've never really had trouble organizing in groups of radical women and trans people of color. I currently still organize with the same group of people nationally and internationally, and it is easy because we continue to be on a journey to politicize each other and learn and take action and discuss and write books and things of this sort. What I am saying is that because of our political alignment, I can really trust, share, and create.

When you have a lot of divas together and we’re not on the same page politically but we’re trying to put a group together, it’s very hard. And I may sound elitist and like an intellectual snob, but it’s not about intellectual stuff; it’s just about being on the same political page and being good at your craft. I have a lot of freedom in being alone right now because I get to do whatever the fuck I want.

Although I sound jaded by neo-burlesque, I still want to participate in it. And many people are jaded about the world and how terrible it is, but you still want to live. I think that no community is perfect. And even if I had a queer-people-of-color, politicized burlesque community, it wouldn't be perfect. There would always be issues. That’s the wonderful thing about it. If there weren’t things that I was jaded about, I probably wouldn't produce much artwork.

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