El Danzante: on Rafa Esparza's ancestral nausea

El Danzante

In the fall of 2010 I encountered Rafa Esparza at work in a sage smoke-filled elementary school gymnasium in Pacoima, located in Los Angeles’ Northeast San Fernando Valley. I had expected it to be a practice, with a choreographer in the middle barking staccato-like numbered utterances to dancers finding their routinized footing. But, that does not transpire during a ceremony.

Walking in sounds like Niagara Falls. The chachayote rattles bound to ankles and wrists, made from the seed of the Ayoyote tree, echo the ribcage-rattling thunder under high ceilings and hardwood floors. It always is when you have scores of men, women, elders, adolescents and children dressed in ceremonial garb moving to the North, then the South. Followed by the East and then the west, the ground and finally, upwards towards the sky. It is here where the copal and sage smoke obscure my outsider gaze; interrupting my consumption of the mise-en-scene.

I feel the pangs of ambivalence rise to the surface of my psychic dermis. It is a familiar response to the spiritual community that reflects a Mexica indigenous worldview that permeates a certain politicized sect of L.A. Xicanos. I have only ever looked at this world through windows and being in that gymnasium that afternoon I felt voyeuristic. Danza and its concomitant practitioners and spirit workers have always signaled an authenticity that eludes me, but it still seduces me into wanting a comfortable, if not toxic, essentialism. I want it to be enough, but it’s not—and I want to be enough but I’m not. We’re like lovers, idealized in your mind but emotionally unavailable.

I see Rafa, well over six-foot-three, sweaty. His skin glistens the color of soft red dirt and he is breathtaking in his garb; his gilded loincloth, bandana fashioned with red hawk feathers. I am deeply aware of the problematic and dangerous cliché but I am letting this fantasy go to Disneyland because as Mexican poet María Rivera says la belleza cura. Since I’m usually so smugly critical about the white supremacist heteropatriarchy around me and having taken my fair share of Chicano Studies courses at Cal State Northridge, home of the most robust community-based Chicano Studies department in the country, I thought I could treat my criticality to some brain candy calorically anchored in brown pride.

Dark-skinned, statuesque, graceful and undeniably earnest—Rafa is royalty in my eyes because he is unabashed in this ritualized practice. There is nothing here to indicate that we are in on the same joke—no white people being led by collars and leashes, no fake North American tribal affiliations or sacrificial offerings covered in the little American flag toothpicks (like the ones I used to get atop my Bob’s Big Boy’s hamburgers in Downey, California). Of course I reference a significant portion of Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s corpus of work where he has eschewed narratives of authenticity espoused by U.S-Latinos, particularly Chicanos who are more occupied with passing a particularly politicized brown-ness than their Mexican counterparts.[1] However, while Gómez-Peña and his collaborator Coco Fusco (1992-1994) work to subvert the fetishization of authentic brown subjectivities, they did so in the context of the museum and academic institutions, spaces that heretofore continue to feel hostile to low-income communities of color.

Rafa, in contrast, avoids presenting himself as a queer enfant terrible to unsuspecting compulsory hetero-dominant working class brown families and our otherwise straight and educated counterparts, allies not included. He engages in daylong prayer through movement in anticipation for the coming Day of the Dead—a durational meditation where danzantes move for hours, pushing the limits of where bone meets joint.   

Prior to that day, I had only known Rafa outside of his danza work as a young and aspiring performance artist on the threshold of his last year of a long undergraduate journey, culminating with a year of studio art training at UCLA. I found it profoundly refreshing to see someone actively pursuing a learning for the queer genealogical threading they belong, not looking around to see who was watching, allowing his transformation to begin through the spirit whilst engaging in a community without the suspicious turn into social practice. It was refreshing to see a young artist not enact the trappings of Oedipality. Rafa is a spirit dancer preparing to answer the call of performance art; to kiss the hand of fathers under a matriarchal rubric.

Rafa is among the danzantes, ranging in virtuosic skill and spatial awareness, rehearsing steps and spins, looking to the four directions in hopes of finding indigenous ancestral memory. We begin East where Rafa started doing danza in 2002 after being radically politicized by “the xikano/o (with an X) ambiente” when he was a community college student and part of its MEXA (also known as MEChA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) student chapter. This was at the time when the ELAC chapter went unrecognized by MEChA’s statewide and national conferences and had zero voting rights at those gatherings. According to Rafa, MEXA’s agenda focused on bringing culture to folks still connected to community vis-à-vis pow-wows, concerts, protests, vigils, and art workshops to truly engage with neighbors and non-students, unlike more powerful chapters ensconced in flagship UC campuses that organized the default community of the student body incubated within the college.

I’ll never forget the first time I danced. The homie Geo invited me to come to danza with a group young danzantes in obregon park, in east l.a. There was no "head" no leader...it was mixture of danzantes that had grown tired with the politics of the danza world and wanted to create a new, more democratic space. It was a beautiful space. I came having no intentions of dancing. "I'll just sit and watch this first time"......" ah si, asi dicen todos..." I remember Sombra, an already very skilled dancer who taught me my first steps.....as if he knew that what would happen be the inevitable opposite. As soon as I heard the drum sounds vibrating throughout the gym I stood and joined the circle, it was irresistible.

Rafa looks back to his early college days admits to having a nostalgia for danza, especially as he confesses that while he was thankful for those spaces providing a chance at self-interrogation, he was avowedly closeted and could not bring himself to be an out queer man in a space of ceremony.

I remember being in the lodge once and when it came time for me to pray, I was silent...I didn't say a word instead I let all of my thoughts of longing and lusting over love making with men rush through me but never out vocally. I would have visions of myself fucking with men, having orgies, fucking just for the fuck of it. Fucking with abundance. Fucking with my ancestors, on beds of feathers, in jade rooms. It was like that for a long time for, nourishing my queerness quietly in secret.


Rafa Esparza’s Time Traveler

One year later I make the drive from Huntington Park to Beverly Hills to see Rafa’s work at the Garboushian Gallery. Time Traveller is a part of Together, a night of performance art curated by Samuel White. The Garboushian Gallery is a small white box with large picture windows facing the eastern part of Beverly Hills, with a few pillars that re-frame the mini-panoramas for the spectators inside the space. There are a few rich art collector types among art students and practitioners.  

Stage-left sits a mattress-thick platform with black-brown garbage bags woven around it like a basket. In the center of the thick opaque plastic lies a large bump. Could it be? Could that vessel be large enough to contain Rafa?

I think no, but yes; Rafa Esparza is inside the womb of his mixed media sculptural piece, Time Traveler, a work he first performed as part of a final sculpture critique while he was still an undergrad at UCLA. Tonight he will restage the piece in homage to his paternal and maternal elders, all who died one after another. "Es como si se estuvieran jalando uno a otro,” he recalls his mother saying to him, (it’s as though one is pulling the other after him), as a way to make sense of the abundance of familial death in a short amount of time.



Time Traveler is an embodied pondering beginning with darkness. Rafa tells me he is inside the woven sculpture for well over two hours before he begins his performance. He is inside a dark encasement that creates a site of mourning for his elders, a place to lodge himself firmly with nowhere to go. It is a scary place to inhabit physically and psychically. This is a grief for his abuelos, his people, his connection to another time and place he carries like the burden that transborder people do—that longing, ese aguanto of what never was lo que nunca pasó--that ties him down until he is ready to appear. 

The platform begins to stir. A sole arm suddenly shoots through the weaving and it is striking for its visual contrast against the gallery’s white wall. The arm begins to throw out rusted brown beer bottles, one by one, each carrying the weight of what is yet to come out of the sculpture. The rusted empty beer bottles still smelling acridly of booze. Next up are hawk feathers and chachayote rattles, traditionally sacred objects that are prayer carriers that fill his senses with both gratitude and nausea. Rafa’s body becomes another object among objects, living among each other creating preciousness and repulsion the way families do.



Even with members whom we have never met, Time Traveler posits that a ghostly revulsion is present amongst the moments of sublime belonging; an ancestral nausea channeled through Rafa. Like the nausea channeled in the political critiques that East Los Angeles multimedia arts collective ASCO wielded against violence in their communities and young Chicanos coming back in body bags from Vietnam, the ancestors in Time Traveller become agitated at the lateness in honoring the genealogies we emerge from, or disapprove of the ways we fetishize and objectify our colonized skin hues in our Ethnic Studies class. They wait for us break ourselves open at the dinner table,  or eschew new bordered mindsets in hopes of reaching the moment we can recreate ourselves to be rapt receivers of ancestral integrity.

Once all the objects are out, Rafa pushes himself out of the broken vessel, dragging himself backwards and behind where most of the audience is sitting. He does not walk but moves in a manner that connotes that he is trying to throw himself far away, like an object. Time Traveler creates the break in the physical and emotional distances between transborder families of origin.


Was there a link between danza and performance for you? If so, what

does it look like?

Yes.  I invited my novio and a friend Kate Gilbert a couple of years ago to a danza practice. they had a great time and afterwards we had a lengthy conversation about the history of danza, and dance in general; but Kate asked me something that no one or I had ever asked myself. She asked me if I thought that danza was functional outside of the ceremonial space that I practice it in? I naively responded yes, because on a personal level  danza has provided me with so much than just spirituality However after thinking about it more for a while I started to think of her question in a less subjective manner, and that question is what ignited my interest in performing in art spaces. (tezcatlipoka memoirs is a direct result). I haven't answered that for myself yet, what that means  in more general terms about danza and the context for it, how that changes danza, does it, how does danza in return change the space, does it. Are both things impenetrable or porous? If so, why, when, how? I'd rather not answer the question/s instead I find wonder in swimming in the possibilities that the question arises. As much as I try to and compartmentalize these different facets of what I do, something like the often contact between danza and art is unavoidable, and inevitable, they can be very easily interchangeable.


You've involved your family in some of your performances--what is the comment you're making on kinships of origin?

I have, on a couple occasions brought in family into my work. I did a piece [called Tezcalipoca Dreams, performed in Blessed Is This Blood at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica curated by Raquel Gutiérrez] where I had my older brother help unravel a box where I was hidden in and tied for almost an hour. The box was covered in blankets, which eventually wove onto ropes, that where attached to brass coils pierced into my chest. The performance ended with my brother yanking the coils off my chest while they were still inserted in me.

It was important to have relatives activate some of the spaces that I was inhabiting, especially the males in my family because specifically in those pieces I am interrogating a particular structure of masculinity and I want them to understand how they are implicit, just as much as I am in how we’ve come to understand ourselves. We create the source of our masculinities as much as we feed it, abide by it; so rupturing from it had to be also a collaborative effort. My brother, an ex-felon, ex-cholo, ex-macho…well maybe still a little macho was more than “DOWN” to be in my piece, in spite of the fact that he had NEVER been in a room full of brown queers before that night. After my piece ended that evening I reached over to hug him and say good-bye, but instead he rejected my offer and said he wasn’t leaving and that he wanted to stay and see the rest of the acts. I realized first hand the value of sharing these experiences with my family and others whom otherwise would probably never step foot in a theatre, gallery, museum space.

Rafa Esparza performs el hoyo at Human Resources in Chinatown on Saturday, July 19th.

[1] In an interview with Bomb Magazine GGP claims that “this authentic Other has to be pre-industrial, has to be more tuned with their past, has to be less tainted by post-modernity, has to be more innocent and must not live with contemporary technology. And most importantly, must have a way of making art that fulfills their stereotypes…”