Gómez-Peña on illness, the human body, performance & quantum physics.

(A psychomagic script for a hard recovery)


“(Silence) is the sound of our crumbling world.”

- Subcomandante Marcos

1.- November 21st, 2012. I’ve been in Mexico City for the past three weeks, working on an epic performance project involving over forty artists and three workshops. The theme is El Cuerpo Diferente, “the different body…the frail body” and in some kind of retro-prophetic- seeming twist of fate I have just been diagnosed with a bizarre infection in my spinal cord whose Latin name is mielitis traversa. Coño!I can’t move. My legs and arms have no sensation whatsoever. If it wasn’t for my colleague Saul Garcia López, my neighbor Paty and my brother Carlos I wouldn’t have been able to get up when I fell down like a rag doll last night at 3 am, while experiencing excruciating back pain.

Passport photo of 18-year old Gómez-Peña (left). Who would have imagined that this sweet middle class literature student would turn into…(Right), el mismísimo Chamán Travesti; Gómez-Peña posing for Jen Cohen as an arm-less shaman in crutches, San Francisco, 2012.

The diagnosis conjures 19th Century images of paraplegia, epilepsy, old-fashioned braces and prostheses, and a lot of pain, a lifetime of stoicism in the face of unending pain. The doctor of the family confirms my fears: “You have a pre-paraplegic condition. We need to act fast.” Mysterious injections, pills and tests follow. As if this weren’t enough, a test revels that an opportunistic parasite named Toxoplasma Gondi has invaded my nervous system and my liver. I am a biological mess. My immune system is shut down, my mobility restricted, and my mind is confused due to both the hard-core medicinal cocktail and my own inner demons. I am also a chemical mess and very frightened. The doctor has told me to cancel all my immediate artistic commitments, starting with my participation as director of “El Cuerpo Diferente,” which is scheduled to premiere in two days. He says I won’t be doing anything of the sort until the treatment restores my health. And as for a timeline, he can‘t say if it’s going to be a matter of weeks or months.

My loved ones believe that my condition is the logical result of a seven-month nonstop tour I’ve been on this year; the most recent chapter of a rock & roll lifestyle of performing and writing, travelling, partying, under sleeping, performing again en loop ad infinitum. The deadly combo of stress and adrenaline can definitely deplete your immune system, they say. But I simply had no idea I was even stressed. I thought my existential fatigue was just my normal way of being in the world.

Besides the daily medicines (nine of them, and a vaccine) my treatment involves adopting exactly the opposite of my habitual lifestyle: Hopefully, a temporary life of immobility, dramatic dietary restrictions (no drinking, smoking or eating spicy or heavy foods whatsoever) and social isolation. Due to my acute immunodeficiency, I can’t go to public places or take public transportation. In Mexico City, the biggest city on earth, pretty much 90% of the city is therefore off limits to me. My social life has to be further restricted: I am allowed to only have one friend every other day visit me for a few hours. And it gets worse: Understandably, I am not allowed to take an airplane, train or bus out of the city, say, if I wish to recuperate in a small town or return to San Francisco. I cannot exercise or rehearse, and I’m supposed to try to not stress out about work matters…Oh, and I must try to sleep as much as possible. Good luck!

According to my carnal, composer and tarot expert Guillermo Galindo, my recent card is “El colgado”: a man hanging upside down from one foot, who is “unable to move or make any decisions; (a man) without the power to give form or direction to his life.” That’s me, waiting for better times & learning day by day to be a bit more patient.

It’s an endurance performance. Much MUCH tougher than my durational performances from the 1990’s when I lived on exhibit inside Plexiglas boxes and gilded cages for 8 -10  hours a day. At least there was an escape at the end of each day…and I myself made the decision to do it. Quite a difference que no?

2.- As December progresses, I begin to slowly recapture my health and mobility (I can first move my toes; then, my hands and arms, my back & finally my legs). It takes me a while to walk to the bathroom. The doctor is impressed but I face many formidable spiritual challenges: As a nomadic performance artist, an intensity seeker, and a seven-day-a-week bohemian, how do I engage in an extreme exercise of will power and adapt (for an undetermined time) to a life of silence, isolation, forced rest and Spartan dietary discipline? Where to look for the serenity to fight my inner demons when they are not being quieted by the madness of “the road”? How to shut down my mind, especially at night?

My challenges multiply on a daily basis: How to embrace this stop-motion present to clearly see myself in the mirror of my past? How to rebuild my immune system with psycho-magic actions and herbs? If I have permanent nerve damage will I have the valor to reinvent myself and continue to do performance? Can I create performance art without making much physical effort, and for no audience? Is it time for me to become a German minimalist? Or a Canadian Anglophone conceptual artist? How do I recapture my capability to articulate my condition in writing when my memory is fading?

This chronicle-in-progress is an attempt to answer these questions and grapple with the impossibility of writing with clarity and humor. In the clumsy process of attempting to answer, I find other questions.

I am facing Horror Vacui in my Mexico City studio and on the side, taking care of my 90-year-old mother who has lost all sense of time or reality. My adored larger-than-life mother has slowly turned into a 7-year-old mischievous girl. And now, for the first time, I see myself in her. She reminds me of my own fragility, mortality and  sense of timelessness. I constantly ask her to put her right hand on my heart and heal me. I am scared shitless! If I don’t get to perform and tour again, I’ll die. Ayúdame a sanar mamita!

3.- I wake up everyday around 5 am and face a long day of emptiness and fear. My main challenge is to fill it in with small creative tasks such as rewriting old unpublished texts (I am still unable to develop new ones), re-writing the photo captions of my blog, plotting small performances for an uncertain future and engaging in my “Twitter Poetry Project” (that I can do, 2 or 3 lines at a time). Verbigratia: Tweet: “Reenactment #12: Remember? Remember me? I used to be…Mexican. There used to be a Mexican inside this body, but something happened in the process.”

The problem is that due to my medication I constantly forget what I’m supposed to do. One particular medicine (also used for treating epilepsy) has terrible side effects including nausea, dizziness, and skin rashes. Another one causes heart palpitations and anxiety. The worst one produces “visual and audio hallucinations,” a medical euphemism for paranoia. The whole combo does not let me sleep at night. In the bizarre psychological space I inhabit, there is a lot of imagining going on; my perplexed mind constantly wandering between the present and the past, the inner and the outer space.

I imagine…I imagine I am on the road with my troupe. I imagine I am performing in all the exciting places I was supposed to be: Cuba, Brazil, Canada. I also imagine myself receiving a prestigious award in Los Angeles and/or performing and teaching at Stanford. I’m supposed to be there right now. My imagination begins to wander in the landscape of my past as a newly arrived immigrant in Los Angeles. I imagine myself as a young Gómez-Peña performing extreme tasks such as walking from Tijuana to Cal Arts in two and a half days in order to understand migration; lying for 24 hours wrapped in fabric inside a public elevator to express the pain of leaving my country; not speaking for a month in order to investigate language…I remember or rather I imagine my self reenacting these actions again, now, at 57. Although I politically oppose nostalgia and regard it as a form of escapism, this particular form of creative nostalgia feels kind of healing, at least that’s what my delusional self #1 tells my struggling self #2.

Shit! In the middle of all this imagining I realize I’m being too self-centered; thinking too much about myself; so much that I can’t see the big picture anymore. My mother reminds me: “Guillermo, what’s your problem? Have you lost your sense of humor? You are obsessed with your illness. You are becoming Americanized. Get a grip. I miss your madness.” Then I begin to question this very convalescence diary: Is it too self-indulgent? Are my words shedding any light on the human condition?

4.-After weeks of social and physical confinement, small rituals become a huge deal, like tasting my first cup of coffee in the morning, opening the door of the house when the bell rings, carefully preparing a salad or a smoothie, watching a lizard or a snail wonder about the garden and walking (secretly) to the pharmacy or the market when no one is watching.

Today, December 21st, on the emblematic end of the Mayan world, I went to the hair salon four blocks from my studio on my bike. My arms were trembling, and I felt like a mischievous kid. I made Rosie the owner promise not to tell my family that I had gone on my bike. On my way home, my brother caught me and he screamed at me as if I was a misbehaved 10 year-old: “You #$%#$@. Do you realize you are putting your health in danger? Your body is not ready to engage in exercise yet!!! I’m going to tell the doctor, pendejo!” Carolina was also very tough with me: “Don’t you ever use that bike again…at least until the doctor allows you.” I understood their concern, but I also understood more my mother’s evolvingdementia.

I remembered when I caught her drinking tequila one afternoon or eating a humongous torta from the street corner another day and I screamed at her: “You are not supposed to do this mama. You are like a little girl!”  She gave me the following answer: “I would rather enjoy one whole day, say today, and accept the consequences than live a life of privaciones and Puritanism…Don’t you realize my age? What’s happening to you my son? You are behaving like your father!” She was right then, but this time, unfortunately, my brother and Carolina were also right: I am still young and have no immune system whatsoever. I should wait at least two more months to slowly become a bad boy again. In the meantime…what?

5.-If I watch too much TV I get depressed and my mind is not focused or clear enough to sustain a long session of reading. Writing this text is a real challenge for me. In a sense, the writing of this text becomes both a desperate attempt to understand my own clumsy mind and body in this time and place, and a psycho-magic script for healing in the best Jodorowskian*1 tradition.

My wristwatch has stopped working. The computer is my only certainty. The tiny clock in the upper right of the computer gives me a sense of time, and so do the daily headlines and photographs in La Jornada online. Some people I know have been arrested for protesting the imposition of Mexican “president” Enrique Peña Nieto. I’m pissed because I can’t go visit them in jail. I’m not even supposed to be worried about them because my liver is ill. What the @#$%!+?

My primary relationship to the world is through the Internet. It is in virtual space that I receive, or rather attempt to receive, my national and local news. Email and Skype are particularly useful to remain in touch with my US peers. My daily Skype conversation with Emma gives me peace. She is keeping the Pocha boat afloat from San Francisco while I get to be the science-fiction version of myself that I wrote about 15 years ago in Friendly Cannibals*2: The performance artist who lives in an imaginary social universe. He sees his reflection in the liquid screen of his computer for more than 10 hours a day while changing costumes as the world crumbles around him. People tell me this storyline is no longer science fiction; it’s the way most people relate to the world nowadays. Not for me, carnales…

I feel like someone who has played a starring role in an epic action film with innumerable sequels titled “Bourne Performance,” and one day I close my eyes for a few seconds and then when I open them again I am no longer inside the film but rather watching it from the quiet, cold patio of my Mexico City studio. And in the process of watching the film disappears, and I have to wait for the image to come back. And the wait becomes eternal. And for the first time in years I feel…boredom, a brand-new feeling; my inability to be at peace with myself. And the boredom makes me question my own performance strategies.

I remember telling young performance artists and students:
“When you don’t know anymore what to do or where you are, that is the ideal moment for creation. When you inhabit the accident, that is the perfect moment for creation; ground zero in performance art.” And yet, I simply can’t seem to apply this knowledge to my new daily life.

I know that I need to embrace my illness and stop comparing myself with the invincible Guillermo of two months ago. This shaman once told me: “At your age you can hang your weapons on the wall and still be a warrior.” If I remember this quote later on, I will promise to enact it everyday.

6.-I go back and forth from the present to the past. I can’t control my verbs anymore. By mid December, when the doctor finally gives me permission to go to a neighborhood restaurant (before or after hours), I am beside myself. My neighbors are shocked to see me walking in the hood. Word begins to spread and my childhood friends start showing up to find out what is happening to super-skinny Guillermo. I was even happier when the doctor allowed me to begin having more friends over during the evenings, two or three at once…that is, as long as they weren’t ill. A flu could be mortal and turn into TB or chronic bronchitis.

Suddenly, the occasional visits of one concerned friend become more continuous, festive and fun, and waiting for a few members of my flota become epiphenomenological events. Nayla brings me flowers and herbs on a regular basis; Gloria brings me books and Cesar tells me hilarious jokes. Gustavo is calling every week and Erica is sending me rare Icelandic punk and acoustic songs from her retreat in a small fishing village in Iceland. Roberto and Jenny have even come from Chicago to visit. Other Pochos lindos like Saul, Dani, Michele and galindog are sending me regular love letters. And so are Elaine, Rebecca and Orlando. Everyone I enter into social or virtual contact with offers words of tenderness, solidarity & compassion. I am extremely moved. They give me strength to endure. I realize that it is always an entire community that heals each individual, and I am extremely moved.

My friends are no longer scared. They can now touch me, and they hug me constantly since we just found out that my viral infection and parasites are not contagious. They make me laugh, and laughter according to Cesar, is better than antibiotics.

They are so intense, my chilango friends, so much that in comparison I feel like a wimp. They tell me stories about their own encounters with la pelona (death). Pepe, my childhood friend and neighbor, tells me about a recent kidnapping attempt. Two sicarios entered his home and tried to kill him when he couldn’t produce enough cash but miraculously the gun jammed. And he is laughing when he tells me the story. Felipe, my Mexican artistic godfather, describes in detail his heart attack in 2000 and how he turned it into a series of empowering art projects. Another day, Alexandra, a very talented choreographer and dancer, describes her most recent art project: She just finished a photo essay documenting her recovery from breast cancer. When I tell her I wish I had her stamina, and that I can’t even write about what I’m going through with sharpness and humor, she says: “You certainly can. You just need some distance from it. Start by writing about the impossibility of writing, and then you go from there.”

-“You’ve done it before pendejo!”.–I tell myself. I suddenly remember Brownout, the script I wrote during my recuperation from a liver crash in 2000, right after a visit to Rio where I caught an unpronounceable tropical disease that rendered me inert for 7 months…

My daily life continues to improve by the 3rd week of December. I am finally allowed to take daily showers and shave myself and even occasionally dress up like a dandy and wear my Tex Mex jewelry.Carolina is writing an essay in my mother’s house while overseeing the two of us. We play table games when my friends can’t come to visit. My son is coming to town soon. I suddenly realize how lucky I am recovering here in my new studio, next door to my mother’s home where my family is even helping pay for the most expensive doctor and medicine bills. I cannot even imagine what would have happened if I had gotten ill in San Francisco where I only have a Healthy SF card and it takes me months to get an appointment with a doctor. Besides, what would have happened if I had had my collapse while touring Finland or Alaska, or while on a 12-hour airplane trip? I’d rather not think about it. I am humbled by my own speculations. I feel so pinche lucky, I slowly begin to step out of my self-centeredness.

7.-It’s December 24th, Christmas Eve and I am toasting with my family...with a cocktail glass filled with mineral water. After dinner I go to sleep.I close my eyes and begin to digress…where am I? Where the %^#*)(*@ hell am I?

Today I am recapturing the world. I’m standing on the ruins of globalization; a witness to the collapse of the global economy and the emergence of myriad citizen movements against authoritarian regimes worldwide: I witness the political streets of planet earth from the balcony of my recent memory: Mostly youth across class and race rebelling against a world without jobs, quality education, equality, dignity and future; many Pocha alumni and young friends and peers are part of it. I am so pinche proud of them.

Organized through texting and twitter, the Spanish indignados are quietly filling up La Puerta del Sol in Madrid as the valiant Arab youth are defying autocracies from Cairo to Tripoli. The joyful camps of the Occupy movement across the world are temporarily capturing our imagination. Topless women in the Ukraine are embarrassing corrupt politicians and the church. Young activists in Mexico City utilize performance strategies such as covering statues of the revolutionary heroes with trash bags to protest the imposition of the PRI candidate. The silent marches against violence led by a Mexican poet often have half a million people, including relatives and friends of those who have been killed by organized crime. Everywhere I turn, I see imaginative and brave citizen actions. I feel humble and temporarily hopeful.

Unfortunately, a few months pass and everything goes wrong. Muslim autocrats replace civilian autocrats. The Spanish right wing wins the presidential election. The Occupy movement goes to page 12 of the NY Times. Marcos is dying of lung cancer, and seventy students have been arrested in Mexico City and charged with violence to public property. (It’s true there was vandalism, but those who were arrested weren’t responsible for it). Nowadays it seems like hope only lasts for a few months. It’s our new condition: Remember the international dance party after Obama’s election? It was a very brief cumbia dance, que no?

My wandering mind returns to my sick, itching skinny body. I’m sleepless, restless again…and bored.

Starting tonight, my sleep will be aided by a strong sleeping pill recommended by my doctor. I have no other option, even if tomorrow I feel groggy. I need to recapture some intellectual clarity, my sense of humor and memory, at any cost. For the moment I have no sense of time. For me, history begins when I wake up, and it ends when I go to sleep. The rest is academic discourse.

8.-Today, I have finished the treatment of 3 of the pills with the worst side effects, and the dose of 2 others has been reduced by the doctor to half. Besides thanks to the mysterious sleeping pill, I finally get to sleep 7-8 hours a day. I feel considerably better.

I have an epiphany one day while speaking with my friend Gloria. I’m reminded that I can rewrite the script of my life through performance, and in my performance reality I can choose not to be ill. In the parallel reality of my imagination I can choose to be perfectly healthy, even if the other reality, the one were doctors live, contradicts my desire. In the reality of my art and the wondrous logic of quantum physics, I choose to be alright, even if only for the duration of my neurolinguistic mantra. I can heal myself through language. “Enough is enough!,” I say. “I am healthy. My bone marrow is healthy. My liver is healthy. My mind is clear. I can write again.” I tell myself over and over again. “Estoy sano! I look for health in my art. My art is a form of sanación (healing).”

My most irreverent friend performance artist Miguel Angel Corona, AKA “El Reinito” tells me: “You should be thankful to your illness. You’ve lost so much weight you haven’t been so slim in years. You look great. It’s hard to believe you are ill.  You are not getting any compassion from me. Let’s document this moment with a photo.” We take performative photos of ourselves with Alexandra. Another day video artist Fernando Llanos takes a bunch of photos of Felipe Ehrenberg and I loqueando. I feel very self-conscious. “Just don’t show them to me.” –I tell them. But deep inside, it feels great to goof around with the friends. I am also beginning to activate my bizarre collection of props and costumes to make my family and friends laugh.  

I just can’t believe that my small psychomagic performances are working. I’m ready to join las marchas por la paz and las marchas de liberacion de los estudiantes. I am definitely ready to cause trouble again. Tired of sitting and waiting around, I want to make activist art and tour with La Pocha Nostra. I want to continue working in my new studio as well. I begin to make an inventory of potential art projects.

I write in my diary: “I am done with the stupid illness!”…well, only for a few hours and then, unable to keep my energy up, I crash again. I suddenly realize this feeling of empowerment is a mirage. In fact, let’s face it cabrón, you can’t write again.

9.-It’s almost New Year 2013. I hope I get to have a virgin toast with my family tonight and dance with my mother for the peaceful arrival of the New Year; a year without violence, illness and fear; a year with a lot of exciting art projects.

While still feeling ok, I begin to correct and structure these notes. I then send this draft to Emma. She and Elaine have been kind enough to help me turn my wild thoughts and poetic notes into a somewhat decent chronicle that reveals my recent thought process.

According to the doctor, if everythings works out, I’ll be able to perform and teach again sometime in February or March. It will be a different pace and daily schedule true, but I might be back on the road soon. I know I’ll be physically clumsy and emotionally frail, but my Pocha peers will provide.

10.- I dedicate this my most personal text to doctor Valdez who saved my life; my brother Carlos who cooked delicious meals during my tough recovery; Carolina and my son Guillermo who tolerated my existential disorientation; my adored mother who, with her sacred amnesia and in complicity with my Chihuahua Babalu, constantly reminded me of other parallel realities; Emma who redefined Skype with tenderness on a daily basis; Roberto and Jenny who came to visit all the way from the US; Saul who took care of me like a young brother during the most critical part of my collapse and who with the support of galindog, Violeta, Nayla, Alejandro and Julia took command of the performance; Gustavo, Erica, Dani, and Michele who constantly sent me their long-distance love and tenderness. I also wish to acknowledge my wild Mexico City friends: Paty, Julia, Nayla, Gloria, Cesar, Felipe, Fernando, Norma, Marco, Casilda, Miguel Angel, Alexandra, Jorge and Pepe who also helped me to heal with their embraces, kisses, jokes, stories and continuous attentions. Others unfortunately due to my erratic memory I have forgotten temporarily. You all have been much more effective than all the medication I’ve had. I am forever thankful. Tweet: Adios locos/as, I’m finally leaving forever. I’m going to an imaginary country S. of Antarctica & N. of my imagination. This time it’s for good, neta. I’m not coming back.

Mexico Technochtitlán,
New Year, 2013
10 days after the end of the world


*1 Alejandro Jodorowski is the Chilean Mexican filmmaker and performance artist who coined the term “psycho-magia”, a type of self-styled ritual performance meant to break the behavioral patterns that lead to pain, frustration or illness.

*2 A collaboration with visual artist Enrique Chagoya, Friendly Cannibals is one of my less known books. Out of print by now, it can only be found sporadically in Amazon.

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