A HOMELAND FOR WRITERS
Gregg Barrios, ¡Presente!
Chicano Polymath Passes into the Pantheon of Great Raza Artists, Intellectuals, and Provocateurs
by B. V. Olguín
Gregg’s greatness arose from his nimble navigation of the complexities and contradictions of Chicanx history, life, culture and politics. Indeed, his life involved the type of complex Chicanx realities and negotiations endemic to colonized and marginalized people, yet he also insisted on claiming the center as his own. He loved his own Tejano culture and also saw no contradiction in his dual love of broader intersecting cultures, from Elvis to David Bowie to Juan Gabriel and beyond.
His vexed, yet for him completely normal, navigations of his US and Chicanx identity involved service in the US Air Force Reserves during the Vietnam War, in which he participated in the transportation of wounded US soldiers returning to the US from Vietnam through Germany. While stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas, he utilized the GI Bill to attend the University of Texas at Austin part-time. There he was active in developing that institution’s avant garde film movement, helping to found the renowned Cinema 40 Film Club, and promoting numerous events with world renowned filmmakers. He also co-founded the iconoclastic underground newspaper, The Rag, which is still in production.
Significantly, even as Gregg identified as a Chicano and militated alongside Brown Berets, La Raza Unida Party, and other Raza organizations, he did not take a myopic narrow cultural nationalist view of culture and power. He always sought to globalize La Onda Chicana. Pursuant to pushing the boundaries of how we understand Chicano—and broader Chicanx—identity, Gregg ventured into experimental film. In 1967 he made a short film, BONY (Boys of New York), during a sojourn in Andy Warhol’s famous Factory. Gregg’s film anticipated other Raza filmmakers such as Willie Varela who would become renowned as a pioneer of Raza cinema. In fact, BONY is archived at UCLA and is included on Chon Noriega’s list of 100 Best Chicano Films.
Equally as important as his forays into broader US culture, Gregg was determined to show how US and global culture also were indebted to Raza culture. Accordingly, he adapted the Raza forms such as the Acto agitprop skit, developed by Luis and Daniel Valdez’s Teatro Campesino, into some of his own early community theater productions. From his earliest theatrical productions to his latest, Gregg Barrios’ teatro was polemical, impactful, and downright revolutionary. For instance, as an educator in Crystal City in the 1970s he used his art to intervene into the infamous 1977 “gas crisis”: the conflict between the Lo-Vaca Gathering Company (a private utility vendor) and the new, all-Chicano Crystal City Council, which had rejected the new higher price the company demanded for gas from the primarily working class Mexican American customers. Gregg mobilized his high school students to produce a play he wrote—Dale Gas (1977)—which Angela Davis praised as a revolutionary work of art. As a non-member guest presenter to the Santa Monica chapter meeting of the Communist Party USA he received a standing ovation for this work of political art. In another play with his high school students Gregg drew upon his and his students’ eclectic musical tastes to produce an allegorical drama about aliens that carried an antiracist polemic—Stranger in a Strange Planet (1976)—which was modeled on David Bowie’s Starman epic album.
Gregg’s theatrical interventions intensified after he retired from teaching in the LA Unified School District. After moving to San Antonio, Texas in the early 2000s, his later works involved a dramatic biopic profile of gangster revolutionaries such as Fred Gomez Carrasco and his wife and confederate Rosa Carrasco. He also wrote dramas recovering the Raza roots of the American theater canon. His play on Katherine Anne Porter, Dark Horse, Pale Rider (2002), for instance, exposed the frequent white fetish on Mexicans and Mexican Americans by artists who became pillars of American Letters precisely because of their exploitation of Raza.
Gregg’s play, Rancho Pancho (Hansen Publishing 2009) is considered by many to be his magnum opus. This play explores the complex relationship between the celebrated American playwright Tennessee Williams and his Mexican-American lover. Gregg’s play, backed up by reams of archival documents, photos, and interviews, proposes that Williams co-opted his lover’s life to create characters and storylines. In a bombshell Gregg proposes the archetypal character Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire is modeled on Pancho Gonzalez, with whom Tennessee had a similarly turbulent relationship. Like his play on Katherine Anne Porter, this play further recovers the Mexican American roots of the American canon in ways that recenter Raza in the US, ultimately heralding a more complex reading of the US past and potential future. It is frequently remarked that after seeing Gregg’s play Rancho Pancho, no one can view any Tennessee Williams play the same way as before.
Gregg’s subsequent play I-DJ (Hansen, 2015) has been a crowd favorite in multiple venues, and makes equally important interventions. The play features the dramatic, and at times traumatic, coming of age of a gay Mexican American DJ—Warren Peace (aka Amado Guerrero Paz)—in 1980s Los Angeles. The story is told through a soundtrack composed of songs from Herb Albert’s A&M Record label, which included everything from Peter Frampton to the Carpenters to the groundbreaking Mexican American heartthrob Chris Montez (Let’s Dance 1962). The play premiered in 2012 at San Antonio’s Overtime Theater (following an earlier version in 2005 featuring Danny De La Paz as the protagonist). The play also was produced in 2014 at the prestigious iconoclastic Frigid Theater Festival in New York. This play is perhaps the most incisive and successful illustration of the intertwined—and inextricable—relationship between the Chicano Movement and the LGBTQI+ Movement, and dramatically rewrites our understanding of the 1960s-1980s.
Gregg’s theater and broader literary work were intertwined with his journalism career, which began—and continued unabated for the rest of his life—when he was a 16-year-old book reviewer for the local newspaper in his hometown of Victoria, Texas. He later went on to write features and news for major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, San Antonio Express-News, Rumbo, and others. A consummate bibliophile, with a collection of first edition books that attracted numerous collectors and curators, Gregg remade the San Antonio Express-News Book Page when he served as its book editor. He is credited with opening the newspaper up to new voices and also inaugurated a weekly poem section that cultivated local and regional talent. Over his journalism career, Gregg’s features and interviews include exclusives with the Latinx Trans activist Sylvia Rivera, among other notable Mexican and pan-Latinx figures, including Juan Gabriel, Oscar De La Hoya, and so many more. His work adds to the rich archive of Raza primary materials that rewrite history and will benefit scholars for decades to come.
Gregg was the consummate cultural critic who never shied away from controversy or complexity. This was best displayed in his love and analysis of boxing. He appreciated the otherwise brutal sport for its tense and conflicted balance of hypermasculinity alongside homoerotic dimensions, which he recognized as yet another instance of the unruly complexity of Raza subjectivity. Some of his best reporting is on boxing, and he relished in the old-school, working-class boxing shows at the Municipal Auditorium in San Antonio, Texas he attended with local friends and former boxers.
Gregg, ever the polymath, also was a lifelong poet and published four collections of poetry: Air-Conditioned Apollo (1968); Healthy Self (1979); Puro Rollo (1982); and La Causa (2010). His collected works, My Life: The Poem I Never Wrote: New & Selected Poetry 1968-2021, will be released by Hansen Publishers in 2021.
As a testament to his significance to Raza, American, Latin American, and world literary, cultural, and political history, Gregg Barrios’ personal papers and archival materials have been collected and are available for public use at the University of Texas, University of Texas at San Antonio, UCLA, and the Getty Museum of Los Angeles.
Gregg was a friend to many, a provocateur to everyone, and the model of a protean subject who lifted underclass Raza and LGBTQI+ views, voices, and visions into the center of multiple sites of power. ¡Gregg Barrios, Presente!
Gregg Barrios, Presente!
It’s still hard to believe the ongoing testimonio of Gregg Barrios has ceased.
Gregg was uniquely our Raza chronicler, a testigo of a worldly Chicano witness like no other of his pioneer generation, spanning his prodigal stirrings as an adolescent book and film critic for the newspaper in Victoria, Texas, that olden settlement of Mexicanos at the northern swath of the Rio Grande Valley, and reaching forward through the decades with ever more astounding encounters, engagements, insights and revelations.
Gregg was always about living, and writing, truth to the power and the times he found himself contending with. That meant carrying his story of being a medic in Vietnam, of returning to la Tierra Prometida, pursuing studies at the University of Texas in Austin, where he created a visionary cinema club. He would find his way to Andy Warhol’s “Factory” in New York City, mingling with Andy, and Malanga, and Nico, and Lou, shooting 8 mm films that were like rare documents of a secret sect, captured through a queer Chicano eye.
He had many stories of his encuentros and interactions with other great makers of our times. Returning to Texas, teaching high school in Crystal City, he produced a student show based on the Ziggy Stardust epic, and David Bowie took note with a letter of recognition and homage. In the last years, Gregg had surfaced gobsmacking video of that production.
Gregg’s prodigal plays were chronicles. Ranch Pancho told the lost story of Tennessee Williams’s romance with a Mexican American man from Piedras Negras, perhaps the model for Stanley Kowalski “Streetcar Named Desire.” His I-DJ was a queered-forward history of pop music, an evocation of our era through a proud, resilient, ever-evolving Jotería aesthetic matrix. His poetry brought further injunctions to be more deeply human, rooted in a Raza metaphysic.
In the last two decades, through force of will, he became the cultural conscience of the National Book Critics’ Circle, spurring them to be ever more inclusive, fathoming the literature of writers of color, and all those writers who lived outside the tidily sanctioned circles of social norms. He rolled grenades into their quiet sanctuaries.
He was sure-footed, every new work somehow just as much revelatory as it was unexpected.
So when he wrote a lukewarm, cautionary review of my last book for the Los Angeles Times, I told him that act was bold, openly revealing for the first time his fallibility as a reader and a critic. He smiled, “It’s very important for critics to maintain an illusion of fallibility, especially with other writers.”
We laughed, and began a public dialogue we were doing together.
I’m bereft thinking of all that was yet to come. His play-in-the-works on legendary Texas stripper Candy Barr, and some yet-to-be genre work on the career of gang-leader and Barrio icon Fred Carrasco. I preciously hope he left those tucked away in a drawer yet to be revealed to the unsuspecting world. Along with his Factory-era films. Gregg’s last grenades rolled into the living rooms of the now.
Heartbreakingly, Gemini Ink was just preparing to honor him in October, a fuerza that will go forward to celebrate his legacies.
But forevermore now, we’ll pronounce: Gregg Barrios, Presente!
John Phillip Santos
San Antonio de Bejár, September 10, 2021
– Natalia Treviño, Professor of English, Northwest Vista College
Macondista Gregg Barrios left an indelible mark on anyone who knew him. His life, his creative work constitutes deep commitment to art and to Chicanismo. I won’t enumerate his important publications or the many plays produced, nor will I quote from his poetry or the essays in The Texas Observer, nor will I point to his role as mentor to youth, or as a voice in various groups like the National Book Critics Circle. None of these alone reflects the entirety of Gregg Barrios. But like tiny mirrors on a disco ball each reflects an aspect of his life. A life well lived, a life we celebrate and are grateful for. His presence in Chicano letters as a whole lifted all of us. As we mourn the passing of a literary legend, we must pause and consider what such a life teaches us. Gregg, my friend, may your spirit soar, go forth and continue on your path. ¡Vaya con Dios!
– Norma Elia Cantú, Ph.D.
Gregg Barrios was a legend *during* his lifetime. Yes, he was there in Crystal City, Texas when the Raza Unida party was in its infancy. Yes, he did meet and interview luminaries such as Elvis, Selena, and Warhol. Yes, he wrote in several genres and continued to discover new ones late in life. Yes, he contained multitudes. And he had stories to tell. Not only was he always entertaining, his stories often had a lesson, told tongue-in-cheek, yet they rang true. As when he reflected over lunch in San Antonio one time during Macondo week, that it was not enough to be grateful to be given an opportunity as a writer, one could also ask for, indeed demand more. Like the Oliver Twist character when he holds up his bowl and asks: “Can I have some more?”
And more he got. He was in the midst of a fruitful last couple of decades of his life, the honors and opportunities multiplying, circles closing, new ones opening, when he left this earth in a big flash of light.
Gregg. Gregorio. Maestro. Thank you for blazing trails and asking for more.
– Liliana Valenzuela