Guillermo Gómez-Peña uses the anonymous, open nature of the Net to turn racism into art.

Chicano performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña likes to cross borders, both real and virtual. As an explorer of US-Mexico relations he has uncovered a volatile new demarcation line: the Internet. Gómez-Peña surveys cultural stereotypes from information gathered on a confessional Web site ( The San Francisco artist then teams with Roberto Sifuentes to stylize the data into bizarre Ethnocyborgs, like the Mex-Terminator and CyberVato, who reflect the best and worst of racial preconceptions.

By Evantheia Schibsted


You call yourself a "reverse anthropologist." Why?

Gómez-Peña: In the late '80s, many artists of color reversed the epistemological premise of "I'll perform for you so you'll understand and accept me and my culture." Instead we treat the dominant culture as if it's exotic and unfamiliar. I observe cultural behavior and create art that articulates America to itself.
How does your Web site facilitate this?

In the past, we gathered opinions on racial stereotypes and immigration from visitors to our performance spaces. But on the Net you have total anonymity. You can hide your gender, race, social class, accent. So many of these online confessions are more outrageous, and more performative. People give opinions on what kind of clothes they want us to wear, what music we should listen to, what spiritual, sexual, and political behavior we should engage in. Or someone may confess a crime, such as having killed a migrant worker. Even if that confession is false, the desire is revealing and culturally significant.

Doesn't that make you skeptical of the responses you receive?

People reveal a lot even by choosing a fictional identity or creating a fictitious literary narrative. Our job as artists is to unleash these colonial demons - to open Pandora's box. It's not to moralize.

Is there something about the Net's anonymity that allows people to get in touch with their dark side?

There are no repercussions. People can be crass, obscene, hurtful, as well as sincere and intimate. My guess is that many are people who, in public, would be very well-behaved and culturally sensitive. But once you create the conditions to say what they really feel, they go for it.

More honest?

Yes. There's no political correctness whatsoever. But not all Web responses are negative. The Ethnocyborgs are composites based on a multiplicity of fears and desires. They can be friendly, open, and as attractive as they are appalling. The CyberVato, for instance, is a pre-industrial shaman, a bohemian. He's highly sexual and exotic.

What does your work say about human nature?

America is living with an incredible paradox. It's the most multicultural society on earth - that is its utopian strength - but it's also riddled with fear of otherness and change. I want to make that visible through the creation of these Ethnocyborgs. Hopefully people will see their own inner savages - which are in all of us - and deal with them. We're saying, Hey, we're not that different.

But why do you think these online responses reflect the views of Americans? This is an anonymous survey, and the Net is an international network.

Cultural references. When someone expresses fear of Mexicans invading their neighborhood, the person is clearly not in Paris. Or they mention specific anti-immigration legislation. Maybe they say "where I live in LA" or "here in Arizona." But fear of immigration is not limited to the US. It's international. Germans talk about Turks. Italians fear Albanians. In the US, there's Mexiphobia.

How have perceptions of Mexicans changed?

In the '80s, Mexicans were depicted as extremely passive - the lazy Mexican sleeping by a cactus wearing a sombrero, the Frito Bandito. Not capable of carrying out real violence. No political agenda. But the anti-immigrant political rhetoric portrays Mexicans as invaders. Mexico is seen as filled with corrupt politicians, drug dealers, terrorists. That's reflected in the Mex-Terminator. He intends to invade the North, redefine the West, reconquer this land, recoup the Southwest for Mexico. He's also violent and indiscriminately kills cops and border patrol officers.

You call yourself a "Webback." Do you see yourself as an intruder on the Net?

Yes. The number of Latino students, artists, and activists on the Net is minute. But we want to participate in the national and cultural debates, and many are permeated by technology. I consider myself a coyote, a smuggler of ideas. We want Net inhabitants to get used to a new cultural sensibility. But we do encounter the linguistic border patrol.

How so?

There's a linguistic hegemony because of the way debates are framed and the fact that English is the lingua franca. We often send technoplacas, which are basically just humorous Spanglish texts questioning matters of access, privilege, and power relative to the Net. We often receive responses such as, "Go back to your cyber barrio."

In the coming century, do you think culture will be defined by access to technology?

It's already happening. We're witnessing the creation of nations that are not defined by territory, culture, race, or language. They will be defined by the Internet. As Latinos, we don't want to be left behind.

Confessions of a Webback