Often overlooked, Robert Legorreta’s subversive performance art of the late 1960s gained him notoriety amongst L.A.’s artistic circles. Legorreta’s drag persona, Cyclona, stands as a somewhat misunderstood demonstration of gender, style, and sexuality, blurring the boundaries between masculinity and femininity and calling into question his own Chicano identity…
Words by Katja Fjeld
By the 1970s, Robert Legorreta was highly perceived as “the legendary East L.A. Street performer” amongst the contemporary cultural Chicano/a community.1 His oeuvre consists of various media, ranging from photography, painting and performance art. The latter in particular granted him a position within the canon of the East L.A Chicano art scene.
However, Legorreta’s work has been left largely uninvestigated, often confused with other contemporary Chicano artists such as the famous Chicano art collective Asco.2 Whilst Legorreta collaborated with members of the collective, the political declarations and the embodiment and characteristics of the performances belong to Legorreta. This common misconception and disregard of his work stems from Legorreta’s own position within the Chicano community. His drag stage persona, “Cyclona”, experiments with gender, style and sexuality, thus his performances illustrate alternative Chicano identities during a civil rights movement that was deeply rooted in the conservative patriarchal and heterosexual familia and the Catholic church.3 Because of this, his activism confronts and disrupts this myth of the essentialised macho, heterosexual Chicano identity.
Thus, the figure of Cyclona became a figure of liberation for Legorreta:
“It was kind of God’s gift because I had to accept it. Something for a long time I couldn’t accept.[…]I had to accept it and fall in love with it because it wasn’t an alter ego.”4
Cyclona became an active process of self-acceptance. By performing as a character of uncertain race and gender, Legoretta faced the opportunity to blur his masculine and feminine sides and act in a way that as a Chicano man, he was expected not to. In his infamous performance Caca-Roaches Have No Friends, Cyclona appeared for the first time sporting a look that would become the artist’s staple. Dressed in drag he appeared on stage with white powder emphasizing his deep-red overdrawn lips, arched eyebrows and exaggerated black eye makeup. The heavy sideburns and revealing costume enhances his physicality, colliding with and blurring his masculinity and femininity.
Thus, Cyclona relates to certain definitions of Camp. Susan Sontag describes camping as “a mode of seduction – one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation.”5 The exaggerated contrast between Cyclona’s female aesthetics and his male physique signifies this ‘double interpretation’ as a performance of identifying with a difference. Cyclona’s queerness is not interested in passing for any gender, but indulges in the exaggerated aesthetics that creates a spectacle that both suggests masculine and feminine self-empowerment. Legorreta explains:
“Straight society forgets that everybody is brought up straight, so your identity comes later […] I was in harmony with my sexual identity, both male and female. I allowed myself to experience that and it took the form of cross-dressing that mixed both male and female clothing, so that it wasn’t exclusively male or exclusively female.”6
By enhancing his masculinity through his femininity, Cyclona recycles established machismo Chicano identity and transforms it into a queer spectacle. Both identifying with, but also against the normative gender and racial roles. Whilst his external signals (cosmetics, costume) signifies femininity, his male body signifies masculinity. His disinterest in passing functions as a disidentification, a recycling of normative gender and race assumptions which makes way for a queer identity that was previously excluded.
In the latter part of the performance – during the notorious “Cock Scene” – Cyclona takes his partner on stage, aggressively undresses him, revealing a phallic water-balloon and two eggs between his legs signifying an erect penis. Cyclona mimics homosexual intercourse by “jerking off” the balloon, twisting it and biting it until it pops (Fig.3). This erotic mimicry of homosexuality caused outrage within the Chicano family audience who, in the midst of the growing gay liberation movement, had grown sensitive to such connotations within their own community.
According to Legorreta, the scene represents patriarchal destruction.7 Thus, the exploding phallus is transformed from signifying ejaculation to symbolising something closer to castration. The performance thus turns into a direct critique of Chicano machismo culture’s homosexual panic. Because the coloured American man has already been rendered as insufficiently masculine – and homosexuality signifies femininity – Cyclona demonstrates Chicano identity’s constant concealing of such gender and sexual identities. By performing as a queer Chicano giving his male partner sexual pleasure, the ideal macho Chicano identity is questioned. By figuring queer identity through the vehicle of the Chicano male body, Cyclona offers a reinterpretation of male Chicano sexuality, illuminating heteronormativity’s fragility by literally destroying it during his partner’s climax. The castration signifies sexual liberation from dominant society’s restricted racial and gender norms. José Esteban Muñoz states that:
“Camp is a form of artificial respiration; it breathes new life into old situations. Camp is then, more than a worldview; it is a strategic response to the breakdown of representation that occurs when a queer, ethnically marked or other subject encounters his or her inability to fit within the majoritarian representational regime.”8
Caca-Roaches Have No Friends utilises and repeats hegemonic racial and sexual roles and represents them through a queer Chicano embodiment. By using drag-performance, a medium typically reserved for the white glamour queen, and embodying it through a highly stereotypical imagery of Chicano gang identity; Caca-Roaches Have No Friends reclaims this unjust portrayal of Chicano/as and queer invisibility by transforming it into queer Chicano desire. The performance thus makes way for a queer Chicano representation that is liberating and desirable. As Legorreta states “We were trying to shock people into believing that they could do anything they wanted to….I always say East L.A. was like a giant rubber that was ready to explode.”9 This ‘exploding giant rubber’ is a reference to the phallic balloon, signifying this ‘breathing of new life into old situations.’
- Robb Hernandez. The fire of life: the Robert Legorreta-Cyclona collection, (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2009): 3.
- Rudi C. Bleys. Images of Abiente: Homosexuality and Latin American Art, 1810 – Today, (London: Continuum, 2000), 173.
- Robb Hernandez. The fire of life: 3.
- Ibid. 16.
- Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp”, Partisan Review, XXXI, no. 4, (1964): 5. Accessed 16 November, 2020, https://monoskop.org/images/5/59/Sontag_Susan_1964_Notes_on_Camp.pdf.
- Robert Legorreta “Cyclona and Early Performance Art: An Interview with Robert Legorreta” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 12 no 3, (2006): 485. Accessed 16 November, 2020: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/197484.
- Robert Legorreta “Cyclona and Early Performance Art: An Interview with Robert Legorreta” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 12 no 3, (2006): 482. Accessed 16 November, 2020: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/197484.
- José Esteban Munoz. Disidentifications : queers of color and the performance of politics, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999): 128.
- Elison Carr. “Just another Painter from East L.A.,”, L.A Weekly, March, 1994, 18.