So Far from God, So Close to the United States Nov 19, 2017
A response to Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance (Nov 16–19)
By Ryan Diaz
Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance explores distance and removal, the subject in his lifetime enigmatic to the men who sought to destroy him, lost to those who fought alongside him, and obscured to those who revere him still. Pancho Villa is portrayed as a mercurial figure. Even in death by assassination, the enormity of his impact on the mythology of his country was unassailable.
How do you portray a person such as Pancho Villa? The nonlinear narrative jumps from his early childhood to his assassination and everywhere in between. The opposite of a Wikipedia page, the Pancho Villa in the performance is a collision point to explore larger political ideas like independence, borders, and self-determination.
Woven throughout, a young man taking a pilgrimage to seek guidance from Pancho Villa in present day connects the lessons from history to the ceaseless exploitation of the poor, a revolution still in the making. He becomes a stand-in for the audience and the composer, all of us seeking to understand the bandit who loomed larger than life.
How and where each person situates themselves in relation to the story of Pancho Villa tells us about our complicity in history, from the audience to the composers, musicians, and artists themselves. Many of the contributors to the work have family affected by the revolution. At the top of the show the composer, Graham Reynolds, explained his interest in Mexican history from a young age and his decision to make a work about a Mexican figurehead in a world debating the difference between appropriation and appreciation. I came to On the Boards with very little knowledge of Pancho Villa, discovering that the young pilgrim also didn’t learn much about the Mexican Revolution even as a student in Mexico.
Within the performance, distances are reinforced. The singers each wielded handheld cameras at different times to record artifacts and primary sources, projected behind the musicians. When they were recording at the same time, the projections overlapped. Sometimes they filmed each other, notably during the voyeuristic moments where the American side of the border watched the bloodshed in Mexico from the safety of El Paso. Often, a singer would be standing in front of their own projection, the almost propaganda-like spectre looming over the figure, a call to consider a constant question from the lyrics: can we see ourselves entirely up close or only at a distance? They even sang from opposite sides of the stage. Only at the end, when they had built a literal bridge, were they united in the center.
Take a step back and you realize the music and the performers are the bridge between the audience and Pancho Villa himself. Sung mostly in Spanish, language and melody united memory and history, a delivery system for understanding the weight and drama of a revolution still in the making. When the drums barreled through the brief history of the Mexican revolution, and when the singers wailed “pobre, pobre, pobre Pancho Villa” the sonic landscape conveyed so much of the history in itself. Mexican Banda and Tex-Mex Tejano styles are cultural products of colonization that cross borders effortlessly, the heartbeat that sustains the performance throughout with an electricity that made it one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever seen.
Because music can often reach people far easier than words—especially in this instance for non-Spanish speaking audience members such as myself—it’s often used strategically to teach history to those who wouldn’t normally seek it out. The style of music chosen is an inherently political act because it binds and infuses the conditions and times of the original creators to the present material.
Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance calls to mind the use of rap in Hamilton and disco in Here Lies Love, how the music both aggrandizes and humanizes the lives of Pancho Villa, Alexander Hamilton, and Imelda Marcos, respectively. It’s no coincidence that in these narratives, the countries are experiencing a crisis of identity from the effects of colonization, revolution, and independence. If history is an endless story of distances and the present extends further and farther away with every passing day, perhaps music is the best vehicle to close the gaps and to ensure that the lessons are passed down.
Returning to the young man’s pilgrimage and the ways in which Americans during Pancho Villa’s revolution would watch the carnage from stolen lands that used to be Mexico until U.S. westward expansion, I wondered about my own complicity as an American citizen in the struggle of the poor and the disenfranchised in Mexico today. As he prays for strength and guidance from Pancho Villa to combat corruption and economic injustice, am I in my own safe distance from the life he lives so close yet so far from Seattle? This man is alive right now, as I am, not a historic figure but a person living under a set of conditions he did not ask for. After his prayer to preserve the dignity of native peoples and peasants, red lights filled the stage and a sonic cacophony flooded my ears as the musicians played their instruments into a frenzy. I continued to watch, enthralled by the music.
Ryan Diaz is a Filipino designer, writer, activist, and Celine Dion superfan. Boogies with Au Collective, teaches social justice-centered self-defense.
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