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‘We Need to Get Our Side Out’ ~ How Culture Clash Is Striking Back at Anti-Immigrant Hate

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]here was a moment after Friday’s performance of Bordertown Now when Richard Montoya, who had just spent the past hour and half jumping in and out of an arsenal of characters with his fellow castmembers, became his most sincere self, standing in the middle of the Pasadena Playhouse stage to thank the audience and remember a fallen ally in the quest to give a voice to immigrant communities.

“In the spirit of Mexican tradition, I’m going to shout ‘Viva Anthony’ and you guys are going to shout ‘Viva’,” he explained to the audience, still wearing the blue bandana and button up from the last character he played.

“¡Viva Anthony!” Montoya shouted, and the crowd shouted “¡Viva!” right back, to honor the late Chef and documentarian Anthony Bourdain who had died early that morning of an apparent suicide, sending shockwaves throughout the world.

The poignant moment underscored both the ability of Culture Clash, the performance group behind Bordertown Now, to constantly be in the present moment — even as they perform a 20-year-old show — and the importance of telling stories like the ones being told at the Playhouse this month. Their current production is about what life is like for those risking their lives and the lives of their children to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Our hearts are with those people that are perishing out there in the desert,” Montoya told L.A. Taco in an interview on Monday.

Culture Clash’s Ric Salinas, Herbert Sigüenza, and Richard Montoya in Bordertown Now/Photo by Philicia Endelman.

With a decidedly anti-immigrant administration in the White House, Culture Clash’s brand of satire seems more relevant than ever. “We’re not fucking around, because Trump and those idiots aren’t wasting any time getting their side out,” Montoya explained. “So we need to get our side out.”

[dropcap size=big]M[/dropcap]ontoya said they also wanted to show the other side of the border battle by crafting characters like a Minuteman who lost his son to drug addiction, and disgraced lawman Joe Arpaio. Montoya spent two hours interviewing Arpaio, now a convicted felon, who spent his tenure as Maricopa County Sheriff waging a war against immigrants at the Arizona border. “He was trying to be so jovial that you kind of forget that people died because of his policies,” Montoya recalled.

In classic Culture Clash fashion, the production, directed by Diane Rodriguez, is peppered with a mix of references to pop culture and news fresh from the week’s headlines, like the separation of families and detention of children in cages by U.S. customs agents or the story of Guatemalan immigrant Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez, who was shot to death by the border patrol in Texas just weeks ago.

Culture Clash had a show on Fox in the 90s, but then Rupert Murdoch showed up to a taping ...

Montoya explained that Culture Clash’s creative process — shared with Herbert Siguenza, Ricardo Salinas, and new addition Sabina Zuñiga Varela — allows for such fluidity. “The show is tightly scripted,” he pointed out. “We do a really good job of crafting. And once all that is set, you are really in good shape to keep it fresh.”

Sabina Zúñiga Varela and Richard Montoya in Bordertown Now/Photo by Philicia Endelman.

The combination makes for a show that teeters from hilarity to intensity.

“It’s kind of like the desert itself. That part of the Tucson desert is one of the most beautiful and most visited in the world and it’s also one of the deadliest,” Montoya reflected. “That is light and dark. I really try to mimic it in the writing — funny and like flash-flood that comes out of nowhere, it turns deadly serious.”

Irreverent but serious takes on things like racially motivated shootings or looks inside the minds of anti-immigrant vigilantes is a line Culture Clash has often walked largely with success in its 34-year history, which includes movies, plays and a sketch comedy show that aired on Fox from 1993 to 1996.

“We had a good run for like three years, then one day this important looking guy sits in the audience for a taping,” Montoya said. That guy turned out to be Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch. “A week later we were canceled.”

Throughout the 90s, Culture Clash took its show on the road to Miami, New York, Washington DC and Boston, San Diego, places Montoya said that would give rise to specific humor and stories. “We spent time trying to figure out South Beach, Boston, places like that, always aware of where we were at to keep the subject matter topical. San Diego was one of those places.”

'America is hungry to get into these issues.'

The original Bordertown premiered in 1998 in San Diego, based on 100 hours of taped interviews of experiences along the border. “Twenty years ago it was very intense,” Montoya recalled. “Pete Wilson comes out of San Diego and it was a hotbed for anti-Mexican ferver.”

According to Montoya, that feeling is back ten-fold, with movements like the alt-right and the current administration. “The rhetoric is deadly,” he said, wondering out loud about his responsibilities as an artist.

Zúñiga Varela in Bordertown Now/Photo by Philicia Endelman.
Zúñiga Varela in Bordertown Now/Photo by Philicia Endelman.

“How we respond to these idiots, not just as artists but as citizens as the world, matters. That’s why this show is important. A little miracle happens every night where we get to reach a very Anglo audience — people that tend to look the other way — and show them it’s madness.”

While Bordertown Now ends its run in Pasadena June 24, Montoya envisions it as an episodic show that can stream to a larger audience.

“We’ve proven that its urgent material,” he concluded. “America is hungry to get into these issues.”

Culture Clash's Bordertown Now plays only through June 24 at the Pasadena Playhouse (39 S El Molino Ave., 626-534-6970). Tickets start at $25.

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