La Pocha Nostra: Pocha, Pedagogy, and Performance Art

Manal Vakil, Ohio State second-year, Statistics and Political Science, minor in Quantitative Economics

Mar 18, 2021

Jessica Bastidas from the group La Pocha Nostra lies face down on a tiled floor in the middle of a round space filled with aged columns, topless with a lacy skirt, tights and high heels, a large eagle mask covering her head

Guillermo Gómez-Peña, a world-renowned radical pedagogue and performance artist, led a keynote lecture and pedagogical workshop last month with support from Ohio State’s Migration, Mobility, and Immobility Project; the Wexner Center for the Arts; the Center for Latin American Studies; the Office of Diversity and Inclusion; the Department of Dance; the Ohio Hispanic Heritage Project; and the Annual Hispanic and Lusophone Studies Symposium. Gómez-Peña is also the artistic director of the performance art troupe and nonprofit organization La Pocha Nostra, his longest-standing project. I had the opportunity to (virtually) sit down with Saula Garcia Lopez and Paloma Martinez-Cruz, co-writer and editor, respectively, of a new pedagogical book with Guillermo Gómez-Peña entitled La Pocha Nostra: A handbook for the rebel artist in a post-democratic society (2021) and core members of La Pocha Nostra.

In the words of Garcia Lopez, or La Saula, La Pocha Nostra is “a place in which artists from different backgrounds from different gender persuasions, different ethnic backgrounds, different generations, different disciplines can come together in a temporary space and create something together.” This group exemplifies the themes and values of Gómez-Peña’s work, specifically his mission of radicalizing people and art through pedagogy and performance. As explained by Martinez-Cruz, another current member of La Pocha Nostra and Ohio State faculty member, “Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s career has always been about critiquing the border and critiquing colonial logic, and colonial violence…His work has always been grounded in those identities of difference, and we're exposing the pain of colonial circumstances and the consequences of colonial circumstances in hemispheric societies.” 

Pedagogy is crucial to La Pocha Nostra’s art and mission. “The pedagogy and the work that we do coexist together and are not seen as separate things. The pedagogy is the project, the pedagogy is the performance, the pedagogy is our community, the pedagogy is our process of creation,” says Garcia Lopez. This overlap between the “pedagogical realm” and “artistic realm” allows La Pocha Nostra to create unique spaces that are “horizontal,” in which mutual respect and collaboration aid in learning and creating something new. When it comes to teaching other artists, they believe in “invitation instead of role modeling.”

“I would say that it's more powerful to make invitations to people who are starting out or who don't have the experience, make an invitation to participate, make an invitation to play,” Martinez-Cruz asserts. La Pocha Nostra carries this mentality into the performance space as well, creating an art practice that has “[broken] down hierarchies of performer and audience” by “investigating ways that art could empower and transform spectator experiences,” explains Martinez-Cruz. La Pocha Nostra strives to challenge the hierarchies in every space because it is a model for “radicalizing who we are in space as people who want to participate in fully enfranchised ways in their political realities” she continues. Thus, La Pocha Nostra’s pedagogy, activism, and art are inseparable. Garcia Lopez describes, “We are constantly crossing the border between the pedagogical aspects of being a teacher, being the artist, being the activist, being the radical diplomat of differences within our spaces.”

"We are constantly crossing the border between the pedagogical aspects of being a teacher, being the artist, being the activist, being the radical diplomat of differences within our spaces."
Saula Garcia Lopez

Our physical spaces, however, have changed drastically over the last year while we have been immersed in a global pandemic. Much like other artists, La Pocha Nostra is dealing with the struggles of creating performance art when people cannot physically gather. Garcia Lopez described how La Pocha Nostra has had to adapt to and learn from the current circumstances. “Our work relies on the body and the physical interaction that takes place in this space. So to enter this time of travel restrictions, it forced us to look and expand the concept of our body into the extension of our body through technology and through virtual spaces…We started to obviously be calm, more savvy and more aware of our visual presence as an extension of our body, as an extension of our identity.” He also emphasized that despite the pandemic’s challenges, it has also presented them with opportunities, stating that they “have been able to collaborate with people that we never imagined.” Although it may be a complicated and new process to learn to use technology for performance art, it is an important and creative space with substantial potential, likely to inform their future pedagogical projects.

“While we lose the physical body in space, which is very core to Pocha experience, the international aspect can have more flexibility,” adds Martinez-Cruz. La Pocha Nostra also has an affinity for the unconventional and unpredictable. She described how “the glitch” was already a concept built into the aesthetics of La Pocha Nostra, helping them better adapt to the virtual space and accept uncertainties. “The word pocha itself is what is rotten or sick or impure…It already just kind of by definition, expands into those places that might feel broken and inserts curiosity and even reverence for that exact brokenness for those glitchy spaces,” she expands.

When I asked if they had any advice for young artists of different ethnic, racial, sexual, and gender backgrounds, Garcia Lopez read me an excerpt from La Pocha Nostra: A handbook for the rebel artist in a post-democratic society, which is filled with advice for artists when finding opportunities and establishing their voices. He told me to “open your eyes to the different communities that surround you, visit them, familiarize yourself with your city or community, and become a border crosser” and to “practice intelligent skepticism of simplistic formulas, easy answers, one-sided narratives, dogmatic solutions, self-righteous positions, question power, question everything, even this advice.” 

La Pocha Nostra is a collection of rebel artists and encourages others to become and create their own groups of rebel artists. “We rebel artists have a place to ask the questions that are uncomfortable, to highlight those conversations that we somehow put underneath the carpet, to bring them to the forefront of our realities. And sometimes that is very uncomfortable for people. “We take the risk of being misunderstood to spark difficult conversations about positionality,” states Garcia Lopez. The commitment to asking these questions and sparking strong emotional reactions is what creates a radical artist. In these times of uncertainty and injustice, we should all question our realities, embrace the unknown, and dare to exist fully in our spaces. 


This selection is part of Writing about the Performing Arts at Ohio State, an interdisciplinary student-led seminar during the 2020-21 academic year. With guidance from Department of Dance graduate teaching assistant Jacquie Sochacki and the Wexner Center’s Alana Ryder (Manager, Public and University Programs) and Lane Czaplinski (Director of Performing Arts), students with backgrounds in dance, economics, math, microbiology, political science, psychology, statistics, and beyond will serve as ambassadors and advocates for the arts. As a cohort, they will approach broad theoretical and philosophical issues behind contemporary performance as well as questions about the roles of arts critics and of arts criticism, especially in the era of COVID-19 and racial equity and social justice movements.

For more information, please email Additional interviews and student writing will be presented here later in the academic year.

Top of page: Winged Migration, Queretaro City, 2018. Photo: Hache Herani; pictured: Jesica Bastidas

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