Whatever Lola started with a memory: watching Rita Hayworth, in black-and-white, sing her passionate song "Put the Blame on Mame" in the film Gilda, her every movement screaming sensual titillation and brash assurance. As a young Latina watching classic films on TV, I found I was offered two stereotypes in the women who shared my ethnicity: nondescript, almost invisible servants, or the nightclub-singing, ravishing bombshell who stole the heart of the white American leading man with her hip-swaying performances, which Ms. Hayworth exemplified. Was it any wonder which of those two I chose to identify with? That mental image of myself as fearless, sensual, and unafraid to claim one's prize was empowering in many ways. At that point, though, I didn't understand the darker side to the stereotype: while her sexuality may seem to give her power, the Latina siren is limited by her role. She is seen as devious, man-hungry, dangerous, and not particularly smart. Her role is a cage, keeping her from her own achievements and success and real connection with other women.
Before I began researching, by the clarity of this memory I would have believed that that stereotypical role figured in dozens of films, but I found that the number of times that singing maneater stereotype actually appeared was very small, less than twenty-five films in all. Yet by the time the film Damn Yankees was made in the 1950s, that character was so well-established that non-Latina actress Gwen Verdon could play a role that poked fun at the image, singing the famous song "Whatever Lola wants, Lola Gets," in which a non-Latina character takes on that Spanish-inflected siren image to humorous effect.
This curvaceous, sexually-available, rapacious role for Latinas still has footing in 2014, and real, financial repercussions: on the list of most politically and financial powerful Latinas in the world, alongside the presidents of Brazil and Argentina, can be found Sofia Vergara, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, Eva Longoria, and Salma Hayek, all of whom have banked on their sexy image to start and maintain their careers. Clearly the identification with that role can have both positive and negative consequences. I had questions: Does the stereotype really rely on being Latina, or being female? How can I use this constructed role to my advantage? What part of me is benefited by it, and what parts of it are detrimental? The image of Rita Hayworth surrounded on all sides by her satin gown, both safely esconced--or caged--within its sphere, illuminated by an elegant crystal chandelier, came into my head.
Thus began the construction of the Lola Cage, a 12-foot-high steel sculpture with an 8-foot sphere of moving steel petals that becomes its own extravagant stage set; attached to a winch system, the petals can be opened and closed like a flower to expose or hide the performer within. The performer is physically connected to the piece by their dress, a copy of Ms. Hayworth's strapless Gilda dress, which in turn is connected to linings of the same material on the interior of the steel petals, literally extending the dress into the enclosing form. I developed an appropriate songbook based on the songs that were used in the films by actresses like Ms. Hayworth, Carmen Miranda, Dolores del Rio, and Lupe Velez, and classics of Latin song performance and the torch song genre, and found three other performers of different genders and ethnic history, none of whom were professional singers, to join me in presenting those songs from inside of the cage.
The first trial performance at Co-Lab performance space in December 2013. In spite of our original performance date being rained out, and our rain date being the night of a snap freeze that dropped temperatures for the outdoor performance to 27 degrees, we had a large, rotating audience who stayed for hours, wrapped in coats, hats, and scarves, huddled near space heaters, to watch us perform songs like "Cuanto Le Gusta," "I Yi-Yi-Yi-Yi-Yi Like You Very Much," "Fever," and "Besame."
I was proud to have glowingly positive reviews for this performance from such Austin arts luminaries as Chris Cowden from Women & Their Work and Annette Carlozzi, curator at the Blanton Museum of Art. But as an artist who has explored ideas of comfort and connection throughout my body of work, my long-term aim for this piece is to have it serve as a vehicle for others to explore their own relationship with this stereotype and its positive and negative connotations. For all four of us original performers, the arc of self-exploration and a development of self-confidence as we studied our songs and the film performances that inspired them was almost dizzying: Mastering the complexities of using the winches to open and close the petals was an acheivement in itself. The night we performed, in full makeup and professional hairstyling, wrapped in our glamorous (if doctored) gowns, we were so amped up on the moment and our borrowed identity we never felt the cold until we were done performing. We had great conversations about our own relationship to "acting sexy" and the stereotypes surrounding our own ethnicities and identities. I would love to pass this experience on to a larger audience.