Chicano Polymath Passes into the Pantheon of Great Raza Artists, Intellectuals, and Provocateurs
by B. V. Olguín
Gregg Barrios—Chicano educator, poet, playwright, journalist, activist, and all around movimientista—passed into the pantheon of late great Raza artists, intellectuals, and provocateurs on August 17, 2021. He was 80 years old, and lived a life at the center of foundational eras and multiple social and political movements in the US and globally. Gregg, as he preferred to be called, was an active if unsung participant and frequent instigator in Chicanx Movement struggles in various sites throughout Aztlán, intersecting LGBTQI+ Movement activities, and related institutional interventions in education, media, arts, and myriad social and political contexts.
Gregg’s greatness arose from his nimble navigation of the complexities and contradictions of Chicanx history, life, culture and politics. Indeed, his life involved the type of complex Chicanx realities and negotiations endemic to colonized and marginalized people, yet he also insisted on claiming the center as his own. He loved his own Tejano culture and also saw no contradiction in his dual love of broader intersecting cultures, from Elvis to David Bowie to Juan Gabriel and beyond.
His vexed, yet for him completely normal, navigations of his US and Chicanx identity involved service in the US Air Force Reserves during the Vietnam War, in which he participated in the transportation of wounded US soldiers returning to the US from Vietnam through Germany. While stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas, he utilized the GI Bill to attend the University of Texas at Austin part-time. There he was active in developing that institution’s avant garde film movement, helping to found the renowned Cinema 40 Film Club, and promoting numerous events with world renowned filmmakers. He also co-founded the iconoclastic underground newspaper, The Rag, which is still in production.
Significantly, even as Gregg identified as a Chicano and militated alongside Brown Berets, La Raza Unida Party, and other Raza organizations, he did not take a myopic narrow cultural nationalist view of culture and power. He always sought to globalize La Onda Chicana. Pursuant to pushing the boundaries of how we understand Chicano—and broader Chicanx—identity, Gregg ventured into experimental film. In 1967 he made a short film, BONY (Boys of New York), during a sojourn in Andy Warhol’s famous Factory. Gregg’s film anticipated other Raza filmmakers such as Willie Varela who would become renowned as a pioneer of Raza cinema. In fact, BONY is archived at UCLA and is included on Chon Noriega’s list of 100 Best Chicano Films.
Equally as important as his forays into broader US culture, Gregg was determined to show how US and global culture also were indebted to Raza culture. Accordingly, he adapted the Raza forms such as the Acto agitprop skit, developed by Luis and Daniel Valdez’s Teatro Campesino, into some of his own early community theater productions. From his earliest theatrical productions to his latest, Gregg Barrios’ teatro was polemical, impactful, and downright revolutionary. For instance, as an educator in Crystal City in the 1970s he used his art to intervene into the infamous 1977 “gas crisis”: the conflict between the Lo-Vaca Gathering Company (a private utility vendor) and the new, all-Chicano Crystal City Council, which had rejected the new higher price the company demanded for gas from the primarily working class Mexican American customers. Gregg mobilized his high school students to produce a play he wrote—Dale Gas (1977)—which Angela Davis praised as a revolutionary work of art. As a non-member guest presenter to the Santa Monica chapter meeting of the Communist Party USA he received a standing ovation for this work of political art. In another play with his high school students Gregg drew upon his and his students’ eclectic musical tastes to produce an allegorical drama about aliens that carried an antiracist polemic—Stranger in a Strange Planet (1976)—which was modeled on David Bowie’s Starman epic album.
Gregg’s theatrical interventions intensified after he retired from teaching in the LA Unified School District. After moving to San Antonio, Texas in the early 2000s, his later works involved a dramatic biopic profile of gangster revolutionaries such as Fred Gomez Carrasco and his wife and confederate Rosa Carrasco. He also wrote dramas recovering the Raza roots of the American theater canon. His play on Katherine Anne Porter, Dark Horse, Pale Rider (2002), for instance, exposed the frequent white fetish on Mexicans and Mexican Americans by artists who became pillars of American Letters precisely because of their exploitation of Raza.
Gregg’s play, Rancho Pancho (Hansen Publishing 2009) is considered by many to be his magnum opus. This play explores the complex relationship between the celebrated American playwright Tennessee Williams and his Mexican-American lover. Gregg’s play, backed up by reams of archival documents, photos, and interviews, proposes that Williams co-opted his lover’s life to create characters and storylines. In a bombshell Gregg proposes the archetypal character Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire is modeled on Pancho Gonzalez, with whom Tennessee had a similarly turbulent relationship. Like his play on Katherine Anne Porter, this play further recovers the Mexican American roots of the American canon in ways that recenter Raza in the US, ultimately heralding a more complex reading of the US past and potential future. It is frequently remarked that after seeing Gregg’s play Rancho Pancho, no one can view any Tennessee Williams play the same way as before.
Gregg’s subsequent play I-DJ (Hansen, 2015) has been a crowd favorite in multiple venues, and makes equally important interventions. The play features the dramatic, and at times traumatic, coming of age of a gay Mexican American DJ—Warren Peace (aka Amado Guerrero Paz)—in 1980s Los Angeles. The story is told through a soundtrack composed of songs from Herb Albert’s A&M Record label, which included everything from Peter Frampton to the Carpenters to the groundbreaking Mexican American heartthrob Chris Montez (Let’s Dance 1962). The play premiered in 2012 at San Antonio’s Overtime Theater (following an earlier version in 2005 featuring Danny De La Paz as the protagonist). The play also was produced in 2014 at the prestigious iconoclastic Frigid Theater Festival in New York. This play is perhaps the most incisive and successful illustration of the intertwined—and inextricable—relationship between the Chicano Movement and the LGBTQI+ Movement, and dramatically rewrites our understanding of the 1960s-1980s.
Gregg’s theater and broader literary work were intertwined with his journalism career, which began—and continued unabated for the rest of his life—when he was a 16-year-old book reviewer for the local newspaper in his hometown of Victoria, Texas. He later went on to write features and news for major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, San Antonio Express-News, Rumbo, and others. A consummate bibliophile, with a collection of first edition books that attracted numerous collectors and curators, Gregg remade the San Antonio Express-News Book Page when he served as its book editor. He is credited with opening the newspaper up to new voices and also inaugurated a weekly poem section that cultivated local and regional talent. Over his journalism career, Gregg’s features and interviews include exclusives with the Latinx Trans activist Sylvia Rivera, among other notable Mexican and pan-Latinx figures, including Juan Gabriel, Oscar De La Hoya, and so many more. His work adds to the rich archive of Raza primary materials that rewrite history and will benefit scholars for decades to come.
Gregg was the consummate cultural critic who never shied away from controversy or complexity. This was best displayed in his love and analysis of boxing. He appreciated the otherwise brutal sport for its tense and conflicted balance of hypermasculinity alongside homoerotic dimensions, which he recognized as yet another instance of the unruly complexity of Raza subjectivity. Some of his best reporting is on boxing, and he relished in the old-school, working-class boxing shows at the Municipal Auditorium in San Antonio, Texas he attended with local friends and former boxers.
Gregg, ever the polymath, also was a lifelong poet and published four collections of poetry: Air-Conditioned Apollo (1968); Healthy Self (1979); Puro Rollo (1982); and La Causa (2010). His collected works, My Life: The Poem I Never Wrote: New & Selected Poetry 1968-2021, will be released by Hansen Publishers in 2021.
As a testament to his significance to Raza, American, Latin American, and world literary, cultural, and political history, Gregg Barrios’ personal papers and archival materials have been collected and are available for public use at the University of Texas, University of Texas at San Antonio, UCLA, and the Getty Museum of Los Angeles.
Gregg was a friend to many, a provocateur to everyone, and the model of a protean subject who lifted underclass Raza and LGBTQI+ views, voices, and visions into the center of multiple sites of power. ¡Gregg Barrios, Presente!
Copyright 2021 by Ben V. Olguin. La Causa book cover used under “fair use” proviso of the copyright law. All other images copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions Inc.