Ana Patricia Rodríguez

Second Hand Identities: The Autoethnographic Performances of Quique Avilés and Leticia Hernández-Linares

  University of Maryland, College Park


In their monologues, Salvadoran American performance artists—Leticia Hernández-Linares and Quique Avilés— explore the construction of Salvadoran identities in the United States. Drawing from formal interviews with immigrants (Avilés) and family oral histories (Hernández-Linares), these Salvi children of the Salvadoran diaspora revisit sites of war, displacement, migration, and cultural trauma and convert personal memories and collective testimonios into performance pieces. Their work draws from the transnational practices of U.S. Latino and Central American theatre such as Chicano politically engaged rasquachi carpa theatre and borderland drama in the vein of Luis Valdez and Cherríe Moraga (Ramírez, 2000); alternative art happenings associated with feminist and queer movements in the U.S. (Hughes and Román, 1998); and guerrilla street theatre with origins in the teatro callejero of colonial and revolutionary Latin and Central America (Méndez de Penedo, 2000; Ramírez, 1984: 15). Avilés and Hernández-Linares produce virtual performative contact zones, where, as Mary Louise Pratt proposes in Imperial Eyes (1992), disenfranchised subjects not only confront oppressive forces but, more importantly, encounter other diasporic subjects. As autoethnographers reconstructing the stories of their communities, Avilés and Hernández-Linares draw from a wellspring of diasporic experiences, extrapolated from their own ethnographic research. In the process, they engage in the production of second hand performance narratives representing Salvadoran communities in the United States.

Avilés's Caminata (2002) and Hernández-Linares's Cumbia de amor (2002) respectively tell the tales of two translocal Salvadoran communities, one located in the Greater Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area and the other in the San Francisco / Los Angeles migrant corridor. The geographic settings of these performances are not irrelevant. Over 800,000 Salvadorans live in Los Angeles alone, making it the second largest city of El Salvador (La Prensa Gráfica, 8 March 2000: 20). More than 450,000 Salvadorans are estimated to live in the San Francisco Bay Area and upward of 150,000 are assumed to reside throughout the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area (Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores <>). In a West Coast meets East Coast tour de force and in an historical second-generation meets one-and-half generation Salvi encounter, Hernández-Linares’s and Avilés’s works have intersected on occasion, as when Hernández-Linares has performed with the D.C. spoken-word troupe, Spoken Resistance, which Avilés co-founded in the late 1990s under his stewardship of the art collective, Sol & Soul. In what follows, I explore Leticia Hernández-Linares’s and Quique Avilés’s (re) construction of second-hand identities through autoethnographic performance. I examine and cite from the 2002 manuscripts of Caminata and Cumbia de Amor, works that Quique Avilés and Leticia Hernández-Linares have performed on stage but that have not published to date. Since the 2002 versions, Avilés and Hernández-Linares have considerably revised and reworked both works into different texts.

Second-hand Stories

In the contexts of their performance sites, Hernández-Linares and Avilés bring together diverse audiences to witness the spectacle of the aftermath of war trauma that many Central Americans carry with them. For many children of the Central American diaspora who came to the United States at an early age, or who were born here, their knowledge of the homelands is oftentimes a second-hand one, mediated by the stories, memories, and texts transmitted to them by others. On first instance, they learn about Central American countries, histories, and current events through parents, relatives, friends, clergy, teachers, newly arrived immigrants, as well as through music, film, literature, the media, and other reliable (and non-reliable) information-generating circuits, acquiring at best a much filtered second-hand knowledge of Central America. Some Salvadoran Americans, for example, encounter Central America through books and texts of popular culture, which make more palpable their connections to Central America. What U.S. Salvadoran, for example, could forget her first contact with testimonial and resistance texts such as Rigoberta Menchú's Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia, Manlio Argueta's One Day of Life, Claribel Alegría's They won't take me alive, Gioconda Belli's La mujer habitada, and Roque Dalton's revolutionary poetry? To the list might be added a new brand of U.S. made Central American diasporic literature: the novels of Francisco Goldman, Héctor Tobar, Mario Bencastro, and Marco McPeek Villatoro; the poetry of Martivón Galindo, Jorge Argueta, and Maya Chinchilla; and the theatrical and spoken word performances of evolving groups such as Epicentro and solo performers such as Carolina Rivera, Leticia Hernández-Linares, and Quique Avilés.

Successive generations of U.S Central American writers—inheritors of the legacy of war, displacement, migration, and relocation lived first-hand by the immigrant generations of their parents—produce what I call Central American second-hand identities and cultures in the United States. The Webster Dictionary defines second-hand as that which is “not new, [but] worn or used,” “dealing in previously used merchandise,” and “obtained, derived, or borrowed from another.” As a discursive contact space, second-hand narratives bring together old and used, disregarded and discarded, and refurbished and recycled elements of cultural identity, and shape or reconvert these into new hybrid cultural products in new contexts. In his essay, “Cultural Reconversion,” Néstor García Canclini suggests that “[i]n these new settings, our cultural capital is reconverted. Through cultural exchange, we are making the most of what we have and are trying to say something more or different” (García Canclini, 1992: 3). Many Salvadorans born and raised in the United States recuperate and reconvert a wide range of cultural elements deriving from the various transnational, national, and local sites they occupy. To identify as Salvadoran is to identify as such not only among Salvadoran nationals from and in El Salvador, but also amidst the ethnic and racial diversity of the United States. In some cases, U.S. Salvadorans assert their cultural identity as “difference” and as historical specificity amidst homogenizing cultural forces in the United States.

In her essay, “Gallina Ciega: Turning the Game on Itself,” Leticia Hernández-Linares explores her “Salvadoran-ness” in the context of growing up Latina in predominantly Chicano neighborhoods of California. She explains,

When I was growing up, and even in college, I was aware of my difference: my Spanish, the color of the beans my mother cooked, the reason for my presence in the United States, the blank looks on people’s faces when they asked where in Mexico I was from and I mentioned El Salvador instead (Hernández-Linares, 2002a: 112).

Further, she reminds us, “It’s also important for Central Americans to excavate our specific histories …” (Hernández-Linares, 2002a: 112). It seems appropriate, then, to discuss the mechanisms by which U.S. Salvadorans select cultural elements associated with “Salvadoran-ness,” reconvert them to serve their identification needs, and, in the process, produce more expanded notions of Salvadoran / Latino identities, which I call here, second hand identities.

Caminando in “Wachinton” with Quique Avilés

Poet, performance artist, and community activist, Quique Avilés emigrated from El Salvador as a child, grew up in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and has been at the forefront of writing about Salvadoran cultural experiences in the region. In the late 1980s, Avilés co-founded and directed the theatre collective LatiNegro, which recruited local Latino and African American youths to perform in theatres, schools, prisons, universities, and communities. In 1999, he co-founded Sol & Soul, a non-profit arts organization, which continues the work of LatiNegro in conducting workshops with young performers in the District of Columbia, collaborating with community groups, and organizing theater events in the District for local and visiting actors. Avilés continues to perform his mixed-media work on stage. Addressing issues of race, class, gender, gentrification, labor, migration, and hybrid identity, among other things, his performance pieces and poetry often incorporate the stories, voices, and experiences of immigrants and everyday folks from the local neighborhoods of Washington, D.C.

In 2003, Avilés published The Immigrant Museum, which includes poems such as “El Salvador At-A-Glance” (1991), “My Tongue is Divided into 2” (1994), and “Latinhood” (1992), many of which he reads or performs in his solo monologues. In “Latinhood,” Avilés explores the nuances of Salvadoran Latinidad, repeatedly asking “What does it feel like inside? / What color is this latinhood? / How does it do what it does? … Is it mexican latin / salvatrucan latin / patagonian latin / latin with an american passport… How do you know that you are a latin? / that you are not a Russian impostor with a Peruvian accent?. . .” (Avilés, 2003: 8-9). In this line of questioning, Avilés gets to the heart of the matter in that identity is performative, scripted, cited, reconverted, and negotiated in daily exchanges within and between subjects (Christian, 1997). In “El Salvador-At-A-Glance,” he explores the cultural geography of his native, but by now relocated nation, asking the most impertinent yet pertinent of questions. He says, “El Salvador, / there are questions in the air about your character / they say you’ve dared to do the impossible / you’ve challenged the tiger to a wrestling match / you’ve decided that bullets hold the answers / El Salvador, / little question mark / . . . Little question mark that begins to itch . . . .” Throughout the poem, Avilés responds to that nagging mental itch by reshaping, redefining, and reconstituting El Salvador to include its amputated diasporic communities. In Avilés’s country profile, El Salvador’s major exports comprise of migrant laborers—“city builders, busboys, waiters, poets”; its major cities include Los Angeles and “Wachinton, D.C.”; and “El Salvador [is found] in Washington,” where its people are “forever Wachintonian Salvadorean” (Avilés, 2003: 10-11), no less Salvadoran for living in the capital of another nation.

Interrogating essentialist notions of Salvadoran national identity, Avilés in his multiple-character performance piece titled “Caminata,” takes a walk on the wild side of multiple diasporas intersecting in the streets of Washington, D.C. Based on ethnographic interviews with D.C. residents, Avilés brings to life the character of Demetrio, a Salvadoran-Chicano in search of the meaning of his life in the United States. On the sparse stage of mobile props—a hand-made carreta, a sitting box, and a few pieces of clothing—Demetrio recounts the stories of the people he meets on his voyage of discovery. In the process, Demetrio becomes the characters he meets. Yombo, from the Republic of Central Africa, is a Division Director at the Latin American Youth Center on Columbia Road, in Washington, D.C. Upon first arriving in the United States, Yombo studies among Latinos, marries a Dominican woman and “becomes part of them” (Avilés, 2002: 14), and adopts U.S. citizenship only to come to the realization that he “might have to defend this nation, bear arms…kill somebody” (14) in order to perform his national duty. Olga is a Jewish refugee (by convenience) from St. Petersburg, Russia, by way of Indianapolis, “who speaks Spanish better than English” after having had a love affair with her Spanish teacher (Avilés, 2002: 16) and who lives in an apartment with nine people. Although she “can pass for white,” she remains an émigré and “not American” (Avilés, 2002: 16). Then there is Rahman, a Catholic-raised, Iraqi refugee-camp survivor, some-time migrant laborer, dishwasher, pizza deliverer, car repairman, now working in Washington, D.C. for an Iraqi refugee organization. At the end of his monologue, Rahman-Demetrio-Avilés says, “Since Sept. 11th, I am the enemy” on the streets of D.C. (Avilés, 2002: 24). Despite wearing Redskins hats, changing hair color, speaking English, and attempting to pass in D.C., all of Avilés’s characters in “Caminata” bear the mark of suspicion and foreignness.

Doña Rosita, perhaps the most enigmatic character in Avilés’s performance piece, converts her experiences of war, trauma, and “alien-ness” into a newfound sense of place and belonging. As Rosita, Avilés (in Salvadoran drag) performs the clichés of Salvadoran femininity, for Rosita is a hardworking, good-natured mother, an informal peddler of mangoes and at La Clinica del Pueblo (Latino Free Clinic), and an undocumented-border crosser-turned-legal-resident, who sends remittances home. Rosita gives testimony of her years in war-torn El Salvador, from which she fled seeking refugee in the “Yunais Estates.” Rosita says, “Yo soy de ciudad Delgado. San Salvador. I am from El Salvador. I came here because of the situation. The father of my children, he got killed. We never knew if it was the guerrillas or the national guard. A bullet through his head. After that, I knew I had to leave” (Avilés, 2002: 8). On the streets of D.C., Rosita encounters “sad and depressed” people who reflect back her pain, but whom she nurtures with humor and food, making for them, as she says, “illegal tamales, wetback tamales, legal resident pupusas and … citizen enchiladas” (Avilés, 2002: 10). She reminds the audience that “if you laugh, you can talk” (Avilés, 2002: 10). And talk, as we know, is therapeutic. Through Rosita, Rahman, Demetrio, and the others, Avilés speaks of multiple diasporic experiences and histories, and produces a performative space representing the newest (and not so new) immigrant communities of the United States.

Cumbiando with Leticia Linares-Hernández

In her “Cumbia de Amor,” educator, writer, and artist Leticia Hernández-Linares, like Avilés, situates Salvadoran women at the center of her diasporic explorations in the context of San Francisco, a location known for its multiracial and multiethnic diversity. Embodying a character called Cumbia, Hernández-Linares enters a provisional stage set up with an eclectic altar installation, signifying perhaps the Latinoization of California beyond Mexico. Cumbia sings, “Yo me llamo Cumbia . . . Soy la reina por donde voy,” while she drapes a shawl with the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe over a chair and begins to puff cigar smoke into the audience. Cumbia is no stock feminine figure, but one who breaks stereotypes and assumptions, especially about Salvadoran identity. During the course of the performance, Cumbia demystifies Salvadoran racial identity, suggesting that the presence of cumbia in the country links El Salvador to Colombia and to West Africa vis-à-vis a history of Black enslavement that is occluded in El Salvador. Further, Cumbia plays with religious iconography throughout the performance. At one point, she covers the Virgin of Guadalupe with a yellow satin cloth, laying atop the cloth a crucifix, which she wipes with her skirt (her buttocks no less), and covering the crucifix with a cloth doll, which, by the end of the performance, has been transformed into a female voodoo doll warding off evil spirits and protecting Cumbia. Indeed, Hernández-Linares’s production is about Cumbia’s interventions in the lives of Salvadoran women, who progressively, in the 17-minute performance, become empowered with the knowledge of the history of the “blood saturated lands,” from the Spanish Conquest to recent U.S. Invasions.

At least twice in the production—a pastiche of monologues, snippets of dialogue, references to history, songs, and prayers—Cumbia sabotages the audience, saying, “You think that you’ve heard this before . . . but you haven’t.” What the audience has not heard is precisely a female-centered version of Salvadoran history and a narrative of female empowerment, outside of the gender scripts prescribed to Salvadoran women, whether in the country or outside of it. In what remains of the performance, Hernández-Linares gives the audience a crash course in Salvadoran history: “History becomes all about numbers,” she claims, as she goes down the list of key dates and numbers, which those familiar with Salvadoran history will recognize: “1930s, 1980s, 11 years, 14 families, 75, 000 bodies, 63,000 plus houses destroyed.” And amidst all this accounting, “little boys kill one another and little girls don’t like what they see in themselves” and “Operation Send Them Back” deports them to “the land of the bullet.” These lines allude to the condition of the children of the Salvadoran diaspora, seeped in what Hernández-Linares repeatedly calls the Salvadoran “internalized colonial mindset.”

To break out of that mindset, Cumbia, in Orisha tradition, demands mental, emotional, and physical cleansing. The memories and history of war must be brought into consciousness, colonialist traditions (like religion, ruling families, and patriarchal fathers) must be shaken, and family skeletons must be exposed, although the narratorial (choral) voice in the performance calls out, “Niña, niña, la ropa sucia se queda en casa.” Rejecting self-censuring, Cumbia tells stories of drunken fathers, praying mothers, and cheating boyfriends, while at one point she sings, “Me estoy muriendo … en el silencio.” The performance, thus, is about the breaking of silence, the acquiring of voice, and the coming to a feminist consciousness by a Salvi woman, whose story “[y]ou think that you’ve heard this before . . . but you haven’t.” Through the recording, compiling, and rewriting of oral histories of multi-generations of Salvadoran women, Hernández-Linares, in her one-woman performance constructs a collage of women’s stories. Her autoethnographic, testimonial monologue challenges gender ideologies confining Salvadoran women to disempowering performative social scripts.


As I have shown, U.S. Salvadorans writers and artists like Avilés and Hernández-Linares are producing cultural texts out of primary discursive materials—the stuff that national culture, traditions, customs, sensibilities, character types, and practices are assumed to be made of. In their reiteration or re-citing of original texts, however, they unsettle the very foundations of primary cultural master-narratives, questioning the notion of the homeland as “the original source” and destabilizing assumptions about Salvadoran traditions and values, especially in regards to women, children, and subjects that are rarely given discursive space in Salvadoran national culture. In these texts, readers are exposed to what Leticia Hernández-Linares calls, “la ropa sucia” (the dirty laundry) that should remain hidden, as well as the painful yet not unique experiences of diaspora, which Quique Avilés draws out in his autoethnographic performances. As Hernández-Linares and Avilés show us, the performative practice allows Salvadoran American artists the air time and space to interrogate the deepest assumptions about cultural identity formation, as well as permitting them to broach problematic subjects such as generational differences, political affiliations and dis-affiliations, machismo, marianismo, homophobia, all of which are embedded in the larger web of national cultural practices. Repeatedly throughout her performance, Leticia Hernández-Linares reminds us that although we think we’ve heard such stories before . . . we really haven’t.

© Ana Patricia Rodríguez




*¿Por qué existe Istmo? *¿Qué es Istmo? *¿Quiénes hacen la revista? *¿Cómo publicar en Istmo?*

*Consejo Editorial *Redacción *Artículos y Ensayos *Proyectos *Reseñas*

*Noticias *Foro Debate *Buscar *Archivo *Enlaces*


*Dirección: Associate Professor Mary Addis*

*Realización: Cheryl Johnson*


*Modificado 24/02/04*

*© Istmo, 2004*