Before, during, and after my conversation with my friend and sometimes-collaborator Pepe Romero, we discussed how to keep him and his family safe when making reference to his semi-autobiographical play Fancy Lupe. Written when he was twenty-two, the play is based on his initiation as an adolescent into El Yunque, Mexico’s far-right secret society whose well-connected members pledge their lives towards promoting Jesus Christ’s reign on Earth through politics and violence.
In the play, male characters appear in skimpy leotards bearing the sect’s occult symbol, and its secret mental conditioning exercises are re-enacted, but Romero shies from including the group’s actual name and even that of his own country, invoking playwright Oscar Liera’s fictional country of Siquitibum (pronounced “chickety boom”) to shield his company from the group’s wrath. As we spoke I thought of my own well-being; was it even safe to be orchestrating the play’s first piece of international press?
Our concerns weren’t based on sensationalist paranoia as much as our knowledge of the repressed chapters of Mexican history that constitute the play’s crux. In addition to Romero’s life story, Fancy Lupe tells of a physical attack against a different theater production that also angered religious groups. In 1981, Oscar Liera’s tale of the disappearance of a relic of the Virgin in Siquitibum, Cúcara y Mácara, was in the middle of its opening night performance in Mexico City when an estimated forty to sixty youths climbed to the stage from their seats in the audience, attacking the actors with blunt instruments and sending many to the hospital. No arrests were made. Sparse evidence remains that the mainstream press reported on the incident — only actors’ remembrances and a letter that Romero uncovered, written by the theater community to the government, expressing members’ dismay at the handling of the attack.
The assailants, Romero believes, were members of a group associated with El Yunque, which would explain the authorities’ blind eye. When a professor-lover told him of the attack on Liera’s company, Romero was chilled; he could have been one of the actors, but he also could have been one of the mysterious youths, had he not been saved by his own queerness. Romero’s sexuality is at the very heart of Fancy Lupe, and the way his queer sensibility informs the play is crucial to the way it has resonated with Mexico City’s young creative community.
Romero’s second scriptwriting credit, Fancy Lupe is now in its fifth cycle in La Teatrería, an intimate Roma Norte cabaret. Previously, the play has been presented everywhere from queer clubs to university museums. In every performance, the title character has been played by Alan Balthazar, an impossibly beautiful Afro-Mexican photographer who made his stage debut as Lupe — gliding across the stage, washing the boys free of their fascist stains. Lupe’s interventions sweep clean the aggression and confusion generated by El Yunque’s manipulation of the play’s three other characters, who represent neophytes in the sect, Yunque officials, the devoted, or historians of Mexico’s hidden past.
In the play, the secret society is characterized by doublespeak and extreme hypocrisy, but Lupe barely speaks at all. She is representative of a world in which Mexico is free to love all of its sons and daughters regardless of body type, gender, sexual proclivity. The most recent cycle of Fancy Lupe features wardrobe by Sanchez Kane, a young, queer designer from Mérida, who swaths Lupe in fantastic approximations of hip hop and vogue-inspired genderqueer deism; surrounded by brutal authoritarianism, Balthazar’s Grace Jones-like glamour invokes keen joy.
In our interview for Open Space, Romero traced the story of how he dreamed up this savior. The tangible gestation of Lupe took only one hectic month, from the creation of the script (in Romero’s trademark abstract typeset) to Fancy Lupe’s opening night. But Lupe was conceived during Romero’s childhood; she grew as he escaped from the violence of Northern Mexico, and came of age when he found kindred spirits in the capital’s fashion and nightlife avant-garde.
Romero found support for his projects in this new community in part because his peers identified with his struggle with an extremist past. Though not all Mexicans have been initiated into El Yunque, many have to reckon with a repressive Catholic upbringing, and feel the hurt visited upon the country by elites who are allowed to commit crimes and manipulate the political system with complete impunity.
The same day we conversed, a strange thing happened. A rector’s deputy at a Catholic university in Michoacán announced that El Yunque was no longer a secret society. In fact, he continued in glorious Mexican doublespeak, it never had been: it was actually called Organization for the Common Good, had been known to many religious officials, and look, there was a website to prove it. (We had not planned on even including the words “El Yunque”here. But following this news, Romero wrote me an email: “I think we can say the name of the group.”)
What is clear is that Romero and his work will continue to wrestle with a changing Mexico, one that is now dealing with increasingly fraught relationships with its overbearing neighbor to the north. In such an environment, Romero says, there is no room for lazy, politically anodyne art-making of the sort that megalith Televisa has been allowing to poison the minds of Mexicans for generations. “It has to be positive,” he told me, “to cross the wall.”
Caitlin Donohue: What is your first memory of making art?
Pepe Romero: Making pastorelas [traditional Mexican Catholic plays that depict the Three Kings’ journey to find the newborn Jesus] during Christmas. I liked to dress my siblings up, make them dresses, take photos of them, all that. I started to explore with them. They were my first actors, my first public.
CD: When we went to your house in Durango, I saw a lot of your early paintings in your parents’ house — fire goddesses in space, your beautiful mother emerging from a calla lily, a lot of female energy. When did you start making those?
PR: Since my earliest memories. I always went to regular classes in the morning. In the afternoon, I would go to painting classes, ceramics, dance, classes where we made piñatas, theater, singing. Art classes every day.
CD: Was there an artist in your family? Why was there such a focus on you being creative?
PR: There are no artists in my family. But Toño, my mother’s father, always brought me to the ballet when it came to Durango, to the orchestra. It’s strange because my grandfather was a professional baseball player, a really important coach in Durango. “La Borrega” Romero was his name. He never brought me to a baseball game, but he brought me to the ballet, to the theater, to the opera.
CD: Can you describe to me how you joined El Yunque?
PR: While I was taking normal school classes and my art classes, at the same time I had catechism, usually on Friday afternoons. Many times I skipped my Friday art classes to go to catechism. It was a group of people who I grew up with, they were friends of my parents. When I was thirteen, a friend of mine, a friend of my parents, invited me to join a different group. He said be discreet, that this was a group that you couldn’t talk about. After that, I had an initiation ceremony. It was at a primary school. I arrived, and my friend knocked on the door, said a Bible passage. The other person said a Bible passage. I went into a classroom and there were people standing around in uniforms. There was an altar, there were flags. There was an image of the Pope and an image of the Virgin de Guadalupe. They gave me a paper to sign. They gave me a new name, a pseudonym; Juan Brito. From then on, I was surrounded by something mystic, obscurantist, ritual — sectarian. I mean, it was a sect. It was simple for me to realize that.
CD: Did it seem normal?
PR: Of course, because everyone in the group I grew up with. For me it was a question of trust.
CD: Whenever you talk about your childhood in Durango, it reminds me that you grew up surrounded by so much violence from the drug cartels. It seems like being part of a group like this might offer you some sense of security, of protection from the dangers that are so evident in your life.
PR: Things were ugly in the north, I had suffered assaults and kidnapping attempts by criminal groups. On the other hand, in our group, the physical activity and the violence started to get more intense. I needed to dance, do theater, make art, not learn how to punch. But yes, it was an important relationship for me and my peers in the group. We shared a secret, a religion, so many things.
CD: In El Yunque, what kinds of goals did they present you with? What was the concept of success and happiness like for them?
PR: The principal goal was to preserve the reign of Christ on Earth through politics. The concept of success and happiness was to be a good Christian, be humble, and serve God.
CD: Was there an enemy present in their teachings?
PR: The principal enemies were Satan, the Masons, and the New World Order.
CD: Did art appear in the teachings? Was there a role that artists played within the group?
PR: Not a huge role, but yes. It came in through declamation, through speech. I started entering speech competitions, and came to be known in the group for being good at them. From the group’s perspective it had more to do with preparing me for a career in politics than the arts. I was always the person who put together sketches when we went camping, small scenes about funny things that went on within the group.
CD: Maybe it’s because I’m from California, but the relationship between politicians and actors has always fascinated me. At what point during all of this did you realize that you were queer?
PR: I always knew.
CD: You never had a moment of revelation?
PR: At first I didn’t want to accept it. Obviously, it went against everything that they had taught me, everything that I adhered to in that moment. Accepting my own sexuality became a process that led me away from that life I had created. I was so young — I was about to turn fifteen, and I was already drifting away from it all. I had the opportunity to travel, to study in Canada and then in Oxford. Then I came back to Durango, and after these journeys I had been able to make I began exploring more. It’s normal, no? In those moments I was confused. I felt like I was a part of this group, but that my life could not be a part of what they stood for. Because I was queer, and for other reasons. They didn’t think the same things I did.
CD: Do you think that being queer helped you to see the group’s other fallacies in a way you might not have had you been straight?
PR: Of course. Because for them, being queer is something that isn’t normal, that “doesn’t exist,” that is evil. I was beginning to identify in that way and I didn’t want to repress myself. It was always very binary, heteronormative — there’s a man and a woman and nothing else exists. I began to question all that because I didn’t see a space for myself.
CD: How did you leave El Yunque for good?
PR: The last approach from them was when they offered me a job before I left for Madrid to take entrance exams for an art school. The group offered me a role in a movie as a martyr in the Cristero War [the armed Catholic backlash in the 1920s against the post-revolution, anti-clerical Mexican government]. I didn’t accept it and I went to Spain. I stayed there a few months, came back, did my entrance exams for the University of Veracruz, then took the exams for the National School of Theater Arts [Escuela National de Arte Teatral, part of an institution also known by the name Bellas Artes] in Mexico City. I got into both schools, and I decided to go to the one here, in Mexico City. And from then on my contact with the group disappeared entirely.
CD: So when you left home, that was basically when you fell out of contact with the group?
PR: Yes. And I began to feel a need to make art. In school you’re just in classes, and they’re heavy classes. I had also begun to explore the city’s nightlife, explore drugs, parties, moving away from the university. I began to fall off in my schoolwork, and found creative people.
My first year in university was hard for me. Studying theater includes the body, mind, feelings, many things. I didn’t have the necessary stability to complete something so rigorous. When I began to understand more about my homosexuality, myself, my way of being, my corporeal possibilities, theater school didn’t allow me to explore that. That was another reason to leave, because traditional theater education includes a rigor that extends to the way we use our bodies. It says that if you have a masculine body you have to pursue masculinity, and if you have a feminine body you have to pursue femininity. I couldn’t stand it. In my theater work I look for gender ambiguity, a feminization of the masculine body.
I needed a stage, and in nightlife I found many available stages. I began to look for the actors in my own life, the people who I wanted to be with. Though the internet I started to create a community, above all people who shared an aesthetic. I connected with Victor Barragán first as his client, then as his model. Later he would design wardrobe for my first play, La Acidez de las Mariposas. I started creating an aesthetic — or really we started, many people who were around at that point, like Mexican Jihad, Rose Pistola. I began to collaborate with them, create my own things.
CD: In what moment did you begin to work on Fancy Lupe? Where did the idea come from?
PR: I didn’t have any work, and that was when I decided to do Fancy Lupe. It all came out of that relationship that I had with one of my professors at Bellas Artes. He had told me about the attack on Teatro Juan Ruiz de Alarcón in 1981, in which a group of people assaulted the actors during a work of theater. It was a MURO [Revivalist-Oriented University Movement] group that was linked to El Yunque. I knew that I had to do something about the incident, with what I had lived.
CD: You could identify with the story from various perspectives.
PR: So I made Fancy Lupe. It was because I had a relationship with Cine Tonalá, where we did Acidez de las Mariposas. I put the play together in a month, all the writing and directing, and then we presented it.
CD: I’m interested in where the inspiration for the character Fancy Lupe came from.
PR: The character came directly from the Virgin de Guadalupe. She is the principal symbol of Catholicism in Mexico, the maximum mother, the grand señora of Mexico. From the great devotion that people had for this image, I created Fancy Lupe. She had to represent the mother of Mexico, but a more diverse Mexico, a Mexico where I felt included, because I didn’t feel included in a Mexico where the maximum mother didn’t accept her children. The Virgin that they believe in — I’m not there, I’m not her son. Obviously it came from my personal experience, of getting to know different bodies, people, ways of being, of regarding gender.
CD: What did role did Alan Balthazar, your friendship with Alan, play in the creation of the character? You two were living together at this point.
PR: From the first moment, Alan was Fancy Lupe. I knew that he had to be Fancy Lupe. I started to live with him because I had to open him up to the world of theater, which was something he had never done before. Or — maybe it was that I needed someone to come with me. Together, we opened the doors. Me, as a director who had never really studied to be a director, and Alan, as an actor who had no idea how to be an actor. We started to work together. I started to learn how to direct and he started to learn how to act.
CD: Fancy Lupe is now in its fifth cycle, but many of its presentations have not taken place in traditional theater settings — it premiered in Cine Tonalá, a small art cinema, and has run, among other places, in a Zona Rosa gay cabaret. How would you characterize the theater industry’s support of Fancy Lupe?
PR: I don’t think there has been any. The theater industry in Mexico means one of two things: spectacle, the kind of stuff you see on Mexican television, or the institution, which has to do with academia. Those are the only two paths. I did it my own way, with the resources and connections that I had which in that moment. I didn’t have a wardrobe designer, so I contacted Rosa Pistola to do the first wardrobe. I didn’t have a professional composer to do the music, but I did have a DJ — I contacted Mexican Jihad to do the play’s music. I did have professional actors, Mariano Ruíz and Emilio Bastré. The actors supported me.
CD: What have been the results of exploring such a forbidden topic in the play? Have there been repercussions? You’re using the group’s secret symbols, movements.
PR: It’s possible that I didn’t really think it through at first. But I’ve never had a direct physical threat. The only thing that has happened was that at first, I received messages from people who said they were queer and that they had also been in the group. They said that they wanted to speak with me, that they were interested in what I was saying. But I distanced myself from all that. I don’t know, it seemed suspicious, so I didn’t respond. I was afraid that my family could suffer some kind of repercussion, but nothing has happened. I know that it’s very delicate, but we’re also living in different times — they say things are more civilized.
CD: One of the very cruxes of the play is violent retaliation against a play that presented material that challenged religious institutions. Were you afraid on opening night?
PR: I’m still afraid. I know that there are radical people who might dare to do something. Of course there would be a huge public outcry. So they have to be careful. There is a world around me, a public spotlight.
Besides that, this is a performative action. At one point an actor asks the audience to come up to the stage, to show us what kind of world we live in. Now, clearly, you can’t get up on stage and beat up actors anymore. This is a performative action that until now has worked well. Maybe one day something will explode.
CD: In the fall you’re going to be directing a play in Durango by your fellow Duranguense playwright José Revueltas. Why you are bringing Israel to Durango in this moment?
PR: I have the opportunity — they’ve opened the doors to me at the Teatro Ricardo Castro, which is the most important theater in Durango. Israel is Revueltas’ first play and it is completely relevant to the era in which we are living. It talks to us about racism, about the meeting of different cultures, of breaking through walls, of breaking through skin color, of seeing ourselves beyond the physical. I think it’s a play that is really necessary to take back up — it hasn’t been performed in fifty years.
CD: Why do you work with such controversial themes? Does the fear of repercussions from those in power play a role in your work?
PR: Because I think it’s necessary. There are still young people in these groups, many people who continue with this retrograde way of thinking. This play is necessary to remind us of that, and of the way things were.
Fear plays a very important role. It’s something that I have to overcome constantly. I have had moments of paranoia in my creative process throughout the five presentations of Fancy Lupe. But it has to do with fiction and reality. I am not talking about Mexico in Fancy Lupe, I’m talking about the country of Siquitibum, you know? It’s something fictitious, the country of Oscar Liera. The country of Siquitibum also protects me.
CD: Do you feel like Fancy Lupe has helped you to deal with trauma?
PR: It’s a way of healing wounds. It helps me to be me, to make my ideals clear. This all has to do with a certain kind of programming in my head, a relationship that caused me to be aligned with El Yunque, which at the end of the day is a physical structure, a mental structure, a political structure.
CD: Right, because it’s not just a group — we’re really talking about a society and network that you were raised in. How did your family react to the work?
PR: My mother was able to see the play on opening night of its first presentation. She held back her comments, but she did express her happiness that I was able to do what I really love, which is theater. Some time later during the fourth presentation, she let me know that she thought it was possible that there would be some act of repression made by the group. I think she told me this right around the time that the marches for the family were happening in 2016 [these marches were organized by Mexico’s far right National Action Party, often associated with El Yunque, in order to combat proposed legislation to legalize equal marriage rights on a federal level.] She said that just as I had the right to express myself, so did they. She asked that I respect the beliefs of those people.
My father came to this cycle of the play, the fifth presentation. He expressed his pride in my work but he thought that some things were over the top. He thought the play was a complaint against my family, which I denied. I said that my complaint, if it is a complaint, was not towards my nuclear family, but against the situation and context in which my family had found itself in and couldn’t escape, just as many young people in Latin America have been recruited by similar sectarian groups.
CD: How do you know there are people who aren’t in favor of this new transparency?
PR: It’s obvious that a majority of them have changed their position. I’m not accusing anyone, but I’m afraid that this is going to create groups that are even more radical than El Yunque. It’s positive because obviously there was a lot of false speculation going around about El Yunque, because it was secret. It’s good that they defend themselves, they have every right. They can’t do that if they consider themselves something secret.
CD: Do you think that the more violent aspects of the group will change as it assumes a more public role?
PR: I think that will stop in as much as people will stop attributing any violent acts to El Yunque. But the problem is, that these acts will be carried out by groups whose names we don’t even know.