Baby Themme Anthems: On the work of Sebastian Hernández
“Everytime” by Britney Spears has been haunting me since it became the opening number for my friend Sebastian’s Hypanthium, an ensemble multimedia performance that debuted in January in Los Angeles and is, at heart, a portrait of an artist as a young themme. 1 Britney’s baby piano and little-girl howl open a three-minute film directed and edited by Sebastian and shot by Rafa Esparza, one of Sebastian’s long-time collaborators, in which we see a scantily clad Sebastian running in a disoriented manner up and down the Fourth Street Bridge where Boyle Heights leads into downtown. The song is mashed up against spoken word from a pair of distinct sources — a poem colliding with a vitriolic Trump sound bite, a cacophony that signals a queer, brown precarity. What does it mean for someone femme-identified like Sebastian to live in a time of complete uncertainty? In the film, they’re wrapped in pink cellophane ribbons and wearing high, hot pink heels; leather straps wind around their muscular calves like the garb of a fashionable gladiator. Notice me. Take my hand. Why are we strangers when our love is strong.
The camera pans westward toward a sun setting over the downtown skyline. Sebastian balances on the edge of the bridge, conjuring the specter of societal disaster on the streets, forecasting a new Los Angeles we struggle to recognize, everything awash in the magical hour’s heavenly light.
Sebastian’s from my hometown of Huntington Park, a municipality seven miles south of downtown, a place that invites its inhabitants to lose their softness in exchange for survival. Sebastian is tough — that queen who can do everything you can do but backwards, in Dickies and patent leather high-heel boots; who can wear candy-colored ribbons, intimidatingly thorny long-stemmed roses, and disposable, brightly-hued plastics. Preparing for a trip to Los Angeles from Tucson, I’m considering their oeuvre, which in turn conjures the piano pop ballad. I’m obsessing — why this song? I think back to the January premiere. Seeing Sebastian perform their first top-billed performance at REDCAT, one of the most respected venues in town, made my heart swell with pride. Seeing similarly homegrown queer brown and Black kids fill the seats of the theater made the evening that much more significant, as if the gap between art and community had been temporarily salved. Why am I tethering Sebastian’s brand of femme-furious performance art to the deceptively cloying vulnerability of Britney’s ballad? I listen again. And again it is Britney heralding Sebastian’s arrival. I am flooded with the memory of the theater darkening, the familiar sight of a Los Angeles cityscape and Sebastian’s blurry figure brought to life by Britney’s song. I feel invited into a dream realm permeating with a femme vulnerability — an artistic hypanthium that holds Sebastian’s own performative nectaries. The song and the brown body it animates feel like a message from a queer future.
In 2004, when “Everytime” was released, I still hadn’t figured out how queer artists of color could take back what was stolen by Britney’s predecessors. I loved Madonna even as she snatched my soul. Now, gleaning the cultural nuances of gendered performativity (thanks to a dalliance with performance studies) I’m listening with new ears. Maybe it’s queer aging or having absorbed those queer brown-butch life lessons that have given me the gift of longevity. It’s why I am finally able to heed the song’s unabashed call for softness and forgiveness, delivered through Spears’ seductive yet exhausted girl-on-the-verge whisper. While it may have been Britney’s rebuttal’s to her ex’s indicting “Cry Me A River,” for me it’s a baby themme anthem for a mean ol’ butch daddy who’s losing interest in being mean, opting instead for moving and grooving to club queens crooning over 4/4 house beats. Whether it’s the dancefloor at Chico’s in Montebello or Mustache Mondays downtown, I’ve shared many a dance or a knowing glance with Sebastian, who’s twirled me elegantly into the wee hours of our respective nightlives. I’ve learned how to move better — how to glide, wring, and dab my body to the music, take up space in a way that doesn’t make me feel like a bulldagger in a china shop all the time. How to float accordingly, to release the anchor of the toxic masculinities that hinder my growth, my curiosity in myself. I have forgone the trappings of the binary — the dreariness of plaid, the explanatory impulses of patriarchal masculinity, a reluctance towards intimacy. I have rediscovered reinvention and allowed it to grant me passage back to my softer parts. Sebastian models those passages with aplomb, without apology, and I have received those blessings from them. What I have given them in return — well, that verdict is still out. All I know is that I have been making space in my wings for this young, queer femme-identified gender renegade. May softness be our code.
I don’t bother to mention any of this over an extended Thanksgiving break in Los Angeles where I catch up with Sebastian, who is then in the early stages of rehearsals for the January premiere. I pick them up at their family’s home on one of the few one-way streets in Huntington Park, a police car parked a few houses away, its lights on but no one in sight. The one-ways have long been an inconvenience meant to slow the block-by-block gang rivalries dotting the peripheries of Pacific Boulevard, the main drag in Huntington Park, affectionately nicknamed “Little Tijuana” (or “Little TJ”). Pacific Boulevard always hits the news whenever Mexico wins a match in the World Cup or the Lakers take home the championship. Little do people know it’s the premiere one-stop shop for quinceañeras and brides-to-be on a budget, as well as trans-femmes and club kids. Los callejones, 2 but make it fashionable.
Sebastian slides into my old 4Runner, giving me a peck on the cheek. They’re wearing a dark, oversized denim jacket, black jeans, work boots — a Southeast LA camouflage. We are essentially twinning, except Sebastian has glass-cutting cheekbones and a tightly-coiffed mustache sitting pretty on their full lips. We are two brown queers performing two very distinct types of fragile masculinity — each easily broken should either of us decide to resist its various commodifications, or just turn down the wrong corner.
They lead me through a Huntington Park that still feels like it’s ours — they live there, and I used to, first as a toddler and then off and on for fourteen years, having left finally in 2016 for Tucson. Sebastian doesn’t drive and urges me to go against my cocksure shortcuts through the neighborhood’s warehouse corridor. What’s the tea? I deadpan as I take all of Vernon Avenue to Central, shaving ten minutes off our commute to downtown. Sebastian narrates a new romantic entanglement, but this time their crush, too, has an artistic practice. Choosing peers for lovers: Sebastian’s getting serious. These are great problems that test discipline against desire, I tell them. They roll their eyes. We find Kojak parking for a semi-quick bowl of pho before a reading I’m participating in to celebrate our friend Nikki’s new novel. I spill my tea to Sebastian — my ex has been creeping on me via my social media platform du jour. This would be normal, except Sebastian reminds me I’m over forty and thus what the fuck am I doing? I tell them that I want to start dating my ex again. Sebastian puts the hurt on me. She is not going to come back for your ass. Ouch. You and my mom are the meanest Sagittarians I know I say, a wounded silence setting in; I remember how hard it sometimes is to be with family.
Born in Los Angeles to Mexican migrants, Sebastian came into movement as a family affair — their parents and siblings all danced traditional Aztec folklórico, a dance project often realized on Catholic and National holidays, a response to colonization’s persistent toll, a dance to remind us that Indigeneity often reveals itself through joyful movement, through community performances. Sunrise ceremonies take place every Thanksgiving, for example, when Aztec danzantes greet the pre-dawn sky with an offering of mourning and a set of choreographed dances timed with the rise of the sun. Sebastian’s danzante work has shaped their collaborative performances with Rafa Esparza. In 2014, the two performed no water under the bridge beneath the Fourth Street Viaduct in East Los Angeles. Sebastian donned their danzante garb, with feathers and glittered vestments made to look like animal pelts, and took their seemingly inexhaustible turn with durational performance as Rafa initiated a series of movements in response to Sebastian’s choreography. A blood ritual for young brown men lost to urban violence, the performances lasted more than two hours.
The artists in their performance statement describe the iconic viaduct as a site in which “popular films, such as Mi Familia, Blood In, Blood Out, and Colors, have explored the intersection of history, violence, gang culture, the industrial prison complex, and Chicanidad. These films have helped construct internationally recognized identities/stereotypes of Latinos/as living in Los Angeles.” Rafa and Sebastian have long reckoned with these stereotypes, grinding them into a wearable material that conjures the burden of Chicanx identity and gender, imagining the “space between their self-identifications and projected identities from an unknown public gaze.”
Durational performance has instilled in Sebastian a palpable, resonant discipline. The performance of masculinity alone has exhausted them into new realizations about how gender complicates both the interior and material realities of an artist making work for a gender-conscious and laudatory Los Angeles while living in gender-prohibitive Huntington Park — a Huntington Park that demands its denizens bus to work each day, or saunter through crosswalks toward and away from each other in gender costumes that adhere to the sex one is assigned at birth, whether in California or Mexico or Guatemala. Sebastian is in many ways asking us: What are we enduring when we put on a gender that makes each of us legible or invisible to each other?
I have seen my fair share of performance art; I’ve pored over texts and theories about the range of expressions present in the form. I hover over the space of the durational. The durational as it lives and exists in the repetition of movements, Sebastian’s movements, is speaking to me about what it means to wear our bodies in the street, on the stage, in our bedrooms. It is the durational embedded in performance art that allows for a porous exhibition and examination of endurance, the body utilizing all it has to make visible an attempt towards a psychological mastery of pain, solitude, exhaustion, and fear. It is the durational that the artist gives us — their witness — an embodied representation of the ways in which we all endure the spectrum of difficult feelings customized to and for our material realities.
Since 2001, Los Angeles, with its cheaper-than-New-York rents, has become an underground center of durational art. New arrivals from the East Coast mingle with the locally-born and bred artists, together raising sufficiently passable resources to make new work on their own terms and in their own artist-run venues. These collaborations lead to connections with curators and gigs at spaces like Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in Hollywood, a frequent stepping stone to more prominent commissions, such as from the Hammer Museum in Westwood. Artists like Rafa have animated endurance work with new contextual framing around race, immigration status, violence, and homophobia — issues that have brought about a cross-section (and cross-pollination) of audiences that go beyond Los Angeles counties. Rafa and collaborators like Sebastian, San Cha, and Gabriela Ruiz have made names for themselves while enabling the city itself to hold a new place in the annals (as well as the imaginary) of contemporary art.
I finally got the chance to work with Sebastian a couple of years ago on Coastal/Border, an exhibition I co-curated for a small community gallery in San Pedro, California, on the Los Angeles harbor. I was proud of the show, and most of all grateful that it gave me a chance to finally get to know Sebastian. I got a sense of their desire to bridge the myriad endurances of everyday life. As two brown queers — adult children of mainly monolingual immigrants — we mirror each other’s psychological portraits to some degree. We see each other’s psychic excess — which to put it plainly is just us being ourselves. No code-switching to appease the spatial contexts that hold us. We harness our psychological leaks in order to spill over these borders , which are sometimes our bodies, sometimes our barrios, and sometimes both in strangely interchangeable ways.
For Coastal/Border, Sebastian proposed FTZ (Free/Foreign Trade Zone), a performance installation concerned with contamination. Sebastian and I would gather at the Mexi-hipster cafe spot on Pacific Boulevard, combing through Leonard Nadel’s photographs of Mexican migrants working in the US through the Bracero Program. Nadel produced searing images of the Mexican Guest Worker program (1942–1964) in connection with a survey of braceros managed by Ernesto Galarza, illustrating Galarza’s publication, Strangers in Our Fields. (A man of letters who emigrated to California from Nayarit, Mexico to work in the fields as a child, Galarza became a labor organizer and activist, and returned to Central California after completing his doctorate from Columbia in 1947).
The US and Mexico entered a farm labor agreement to offset the US labor shortage created by World War II by importing braceros (from the term brazo, meaning “arm,” or those who work with their arms). The war ended but the bracero program continued through the early 1960s, and by the time of Nadel’s photographs almost 500,000 Mexicans were legally allowed to work on US agricultural farms, mostly on short term labor contracts where they were paid thirty cents an hour, considered a fair wage then.
The workers were known as “dry-backs,” a take on the derogatory term “wetback,” suggesting that these Mexicans didn’t have to swim across the Rio Grande to get to US soil; the most disturbing indignities these men endured involved group bodily inspections and fumigation with toxic chemicals before entering the US. Nadel’s images offered Sebastian an opportunity to create an embodied choreographic dialogue with the brown masculine sexuality they display. Many of the photographs depict nude Mexican masculine bodies, searched and scrutinized in such a way that one can’t help but impute a sinister eros onto the images. Or that’s what happens when our queer brown gaze peers into one of the more degrading corners of American history. Over our horchata lattes, Sebastian mentions to me how these Nadel images evoke their own experience of contamination control — how their brown femme body from a working class, immigrant-dominant barrio is perceived as being at high risk for HIV, and therefore subject to gay cis-male cultural pressures coupled with market imperatives.
Sebastian wants to fuck shit up. They use their queer and brown body to question the kind of low-grade surveillance carried out by the pharmaceutical industry — like, no one wants to be cruised at the club and asked their PrEP status right out of the gate. Like, I get it, but don’t lead with it if you’re trying to step to me, they snap.
The most captivating object driving Sebastian’s FTZ is the cactus. Able to weather sweltering heat, the indefatigable succulent is recognized by border dwellers and crossers as a natural indicator that one is close to the demarcation of North and South. It brings awareness to the stark materiality of a bordered landscape that Indigenous, Mexican, and Latinxs people know in varied and intimate ways. Their histories, ancient and recent, are witnessed by the saguaro, the opuntias that live side by side, a line separating people from those histories. By installing a nopal plant in the gallery, Sebastian offered a plaintive and specific instruction to care for a living thing. Their conceptual orchestration around the cactus forced constructions of Latinidad and Indigeneity to reckon with one another, a prickly encounter in which an elision of identity categories typically has no space to speak. This brings to mind the folk metaphor “con el nopal en la frente,” lobbed at individuals of Mexican descent living in the US who assimilated by casting off anything remotely “Mexican.” Awkwardly translated to “with the cactus on his forehead,” the nopal in this vernacular register is used to punish the darker-skinned Mexican with Indigenous physical traits whose claims to not know Spanish or customs belonging to Mexican culture is read as the absolute affront to cultural nationalists, especially those lighter-skinned Mexicanos who could pass for white.
And I’m tripping because I’m a lighter shade of brown, a legible Latinx with more pronounced Spanish features (have you seen my hairy arms?) feeling the rush of blood flush my cheeks, feeling the indictment and invitation to question the anti-Indigenous rhetorics with which I’ve been raised. For Sebastian, though, this incendiary castigating object exists in the gallery to invert the pejorative charge; it’s a petition for an ethics of care for the brown femme body, one that animates another of Sebastian’s concurrent projects, managed via their @browncommonz Instagram account. The title of course is an homage to the late José Muñoz, specifically his electrifying text “The Brown Commons: The Sense of Wildness.” Muñoz begins his essay (read at Eastern Michigan University in 2013) by describing a commons of
…brown people, places, feelings, sounds, animals, minerals, flora and other objects […] How these things are brown, or what makes them brown, is partly the way in which they suffer and strive together but also the commonality of their ability to flourish under duress and pressure […] in part because they have been devalued by the world outside of their commons.
Sebastian heeds Muñoz’ evocative call, documenting the Los Angeles-specificity of a brown commons as one way to forge an artistic practice contingent on the simultaneity of flourishing and duress, of beauty in the face of devaluement. Queer and hegemonic demonstrations of brown masculinity can co-exist in and beyond the labor structures that call those masculinities into play as sources of labor, especially within the socio-political space of Southeast Los Angeles. In Coastal/Border, Sebastian utilized nopales as material for both installation and a performance mask (a “cara de nopal”), simultaneously hiding from and messing with a machismo that hinders their own sense of belonging to a brown commons they are actively seeking out on social media. The kind of machismo that puts Sebastian in real, physical danger. Which might be the same kind of machismo that turns them on. Putting on a cactus mask lets Sebastian play with machismo’s meaning safely. But the cactus still pricks.
I leave Tucson early on the second Friday of December to see the performance component of FTZ, which is the closing event for Coastal/Border. Of all days, this is the one my car decides to break down, the engine wheezing its last breath almost twenty miles from the nearest gas station. My worst nightmare as a desert denizen is to break down in the middle of nowhere, the signal-less ether rendering my phone a useless technology, my gender, my sex, and my ethnicity putting me at risk in the pastoral hinterlands of my adopted town. In this IRL version of the nightmare though it’s only fifty degrees, not in the middle of some scorchstorm of summer, and my phone works fine. I reach a towing service willing to spirit me away to safety for two hundred dollars. My car of fourteen years, witness of my elusive adulthood, my trusty steed, is knocking on death’s door and I am thankful my tow truck driver is nice enough, a gruff-voiced Santa Claus type with an American flag air freshener dangling from the rearview. We bond over a mutual love for late ’60s model Ford Rancheros. I take it as a good sign that cacti whir alongside the truck; my nervous system feels calm, intact. I leave my car for good at the mechanic’s in Glendale, Arizona, get a rental car, and continue to Los Angeles.
The next day I wake up in the guest bedroom of my parents’ new house in Downey, California, where they are busy getting ready for Christmas. They are in their mid-70s and exuding a radiance I hadn’t ever known when they lived in Huntington Park. My mom and dad are happier? Happier to be in the town they always saw as several steps from Huntington Park, the neighborhood they initially felt vulnerable in as they settled into the twilight of their lives. They used to live next door to a family affiliated with the 18th Street gang — evident when the garage door was tagged with large black Roman numerals after they were evicted by their landlord.
I swallow some coffee and a pastry, kiss my jefita on the cheek, and hit the road again, this time to San Pedro. I arrive several hours before the two p.m. performance to make sure Sebastian has someone from the exhibition management team present to receive them and their team. I don’t work for the non-profit gallery, but for a $1500 stipend and eighteen months of engagement, collaboration, and production as a contracted curator I’m called upon to be there. I want to be there for Sebastian but I’m also trying to melt the butter of resentment I feel toward the organization for paying me so little for the amount of time I have given them. That’s often what it takes to get artists like Sebastian the due resources to make new work, to experiment. And in a Malcolm Gladwell world I’m a connector archetype so organizations hire me to get them to the queer, young, brown talent while we’re cheap. I take a deep breath and recalibrate for the occasion, remembering that the location is located on top of a bluff overlooking the Pacific and today the sun is peeking out behind billowy white clouds, a sky so cerulean it hurts me into poetry. The performance space is an old military barrack converted to a dance studio, long vertical windows drawing in both light and ocean air.
Such a perfect day, I sing quietly to myself as I set up a little green room with water, beer, tequila, and salty liquor store snacks for the talent and some wine and water for the anticipated public.
Finally Sebastian arrives, eyes blazing, with their sister Ashley. Ashley is soft-spoken and has the same eyes as her sibling. Intense, soft, intense, soft. They laugh audibly as they put the final touches on the tableaus, leaving objects like fruits and scissors in the corners and center of the space. I notice a series of plastic baggies filled with green, blue, orange, and yellow liquid tied to each other in such a way the only thing I can think to compare these soft sculptures to are rock candy crystal swizzle sticks. They sit at the base of the columns in the large room, columns that interfere with sightlines. Sebastian has transformed the room. Gurl, yes I think.
First to arrive as always are our comrades: Rafa, queer torch singer and songwriter San Cha, and their new friend Fabian Guerrero, a tall and handsome photographer from Dallas who’s slowly but surely making a name for himself in the tough and fickle Los Angeles art world. It’s a family reunion, but it’s just us for thirty minutes. Where is everyone? I don’t let anyone see me sweat. That’s what performance art is all about. Being there, regardless of the absences and because of the absences.
I’m suddenly finding myself greeting more people though — friends and acquaintances, acquaintances who shall become my friends. It’s a Saturday afternoon in one of the most far-flung locales in Los Angeles County and we’re being gorgeously inundated by young ones, queer ones, brown ones, femme ones, and their admirers. Sebastian’s parents are here and my heart swells. The seating is non-existent and no one has been directed on where to go but organically everyone shifts toward the periphery of the space and sits down, along each of the walls.
And it begins.
Sebastian enters blindfolded, the black-and-white paisley handkerchief folded thickly over their eyes. They wear black jeans, a black sweatshirt, and black Nike Cortezes, the sneakers made popular by any kid who ever grew up in a barrio (and ironically named after the conqueror who saw to the fall of the Aztec Empire). They look so butch, so deliciously overdetermined. Sebastian glides slowly yet assuredly, arms at forty-five-degree angles, finally falling to their knees and moving like a quadruped towards the objects they have left like a trail of breadcrumbs, touching them, moving past them, crawling from the center of the space into various spectator zones, where they clutch at ankles, calves, shins, and knees of unsuspecting but totally expectant viewers. Sebastian slowly pulls a knife, a roll of clear mailing tape, and a banana from somewhere inside their shirt and begins to bind the banana to one arm, cutting through the tape with their teeth, then cutting through the tape with the knife, then peeling the banana, eating it, and offering it blindly to the person sitting closest to them. It’s anxiety-inducing to watch; the tape, pulled in one long swoop, squawks like an animal in pain. Sebastian is jerking around with a steak knife in one hand and a mouthful of fruit, waiting for someone to take their offering. Now they are on their belly slithering diagonally across, carrying an orange taped to the inside of their wrist and sliding their body along the floor, a swimmer bringing that fruit to safety. Sebastian arrives to their younger sister’s feet and she smiles, obviously self-conscious once she feels all of our eyes on her. But Ashley is focused on her sibling’s movements, watching Sebastian jut forward their wrist, taking the steak knife and slicing through the clear tape to the center of the fruit, cutting away at the rind. When Sebastian offers the wrist, not realizing the receiver is their own sister, Ashley’s face contorts and she cries, chest heaving. Her mouth opens towards the orange, her hands wipe her tears away. It’s incredible to watch.
And it continues.
It is a choreography of gender that doesn’t stop, even for the occasional outfit change. A choreography of gender disintegrating, only to be reanimated back into each other, a binary deconstructed into colorful plastic gemstones, colorful high heels, colorful liquids in sandwich baggies. It brings to mind those color-coded terrorism threat advisory scales. It brings to mind the ways federal agencies and state and local governments respond with specific actions for different levels triggered. By color. Be they at airports or any other public facility that enables or hinders the mobility of a queer, femme, brown body.
When I drove out to Los Angeles to see Sebastian’s full-length debut of Hypanthium in January it was an easier trip — no breakdowns of the vehicular kind — though so much had happened. In the weeks leading up to the performance, our friend and Sebastian’s mentor Nacho Nava had fallen ill with a strain of pneumonia that put him on life support for three weeks.
Nacho co-founded and DJed Mustache Mondays, one of the longer running nightclubs in downtown Los Angeles. Mustache was hugely popular with queer Black and brown club kids of all ages, as well as performance artists, musicians, and anyone versed in their own experiential history of underground culture. A party that outgrew the various venues it started out in before settling in for a near decade-long Monday night residency at La Cita, a Mexican restaurant turned epicenter as lit on the inside as it was on the outside with five-foot neon lights shouting its name into downtown Los Angeles’ visual vernacular. Anyone who took their nightlife seriously ventured out every Monday to Hill Street, at the base of downtown’s infamous Bunker Hill, to see the likes of Robyn performing a secret midnight show; or to have their minds blown by a then-unknown Rafa Esparza sculpting masks out of plaster inside a translucent cylinder just a few feet from a crowded dancefloor; or to witness a young femme named Sebastian and their kinetic choreographies for femmes and the fury that binds them together.
Nacho died the Friday before Hypanthium opened. Rafa and I had been communicating about Nacho, hoping the San Lázaro candle would right this wrong, praying that it would never arrive at this hole-in-the-universe kind of loss. Losing the Chronos of our queer underground — the joto maricón bear of a dad whose smile and sweaty, hairy arms held you for as long as you needed to be held, metabolizing you into the vastness of queer possibility.
And oh how this loss animated everything about Sebastian’s performance. Everything — even Britney’s song took a new shape. And every time I see you in my dreams, I see your face, you’re haunting me, I guess I need you baby. Everything — from the opening hard-thumping catwalk in the club house number that felt like the eight-minute extended club mix familiar to anyone who’d ever took a tumble trying to deathdrop at Mustache, to the last aching tableau where Sebastian and their collaborators Angel Acuña and Autumn Silas Randolph become a melancholic version of the Three of Cups tarot card, arms raised in a glorious vining up the invisible tree of grief and then back to each other, one behind another, the musical score swelling.
Finally, Sebastian’s mouth opened, face crumpling to let out un grito en luto. It was a wailing familiar to anyone who’s ever let that primal scream of femininity collect its dues, and take what it is owed.