February 11, 2020 Exhibition Catalog
Fragmentos y Suturas (Fragments and Sutures), 2019, mixed-media installation, dimensions vary.
Excerpt from my essay in the exhibition catalog for José Villalobos: Joto Fronterizo | Border Faggot at the Freedman Gallery, Albright College, Reading, Pennsylvania, November 5 – December 13, 2019.
"The self-flagellation or self-harm of his brown body is evident in several of his 2018 performances such as Sin Los Callos en la Mano/Without Calluses on my Hand, FAG, and La Carga de la Tradicíon. Through his performative body actions Villalobos demonstrates his battles with acceptation/rejection of cultural expectations and his queerness. In Sin Los Callos en la Mano he undresses, removing his vaquero armor, and reveals his half naked body as he kneels on a pile of tierra − almost in a pose of atonement. He picks up a leather belt sewn with the words “Las manos de un hombre no debrerian ser suavecitas como este piel (The hands of a man shouldn’t be soft like this skin)” and begins to flagellate himself, beating his back with the derisive statement. Several of the threaded letters are distinctly colored pink spelling the word “marica,” another Spanish slur for “sissy/faggot.” At the end of the performance he redresses, composing himself again in the vaquero armor that conceals and denies his “marica” self.
This performance brings to mind the labor and expectation of labor from brown bodies. In the early 1940s the United States government initiated and entered into an agreement with Mexico to establish fair labor treatment and living conditions for Mexican workers or braceros. This agreement became known as the Bracero program and lasted until the early 1960s before it was terminated by the U.S. Throughout this nearly twenty year agreement the lives of many Mexicans were reduced to the treatment of livestock. Packed in trailers and sent for examination before being “hired,” their bodies were checked for callouses as a sign of strength and ability to withstand the harsh labor conditions. Only strong appearing bodies, ones that could withstand the backbreaking work would be accepted and allowed to cross the border while weaker appearing bodies were sent back. Soft hands and minor physical flaws were a sign of weakness that would not be tolerated or accepted. The mantra in Villalobos’ performance is a reverberation of this mindset, internalized as a cultural virtue, in which the body − the hands must be strengthened with callouses in order to survive in the U.S. Callouses are what make the brown body viable to exist in the land of the free."
Freedman Gallery Gallery Guide