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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Lazzari, Chad / Que Viva!

In Viva Records, Robb Hernandez recounts the short but powerfully effective life of VIVA, a Latina/o arts collective that sprang to life in order to give voice to sexual, ethnic and political identities that were ready to demand visibility.  The author first sorts through a collage of origin narratives, from the artistic and sexual to political, and uses these various birth stories to emphasize the many ways that VIVA gave identity to shades of the Latino/a artist even as those personalities wrestled with a certain desperation at times to define VIVA itself. The collective was different from the start, not only because of its ethnic, cultural, and sexual subjectivities but because those identities gave rise, necessarily, to an intense social justice bent that reached its apex during the AIDS crisis. Hernandez details the way the organization's commitment to visual, literary, dance and performance art (the latter of which came to be arguably the institutions longest-lasting legacy) helped it stand apart from other collectives as a grass-roots organization dedicated to identity and politico-artistic power over profit.

I was struck over and over again as I read the book by the strength of its members and the beauty of what they did. I have a passion and intrigue for the way our community responded to and built a coalition for civil rights and political power even while watching brothers and sisters die by the hundreds and thousands. I think it would be easy to write about VIVA as an arts group that responded to fight AIDS, but I am not entirely sure that would be accurate. I think Hernandez does a good job of illustrating the way that AIDS gave rise to VIVA just as much as VIVA rose up to fight AIDS. By that I mean that the unique identities, intent, purpose and sheer timing of the collective overlapped in such a way that, like a work of art itself, VIVA responded to AIDS and much of what it was is owed, at least in part, to the pandemic and the politics of the 80's and 90's that fostered the battle. The two really seem inseparable and I'm not sure one can exist without the other. It is not surprising then, as the fight to end the disease began to change at century's end, so too did VIVA, ultimately succumbing to economic and identity struggles in 2000.

Lastly, and going back to the identities that created VIVA, I found myself throughout the book wishing we knew VIVA today. By that I mean simply that I found myself wishing for the passion of these people who fought to make their lives, their sex, their persons visible in a time when it was all so new and radical and demonized; a time when the desperation fueled the need for expression. Without question, AIDS was and is horrible, so too were the politics of negation, but the history of gay people is tainted by a kind of death metaphorically and, with the disease, physically, that fueled a desperate plea for life, and in many ways we owe a debt of gratitude to it, or at least a respect. In the book's finally, Beto Araiza put it perfectly in the books culmination:

I don't know if a VIVA could exist today, because in that period of time in history there was a degree of urgency, and I think some of that was because of the pandemic. There was also a - very similar to the Chicano Movement - there was a different sense of identity as queers, and thats because of the politics that were happening at the time.  The conservative reactionary politics of the time kind of demanded that you either - you had to stand up in many ways. You had to....say no to this injustice, I will not tolerate it. And I do not know if that would happen today (82). 

I wonder the same thing. I certainly don't wish for disease or death or damnation, but I do wish I felt the passion and the raw courage of these artists in our movement today. It was daring. It was exciting. It was, as the name suggested, life in the face of death. Perhaps it just isn't today, and I should be grateful, but it was beautiful to behold.

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