Pepper-Spraying Jos

Rick Najera plays the "lean, mean deporting machine."
Courtesy of the Alley Theatre

Some might think that a production written and performed by a Mexican is only for Mexicans. ¡Cantinflas! Latinologues. Culture Clash in Americca. Especially if it's about the U.S.-Mexican border. In the case of Rick Najera's Buford Gomez: Tales of a Right-Wing Border Patrol Officer, they are wrong, and the 70 percent non-Latino audience at last weekend's show at the Alley Theatre proved it. Bravo to Najera and the Alley.

On his third trip to that theater, Najera brought an almost polished, wildly entertaining production of Buford Gomez. For those who missed it, it can only be a described as a staged MAD TV version of This American Life. Not surprisingly, Najera, who was recently nominated for a Writers Guild of America award, is a writer for MAD TV. He's also a former writer for In Living Color.

When Buford Gomez hit the almost bare stage to give his seminar on the U.S. Border Patrol, two words came to mind: "Bubba Mexican." And when he opened his mouth, he proved to be more "Bubba" than "Mexican." Buford's claims of "bringin' the baton to Juan" and the "pepper spray to José" hit so close to home that most of the audience nodded and laughed.

The officer held no information back when it came to explaining his job. He started off by delineating the different types of Mexicans: Cubans are Mexicans with boats; Central Americans are leprechaun Mexicans. He also shared a little Mexican history, delving into the American invasion of Mexico. And he even told a joke. ("Knock-knock. Who's there? On. On who? On the floor, motherfucker! It's the U.S. Border Patrol.") The "lean, mean deporting machine" filled his audience in on all the details of border patrol life -- except for his own personal experience being "kidnapped" by the Tijuana drug cartel. That he left up to the other characters he plays: the drug lord, a Mexican cowboy, the "manic Hispanic" and his own mom.

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For these characters' roles, Najera stepped into the past, portraying them during the period he was kidnapped. The drug lord revealed the truth about Buford's abduction: "He fell into my drug tunnel." He decided to forcibly keep Buford around because, after all, he was a border patrol officer. He also philosophized about a host of other subjects, wondering about everything from why another drug dealer, Juan Garza, would order a Diet Coke with his last meal, to how the Columbine kids knew how to build pipe bombs when even he doesn't know how.

The manic Hispanic, a movie producer, told how he was contemplating committing suicide from atop the Hollywood "H" until he decided to try to save Buford from the cartel, because he thought the story would make a good movie. And Buford's mom wept over her son's kidnapping -- that is, until she recalled conceiving him with Concepción, the Mexican cowboy, a typical tequila-drinking deadbeat dad who valiantly took on the Tijuana drug cartel himself in an effort to save his son and possibly write a corrido about his adventure.

Najera didn't just play Buford Gomez. He was Buford Gomez, and he masterfully displayed the irony of a Mexican-American protecting the U.S.-Mexican border with a heart-wrenching "just doin' my job" mentality. Najera also shined in the roles of Buford's mom and the manic Hispanic. The ease with which he morphed into one persona after another recalls the work of John Leguizamo and Anna Deavere Smith.

Buford Gomez was not just fierce and entertaining -- it was also a great example of "guerrilla theater." The set was minimal (chair, table, coat rack, slide projector). And Najera changed into each character by adding an article of clothing to his border patrol uniform. Theaters that spend too much of their already scarce dollars on ridiculously over-the-top productions could learn a thing or two from this show. Sometimes all you have to do is rely on the words and the actor. Everything else is just fluff.

After the show, Najera proved that he wasn't just out there to entertain, sticking around for a Q&A session and answering questions about everything from his writing career to current immigration policy. Few audience members left as he discussed his own experience growing up 15 minutes from the border, just south of San Diego.

Buford Gomez is a good example of Diego Rivera's idea that "art is propaganda," exploring, as it does, the border issue and post-9/11 immigration issues. Because of its minimalist style, this production can be performed in spaces where this dialogue could really hit home, such as a community center, a neighborhood school or even a parking lot. It will make audiences think about our Mexican neighbors and their situation. We might as well talk about them, because they're not going away.

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