Originally posted at www.latimes.com:
An ugly episode in Mexico gets uglier
A nation’s anger over an ex-teachers union boss accused of embezzlement surfaces on the face of comedian Luis de Alba, who plays her in drag.
MEXICO CITY — Actor Luis de Alba sat calm and Buddha-like in a tiny dressing room of the Teatro Blanquita, his eyes closed. A makeup artist, armed with a fat brush dipped in liquid foundation, was painting his broad face with big strokes, as though it were the side of a barn.
It was the first step in transforming De Alba, one of Mexico’s most beloved comedians, into a garish approximation of one of Mexico’s least loved women, Elba Esther Gordillo, the once-powerful teachers union boss whose posh lifestyle erupted in a bonfire of vanities in February, when federal authorities arrested her on charges of embezzlement and organized crime.
It was Friday night. On stage, De Alba’s fellow actors could be heard finishing the first act of their play, “Elba Esther Lost the Case.” Though not every word could be made out from backstage, the attitude came through clear enough. It was a sort of sustained satirical raspberry — broad, cunning, cutting — and soon it would be focused on De Alba’s version of Gordillo, a hot mess of hubris, denial and massive quantities of makeup.
Irma Reynoso, the makeup artist, leaned in close to the actor, applying light and dark base coats in such a way as to lend his nose a sense of dainty angularity. It is an effect the real-life Gordillo is assumed to have achieved with the help of plastic surgery. Going under the knife, prosecutors allege, was one of her favorite ways of spending the roughly $195 million in union funds she is said to have embezzled, along with Neiman Marcus shopping sprees and the purchase of high-end real estate.
Her lifestyle stirred outrage in a country where 45% of residents live below the poverty line. Many Mexicans also blamed Gordillo, at least in part, for the low-performing national education system. And they cringed as national politicians lined up to kowtow to the union boss who controlled the votes of 1.5 million teachers.
Many observers here interpreted Gordillo’s arrest as a way for President Enrique Peña Nieto to clear the path for a sweeping education reform bill that aimed to weaken the teachers unions. The man who replaced Gordillo as leader of the National Union of Education Workers supported the changes. But members of a more radical breakaway union have spent weeks demonstrating in Mexico City, blocking streets and snarling traffic.
Even the Mexican left has been divided over whether the striking teachers deserved support, and the bill, despite all the protest, was approved by Congress this month.
Gordillo, meanwhile, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in a prison south of town. On Tuesday a federal judge granted her a legal writ meant to protect a defendant’s rights, essentially declaring that federal prosecutors had brought a sloppy case. Prosecutors challenged the document, and Gordillo will remain in prison until the matter is resolved.
She has already been tried in the court of public opinion, however, and her face — artificially pinched, heavily made-up, often scowling — has become one of Mexico’s best-known political memes, a shorthand, to many, of all that is wrong with the country. It appears on T-shirts, as a popular latex mask, and, as portrayed by De Alba, on the posters for the play, which recently completed a three-week tour of Mexico. Producers are hoping to take it back on the road in mid-October.
De Alba, 68, is a longtime Mexican stage and television actor who is best known for having created the character “El Pirrurris,” a send-up of Mexico’s spoiled rich kids. As a rule, he doesn’t like to dress in drag to get laughs. “It’s too cheap,” he says. “Too easy.”
But this play, he said, has given him the chance to offer the audience “a catharsis — of something that was very dramatic for people, disturbing for people, and ugly for the country.”
He says that it is not his job to judge Gordillo: “That’s what the authorities are for.” And yet, over the course of a conversation, the judgment seeped in. He spoke of her “terrible fraud,” of her “interminable” properties, and her infamous surgeries. “They didn’t leave her so pretty,” he said, chuckling. “That’s why they chose me for the role.”
One could argue that the critiques of Gordillo’s appearance are sexist, insensitive or irrelevant. But those arguments aren’t being made in Mexico these days. No one seems to be in the mood.
Reynoso opened two tins of makeup, using them to paint in high-arched, black brows on De Alba’s forehead, framing vast fields of cerulean eye shadow below.
This was the special makeup, she said flatly, that she usually uses only for clowns and monsters.
Next there were fake eyelashes, which the actor dislikes because they impede his vision, and the cream-colored pumps that make it hard for him to walk, and a blond wig, to crown his balding head. De Alba has a wide, roly-poly body, and his Gordillo, now fully realized, bears an uncanny resemblance to Divine, the late American drag queen and cult movie star.
Never heard of him, De Alba said.
Outside, the first act had wrapped, and intermission was ticking down.
The lights came up to reveal the Gordillo character sitting in a chair. She was flanked by two actors who were decked out in fake animal skins and gyrating to tribal drumming. It was an effort, it seemed, to equate the Gordillo face with the proto-Cubist ritual masks of Africa.
There are moments when the Mexican theater chooses to confront the nation’s 21st century predicament with a stark, subtle, Beckettian grace. Tonight would not be one of them.
The cast featured a few scantily dressed women of Barbie-like dimensions, and a little person. There were jokes about bodily functions and sexual acts. A man played a bumbling version of ex-President Vicente Fox, Gordillo’s onetime ally. One scene had them sharing a fictional post-coital chat.
There was a reenactment of Gordillo’s arrest at the Toluca International Airport, and a mock trial, and everyone had their chance to mete out their licks: When the Gordillo character said she would dedicate her body to science, another character shot back: “Science fiction?”
When the house lights came up, the faces in the crowd seemed sated by what they had witnessed. Not justice, but perhaps catharsis.
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