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Tenaya HillsSandra Sarmiento heard the epithet whispered constantly after she returned to Santa Ana from Chapman University during the early 1990s: pocha.
"When I got home from college, everyone could tell my accent and mannerisms were changing from Mexican to more American. Soon, a chorus of 'pocha' began greeting me everywhere I went," the half-Mexican, half-Bolivian beauty remembers over a bowl of bún in Little Saigon. "I would be walking down the street and hear people yelling from their cars '¡Pocha!' One time, I was at El Toro Meat Market and when I asked for a price check, they announced 'We need a price for this pocha!' Over the store's PA system!"
A bit of background: pocha (or the masculine pocho)in the Hispanic world is a catchall term signifying impurity—for example, "I'm feeling pocha" in Spain means "I'm feeling sick," while South Americans describe rotting fruit as turning pocha. But pochain the Mexican Spanish vernacular is among the most vicious insults imaginable. It refers to a young Mexican American too assimilated, too American, and is employed mostly by parents against their children. Pocha implies selling out, a loss of culture, someone with no soul.
Sarmiento was so pochaafter graduating from Chapman she didn't even know the meaning of the slur when she first heard it. Intrigued, she asked her father for the definition. "He got upset," Sarmiento recalls with a laugh. "He wanted to know who had called me that and then explained its definition to me with sadness. But my reaction was, 'Cool!' I had finally found my misfit niche."
Like many Chicanos during the early 1990s, the filmmaker/artist/union activist reclaimed pocha and embraced the affront. She started Pocha Productions, creating films with pochothemes and producing wacky Spanish-language game shows under the nome de video Pocha Peña. Now Sarmiento wants to pocho-ize Orange County and the world. She is the curator of Pocharte, a gallery located in the Santora Building, dedicated to supporting the artwork of pochos y pochas like Sarmiento.
"Given that I know so many pochos and there was no scene in Orange County for us," says the born-raised-moved-away-but-now-back Santa Ana resident, "this was something I could put my passion and identity to."
The gallery opened splendidly two months ago with a retrospective of the legendary Pocho Magazine, a Chicano zine published during the mid-1990s by Lalo Alcaraz (of LA Cucarachafame) and Esteban Zul, infamous for its skewering of ex-California governor Pete Wilson and for mangling such Mexican icons as wrestler Santo and entertainer Cantinflas. The main attraction at the opening was a Mickey Mouse-costumed man dressed in a Border Patrol olive-green outfit demanding that Latinos and gabachos alike show their green card lest he deport them, a riff off Alcaraz's famous 1994 "Migra Mouse" cartoon panel attacking Disney for supporting Proposition 187.
More pochomadness will occur this month with works by Jesse Lerner and Rubén Ortiz-Torres, whose videos Frontierlandiaand Mexopolisare surreal loops depicting the dusty insanity of the U.S.-Mexico border. Future exhibits will include a series on Tijuana's best velvet painters and Chicano artists who specialize in making 3-D panels of Jesus and other religious figures.
Sarmiento thinks pochismo is the next big thing, not just in art but also for the entire world. "It's in that gray area of mutability where amazing things happen, and that's what being a pocho is about," she says. "You put things that don't belong together, they create something new. It's uncharted territory. Besides, everything else is done to death—modernism, postmodernism, Dadaism, everything. Pochismo meanwhile is spreading across the world with the rise of globalization and immigration. The clash of cultures isn't bad at all—it's going to produce something great.
"The world is becoming pocha," Sarmiento adds with glee. "I want to get everyone accustomed to that."
Pocharte Gallery, located at 207 N. Broadway, Studio C, Santa Ana, is open every Saturday, 1-4 p.m. For more information, call (714) 972-0073 or visit www.pocharte.com.