Herbert Siguenza is a busy man. Aside from being a full-time member of the award-winning comedy acting trio, Culture Clash, he’s an instructor in the Central American Studies department at CSUN, teaches acting through the Cal Arts Partnership at Plaza de la Raza and was recently named the president of the Authority Commission for El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, or Olvera Street. Oh yeah, and he’s married.
“I love being busy,” said Siguenza. “I’d rather be busy than not.”
This tall, bald man with a resonant deep voice might look and sound familiar: his acting credits include “Encino Man,” “The Michael Richards Show” and Culture Clash’s own short lived sitcom on Fox. He also lent his voice to the WB animated series “Mission Hill.”
Siguenza has a natural attraction to the arts. He enjoys painting, often incorporating his drawings into his work with Culture Clash, and is an avid music collector.
“Herb is the truest artist of Culture Clash” said fellow member Richard Montoya. “With a pen or paint brush, the man can create and be happy.”
His lush artistic abilities as an actor, writer and painter are undoubtedly influenced by his Salvadoran roots.
Siguenza was born in the San Francisco Mission district on Jan 26, 1959. He was one of five brothers born from Salvadoran immigrant parents, who were among the first Salvadorans to come to the U.S. in the 1940s. The family moved back to their home country when Siguenza was nine years old.
Shortly after his arrival, he experienced the so called “Soccer War,” which erupted, after months of territorial disputes, during a soccer game between El Salvador and Honduras.
“It was really exciting,” he said of the 100-hour war. “I had never been in a war before.”
Siguenza lived in El Salvador until he turned 17 and went to school with children of the richest families in the country.
“It was a rude awakening,” he said. “I started seeing the difference between the haves and the have nots. Even as a kid, I knew something was not right.”
Before he returned to the states in 1978, one year before the civil war broke out in El Salvador, Herbert said he could see and feel the tension rising in the streets of San Salvador, where he lived.
“I knew something was going to explode,” he said.
Sure enough, a brutal and bloody civil war that lasted 12 years broke out shortly after Siguenza had returned to the U.S. “I felt real saddened that this was happening in a country that was so great to me,” said Siguenza. “I would hear about the atrocities and I couldn’t believe that it was the same country that I had just left.”
Siguenza said that his life in his parents’ home country greatly influenced his work back in the U.S.
“My time in El Salvador really changed my life. I don’t think I would be doing the work I do now if I had stayed in the U.S.,” he said before adding that he dedicated his art to social justice.
Siguenza was formally trained in art at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where he earned a degree in printmaking and silk-screening. During this time he also worked at La Raza Graphics Center, when the Chicano and solidarity movements of Central America were raging.
“It was an exciting time to be an artist and an activist,” said Siguenza who worked at the center for 10 years. He started off making silk screen posters for political organizations and eventually became the art director.
Soon after, Siguenza started doing political theater in the Mission District with a Spanish-oriented community group called Teatro Gusto. “I immediately got the acting bug,” he said. “Theatre is a direct way of communicating something to people.”
Although he originally saw acting as a hobby, it eventually became a full-time job, after the success of Culture Clash. “We were a big hit,” said Siguenza. “We found a huge audience that was just like us, who grew up with two cultures simultaneously and who had the same political point of view.”
Siguenza has been with Culture Clash since its birth, 23 years ago on Cinco de Mayo, 1984. His partners in crime are Sacramento-born Montoya and Ric Salinas, originally from El Salvador. Siguenza compares the troupe’s relationship to a marriage because they know each other very well.
“We’ve had our ups and downs, never blows thrown but very very close,” said Montoya, who has known Siguenza for about 26 years. “And you know what, I’m glad for those moments too.”
The trio was influenced by the Chicano movement, especially Luis Valdez’s Teatro Campesino, but they wanted to take political theatre to a different level by addressing the urban Chicano and Latino experience.
“Culture Clash is an examination of cultures clashing and mixing in the US,” Siguenza explained. “We show the clash between Latinos and the dominant society, as well as Latinos and Latinos.”
With Culture Clash, Sig’uuml;enza has played many different characters; everyone from historical figures such as Ernesto “Ch’eacute;” Guevara and Columbus, to fictional or adapted characters, often taking on various roles in one play.
“Maybe I’m schizophrenic,” Sig’uuml;enza joked, before adding that he doesn’t have a favorite character. “All of them are kind of like my children. I love investing in them and putting a little of myself in each of them.”
Culture Clash plays are filled with biting satire, political wit and sophisticated name drops. Any prominent figure, past or present is at risk of being ridiculed. Their works are unorthodox because they don’t stick to one genre of theatre, like drama or comedy.
“A Mixed style is our style. We are a spicy flavorful dish,” said Sig’uuml;enza.
The group has produced more than ten plays, their most recent being “Zorro in Hell,” which had a two month stint at the Ricardo Montalb’aacute;n Theatre in Hollywood. Two compilation books of their plays have been published, and a third one is in the works. They also have two films under their belts: “Columbus on Trial,” an award winning short made in 1992, on the 500 year anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, and “Culture Clash in AmeriCCa,” which was shown at the CSUN College of Humanities’ 2007 International Film Festival. Their complete works were on exhibition at the Oviatt library in 2004 and are now available online in the digital collections.
Culture Clash is a critically acclaimed group that has won many awards, including the Latino Spirit Award and, most recently, the Civic Service Award, given by the Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund on Oct. 19.
Despite all the attention the group has received over the years, Sig’uuml;enza has not let it get to his head. Instead of hanging up their awards, he says they keep them in a box. “It’s nice to be recognized but that’s not why we do it,” Sig’uuml;enza added. “We don’t often feel like we deserve it because we’re having too much fun.”
Despite the desire to please their audience, they are slowing down by cutting back on touring and staying in Los Angeles.
For this reason, Sig’uuml;enza looked for a teaching position at CSUN. He tried the theatre department, but was too late to apply for the fall semester. He then talked to Douglas Carranza, former coordinator for the Central American studies department, and was informed of a last-minute available position.
“I was baptized by fire,” said Sig’uuml;enza, who has now grown accustomed to the three classes he teaches. “I had no idea how to teach an academic class, but I went for it.”
Not only does he know the material, but he peppers his lectures with personal experiences and references to urban legends to make classes more interesting. His community activism is also evident in his classes, when he encouraged students to join him in an anti war march in late October.
“His casual teaching style was noticeable since the first day of class and I knew I was going to enjoy it,” said Magnolia Beni
tez, a freshman music therapy major taking Sig’uuml;enza’s Salvadoran Experience class.
“You can tell that he likes where he comes from and that he teaches from the heart,” said Daniel Santana, a freshman Chicano/a studies and history major taking the same class.
Siguenza said he truly does enjoy teaching and being active at CSUN, which he called one of the most diverse campuses he seen. Aside from keeping busy with his classes, he organized and hosted the Professional Salvadoran Speaker Series, and hopes to continue at CSUN by creating a class that incorporates his theatrical experiences in Chicano/a and Central American studies.
“I’m jealous,” said Montoya of Sig’uuml;enza’s recent post at CSUN. “I want to be on a faculty with Dr. Rudy Acu’ntilde;a? drink coffee and have dark conversations with Harry Gamboa Jr.,” referring to leading Chicano/a studies professors here.
Currently, Sig’uuml;enza is working on two projects; one with Culture Clash about the Iraq war, and a solo project on Picasso, which he said will allow him to paint and act at the same time.
Despite his vibrant life and career, he doesn’t believe he has reached his proudest moment. “I think it’s yet to come,” Sig’uuml;enza said. “That’s what keeps me burning, I’m just never satisfied.”