For a new video produced with the help of a Department of Arts and Culture individual artist project grant, performing artist Marisela Barrera brings together two seemingly disparate characters: San Antonio legend the Donkey Lady and revolutionary Mexican journalist Ricardo Flores Magón.
What do a mythical figure and a doomed anarchist have in common?
“The Burra is an anarchist, as well,” Barrera said, using the Spanish nickname of the Donkey Lady. “They’re really of the same people.”
The legend dates back to the settler days of San Antonio when a young woman was victimized by a wealthy landowner, who burned her and her family in their house. Horribly disfigured, she threw herself into Elm Creek, and now reportedly haunts a bridge nearby.
As Barrera plays her, the Donkey Lady is a gregarious, politically charged figure unafraid to confront wrongs she sees in the world. In politically charged reporting against the regime of Porfirio Diaz, Magón was hounded, forced to flee and ultimately murdered. After their deaths, both are free to realize their true selves, Barrera said.
La Burra’s different incarnations
She has performed as the Donkey Lady for years, in several incarnations. In 2018, she created the Donkey Lady Hotline for callers to get a taste of the legendarily creepy ghost who reportedly haunts a Southside bridge. Next, she played the character in a brief video for an online performance titled Tejana Rasquache in June 2020.
Also during the pandemic, the Donkey Lady made a spontaneous appearance at a local H-E-B, when Barrera donned the grotesque donkey-face mask for a quick round of grocery shopping. Store security disapproved of the mask and asked her to leave, an episode her daughter Valentina Inés Barrera-Ibarra caught on video and posted to TikTok.
Now, “La Burra,” as Barrera calls her equine character, returns as a talk show host in a 30-minute video titled Regeneración. Her rendering of Magón opens the video from Leavenworth federal prison in Kansas on the last day of his life in 1922. He then suddenly appears as a guest on the debut episode of the Donkey Lady’s morning talk show.
Like so many famous talk show hosts, from Arsenio Hall to Ellen DeGeneres, Barrera’s Burra begins with a raucous monologue. She explains her move from the South Side to the Hays Street Bridge as a protest against gentrification while sipping mezcal from a Gloria Anzaldúa-themed coffee mug.
Flores wakes up confused on the floor of the television studio, then sits for an interview on issues including his 1904 stint in San Antonio after fleeing Mexico. On the day the video was made, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1972 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, and that topic is foremost on Magón’s mind as he continues the advocacy for individual rights that helped spark the Mexican Revolution.
Made possible by arts funding
The high production value of the Regeneración video would not have been possible without grant funding, Barrera said. For years she had been a vocal advocate of direct funding for individual artists, finally garnering support from the city’s Department of Arts and Culture in 2021.
With the program now in its second round, Barrera’s is one of 111 grants of $5,000 given to San Antonio artists.
In addition to a 2021 grant from the Luminaria Artist Foundation, the city grant “essentially allowed the filming, and the exploration of digging deep[er] into the persona” than might have been possible without the funding, she said. Most importantly, it enabled her to collaborate with the skilled artists necessary to work in the interdisciplinary way that video requires, including director Alex Ramirez and still photographers Anthony Garcia and Al Rendon.
Additional costs include a single-use prosthetic donkey head mask that costs upward of $250 to make each time Barrera wears it, and a makeup artist to properly costume her for filming.
“I would have never been able to afford to do that,” she said.
She was able to secure enough funding for a live performance Oct. 1 at the Slab Cinema Arthouse in the Blue Star Arts Complex, but once the grant money ran out, Barrera had to turn down further invitations to perform live. She hopes a round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) “ARPA 4 Arts” funding will come through to help finance more performances. City Council will consider recommendations for funding up to 136 individual artist grants of $7,500 each on Sept. 29.
The influx of money for individual artists has been apparent in the vitality of the arts scene in San Antonio, Barrera said.
“The Renaissance is happening now,” she said. “We’re seeing progress, and now we just need to continue it.”
The Oct. 1 video debut of Regeneración will be accompanied by a live performance of Barrera as Magón, Barrera’s daughter in the band Fickle Pickle Trickle Trio, recordings from the Donkey Lady Hotline, and a plática to discuss how Magón and La Burra’s concerns resonate today.
Tickets are available on the Slab Cinema Arthouse website for $10 to $15.