Victor I. Cazares is a surrealist, nonbinary playwright whose works have brought them acclaim for their candid dives into the absurdities of sex, squalor, and capitalism.
For instance, their Zoom play, Pinching Pennies with Penny Marshall, presented the eponymous character as a financial guru delivering advice to OnlyFans content creators, Instacart executives, and “the cleaning staff of a clandestine TikTok Hype House McMansion.”
A major theme of the hilarious three-episode arc is that queer Mexican immigrant Jesús I. Valles, who plays Marshall, “is not and never will be” her. And yet, by the end of the final arc, I was still convinced that Marshall had returned from the dead in a bad blonde wig.
Cazares is a New York Theatre Workshop Tow Playwright-in-Residence and 2020-2021 Artistic Instigator. But they are also an uninhibited sexual savant who bears their HIV-positive status openly while advocating for immigrant rights.
In their biography, Cazares points out that, similar to many border children, they were born twice; in this instance, “once in El Paso, Texas, and another time in San Lorenzo, Chihuahua.” They recently spoke with TheBody about their upbringing, sex in all of its filthiness, and the need to demolish white mediocrity in art.
Juan Michael Porter II: I kind of hate when people say, “Forgive your parents, they didn’t know what they were doing.” Like, no shit.
Victor I. Cazares: Yeah. They might love you. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t be fucked up.
Porter II: Even if some of their fucked-upness gave you resilience.
Cazares: Right. My mom grew up on a hacienda, and the person who owned it also owned them. That lineage comes from the post–Mexican Revolution period, but her parents inculcated them into believing that nobody’s worth more than you or better than you.
And that little thing has such trickle-down effects to all of the grand- and great grandchildren. Not in the sense of wealth, but just in that sense of, “Yes, I’m going to go do what I want. And I’m going to speak to authority the way that I would to [anybody else].”
Like, [a member of my family] has a visa, but they don’t have the right to work in this country. But when they get stopped by the Border Patrol, they speak with authority. It’s like, “You can do whatever you want with me, but you will not take away my self-respect and …”
Porter II: Your dignity as a human being.
Cazares: My dignity! That’s the word that I always forget.
Porter II: Right. You’re not limited by someone else’s perspective of you. Like, my being a bougie bitch didn’t stop me from being slammed against the wall by a cop who mistook me for a buff dude with dreadlocks who looked nothing like my bald-headed prancing ass. But I still was like, “I beg your pardon!” My dignity and general refusal to let people do whatever they want with me can piss some people off, but I also think it’s saved my life more than a few times.
Cazares: Tangent, but not really. One of the reasons I stopped watching Orange Is the New Black is because I felt like Jenji Kohan had such ownership over her Black and Brown characters. More her Black characters, cuz that’s what she felt entitled to because she played dominoes with Black people in Southern California, so she “felt such ownership” of those characters. Like that was a reason why she didn’t have a Black writer on the show.
Or when her Latinx writer was white-passing, like, I will not name names right now, but I will say that I don’t know why white and white-passing Latinx playwrights feel like they have ownership over stories that aren’t theirs as well, and [are] ready to exploit that.
Porter II: Exploit is the word. Like, I’m Black, but when I write about Black women and medical racism, I do the research, but I center the narrative on Black women who I’ve interviewed and let their words guide the story because I don’t know what it fucking means to be a woman!
I think it’s really dangerous when white-passing Latinx writers speak to a tradition that they don’t understand or know. Having a Spanish last name may check all of the diversity-box hire boxes, but it’s also erasure. Like, hiring a white Brazilian of German descent from São Caetano do Sul, which is a wealthy town, to write about a rural community in Bahia del Norte full of descendants from the Kikongo people.
Cazares: And then those white Brazilians come to this country and call themselves people of color. And then they manage theatres, and anti-racism trainings. And now they see us.
Porter II: I love that you just said that. It’s using the phrase, “I’m a person of color—”
Cazares: And wielding it as power. It’s laundering privilege or laundering oppression. Like, I believe in the freedom of people and that migration is right, but in the Americas they have the same colonial history as the U.S. with white European settlers coming and creating systemic structure that only allows white people to stay in power.
So then, white Latin Americans come to this country and call themselves people of color like us. Even the term “BIPOC.” What is that?
Porter II: It’s a whitewash of color.
Cazares: They’re running away from the fact that they are white. And they are worse than the white people here. Like, because stratification of wealth is much, much higher in their countries. Like, the U.S. is not OK, but in these other places, I would not be possible. I think that’s a lot of my anger.
Porter II: You’re watching people game the system like with Rachel Dolezal or “Hilaria” Baldwin.
Cazares: Like white Latinos I knew in college who did not do any cultural work and then they suddenly add an accent mark in there.
Porter II: And now they are full-blown ethnic. We’ve already seen it on Broadway this past season, with Mathew Lopez and his full embrace of white AIDS plays with The Inheritance. But I don’t want to talk about that snooze fest. I want to talk about you.
When I first saw your headshot in the harness, all I could think about was your lack of fear in the picture, specifically around sex. You’re not beaming in the picture, but there’s something lurid there. And I don’t mean gross. It’s like, you have looked into the thing that you want, and you’re not ashamed of it. As soon as I saw it, I was like, “I want this to be my sex counselor.”
Cazares: So that picture was taken by two photographers who were making their way through Portland four years ago. I can’t remember if I had just gotten fucked or was about to get fucked. I had just done poppers and was anticipating their arrival, so that’s what that moment is, but I can’t remember.
Porter II: Because you’d just gotten your brains fucked out.
Cazares: It was a great fuck, and I have had so many great fucks, but not all of them have left this photo of, not the action, but the liminal space. And now it’s my author photo.
I was DP'd [double penetrated] and, problematically, I was probably high too. It was like a summer of meth use. My meth is not—I don’t think it matters how I seroconverted; I was never interested in how. Like, the narrative for why you shouldn’t do meth is, “Oh my god! You might get infected with HIV.” The Peter Staley ad campaign in early 2004 was like, “HIV is the worst thing that can happen to you.”
And that’s how HIV activists were framing it. But that framing has huge repercussions for people like me. But sex is what did it for me; being a bottom pig that didn’t really use condoms because I don’t like to interrupt the moment, and ...
Porter II: Natural sex feels better!
Cazares: Yeah. It just felt more real. I’m not fetishizing it. I wasn’t “bug chasing.” It felt authentic and that’s how I lived. But once it happens, you’re bombarded by these images and campaigns, like, “HIV is the worst thing that can happen.” But then it’s like, “It’s the worst thing that can happen. It already happened. So let’s keep going without regard because I’m receiving these messages that the worst thing that can happen, has happened.”
Even though materially everything is great, and luckily I responded to medicine. I had a social worker that hunted me down just to make sure I always filled out my application for the Ryan White Act portion—which, again, why do we have to fill out that application every fucking year when they know?
Porter II: You have HIV. You’re always going to need HIV [medications]. That’s not going to change.
Cazares: Ultimately, all of this is linked to this media shame campaign. It is all about shame. “Don’t do this, because then you’ll get HIV, and HIV is the worst thing.” Like, it is still the worst thing.
Porter II: And if you do get HIV, now you are the worst thing. Yeah, none of that is effective messaging, and it certainly doesn’t make any of my HIV-negative friends want to even think about being safe.
Cazares: It does the opposite. You fear HIV, and then you don’t test yourself because you don’t want that answer. And that prolongs the period in which you [are not able to] get treatment or just know.
When I found out, I didn’t blame myself or anyone else. That didn’t feel relevant to me, but I did retreat from my previous social circle. I stopped talking to and I still haven’t talked to a professor who was really important to me because I felt like I let her down.
Porter II: It’s amazing what shame does to us. Whenever I need something from people, I actively avoid them because I don’t want them to feel like the only reason I called them was because I needed something from them. It’s fucked up. But it’s not worse than feeling unworthy because of something that happened to you.
This makes me think about the two years I spent teaching grades K through 5. There were so many things I wanted to teach my kids, but coming at them with shame was never going to work for them, especially because so much of the messaging they were already receiving told them that they were bad and poor because they were Black.
But some of what I had to say could only be said in a brutal and blunt way. Like, “It’s not OK that you act this way in school—and if you do that to a police officer, you will get killed.”
Cazares: It’s a tricky thing to do because you want to give them the tools to not have violence done against them, but you also want to allow them to value who they are and just be free.
Like with language, the rules are always changing, and there shouldn’t be a value judgement to it. But then I look at disclosure campaigns. For me, disclosure is a neoliberal project. It’s a theater in the sense that if I’m talking about bareback sex and I have a test that is negative, that test only measures a certain time period.
Porter II: You could still be HIV positive.
Cazares: Yes. So what are we doing? It perpetuates a power imbalance. So for me, my non-disclosure is my disclosure. Like, there have been these instances where, after having sex with HIV counselors who bred me, right afterwards, they’ve asked, “So what’s your status?”
That’s when his power returned. After he’s used spit to fuck me and I’ve received his cum up my hole. I am the one that has a higher risk of being infected, but he’s the one that’s asking me afterwards. For me, it’s always been with HIV counselors or people who say they’re negative.
Porter II: A little late at that point. I mean, I know one can use PEP [medications to prevent HIV after being exposed], but that doesn’t speak about other STIs. And what’s worse is that HIV counselors are educated. But then, what have they been taught?
Porter II: That makes me think about the abuse of power dynamics that can take place in medical care institutions. And watching certain activists who love to cry about how terrible white supremacy is until it’s convenient for them to use it. For you, a queer nonbinary Mexican man living with HIV, what do you want the conversation about HIV to be?
Cazares: For me, the issue is that HIV is treatable; but the problem is that people don’t have access to treatment. The problem is when people are no longer adherent to their medication because they are exhausted.
Porter II: Pill fatigue.
Cazares: Right. There are many societal reasons why people stop taking their meds. There are all these ways in which this disease is treatable and people don’t have to suffer like huge health consequences from it. But if we find resources and center people who are living with the virus, we can end the epidemic.
But we don’t want to center us; we want to center the negative people. We want to center the people that are not. Because at the end of the day, most people will remain negative. So if we centered on our well-being and removed the idea that HIV is the worst thing that can happen—
Porter II: Because it’s not.
Cazares: No. HIV is not the worst thing that can happen to you. You could be a Republican. You could be Lena Dunham. Like, “I had unprotected sex once, and I became Lena Dunham. It was awful.”
Porter II: Bwhahaha! I love you.
Cazares: But there’s something dangerous to people that keeps them from centering people who are HIV positive and our needs—and our need to feel like our lives are worth living. Our lives are not any less because of this infection.
Victor I. Cazares writes from the perspective that all marginalized lives are worth living; this manifests itself in Cazares’ redistribution of white power to Latinx characters and actors, as well as in their ability to write about Mexican drug wars with truth, horror, and humor. You can follow their off-the-cuff, give zero fucks candor on Twitter.