The Queer Politics of Spanglish - Indymedia Documentation Project

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The Queer Politics of Spanglish
by Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes
“Queer,” a somewhat untranslatable term with no exact equivalent in Spanish, is used
in Anglo-America and its linguistic contact zones as a resignified marker of sexual
difference: that which is askew or off-center, as in the case of lesbian and gay; a position
beyond identity politics and more closely associated to the postmodern decentering of the
subject. Like saying “lo raro,” in other words, “extraño, singular, muy diferente de lo
corriente, de lo que se espera o de lo que es razonable y justo,” following María Moliner,
referring not to the term that concerns us but to one that helps us approximate its
meaning. But who decides what is “very different from what is reasonable and just,” as
the Spanish linguist and lexicographer would have it?
Nations, constituencies, and groups define themselves and consolidate their identities
through the imposition of norms, limits, and parameters. The control of language, just as
that of many other socio-cultural traits such as clothing, food, music, and dance, can (and
often does) serve toward these purposes. The formation of linguistic communities does
not necessarily imply homogenizing, exclusivist stances; multilingualism is accepted in
many locations around the globe. Yet monolingualism, closely associated to some
imperialist projects and to modern processes of nation formation, is exacerbated in
contemporary ultranationalist movements, ruled and defined as they are by racist and
xenophobic ideologies. Present debates in the US regarding “English Only” are an
example of nativist positions that seek to literally and symbolically silence immigrants as
well as indigenous populations, including both Native Americans or Indians and
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Hispanics / Latinos who trace their roots to pre-1848 Mexican territories or to later
conquests, such as that of Puerto Rico in 1898.
What does “queerness” (understood as a sign of sexual difference) have in common
with non-monolingual linguistic practices such as bilingualism and code-switching? One
answer would be the way both relate to notions of purity and impurity: of that which is
civilized or nominally acceptable, as opposed to that which is considered to be taboo,
savage, or degraded. There is nothing intrinsically pure or impure about sexuality or
language, except how they are constituted and defined in different socio-cultural and
historic moments. Yet the two, as well as another key pairing—language and gender—
are often inextricably intertwined.
Mestizo Languages
Nowhere is the link of Latino/a multilingualism and queerness more clearly
articulated than in Gloria Anzaldúa’s fundamental text, Borderlands/La Frontera: The
New Mestiza (1987), more specifically in the chapter “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.”
Here we see how the body’s organ becomes by synecdoche a symbol of a rebellious, nonconforming state, something that brings Anzaldúa close to another transgressor,
Malintzín, also known as La Malinche, the indigenous translator and lover of Hernán
Cortés who was also referred to as “lengua” (tongue) and criticized for her linguistic and
sexual identity. Anzaldúa’s revolt occurs in the context of a dominant view of Spanglish
(the code-switching between Spanish and English) as an “impure language,” opposed to
pureza de la lengua, only a stone’s throw away from pureza de sangre o de raza [purity
of blood or of race]—ideologies intrinsically opposed to the fundamental reality of Latin
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American mestizaje. Politics in both English and Spanish-language communities, which
attempt to promote “la defensa de la lengua” [the defense of language], deny the
heterogeneity and mixture that characterize the New World. Anzaldúa’s affirmation of
her lesbianism, feminism, and multi-voiced and multilingual identity challenges
traditional concepts of submissive, quiet womanhood, of subservient victims and
obedient spouses. Anzaldúa lists the languages of her own and of Chicano/a experience:
standard English, working class and slang English, standard Spanish, standard Mexican
Spanish, North Mexican Spanish dialect, Chicano/a Spanish (with its regional variations),
Tex-Mex, and Pachuco or caló (55). Half and half—mitá y mitá—in the sexual and
linguistic sense.
Yet queerness is not an exclusive province of any one sexual orientation, be it straight
or gay. “Me siento muy. . . excited!” says Selena (as portrayed by the Puerto Rican
actress Jennifer López) in the 1997 film of that name, drowning by the sheer strength of
her charisma the xenophobic anti-multilingual instincts of her possible detractors. Selena
draws on her own self-crafted politics of affect, by which linguistic “insufficiencies” are
masked, transposed, or embroiled in complex negotiations of charm, physical touch, and
rapport. Selena’s body and emotion become her tongue, la lengua, much as her singing
in English and Spanish served to reaffirm ties of common ancestry and culture across the
Mexican-US border. The queer circumstances of her death (murdered by a woman
accused of being a lesbian) and her beatification by scores of admiring fans add to the
complexity of her legacy.
Puerto Rican Linguistic Queerness
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When the conceptual/linguistic divide of sex/gender/nation and language is not a
geographic expanse but rather an immensity interrupted by the Atlantic Ocean, as in the
case between Puerto Rico and the United States, the expressions of queerness and
language are bound to be different. “But how does one invent a language? Jerigonza
would do!” exclaims the lesbian Puerto Rican poet Luz María Umpierre in “The
Mar/Garita Poem” (1987), to later affirm in code: “yo tú nos/ necesi/tamos lenguas; si las
lenguas/ no se unen/ no habrá/ la unión salvadora/ del mundo y de la guerra” [I/you/we
need tongues; if the tongues do not unite/ we will not have/ the redeeming union/ of the
world and of war] (34). This final poem of the Margarita series attempts to bring
resolution to a lesbian process of love and loss as well as to a situation of estrangement
and transformation: the cultural threat posed by appropriating gestures camouflaged as
friendly exchange, commented on in “Only the Hand that Stirs Knows What Is in the
Pot”: “No handing out my set of ingredients,/ they sauté in my head,/ inside a Corning
food dish” (25).
Umpierre’s highly successful integration of bilingualism and code-switching contrasts
greatly with the experience of another first-generation gay Puerto Rican migrant, Manuel
Ramos Otero, who never truly integrated the English language into his work, at least not
in a successful manner. While the lack of linguistic diversity of early stories such as
“Hollywood Memorabilia” (1971) is addressed in later narratives such as “El cuento de la
Mujer del Mar” (1979), which actually engages in trilingual Spanish/ Italian/ English
exchange (that of the Woman from the Sea or la Donna del Mare), or through the figure
of Sam Fat, the Afro-Chinese/ Puerto Rican/ Loisaida detective in “Página en blanco y
staccato” (1987), it is always with a certain daintiness and detachment that betray a true
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lack of comfort. But this is not something that the gay writer ever hid, as is evidenced in
his interview with Marithelma Costa, in which he candidly discloses his unease with the
English language.
Frances Negrón Muntaner’s film Brincando el charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican
(1994) presents, from its very title, a different position regarding bilingualism. This film,
part documentary and part fiction, presents a history of Puerto Rican migration to the US
with a particular focus on gay and lesbian experience; the documentary segments are
framed in the context of a semi-autobiographical story of a character called Claudia
Marín, an exiled lesbian Puerto Rican photographer living in Philadelphia. The film
freely switches back and forth between languages and disparate themes such as race,
history, discrimination, and the dynamics of personal relationships between island and
mainland-born lesbians. In fact, by focusing on the relationship between Claudia and her
Nuyorican girlfriend Ana Hernández, the film enacts a scene of queer national romance
in which the encounter between the island and its diasporic population is enacted through
language and sex. This occurs quite noticeably by criticizing intolerance, as in the case
of Claudia’s condemnation of her girlfriend’s cousins in Puerto Rico, who laughed at Ana
(and stunted her Spanish learning) for incorrectly translating “grocery store” as
“grosería” (which means coarseness or rudeness); but grosería is precisely what the
threat of lesbianism (and of migration) is constantly portrayed as in Puerto Rico: familiar,
as the ubiquitous bodega on every barrio street corner in the US diasporic atlas; shocking;
and queer.
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Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes is an Assistant Professor of Latino/a Studies and Spanish
at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he teaches courses on the queer
Caribbean and on theater and performance. He was born and raised in San Juan,
Puerto Rico. His book of short stories Blue Fingernails/Uñas pintadas de azul is
forthcoming from Bilingual Press (Arizona). He can be reached at [email protected]
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