Rereading Your Course Packet

This was originally published as the opening post for the LLILAS Benson Latin American Collection Alumni blog. Something about rethinking how we got to were we are now, useful as I’m finalizing syllabi for next semester.

We should begin in the Benson Latin American Collection: I am sitting at a carrel, organizing a few thoughts about nationalist discourses in Argentina. I have a paper to write. I think it is going to deal with the relationship between patriotic education programs and discourses of family in the late 19th century. But that seems so boring. I want to make it sexy. So I start thinking about how I can approach education and family from the vantage point of queer theory. Queer Kinship?

Ten years later: in its broadest sense my research explores the mechanisms that shape individual and collective identities, discourses of power, and relations of historical and systemic inequality in Latin America. I imagine this is the case for most people engaged in contemporary Latin American studies. But then again, we all do this in different ways, engaging various frameworks of analyses, taking different objects of study, tracing unique lines of inquiry.

My current book project combines literary and archival analysis to question the role of the nuclear family as a foundational metaphor for Argentine nationalism at the turn of the century (1890-1910). Its central argument is that the family functions simultaneously as a space of consolidation and rupture for the normative ideologies regarding politics, education, gender, sexuality, and race in Argentina at the height of this period of modernization. Rather than imagining the family as a conservative space of identity formation, my research asks what is already queer about the family and how can we make sense of the forms of relatedness that characterize the shifting notions of national and cultural belonging in the context of the Argentine fin de siglo.

Looking back on my first semester’s schedule at LLILAS—yes, I still have all my notes, course packets, and final papers—I was pleasantly surprised to recall that the three courses I took had to do specifically with race and nationalism, 19th century literature and culture, and gender and sexuality studies. These same issues still frame my approach to Latin American studies. While my current work is (hopefully) more nuanced, more grounded in historical materiality, more daring theoretically, one of the things that has struck me about looking back on some of that early work is that all of my broad interests have persisted.

Another important endeavor that has persisted from my time at UT Austin is my work with La Poderosa Media Project. What first began as a collaborative effort to promote youth empowerment through community-based filmmaking workshops in Latin America by a group of like-minded graduate students has grown in size, scope, and complexity. Since 2006, along with fellow UT alumni, Alejandra Zambrano and Jorge García, we have facilitated the production of more than 30 short films and documentaries in the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Panama, Chile, Ecuador, and the US. What began as a project invested in developing technical and cognitive skills in Latin American youth is now also a credit-bearing study abroad program housed at my current institution, Stony Brook University.

To trace the history of these academic and activist endeavors from my time at LLILAS to their current iterations is to revisit the ways in which our interests in social justice, critical pedagogy, and academic production are influenced by the ethos of an institution meant to foster just such dialogues. I want to contextualize these foundational experiences as part of a broader community. The investments we make in others and in ourselves are flecked with inspired moments and enduring connections, relationships that form us as fellow community members. One of the things that I realized, flipping through my old notebooks, was that the work I was doing, indeed the work I continue to pursue, was always relational and collaborative. The work that I have been drawing upon theoretically was informed by the lived experience of building community in and around the Benson. Is there such a thing as a carrel community? A community of the carrels? (There is something queer kinshippy about that). At any rate, what I had imagined as a solitary endeavor (me seated at the carrel) was never actually solitary, but always already infused with the disagreements, agreements to disagree, moments of inspiration, and eye-brow-raising perplexities that made my time at LLILAS transformative. I think this means that LLILAS doesn’t simply make it possible to pursue interdisciplinary approaches to Latin American studies, but that it enables you to engage with others while doing so, and that is no small feat.


Joseph M. Pierce
Assistant Professor

Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature
Stony Brook University

MA Latin American Studies, 2007
PhD Spanish American Literature, 2013

In Search of an Authentic Indian: Notes on the Self

1. I started writing this in the aftermath of the Dolezal affair and have continued to write as the Andrea Smith story has taken off. But it’s not about them. The various ways in which race and passing, cultural appropriation and calculation have been discussed has inspired this text. But it’s more like a personal essay and a confession. I have been at various points in my life White, Latino, and Native American. That is, I have claimed—with varying degrees of certainty, archival support, and agency—three different forms of ethnocultural belonging. (I know what you’re thinking. Just wait.) This is not to say that one day I imagined I was Latino and started calling myself that for the hell of it, or that I proposed to dupe an institution into accepting me as something I knew I was not. Rather, the way in which my racial ambiguity has played out over the course of my life has been highly informed by context, by language, by desire, by the way I imagined (myself) and was imagined (by others). The question of ambiguity is crucial in all of this because it speaks to a longer history of how racialized subjects are interpellated by the textures of ethnic identification. The thing that sticks in my mind from the recent coverage of Dolezal and Smith is the way in which deception lingers unresolved as the sign of racial violence. It signifies intent and malice. But what might oppose this deception, the hypocrisy that imbues these two stories? What might an authentic approach to racial ambiguity look like?

2. My father was adopted. That is the beginning of my racial ambiguity. He was adopted in San Antonio, Texas, by a White family, who took him to East Texas, where he was raised and typically introduced as their ‘adopted son’ in a close-nit, Leave it to Beaver-esque milieu. My father’s skin tone, somewhere between warm brown and caramel (the Spanish trigueño comes to mind), his formerly jet black—and for many years salt and pepper—hair, his high cheek bones, all pointed to a non-White (or at least not entirely White) ethnic origin. And he was adopted in San Antonio, a city with a majority Latino population. So…Latino? My father was probably Latino? But we didn’t have any real documentation to back this up. Nor did his adoptive parents say very much about the process. Perhaps they preferred not to talk or even imagine their son as a racialized subject; perhaps my father preferred the same. (Transracial was not yet a thing.) Perhaps he preferred just to exist, to belong to the cultural and affective community in which he was raised. That is, after all, what he knew, that was where he felt comfortable. The comfort of that silence is important. That silence that means not having to subject yourself to the violence of being something other than White. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism.

3. I am the biological son of this father, whose dark features were never really made explicit, but certainly pointed toward ‘ethnic’, and a mother who comes from a more typical Western European background. My maternal grandfather’s surname points to French ancestry; my maternal grandmother’s maiden name points to English heritage. My mother is clearly identifiable as White. I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, where the population is almost evenly divided between White and Latino—mostly Mexican-American or Chicano/a of various patterns of migration and generational history. Some families have been there for centuries, while others are recent arrivals. So culturally, it bears repeating, I grew up in an ostensibly White middle-class family. My parents have decent jobs. I went to a small liberal arts college with partial scholarships. I was able to study abroad. I eventually went to graduate school and am now a professor. I left college with no student loan debt. My parents were extremely supportive. That is a lot of privilege. I must admit that for this story to make any sense.

4. But what I want to revisit here are the moments when I was misidentified as part of that family. I remember the strangeness. I remember the desire to be the thing that other people thought I was. I remember the desire to embody that which I imagined I was. But I didn’t know. I didn’t have a term for what my body meant. I remember being in the grocery store and the checker asking if I was my mother’s ‘stepson’. Stepson? Why would he say that? “No, this is my son,” she replied. His discomfort. The way his neck flinched. What is the meaning of that gesture of recoil? What sort of expectation was I failing to live up to? Being at the beach as a child and sitting next to my blond-hair blue-eyed brother, and the double takes, the inquisitive, almost condescending, “who is this little guy?” The way my skin turned darker while his burned. Playing soccer growing up: “you’re not bad so you must be ‘Latin’”. (More recently I went to play soccer in Brooklyn with a group of mostly Anglophone Caribbean men who started calling me “Spanish man” rather than actually asking my name.) A boyfriend who once admitted that his first thought when he saw me was that I was “Mayan”. A jealous ex of a different boyfriend who asked mockingly, scornfully, “Well are you Mexican or are you Indian?” and laughed. My least favorite line of questioning, “Where are you from?” “No, where are your parents from?” “No, what is your nationality (read ethnicity)?” “No, what are you?” What are you? What kind of question is that? What story do I tell? My father was adopted, and I know I’m brownish, but my brother has fairer skin than I, and my mom is White, but I take after my father, and we don’t really know… But not knowing is not the same as fabricating. Not the same as consuming or appropriating or re-colonizing. Not the same as deceiving. 294052_10150857668495578_1812226166_n 5. Eventually we decided to go through the process of opening the sealed records for my father’s adoption case. This was, not coincidentally, around the same moment when I was coming to grips with my own sexuality. My ethnic and erotic ambiguities were not far apart. We completed all the paper work, jumped through all the hoops. What did I hope to find out? What were these records going to show that memory and experience could not? What ambiguity would this resolve? They came one day in a large manila envelope, official looking, but not entirely hefty. Indian. The records list the race of my father’s mother as Indian and his father as White. So, what does this mean? What are you?

6. At this point I was already in graduate school in a Master’s program in Latin American studies. I spoke Spanish fluently. I had at times identified as Latino to other people, depending on the time I had to explain my ambiguity, my desire to be forthcoming with them, the context, the crowd. There were times when I knew I was being identified, racialized as such, and I just didn’t care enough to explain what I thought was an important and nuanced ethnic history. Maybe was exhausting. Sometimes you’re at a bar and you’re talking to someone you know you will never see again, and you just don’t have the time or the energy to go into all that. I know. I know. That is privilege, too. It’s a lot of privilege. And it’s a lot of privilege because it is not allowed the other way around.

7. But then we found out that my father’s mother was still alive. That she still lived in Oklahoma. And we called her. A few months later we were sitting in the lobby of a La Quinta Inn in Amarillo, Texas, and she walked in with one of her daughters, my aunt, my father’s half-sister. My grandmother was small, I remember thinking. Soft-spoken. She had a round gray perm. She had beautiful almond eyes. We had a different nose. We talked for about an hour about the weather, what had come of my father, about what she had done in her life. We talked about my academic successes and my brother’s professional advancement. We just talked. It was a first step. Allow me to recap: My father was born in the early 50s. His mother was Cherokee and his father was White, we found this out in the mid 2000s. She had been born on the Cherokee Nation and grew up speaking Cherokee, though she later attended the normal schools where she was forced to speak English. She told us matter-of-factly that she could only remember a few words at this point. We never reconnected with my White grandfather, though we knew that he had died years earlier. I think that says something also. My father was the product of something like a one-night stand when she was still a teenager but already working at a diner in the Oklahoma panhandle. He was in the military, she said. What are you? I thought this information would make it easier to explain myself to other people. I thought that if I could say “I’m Latino” or “I’m Indian” it would make it easier. But it didn’t. It hasn’t. The story is just longer, more “complicated”. We wanted to continue the relationship with my grandmother and to meet the rest of her family, so we made a trip to visit them in Oklahoma. It was a family reunion in the most sincere sense of that term. My parents, my brother, and I all went. And I remember feeling strange, like we were being grafted back on to their family tree. There is a scar there. Family. We talked about this with them. I met a cousin who speaks more Cherokee than the rest of the Oklahoma family. She wanted to learn and so she did. It reminded me of learning Spanish when I was young. We had barbeque and drank iced tea. My grandmother told more stories about her youth. I craved those stories. We still keep in touch with the Oklahoma relatives, in spite of my grandmother’s passing two years ago.

8. But while we were in Oklahoma we also went through the process of becoming citizens of the Cherokee Nation. First with the help of an amateur genealogist cousin (from my father’s adoptive family), and later confirming with my grandmother, who did have tribal citizenship, we were able to trace our descent to the “final rolls of the Five Civilized Tribes,” of 1907. Another archival process. We went to Tahlequah. I remember the garish gold letters on the Cherokee Capitol Building. I remember picking up my “White Card” declaring I have a ¼ blood quantum certified by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I remember the young man at the registration office commenting that that was more than 98% of enrolled Cherokees. I don’t know if that is true. Maybe it was hyperbole. Maybe it was meant to invite me to feel more Indian. IMG_6494 But what does that mean? What “cultural connection” do I have to this tribe? What claim can I ethically make to this past, to this family, to their stories? What right do I have to say that I am Indian, even though, now, legally (legally?) I am? I have not actually lived the experience of systemic racism, though I have certainly been racially abused for not being White enough.

9. But then again, maybe I have. Were it not for the social and economic exclusion that my grandmother experienced, her forced monolingualism, her forced acculturation, were it not for the stigma attached to a mixed-raced child like my father, then maybe I would not exist. It is very likely that I would not exist. Were it not for the accumulated weight of racism and the gross neglect of Indian communities in the US, I highly doubt that I would be here to write these words. The thing is that my body has a history that began long before me. My present—all of our presents—is imbued with the past, even if we do not know that past. The past doesn’t simply dissolve because we don’t know it. But what do we do in the face of this historicity? What do we do when we want to know what we are, but we do not have the ability to say? Many of these histories exist beyond the horizon of the archive. And this is “complicated”. Archiving blood has been—and continues to be—a very “complicated” thing to do. Indeed, blood quantums have served entirely sinister purposes over the course of world history, and they continue to serve to exclude and racialize and stigmatize. Tribal citizenship is not exempt from coloniality. It seems ironic, though, that precisely what I lacked—the archival legitimacy of my racial history, what provoked my own ambiguity, indeed my own ‘passing’—is also what has served to vilify Dolezal and Smith. To be sure, they made choices. They attempted to write themselves back into a history that was never theirs. That is violent. That is hypocritical. That is disingenuous and inauthentic.

10. In the end, I am writing this to attempt to be authentic to my experience of self in the face of this unknowing but also this new knowledge. It seems to me that to deny this legacy, this heritage, however distant and bureaucratic it has been, is to participate in the erasure of the Indian populations of the Americas. It is to continue to silence that history. It is inauthentic. My choice is not to do that. So I do say now that I am Indian. But I say those words with humility. I say those words knowing that they are part of a circuitous path toward Indigeneity. I say those words knowing that I do not speak Cherokee, knowing that I do not know so much about what it means to be Cherokee. But I also say those words knowing that not having access to our oral history is an authentic Indian experience. Knowing that not being able to care for your son, giving him up for adoption, was authentic for both my grandmother and my father. Wanting to be more than an archival Indian is authentic to my own life experience. I try to tell that more complicated story. Perhaps, in the end, this essay is my way of signaling the need to be honest with these complications. Because neither personal history, nor archival evidence, nor desire completely suffice. Because the ambiguity of race is not enough to justify the willful deception that dominates the narratives of Dolezal and Smith. I do not have the ability to belong to the Cherokee Nation in the same way as someone who grew up there. I do, however, have the ability to tell this story. In fact, this story is the most authentic thing I have to honor the trajectory of my own racial history. And it is in this spirit, in this unlikely sense of self, that I continue to imagine a more historically grounded sense of belonging to a community that was never meant to be mine, but which I approach slowly, openly. Authentically.

Recap: Engaging Art, Building Community

What does it mean to build community today? What are the implications of technology for reaching new audiences and creating new links between people? How can art be harnessed for constructing new ways of interacting, engaging, empowering youth? Just some of the questions that inspired the workshop: Engaging Art, Building Community that was held this past Thursday at Stony Brook University’s Humanities Institute.

First, Phillip Baldwin and Margarita Espada described their process of creating immersive spaces through creative technology, hacking infrared sensors, writing cutting edge code, manipulating visual and sound content as part of their recent production of “Life is a Dream” (based on Calderón’s “La vida es sueño”). I was struck by the “kinesthetic grammar” that they described, a way for students to use the body not only as an expressive tool, but also as a means of communicating with and through technology; with and through the audience; with and through the layering of code, space, color, time, contrast. Very cool stuff.


In the second half of the program, La Poderosa Media Project, represented by myself, Executive Director Alejandra Zambrano, and Theater Instructor Gabriela Espinosa, demonstrated one of the learning situations (mini projects) that we use in order to engage students’ capacity for observation, creativity, collaboration, and narration. The exercise focused on creating a narrative soundscape out of 5 individual elements. There was one story of an asthma attack, another of a jilted wife returning home to an unpleasant surprise, a game of hide and seek ended by an unfortunate sneeze. Iteration, pacing, volume, silence, combining to create an intelligible story through sound.


What is art for? What is an audience in the 21st century? How can art build community? Some of what we discussed had to to with accepting and incorporating the now–technology and virtuality. And yet, interestingly, we also noted that the human connections that are central to ‘humanism’ are and remain embodied, corporeal, tactile. I think, in the end, there was a really generative contrast, a sort of productive tension, between how interpersonal connections can be made through technology and how the spaces and encounters that define–and in many cases produce–difference are felt most viscerally as embodied sensation. Hopefully we can continue to dialogue about pedagogies of community, pedagogies of technology, pedagogies of the body, not only in their application but also in the epistemological implications for humanism, decoloniality, and the future of activist practice.

Engaging Art, Building Community at Stony Brook University

pedagogy workshop building community 2015

Organized by Margarita Espada (Theater) and myself, and supported by the Humanities Institute and the Department of Hispanic Languages & Literature, the event is open to all (undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, and the public) and will involve a hands on demonstration of new methods of community engagement, technology, and arts education. ​It will be especially useful for those of you interested in innovative ways of teaching and engaging students, international exchange, and applications of technology in the classroom.

It will also serve as a point of departure for the new Faculty Led Study Abroad Program in Ecuador, in collaboration with La Poderosa Media Project, which I will be leading. More to come.

New Article: “He ahí un hombre”: Composite Masculinity in Retratos y Recuerdos by Lucio V. Mansilla

I was recently invited to participate in a special thematic edition of Prisma Social, “Narraciones de masculinidad(es)”. That edition, Number 13, including my article, “He ahí un hombre”: Composite Masculinity in Retratos y Recuerdos by Lucio V. Mansilla,” was just published. So, here is the abstract and a link to the full content.


Studies of Lucio V. Mansilla typically focus on his appropriation of otherness in Una excursión a los indios ranqueles (J. Ramos), his literary ‘pose’ as causeur (S. Molloy), or else his cultural function at the center of Argentina’s Generation of 1880 (D. Viñas). These approaches hinge on the fragmentary nature of Mansilla’s self-construction. In contrast, this article focuses on the composite portrait of Argentine masculinity Mansilla constructs in Retratos y Recuerdos, published in 1894. Mansilla’s text aims to portray the physical and psychological characteristics, as well as the moral and political ideologies, of the Argentine men who shaped the modern nation. In doing so, the author suggests an elite masculinity that is constructed by an elaborate network of fraternal relations, homosocial bonds, which are charged with an inexplicable erotic tension.


Drinking with Volleyball Players in Chelsea as an Indian/Indian Not-Yet


A bar full of tall athletic dudes. It was Friday night. I was with a friend who had invited me to tag along for a gay volleyball league social.

Our two became three, then five, a group. And then time for a move, another friend’s apartment in Chelsea, but first a slice or two to continue the night.

“I always thought you were Spanish,” one of them said, puzzled, uninhibited.
“Well I’ll tell you the story if you want.”

And I spoke. First about my father, who was adopted, and not knowing his biological family, and then me, growing up in South Texas thinking I was ‘Hispanic’, and finding out later—opening the sealed adoption records—that my father was actually born to an Indian mother and a White father. That I was American Indian, I was telling him. At least in part, and that’s what he wanted to know, I thought.

“That doesn’t exist.”
My lips pursed. My freckles burned.

“There’s no such thing, it’s all just Asian.”

That sinking feeling.


Not allowed to speak. Watch as I lose my body. Oh, please let me tell you who I am.

It was to exhort the other to speak as other while reserving the right to withdraw the discursive space of otherness, to be at the threshold where subject and object meet only to find that that space was never really there, an illusion.

It was to demand my enunciation as self, to fan my desire to call myself self only to find that that desire impels inexorably, sinisterly, toward the unraveling of me.

It was the power of Whiteness.

Let me rehearse it again: I position myself for the benefit of another—what is really to other myself for his benefit—and oh, what power do I cede. What self-determination do I vacate. I attempt to narrate myself, or at least how I see myself, or at least how I want others to see me, oh, and how I expose my self to its own negation. What oblivion.

I think that’s what happened at least. That I was foreclosed the identity I was demanded to produce. It was more than a racist attack. It was the negation of my ability to speak as myself. It was abjection, which is worse.

A not yet interpellation. Speak your-self. Not yet.

A not yet eternal. A not yet of Becomings promised, required. But promised and required only to be rejected. A demand to translate my mestizaje into legible categories, only to be de-tongued, un-spun, anti-selved.

To be a subject-in-process dangled the carrot of fixity, its impossible desire (I should have known better) only to be sent back to in-between and not-yet land.

Tell me your story. Tell me about your skin. Tell me about your hair.

Speak up, little Indian not-yet.