Latin American Studies Association Annual Meeting, 2013
Round Table: Queer Generations: A Critical Dialogue (presented 5/31/2013)
The Future is Familiar: Queer Latinidad, Queer Familia
Understanding how normative practices and desires become sedimented, ingrained in a particular society has been one of the most pressing issues taken up by queer theorists over the past twenty years in both North and South America. To de-naturalize sexuality and gender by describing them as a historical progression or by showing their performativity is one of the principal gestures of queer theory meant to rest hegemony from ‘the normal’ in favor of nonnormative and intersectional queer identities, desires and practices.
Jorge Salessi’s 1995 book medicos maleantes y maricas is a pioneering work in this field, showing how Foucaldian historicism could be applied to a Latin American context. Using a heterogeneous archive including police records, hygienic essays, legal documents and autobiographical writing, he demonstrates how the modern Argentine nation was constituted through the disciplinary effects of legal and medical discourses that determined who was considered normal, healthy and desirable, on the one hand, and who was degenerate, pathological, and therefore undesirable, on the other. In short, his work shows how the normative criollo model of sexuality and gender performance was defined in contrast with the taxonomy of deviants at the turn of the century: invertidos, homosexuales, maricones, uranistas, among others, who for their aberrant sexualities were seen as harmful to the future of the modern Argentine nation.
Today I want to see if we can push Salessi’s work in a new direction by framing the question of the normative not in terms of gender and sexual performance, but in terms of the responsibilities, connections, and feelings that are indexed by the family. Since the colonial period and especially over the course of the nineteenth century, family has served as both a subject of fictional representation and an organizing principle of society in Latin America; regions and entire countries have been dominated by extended family networks, las oligarquías latinoamericanas. The fear of decadence in both economic and social terms of these families is what Salessi registers in his text, showing the discursive construction of a broad range of ‘others’ to be blamed for Argentina’s uneasy relationship with Liberal international development at the turn of the century. But rather than thinking about the ways in which these elites provide models for national citizenship against which we can glimpse queer practices and identities, I want to ask if the normative families themselves could also be considered queer.
The example I would like to share is the diary of Delfina Bunge. The sister of Carlos Octavio Bunge and the wife of Manuel Gálvez, Delfina was a consolidated participant in the social and intellectual scene of the Argentine oligarchy at the turn of the century. Her diary is probably the longest-kept piece of autobiographical writing in Latin America, begun when she was 15 in 1897 and amassing nearly 10,000 manuscript pages by the time she died in 1952. I was able to briefly consult the original manuscript in Buenos Aires in 2010, though an annotated selection was made by Delfina’s granddaughter, historian Lucía Gálvez, and published by Planeta in 2000.
The following is an excerpt from one entry dated June 4, 1904 that shows the problematic relationship between the idealized notion of family that was held by many members of the Argentine elite, and the reality of their individual aspirations.
4/6/1904. ¡Pobre Octavio! [She is referring to her brother, Carlos Octavio] ¿Quién iba a decir que iba a ser él quien más se preocupase por mí, y el que con más delicadeza supiese insinuarse en mi pensamiento? Puedo casi decir que es el que mejor me comprende. […] A veces me pinta lo que puede ser la vida de “una mujer sensata, inteligente y distinguida” sin necesidad de que se case. Y me la pinta… con atractivos colores. Me dice cómo, en tales condiciones, se pueden tener nobles goces, y hacer mucho bien. Una vez que salimos a caminar, en San Isidro, a la hora del crepúsculo, y me llevó hasta la famosa chacra de nuestra infancia, me hacía los ofrecimientos más delicados. De vivir con él por supuesto. Sin romanticismo; con cuentas y con todo. “Serás independiente, tendrás tu cuarto, tu piano…”
¡Me ofrecía, como último y más eficaz recurso, un lindo piano de cola! Lo que él no quiere es que…me vaya. Y como único medio de impedírmelo quiere demostrarme el papel de una mujer soltera como natural y bueno: “Una mujer inteligente puede quedarse soltera,” me repite. (144)
Delfina was 23 in 1904, and seemed rather fed up with what she saw as the ostentation and falsity of the upper class in Buenos Aires. The fact that her sister Julia was a renowned socialite may have had something to do with that. Delfina had written previously in her diary that she might be interested in becoming a nun, though her real passion was playing the piano.
There are three characteristics that I would like to underscore regarding this diary entry. The first is Delfina’s surprise that it was Carlos Octavio, rather than one of her other siblings—she had seven in total—, who recognized her dissatisfaction, who had the finesse to “insinuarse en mi pensamiento,” as she describes it. This understanding between family members is described in terms of intuition, the ability one has to sense what another is feeling. Communication between siblings is intimate, almost corporal. But not only does Carlos Octavio sense Delfina’s dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, he proposes an alternative to her living arrangements, which brings me to the second important point.
Carlos Octavio invites Delfina to form a queer home with him. I mean by this that he proposes to break with the normative model that conceives of the home as the exclusive locus of family sociability and biological reproduction, indeed, the place within which the family is constituted as such. Instead, he proposes to turn his bachelor pad into a space of sibling collaboration and freedom, a place where his sister could write and practice the piano and where they might stimulate and encourage each other in their artistic endeavors. That is, he proposes a sibling-led home rather than a patrilineal one.
We could even think of this arrangement as an attempt to subvert the patria potestad, the father’s legal prerogative over his daughter until marriage, which remained part of Argentina’s civic code until 1926. The explicit mention of Delfina’s future independence, “serás independiente,” serves to highlight both the legal and cultural ramifications of being “una mujer soltera” in Argentina at the turn of the century. Carlos Octavio intends to entice his sister by offering her precisely what she lacks: freedom from the watchful eyes of her parents, but also the ability to use her own skills and talents for her own satisfaction. That is, he wants to allow her the freedom to feel better about her own desires. It is in this sense that not just any “soltera” can succeed. She has to be “inteligente,” she has to be able to fend for herself, “sin romanticismo; con cuentas y con todo”. It is not a free ride, but an opportunity for her to develop and enjoy herself while doing so. It should be noted that this accommodation is made possible by virtue of their class, one needs plenty of disposable income to be able to afford to live alone, but it is precisely this type of class privilege that I am interest in pointing out. Even members of the oligarchy wanted to find new ways of living and feeling.
Finally, there is a moment when Delfina admits her own skepticism about this plan, when her brother has to argue for “el papel de una mujer soltera como natural y bueno”. Here we are reminded of the cultural insistence on the link between womanhood and reproduction, with Delfina needing to be reassured that to be a spinster can also be “natural” and “good”. Not only does Carlos Octavio invite her to leave the legal jurisdiction of her parents home to join him, he directly contradicts much of his own public writing on the natural place of the woman in society as the Angel of the home.
In contrast, theirs is a queer home in which Carlos Octavio proposes to form a partnership with his sister Delfina. Her artistic predilections, her taste, complimented his own, she was a potential interlocutor, someone who could offer him more than just amenable conversation, but stimulation and comfort. In contrast with the criminology texts and literary works that have most often been used to understand gender and sexuality at the turn of the century, Delfina’s diary allows us to think of the upper class criollo family unit itself as having the potential to generate a queer habitus, a mode of relating and feeling toward others that does not involve biological reproduction. The sibling-led home has the potential to foster a radical equality, a sense of mutuality that patriarchal sexuality and gender performance reject. This queer home shows the potential for new types of love, care, and dependency that are not often registered by contemporary cultural criticism. That is, the diary shows what type of love can still be family love, what type of feelings count as familiar and what were the ways in which one could deviate from script. These are not sexual practices or identities, but attitudes and relations between individuals.
Unfortunately, Delfina would reject the offer—she doesn’t give an explanation—and continued to live with her parents until she married Manuel Gálvez in 1910. We are left, then, with the image of Carlos Octavio attempting to persuade his sister on a picturesque walk through San Isidro, the image of the family as contradictory space within which the desires of the individual may conflict with the demands of the class; a space of sameness in difference; of freedom and of mutual dependency; of a never completed project of complimentary kinship. The image of a queer home uninhabited.
By citing Delfina’s diary I do not mean that we have to find yet more ‘rare’ archives from which to mine queer resonances, but that one of the ways to move forward with queer studies in the Latin American context is to rethink the nexus where gender, sexuality and race converge; it is to rethink the affective and hereditary bonds of kinship that constitute the normative family. This case shows us one of the ways to complicate queer theory’s relationship with the normative by returning to the scene of the home in order to question the desires that shape the sense of self and other.
Gálvez, Lucía. Delfina Bunge: Diarios íntimos de una época brillante. Buenos Aires: Planeta, 2000.
Salessi, Jorge. Médicos maleantes y maricas: Higiene, criminologya y homosexualidad en la construcción de la nación Argentina. (Buenos Aires: 1871-1914). Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo, 1995.