Category Archives: Notes

Notes on: Jugo del cuerpo

Jugo del cuerpo (October 25, 2015)

At Harbor gallery until December 5th.

It was the soft fluorescence that first caught my attention as I approached the back room. Was it going to be more sensual? More seedy than I had imagined?

But the collective exhibition Jugo del cuerpo had more to do with home than brothel. More to do with the situatedness of the body than with bodily excess.

It felt like being in someone else’s house. Being in someone’s kitchen, smelling their cooking, and not knowing why you’re there, or if you were invited, or what they are about to serve. What does it mean to taste someone else’s food?

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(photo cred: Leah Dixon via Facebook)

Before I read the program notes, and more on those in a sec, I thought, what does this hearth, this techno-illuminated hot plate, serve? A symbol not only of domesticity, quotidian in its formal register, but also performative in its gesture toward meals yet to serve, mouths yet to feed.

Quotidian but not only in the sense of the home. The lighting, in red and white, reaching back into Nicaragua’s Sandinista past, to the search for a socialist future in which no mouths would go unfed, in which no homes would lack, in which no hearths would remain unlit.

There was as much in this show about absence as there was about the possibility of a future. A stack of plastic chairs in the corner, arms severed: truncated, uncomfortable. Missing parts of a domestic scene in which the remaining element, what, to me at least, seemed like a bowl of refried black beans, turned out to be a mixture of volcanic ash and oil. From the very bowels of the earth extracted a viscous reminder of what land really means, of what the minerality of the earth really says about the grimy texture of our own quotidian relationships.

It’s strange to admit, but I thought this exhibition had a lot to do with the precariousness of family life. And this may be because I think about family a lot. But the mis-en-scène of the iterative hot plates, the dismembered plastic chairs, the inedible, indigestible substance that seemed to be all that was left to eat. Impossible relations. Impossible futures. Impossible because they are missing, or they never were, or they never were meant to be. Or because colonialism. Or because US intervention. Or because racism and the war on drugs or the Good Neighbor policy, or banana republics, or proletarian dreams of a future cut short by the inexorable weight of geopolitics.

A video installation accompanied, flashing images of the collective at work, flashes of landscapes, of homes, of the interactions that led to this vibrating if impossible moment.

In the end, I thought this was a show that resonated more with the sense of nostalgia that comes with years of unfulfilled promises, of chairs left vacant. Or maybe it had more to do with the premise of the collective: jugo del cuerpo. A play on words, a mistranslation, a circumlocution meant to signify sweat, sudor. The materiality of the body taken as a measure of what language cannot express, or fails to express adequately. What stories were to accompany this dinner? What connections were made possible through the cross cultural interaction? And what does the impossibility of expressing adequately the functions of the body do for imagining a way towards feeling rather than saying, essentializing, rather than comprehending?

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In Search of an Authentic Indian: Notes on the Self

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?

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.

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.

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 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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

*I have continued to think about these issues since publishing this blog post in 2015. For that more recent work, see Joseph M. Pierce, “Adopted: Trace, Blood, and Native Authenticity.” Critical Ethnic Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall 2017), pp. 57-76.

SPJ

This is not an obituary. Not a remembrance. Hopefully it is a reflection on the people we trust with our thoughts, on the ways in which we open ourselves to others, on the people who help us become what we want to be. On love. On friendship. It is not a reflection on being an academic. I want it to be much broader than that.

Stephen Paul Jacobs was my friend, my editor, my interlocutor, my cuate. We met in 2005, the year I started graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin. The year of Katrina. My cuate, Steve, passed away on the morning of January 5, 2014. I was on a bus traveling from Houston to New Orleans to visit him, perhaps for the last time. But he had already died by the time I got there.

The last time I saw him in person was this past June. I was moving from Texas to New York, from where we met to where he was born. It was also a trip from the beginning of my time as a graduate student to my first semester as an Assistant Professor. It was a trip I could not have shared with anyone else.

He had seen everything. I am tempted to write this in the second person. I still feel like you are here, Steve, cuate, I still feel like you should be calling me. The rhythm of my life has not yet adjusted to the fact that you and I will no longer talk on the phone. That you will not read my conference papers anymore; that we will no longer listen to Puccini; that you will no longer ask me if I did a bicycle kick in a soccer game. When did I ever?

You shared every moment, every joy, every hoop I had to jump through. You were there for me, whatever that means. You are the only person who read every page of every draft of my dissertation. Doesn’t that sound strange? Doesn’t that sound selfish? My dissertation director didn’t read as much as you read. I am sure of it. You were my sounding board, the person I felt I could ask anything, no matter how silly or un-self-aware, no matter how banal, no matter how trite, no matter how juvenile. I asked you all the things I felt scared to ask other people. And what did you ask me?

You asked me “Wass hapnin?” You would say, “Hey Peps, its Steve. Give me a call when you get a chance. Bye bye.” In fact, that was the last voice mail you ever left me. Six seconds. Your voice mails were always exactly six seconds long. I knew what they said, always. I didn’t even have to listen to them.

But I don’t want to talk about voicemails, even though voicemails are important. Echoes of a voice, that bass voice that I will never hear again, that voice that fades. I want to talk about needing you, about needing what you were to me. On how sad and how weak that makes me feel, but also on how grateful and how much responsibility I feel to share you with others. I mean, to share what you were to me with others.

I think that means that we need people. I think that means, truly, that we just need people. People who listen, people who laugh at us, people who make us realize how fragile we are, how self righteous, how serious we feel like we have to be. Steve, you were that for me. I would do well to remember it, as you know. But you were the person who helped me realize that I am a person, as strange as that sounds. That I am a person, not a statistic or a robot or a job candidate, but a fucking person.

That humanity, that profound sense of humility and grace is what you will always be to me. I forget it sometimes, I admit. But you were always, you will always be the one I needed to get through all of this. To get to where I am (one step of many I was hoping to share with you). A journey. A friend. A feeling.

But not sympathy. A feeling like I always knew that we needed each other; like there was always something to share, something to see, something to taste, something to do together. A feeling like love and admiration and vulnerability and childishness all at once. A feeling like mattering to someone even if you could never say exactly what that meant.

Some Things I learned in Graduate School, or How to Feel Better about the Last 7 Years

I learned that you don’t know what you don’t know.
I learned that prepositions are hard to translate.
I learned that I would fail many times, many times.
I learned that I was getting old(er).
I learned that the professor who had declined to write me a letter of recommendation to graduate school because he didn’t think it was a good idea, was proud of me regardless.
I learned that you have to be an entrepreneur, that if you don’t see in front of you the thing you want to do, then you have to create it, make it, fake it. This is hard for humanities people to understand because its reeks of business school, but what else are you going to do when there are 40% less jobs being offered than 5 years ago? It is to do what you want to do, what you must do, because you have to.
I learned that I had friends who had had nervous breakdowns, friends who got cancer, friends who died, who got divorced, who got married and had kids—not necessarily in that order.
I learned that I could not go more than two weeks without playing soccer.
I learned that even though I had fallen in love, I didn’t have to settle for creamy peanut butter.
I learned that there is a lot that I don’t know. I may have learned that grad school is much more likely to reveal what you don’t know than to allow you to know more things. I may have also learned that empathy is a utopia and that we can never really know what other people feel, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.
I learned that queer theory is not as sexy as people think it is.
I learned that I could be a morning person.
I learned that you have to have a support group of friends, family and colleagues, some of whom you ask to read your writing, to talk to you about your work, and to ruthlessly critique you, some of whom you drink and dance with, some of whom you talk about trashy TV shows with.
I learned that gossip is essential to graduate school.
I learned that writing a dissertation chapter could take a year or it could take a week. The latter is inadvisable.
I learned that everything we do is personal because we invest so much time and we struggle so mightily to come up with new ideas, to show people that we can think for ourselves. So when people say that rejection is not personal, they are lying.
I learned that you have to spend more time in the library than you think.
I learned that a PhD is the most expensive luxury item most of us will ever buy.
I learned that I have to learn to listen better, and that I’m not there yet.
I learned that I could be a cat person.
I learned the meaning of many words that, if used in real life, make you seem like a complete asshole.
I learned that no matter what my professor’s opinion was, I should do what I wanted and justify it later.
I learned that there is nothing about graduate school that you have to accept at face value.
I learned that you have to pay attention to what you feel and that you shouldn’t lie to yourself because there is too much time to think in graduate school.
I learned that writing a dissertation changes who you are; it forces you to change who you are, and you may lose yourself and become different to many people, to people you care about, you may sacrifice friendships for your dissertation, you will certainly have to confront many of your fears and many of your worst qualities before you finish. It is not a pretty process, and once you are done, you have to pick up the pieces and figure out who you are going to be.
I learned that there are many, many people who are awful human beings, and it is not my job to change them.
I learned that there is no accounting for taste, and that Susan Sontag and Oscar Wilde would not have been friends, or maybe they would have.
I learned that we can go days without seeing the sun, but that is also inadvisable.
I learned not everyone is like me.
I learned that there are people who think that the humanities have no role in modern society, but I don’t care about those people.
I learned that linguists are people too.
I learned how to sell myself, to make elevator pitches and to memorize different versions of the same answers, to become a product in the academic marketplace, and then, I realized that sometimes getting a job is just pure luck.
I learned that my undergraduate students had no idea what it meant to be in graduate school, and they had no idea who I was, what I was trying to do, and many of them didn’t really care, though some of them did, and it’s a shame it happens because we’re not all that different.
I learned that I have to read better. That was what a very important person said to me once, that our job as scholars was to read better.
I learned to disagree with that. The most important thing we can do as scholars is to feel better, to help our bodies sense better, to teach our souls and our histories to sing better, to let our tongues speak better and our hearts love better, to let ourselves be loved better, to cry better and to sit alone and still better, to daydream better, to scribble poems better, to obsess and to succeed better, to feel better; to feel better.