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Roma is a Beautiful Film of Indigenous Erasure

I wrote a short review/reflection on Alfonso Cuarón’s recent film, Roma, which was published in Indian Country Today. You can click through here, or read below.

Roma is a Beautiful Film of Indigenous Erasure

Roma is a piece of cinematographic artistry that cements Alfonso Cuarón as one of the most accomplished visual storytellers of our time. Roma is sumptuous and tender. And yet, I hate this film. Vehemently.

I am a professor of Latin American studies, so I understand a bit of the history that Cuarón is portraying. I am also Cherokee. And as an Indigenous person, when I saw Roma my first reaction was rage—a feeling like helplessness and deception and longing all at the same time, a feeling that welled up inside and burned.

I hated seeing an Indigenous woman, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), negotiate her circumstances with such grace. Or rather, I hated the circumstances themselves, the colonial history that endures in Cleo, and which she bears with silent dignity.

Maybe I felt rage because what I saw in Cleo the impossibility of Indigenous life. Maybe because I saw in Roma not sensitivity, but the continuation of an imaginary that can only see Indigenous women as the surrogate life force of a still-colonial society that is oblivious to its hubris, and its past, and its ongoing indifference toward the survival of Indigenous women. It may seem contradictory, but Roma is a film that both stars and Indigenous woman and harnesses indigeneity to do the work of white supremacy at the same time.

While Roma dwells on the quotidian—banal moments of silence and of implicit understanding of place, station, duty—those moments are infused with meaning because of the impossibility of Cleo’s life within such constraints. For all its aesthetic mastery, Roma is essentially an upper class mea culpa.

More to the point: Cuarón mines Indigenous life for its allegorical power to connect elite families, at the expense of Indigenous peoples. Roma invokes a Mexico of 1970 that is incapable of imagining that Cleo is anything other than a source of feeling for other people, for people other than herself—because, of course—she has no one but herself. Roma’s affective fabric depends on Cleo’s silent endurance.

The film reprises a line of thinking that was taken up with more nuance in La teta asustada “The Milk of Sorrow” (2009 Dir. Claudia Llosa), which dwells on the transmission of intergenerational trauma during and after Peru’s Armed Internal conflict (1980-2000). Fausta (Magaly Solier) is a Quecha-speaking domestic servant in the home of Aída, a white upper class pianist. But while La teta asustada portrays memory as the engine of indigenous agency, in Roma, memory is circumscribed to the domain of melancholic projection.

In Roma’s pivotal hospital scene, Cleo admits, crying that she did not want her child. How are we to take that line? (Querer in Spanish is both to want and to love). I did not want, but should have wanted. I did not want, but wanted to want. I did not love but had no way of loving this child that could never have been anything more than a burden. This is the role of indigeneity in the film: Cleo’s body is only ever a source of emotional debt, yet another resource from which to extract emotional value.

Perhaps this is where my sense of rage comes from. The rage of seeing myself in her, and in that stillborn child. The rage of seeing her child die while her master’s children live.

The film’s pathos is not aimed at people like me, I have realized, but for those who can transit the colonial imaginary as agents of history, rather than its collateral damage, or its residue.

This is the rage of being an Indian watching Roma. I see myself reflected in a future that can only ever be stillborn in this time, in this place, in this land of conquest. Despite its gesture toward empathy, this is a film that does not celebrate Indigenous presence, but mines our capacity to endure in spite of our constant erasure.

It is not so much that the film is insensitive to Indigenous peoples. Quite the contrary, Roma depends on the pain we embed in our bodies and in our memories, the pain of our colonial past that is both present and future. I hate Roma because it turns Indigenous pain into the condition of possibility of our existence as objects of a history that will never be ours.

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Syllabus on Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee Citizenship, and DNA Testing

I had the great fortune to be able to work with two other Cherokee writer/activist/scholars (Adrienne Keene and Rebecca Nagle) on a syllabus that contextualizes Elizabeth Warren’s recent claims to Cherokee ancestry. The document is up on the Critical Ethnic Studies Journal blog. So check it out there, or, if you want, you can download the file as a .pdf here: Syllabus_ Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee Citizenship, and DNA Testing. I’m particularly proud of the last line of our collectively written introduction: “take a look at this syllabus and then we’ll talk”.

Men Have Futures, Women Have Memories: The Temporal Logics of Sexual Violence

This is not the feeling of failure. Not injustice. Not fear. Not doubt. It is the grinding of justice out of the bodies of women–justice that is based on turning women into bodies, on turning women into matter, into the fleshly abundance of femininity that serves to remind them that men have the power to endow meaning to bodies. This is justice for patriarchal violence. It is the justice of that violence. It depends on a logic of power. It is not the feeling of disconnect, but the orchestration of how violence becomes myth. Man has this power. And until he is no more—and I mean that—women will remain the object of his wrath. This is patriarchy edging toward perfection. Because patriarchy is not a feeling, but a mode of engrossing power, the power to define, to defeat, to enter into the bodies of women and extract from them the willingness to carry on. Patriarchy, here, now, is the ability to see a woman not as human, but flesh.

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On the one hand, we hear the “boys will be boys” defense, which excuses a man’s violent acts because they took place in the past, during a period of youthful indiscretion characteristic of all men. On the other, we hear the “but why did she take so long to report it?” or the “she is being an opportunist” or the “she is just looking for attention” defense, which imagines that an act of sexual violence only bears scrutiny in the present. According to these two logics, sexual violence is only comprehensible through its immediacy—it is of the now. And once that moment has passed, the promising future of men takes over. This is the temporal power of patriarchy: to determine what counts as memory, and how.

Yes, #Metoo is working, and as recent moves to change the way that sexual assault charges are rendered legitimate, much of the Kavanaugh debate has to do with how we judge the past. It is not so much that people are claiming he did not sexually assault Christine Blasey Ford when he was 17 and she was 15 years old. Really, people seem more concerned with whether or not too much time has passed between that alleged sexual assault and now. It’s the timing that matters. The irony: for a man up for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court (a position based on its futurity), it is the reemergence of his past that has come to dominate proceedings.

The timing matters because Kavanaugh, like many, many, men cannot have a past, only a future.

For men, it seems, the disruption of patriarchal time means not knowing when a woman will lurch forward and “ruin your life”. For the man who did that thing that one time when he was drunk in high school, the man who became a respected professional, the man who has talent and a future, why should this ruin his reputation? A man has a future. A woman has a past.

Thus, people resort to the “boys will be boys” defense, a tautology comes to stand in for redoubling the effects of masculine violence on the bodies of women. The phrase prophesies for that boy a sense of himself as unburdened by the questions that women face, unburdened, what is more, by the real consequences of growing up under the threat of patriarchal violence. Its circular logic asks the community to shield the boy from unbecoming what he was always meant to be: a man who objectifies women, who assaults women, who rapes women—because women have no future, no time, no tautological defense to save them from always already being destined to a present of violent remembrance.

Its very simplicity the phrase promises a masculinity unchanged, protected from the pressures of feminism. This is where the tension resides: in promising that boys will continue to enjoy the freedom of unencumbered sexual access to women—boys will be boys—the culture is saying that it is wrong to ask boys to consider themselves as different than they are destined to be as part of the structure of patriarchal dominance.

And then, are we surprised that privileged white men are surprised? Are we surprised that they get defensive, enraged, or cry; that they close ranks around the idea that boys will be boys?

#Metoo is many things, but regarding this it scares men. And it should. It scares them because it breaks the self-perpetuating cycle of masculinity, shrouded in silence (the silence of male witnesses, fellow students, overseers, administrators invested in maintaining the ‘reputation’ of an institution or patriarchy itself). It breaks the self-indulgence of masculine impunity.

In this moment when the past threatens to return seeking vengeance, the boys will be boys defense probably now feels like a trick, a slight of hand. If boys will be boys is no longer the rule, then should the men who were boys who sexually assaulted women be grandfathered in, so to speak? Do they get a pass because the rules have changed?

They were just using women then like boys used women then—boys will be boys—and now that those women are speaking up, what do we tell them? Sorry? You just missed out on the #Metoo deadline. Your abuser was just a boy being a boy?

It’s a question of time. When we say that boys will be boys we are asking the boy’s future to exist in perpetuity, an ever extending future through which all of the boy’s past actions—but particularly the bad ones, the violent ones—become justifiable because they were fleeting moments of boyhood en route to future manhood.

These conversations manage who has power over the duration of the pain of sexual violence. The psychic wound of existing only as a youthful mistake, all the while seeing the boy who was being a boy become a man unburdened by the trauma of a past that must be forgotten in order for that man to maintain power, to remain successful, to continue to achieve. We pay little attention to the time that that man, in his youthful neglect, robs of a woman. The time she will never have back.

Men have promising futures and lifetime appointments, women have regrets, and silence, and a life of remembering that night as if were yesterday or today or tomorrow. This is the logic—the promise—that #metoo is disrupting.

A Language is not a Widget

This short piece just came out in Portal, the magazine of LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections. I am glad to have had the chance to reflect on the past year’s administrative crazy at SBU, and will be writing a postdata to this text to bring it up to date.

https://llilasbensonmagazine.org/2018/08/27/alumni-spotlight-a-language-is-not-a-widget/

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On the Children in Cages

We shouldn’t be surprised. At any of this. We should have seen it coming. Surprise is not the right word. But neither is outrage, really. Are we outraged at the images of caged children? Children placed in detention centers that are not really detention centers. Children separated from mothers whose tears never did matter.

Is it the fact of their separation, or our visceral reaction when confronted with the sounds of impotence or the images of innocent bodies under space age blankets on the floors of cold cells? The images of innocent bodies made innocent no more. The loss of innocence. The feeling of having to recon with the undeniable fact that this too is us. Now. Or is this surprise-cum-outrage better described as embarrassment, shame, or perhaps even fear?

The fear of what we have done. Or is it incredulity?

And yet, we shouldn’t be surprised. We have been doing this for decades. Centuries. Boarding schools took Indigenous children away from their parents. Children, transformed by a nation through institutions meant to protect them. From themselves. From what they might grow up to become. Because children become adults. Adults become dangerous. Have voices. And voices resonate, grow. They generate fear.

Were we incredulous when we read that one article about missing Indigneous women? Were we incredulous when we heard about the suicide rates on reservations? Were we incredulous when we saw how many Black children grow up without parents in order to sate this nation’s need to imprison Black and Brown bodies. This nation. Insatiable for the confinement of bodies in its cells and its camps and its underemployment and its football games.

Boarding schools. Adoption policies. Internment camps. Slavery.

Slavery.

Chattel Slavery.

Selling Black and Brown children to work for white people, to provide income for white people, to provide holes for white to men to stuff with their cotton.

We took children from their mothers and fathers. For. Centuries.

All in the name of a greater purpose. In the name of the law. In the name of God. This, from a nation meant to distribute liberty so generously that all of the world would benefit. Such munificence. Such eugenic clarity.

Its not that we are condemned to repeat the history that we have not learned, but rather that we willfully repeat what we know to be effective in maintaining order in a land imagined to be lawless. Made lawless by its bloody origin so that it could be ordered anew, according to a vision of endless bounty and productivity, a vision made reality on the backs of Black and Brown children separated from their mothers’ wombs, breasts, arms, flailing in horror. Isn’t that history?

While we react with clicks. And likes. And with dystopian futures on televisions that project not fantasy but the fact of human existence for Black and Brown mothers. Mothers who have been living that dystopian future for centuries.

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(Detention center in McAllen, Texas. Photo: Center for Border Protection)

We take children from mothers and fathers. We take them and we put them in cells. Like we took them and we put them in schools—in order to civilize them, save them from their own blood, from their inhumanity, from their fate to disappear to become the history that they were destined to become. And so we saved them from themselves. From their own disappearance. From their long braids and their almond eyes and their superstitions. Like we took them from the Black wombs of their Black mothers whose Black skin was a cosmic affront to the (manifest) destiny of a nation meant to forget itself and the bodies that grind within it.

Babies taken from mothers to be raised by white families. Because opportunity. And war.

Korean children. Mexican children. Indian children. Black children.

Black children in tender blue lights. In tobacco fields.

On the scribbles of ledgers. In the mouths of fish who grow fat.

How can I put it more clearly? The US has been stealing Black and Brown children from the arms of their mothers since its inception. Literally.

This is nothing new.

The problem is not the fact of this history, but what to do with it.

An if/then proposal: If this is not new, then what are we talking about? If it is not new or surprising; neither surprising nor outrageous, but (perhaps) shameful and embarrassing and made real by the inability that we have as a nation to confront the fear that we have of our  foundational contradiction: that life and liberty and happiness is not for all, but the few, the children of white settlers drunk with the purity of their enduring whiteness, then what? What now?

Try again: If this is not new and not surprising but based in fear, the fear of losing power, the fear that white people have had on this land since they thought they found it (lol), since they stole it, and they knew they stole it, since they stole the land and its children, its histories and languages and animals and spirits (they stole the gods of this continent…and we are surprised that they would steal a few more children), then what?

Beyond the historical horizon is a Salvadoran woman a Nicaraguan woman a Mexican woman a Guatemalan woman whose arms stretch out in agony (or is it shame?).

People will say: what are we to do? This is the then part. Then what?

What are we to do about this now? We can’t change this history. The past. As if the past were not also here, now, breathing in us. As if we are not also the past.

Making a distinction between this is outrageous and this is nothing new is politically unproductive. So, some people will say, we need to act in the present, now. We need action items.

LOL. Fine. Of course we need to act now. The children who are in prisons, who are being illegally held against their will, who are being tortured in this way, should be released to their parents immediately. (That was a concrete point, one that answers the what now? question.)

The thing is: this is nothing new makes the now seem illegible as history, as if the legacy of colonialism and the prison industrial complex and racism and neoliberal economic policies and intervening in Central America and Iraq and Chile and Cambodia and Vietnam and Korea (and…and…) were not all materially enmeshed, woven together into the very fabric of American social life as it is today. As if we could not carry the weight of the millions of children taken from parents, the centuries of Black and Brown children taken from their parents, into this present in order to act on it. Now.

It is not that making a distinction between the historical and the political now will lead us to a stalemate, but rather that it is impossible not to bear the marks of history, we, whose bodies are those of the mothers whose children were once lost, once stolen, once sold. We, whose bodies bear that shame and that loss and that joy and that promise, we who know all too well what lessons history provides.

In fact, the only way we will make sense to future generations who will ask us what we did when in our present, which is like so many other presents, we were faced with the possibility of bearing our shame and our fear and holding it, making space it in our lives and our relations and our love. Yes love. They will ask what it felt like to feel that moment. And we will have to be able to say that we held on to the pain of its history for an eternity of todays that seemed to have already passed us by. But which is also today and now. And then. Or else, they too will ask, surprised, how did this happen, again?

 

Políticas del amor: Derechos sexuales y escrituras disidentes en el Cono Sur

I am thrilled to see that this edited book is coming out now. What began as a series of panels at the LASA Congress in Chicago in 2016 has now transformed into an edited collection that brings together activists, artists, and academics around some of the most pressing issues regarding gender and sexual citizenship in Latin America.

Estoy muy emocionado de ver que sale ahora este libro editado. Lo que comenzó como una serie de mesas en el Congreso LASA Chicago del 2016 se ha transformado en una colección editada que junta a activistas, artistas y academicxs alrededor de algunos de los temas más urgentes sobre el papel del género y la ciudadanía sexual en América Latina.

Available/Disponible: https://www.buscalibre.cl/libro-politicas-del-amor-derechos-sexuales-y-escrituras-disidentes-en-el-cono-sur/9789563960020/p/50344847?no-cache=1

 

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Mini Review: Jonny Appleseed (2018, Arsenal Pulp Press) by Joshua Whitehead

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This isn’t so much a novel about bodies, but a novel that embodies. Whitehead places the reader as witness of the carnal embodiment of queer desire as it attaches to tendrils of cigarette smoke, sweat, memory, and fantasy. It is a text that lingers.

The feeling that stuck with me as I finished the book was that of being taken apart. As if pieces of me were left there, on a page that lingered with lingering itself.

When the narrator, Jonny, mused: “Funny how an NDN ‘love you’ sounds more like, ‘I’m in pain with you’,” I cried. I cried remembering what colonialism does to bodies over generations. It is a way of talking about intergenerational trauma that recognizes the constitutive foundation of modern indigeneity as one of pain, loss, and love in spite of. The novel dwells on the pain of loss and loss foretold, of seeking, and eventually finding, but not knowing if what is found was actually what was sought.

This isn’t so much a novel about resistance, but about how much the body can bear. The imagery depends on contrasts of neglect and glimmering promise; scars and celestial reflection, the orgasmic immediacy of a now that can only exist as promise.

Get the text here

Follow Joshua Whitehead here