Here is My Face: Native Erasure in Argentina

In 1903 Argentine intellectual Carlos Octavio Bunge published an audacious book, Nuestra América: Ensayo de Psicología social, in which he attempted to account for the dysfunction of Argentine politics at the turn of the century by tracing the continent’s history of racial mixing. His proto-eugenic text migrates from the Iberian Peninsula to the Americas, from 700AD to 1900, attributing determinist views of race and culture to Native peoples, Africans, and Europeans, and all the mixes in between.

About the indigenous population, Bunge writes, “El indio puro que vive oculto en sus bosques, tiende hoy a desaparecer, avergonzado, corrido, ofuscado, aniquilado por la civilización,” as he describes the two fundamental characteristics of the psychology of the indio as fatalism and vengeance.

Bunge, as with most of his positivist colleagues at the turn of the century, was overtly and wholeheartedly racist. The project of racial whitening, of ‘progress’, was never as strong or so pervasive as it was in Bunge’s day. From explicit policies of Indian extermination, known as La conquista del desierto, to the attempts to ‘repopulate’ the land stolen during that ‘conquest’ with ‘desirable’ immigrants (read Northern Europeans), the history of Argentina is based fundamentally, centrally, on land dispossession and native erasure.

So it was no surprise when this week, on the television program Intratables, the host, Santiago del Moro, was himself surprised to learn that a woman he had invited to comment on the situation of drug trafficking in her neighborhood, was not, as he assumed an immigrant from a “país limítrofe”.

It is no surprise that White immigration to Argentina has lost the ability to see the Native faces that, it remains assumed, were “annihilated by civilization”.

It is no surprise because civilization and indigeneity are antithetical in Argentina, as elsewhere.

It is no surprise because the legacies of genocide and cultural assimilation, in Argentina as elsewhere, are consistently reenacted with such phrases as “you, what country are you from?”

And yet, there is her face. For all to see. Filling a room shocked to silence by the realization of the weight of that question.

Del Moro did not forget that Argentina was once indigenous. His very being, his existence, requires that history be erased, subsumed under the national narrative of racial whitening. “Forgetting” the Indian is the condition of possibility for the Argentine nation.

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The interaction from to left to right:

Del Moro (l): Are you an immigrant? Where are you from?

Woman: Me? I am from Salta

Del Moro: ah, no…pffff…I thought you were from another country.

Woman: Thank God I am Argentine. –Why?

Woman: Because you forget that Argentines are also Coyas. Did you forget what Argentines looked like?  We are Coyas and this is the face we have.

On the sounds and the furies (of gayness)

An article posted on the gaily grind the other day asked a rather standard question: “Should the LGBT community stop using phrases like ‘Gurl’, ‘She’ and ‘Sister’ in an attempt to combat stereotypes and homophobia?”

The assumption is that sounds matter. That vernacular, tone, lisp, pitch, etc., all function to mark a gay as subject—and as subject to (subjected by) stereotypes and the discriminatory attitudes that manifest as homophobia. That to rid the gays of these stereotypes and combat homophobia, we should be careful of what and how we speak. This is nothing new, of course, and has been the subject of much scholarship, from William Leap’s path breaking Word’s out: Gay men’s English, for example, to more popular interrogations, such as David Thorpe’s 2014 documentary Do I Sound Gay? (self-loathing and disastrously problematic).

The gaily grind article depends on, traffics in, the abs of blogger, Instagram celebrity, fitness guru, and ‘motivational’ quote quipper, Barret Pall. The post links through to Pall’s website, to a short piece that he wrote, a manifesto, in which he answers this question with a resounding yes (just one ‘s’. Definitely not yassssssss). The gaily grind site is an echo of Pall’s original, in which he opens with the following statement:

“Gurl, She, Sister, etc are all things that I totally get as playful and fun, but I feel as if they’re detracting away from our community being taken seriously, and furthermore makes outsiders think these are appropriate things to say to us.”

Just what community is Pall referring to? And secondly, who is outside of it?

What I think he means, actually, is that the gays have a code, a form of speaking (lexicon, inflection, references, etc.) that when spoken to outsiders (i.e. nongays) it can be misinterpreted, misheard, mistaken, and that that incongruence then authorizes those outsiders (the nongays) to appropriate the code and speak it back to the gays—an effort that they will inevitably fail at, and which will end up hurting the actual gays. The gays will be hurt, the logic goes, because the nongays will be taking our playful and fun words and misusing them. Employing them contretemps.

Where have we heard this before?

Pall’s post takes sounds as if they were entirely disembodied, as if the lisp, tone, pitch, were all markers of gayness that can be divorced from the actual person who is making those sounds. Sounds have bodies. Bodies make those sounds. And that means that when you are listening to someone’s gayness, you are also looking at their gayness, or their straightness, but, and this is really the point here, their physical body is also a raced, gendered, classed, regionalized, body. Those voices and those bodies are marked by race and regional history, by class inflection (middle class New Yorkers are losing their accent!), and by nationality (Where is your accent from?).

Pall may not have noticed, but he is white. And he’s repeating ad nauseam the very same critique that queer people of color have been making against people just like him for ages. All together now: cultural appropriation.

So, even for him, if words like kiki and ratchet are “fun” as he calls them, he is actually admitting to his entertainment by way of channeling his inner black woman (you’ve heard this before, right?) and the thing is…nobody wants their words taken and used against them…but you can’t be so hypocritical, or unaware, as to realize that you are doing just that.

Pall must have received some push back. I’m sure. And he notes in an addendum to his original post:

“If you read any of my other written pieces, watch my youtube videos, or know me in real life, you know that I am a fan of diversity, being yourself and living your truth.”

[That was my eyes rolling]

Two final notes:

  1. I am amazed at the way this language has infiltrated what seems like an attempt at contrition: to be a ‘fan’ of diversity? A FAN! Yes, you may think diversity is fun, entertaining, you may support it, you may actually think that what you are doing with your writing, youtubing, and real life, is working toward diversity, but you are woefully tone deaf to the reality of your own language. To be a fan of diversity is to capitulate to its cooptation.
  1. “Living your truth” seems more like burying your head in the sand, pretending not to notice your privilege, your racism, your homophobia, homonormativity, transphobia, etc. Living your truth. A tautology of epic neoliberal proportions. Carte blanche to willful ignorance and the denial of one’s own position in the world.

Coda: Language is pliable. It has histories. It is neither static nor fixed to any particular group. We can learn other people’s languages—we should learn other people’s languages! Learn more languages! But this does not mean that we should be so naïve, or so blatantly ignorant, as to imagine that languages exist without bodies or histories or politics.

 

On the Impossible Response

It was dark in the club. A cold night in Washington D.C. I had just given a presentation at an academic conference and was out with friends. And Beyoncé’s Formation had just roused the crowd into a collective gasping and celebration. I was walking down a winding staircase, glistening indigo fluorescence. And then, from above, that sound.

The sound of playing Indian as a child. The sound of bare-chested, war-painted braves riding into battle. That unmistakable mark of Hollywood sonority, of Tonto, of ecstatic, wagon-circling savages: the war whoop.

By the time I looked up into that darkness whoever it was had passed from view. But I did not need to see him. It was the pulsing rejection of my body, my hair, my presence. That sound.

And its not like it’s an ambiguous sound. It requires some effort. The hand to the mouth, the open mouth, the mouth that breathes that pitch just slightly above normal, a moment of tonality marked by the pulsating rhythm of colonial dread. That is the sound of death. Or, rather, of fear. It is the sound of imminent war. It may be the last sound you hear. At least in the movies.

What I have been trying to grasp, in the aftermath, as happens frequently in the wake of a micro (or actual) racist aggression, is what should I have done? What should I have said back to that man?

And the more I think of it, I wonder if there is anything, actually, that I could have said—uttered, intoned—that would have made me any more than what I was to that man in that moment: a body to parody, to mock, to shame, to strip of its ability to respond. It is an impossible response. When the interpolation as other is not the Althusserian, “Hey, you!” but instead a surreptitious, echoing epithet. It requires no turn, no response to the hail, and when you do turn, the source is gone, his power to elicit your response already evanescing as an insidious echo. Come back, master, I might have thought, I might have wanted, so that I can explain myself to you. But that was not the scene. Not demanding explanation but calcifying, freezing me in that nothingness.

Not Faggot, but Redskin. And the irony of this occurring in D.C. is not lost on me.

What I did do was haphazardly attempt to describe this event to a few other people, friends that I had gone out with. One of them said that people don’t do that anymore (make that sound), but apparently they do, they did. I left.

The next day I was supposed to go back to the conference, but instead I went to the Museum of the American Indian. I had been there before, two years ago, and remember not particularly liking it. I thought it lacked a political edge, that it was not as confrontational as I would have wanted about the American genocide and continued marginalization of Native people, about settler-colonialism.

And as I trudging up the spiral staircase to the third floor, I wandered into an exhibition by Kay Walkingstick, a Cherokee artist who only later in life (like me) came to grips with her Indigeneity. And I found myself sobbing in front of this image.

 
Her work was so timely, so intense, but also so much what I was wanting to feel. I think I wanted to cry, actually, I needed to. And the layering, the textures, the repetitive diptychs that her work presented kept me thinking about what type of response, between the abstract—feeling of my impossible reaction—and the representational—sign of my desire for reaction.

“Where are the generations? Where are the Children?” She asks.

And I could not take it. I could not take the feeling of history. That question that asks what Native life is actually possible? Where are those ancestors whose voice I will never hear?

Or what voice would they have used when I could not? What voice would they have had that might speak through me? And then I thought that it was not that theirs was absent, but simply that I have to be willing to hear it. That the voice of that past is only accessible if we are willing to listen for it. To hear instead of that war whoop the sounds of the forced removal, the sounds of memory, of the tears that they also shed, the sound of turning and looking but not being able to respond. The sound of Tsalagi. The sound of the sacred fire.

But I don’t hear this type of racist epithet very often. My lighter skin, my clothing, my education, my manner, tend to shield me from such slurs, and that is the privilege of passing. Until it isn’t.

The thing that I realized about the Museum, what I rethought this time, was its refusal of victimization. It is one thing to present two sides of history, as they did throughout, but it is another thing entirely not to name the things, the history, the bodies, the sounds, of the affect and the broken bodies, genealogies, of forced removal. One of last things I saw was a video installation entitled, “The ‘Indian Problem’,” which concludes with the following reflection by Suzan Shown Harjo: “we don’t make the case that there was genocide. We know there was, yet here we are.” Indeed. Yet here we are.

 

Selfie Notes / Notas sobre una selfie

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Is it me? Or is it the deafening voice of another self? Or is it the war cry of some other tribe? I see my reflection in the center of a conch and a spiral. The conch is a spiral. Its nature, its form, emanates from a center that expands, that grows, that spins on its axis. My forehead. A little dramatic, no?

It is a print in black and white. There is a man to the right who is me, or at least that is what the friend who gave me this work told me. I felt other in that moment, when I was twenty. Who was that other self, that one who separates from the frame? It is a selfie of a present self who recalls a past one…but then I think, aren’t I still the same. Am I the same self? I hide my body because the body of that other self is already there, my body, my other body. It is a selfie that has a center, but that center is a self that imagines his other self, he who waits in profile to the right of the frame. I hide that other self. Or is it that that other self, that one left out, is the same one who is looking at me, who sees himself in the reflection of a selfie?

 

¿Soy yo? ¿O es la voz de otro yo que ensordece? ¿O será que no quiero escuchar mi propia voz? ¿O será el llamado a guerra de alguna tribu? Veo mi reflejo en el centro de una concha y una espiral. La concha es una espiral. Su naturaleza, su forma emana de un centro que expande, que crece, que da vueltas sobre su eje. Mi frente. Un poco dramatico, ¿no?
Es un grabado en blanco y negro. Hay un hombre a la derecha que soy yo, o por lo menos eso me dijo el amigo que me regaló esta obra. Me sentí otro en ese momento, cuando tenía unos veinte años. ¿Quién era ese otro yo, el que se separa del cuadro? Es una selfie de un yo presente que recuerda un yo pretérito…pero luego pienso, sigo siendo el mismo. ¿Soy el mismo yo? Escondo mi cuerpo porque está el cuerpo del otro yo, mi cuerpo, mi otro cuerpo. Es una selfie que tiene un centro, pero ese centro es un yo que piensa en su otro yo, el que espera, en perfil, a la derecha del cuadro. Escondo ese otro yo. ¿O será que ese otro yo, el que quedó fuera, es el mismo que me mira, quien se mira en el reflejo de una selfie?

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?

Introducción a La sangre de la aurora (2013) de Claudia Salazar Jiménez

Yesterday we had the great pleasure of welcoming novelist and scholar Claudia Salazar Jiménez to Stony Brook University. She discussed her novel, La sangre de la aurora, and fielded some really great questions from undergrad and graduate students. Here is my introductory text/review of the novel.

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La sangre de la aurora

En una de las fiestas de Ana María Balducci, esas fiestas de no más de 12, Melanie, la fotoperiodista, interpelada sobre su trabajo reciente, responde lo siguiente, “Yo hago mi trabajo, investigo, capturo imágenes, trato de revelar lo que no se ha visto” (18).

No es uno de los momentos más impactantes de La sangre de la aurora. No representa uno de los varios momentos poéticos que sacude al lector. Que vibra con la intensidad desorientadora de las “bombas” que caen a mitad de una frase, que cortan el pensamiento, o los tajos corporales, los huesos rotos, futuros truncados. Sin embargo, me interesa presentar esta novela a partir de este gesto de Mel, “de revelar lo que no se ha visto” porque es en ese ejercicio político que, a mi modo de ver, se centran las cuestiones éticas de esta obra.

¿Qué es, al final de cuentas, lo que no se ha visto en un contexto de guerra? ¿Cuáles son los momentos indocumentados, las sonrisas perdidas, los cuerpos desaparecidos, los afectos que desvanecen en la espera constante de uno que no volverá? Otro vodka. Otra canción. Otro momento antes de partir. Otro roce de piernas. Otro muerte, otra bala, otro reportaje.

Lo que no se ha visto es también lo que no se puede ver, lo que no se puede expresar. Y creo que esta novela tiene mucho que ver precisamente con lo inefable, o, en otro registro, con lo imposible que es imaginarse al otro lado, más allá de tu propio horizonte, más allá de tu cuerpo, donde no llega la vista, donde no llega tu imaginación, donde no alcanza la empatía, allá lejos donde residen los subversivos, o los terrucos, o los campesinos, o cuando no se puede distinguir entre uno y otro.

Si bien algunos críticos de esta novela han citado una relación con la Antígona de Sófocles, con la ética de lo comunal en un momento impreciso de escenificación subjetiva, me parece, también hay una fuerte crítica de la posibilidad de una ética individual. Y aquí estoy pensando en Zizek—quien a su vez está pensando en Levinas—cuando el otro, el enemigo, en su imponderabilidad, su inconmensurabilidad con nuestro episteme, se vuelve tan ajeno, tan otro, que ningún encuentro con él es posible (Violence 55).

Para mí, esta novela registra la imposibilidad de los encuentros, de las imágenes, del amor, del otro, del yo. Una novela que te hace vibrar el cuerpo con estas imposibilidades. Si el otro es mi enemigo y lo tengo que destruir, ¿qué pasa si no sé distinguir entre aliado y enemigo? ¿Entre yo y otro? Es una novela del deseo imposible por ese roce, cuando esa brecha que se abre entre yo y tú se queda siempre abierta. Lo no visto. Lo que es imposible ver, sentir, tocar.

Claudia Salazar Jiménez estudió literatura en la Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, en Lima. Se recibió de NYU con un doctorado en Literatura Latinoamericana. Ha editado Escribir en Nueva York. Antología de narradores hispanoamericanos, y con Melissa Ghezzi, Voces para Lilith. Literatura contemporánea de temática lésbica en Sudamérica (2011). Sus relatos más cortos han sido publicados en varias revistas y antologías. La sangre de la aurora es su primera novela. Ganó el premio Las Américas de narrativa latinoamericana en el 2014. Pronto será traducida al inglés como Blood of the Dawn, y publicada por la editorial Deep Vellum. Una gran amiga y colega. Los dejo con Claudia.

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.

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Joseph M. Pierce
Assistant Professor

Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature
Stony Brook University

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