Emerging in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a queer Chicano performance artist, playwright, and writer, Luis Alfaro quickly established himself as an influential contributor to wider cultural debates about the intersections between gender, sexual, ethno-racial, class, religious, and national affiliations in the United States. In his early career Alfaro was a key player in the solo performance movement, in which performance artists used their own bodies and lives as self performance: that is, as primary physical and lived matter for interrogating their identities within a broader political questioning of US multicultural discourses. That questioning coincided with the prominence of Chicana feminist, queer, and AIDS activisms in California, all of which framed Alfaro’s early performances. Much of Alfaro’s work from the 1990s thus survives as historically significant chronicles of Chicana/o queer lives on the US West Coast. Alfaro consolidated his reputation in that decade with such classic solo performances as Downtown and Cuerpo Politizado, in which his body functioned as the prop onto and over which he articulated his queer memory work in relation to the Chicana/o neighborhoods of Central and East Los Angeles in which he grew up. Those neighborhoods anchor Alfaro’s career-long engagements with the US national imaginary as a Chicano queer cultural producer committed to community engagement and service and to telling the stories of Los Angeles’ heterogeneous Chicana/o communities. Since the 1990s Alfaro has refined his creative and critical praxis in solo performance work and plays that raise broader questions about national identity and belonging in the United States. Many of these plays have written back to and adapted works from Western theatrical and literary traditions—for example, Greek tragedies, Aesop, Spanish Golden Age theater, and Strindberg. The process of adaptation allows Alfaro to celebrate Chicanas/os and Latinas/os, and non-Latina/o immigrant communities, as cultural and ethno-racial epicenters of US national identity in the 21st century. Alfaro’s post-2000 interventions into Western theatrical and literary traditions recast those traditions so that they register meaningfully, in audience terms, for Chicana/o and other communities of color grappling inevitably with historical discourses that demean immigrant and minority populations.
Rita E. Urquijo-Ruiz
Chicana lesbian literary critics and authors Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Catrióna Rueda Esquibel established that Chicana and Latina lesbian and queer writings trace back to the conquest of the Americas, be it through the Chicana lesbian feminists’ rewriting of La Malinche (Malintzin Tenepal) or by the reimagining of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Juana Inés Ramírez de Asbaje) as a lesbian. Nevertheless, contemporary Latina lesbian literature in the United States has concentrated primarily on the writings by and about Latina queer women since the early 1980s. These queer Latina letters highlight the impact that women like Sor Juana and Malinche had on the reconfigurations of Latina queer and ethnic identities. To ascertain their empowerment, these Latina writers and artists drew from their personal histories and creativity as activists and survivors in patriarchal and heteronormative societies while maintaining their ethnic, cultural, sexual, and political connections across states, countries, and continents as third world feminists of color. In particular, much of the field of Chicana and Latina feminisms, which emphasize the intersections of race/ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality, begins in 1981 with the publication of the foundational text This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. Similarly, in 1987, with the publication of Compañeras: Latina Lesbians, Juanita Ramos initiated the transnational connections between lesbians of Latin American descent living in the United States. Carla Trujillo, influenced by Compañeras and Bridge, published Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About in 1991, offering the first collection of writings and visual art by Chicana queers. Ever pushing the boundaries, the anthologies by Lourdes Torres and Inmaculada Pertusa’s Tortilleras: Hispanic and U.S. Latina Lesbian Expression (2003) and the forthcoming Jota (2020), edited by T. Jackie Cuevas, Anel Flores, Candance López, and Rita E. Urquijo-Ruiz, express assertive titles as both offer unapologetic reclamations of controversial labels for queer Latina/Latinx identities through literary criticism, creative writings, and art. These four anthologies present much of the work by authors and performance artists who have published or will publish their individual monographs, novels, texts, graphic novels, short story collections, and plays. In 2015, the journal Sinister Wisdom dedicated an entire issue to “Out Latina Lesbians” that convened over fifty writers and visual artists in the United States. Given their liminality within their respective milieus (primarily, but not exclusively) as women, gender non-conforming individuals, queers, often from working class backgrounds, and with an ethnic or cultural connection to indigeneity, Chicana and Latina lesbians and queers established their own literary and artistic canons. Their rebellious acts have challenged Eurocentric and heteronormative spaces, as individuals and collectives often assume multiple roles as teachers, writers, artists, literary critics, editors, and, in some instances, owners of their own presses.
Iván A. Ramos
The late José Esteban Muñoz’s body of work provides readers and scholars of Latina/o literary scholarship a vast scope that centers the work of performance as the tactic minoritarian subjects engage against a racist and homophobic public sphere. Throughout his writings, Muñoz sought to reveal a trajectory for minoritarian subjects from the realization of difference through disidentification through the search for what he called a “brown commons.” His oeuvre bridges the divides between Latina/o and queer studies, and offers an expansive methodological approach for both fields.
Cara Anne Kinnally
While cultural critics and historians have demonstrated that print culture was an essential tool in the development of national, regional, and local communal identities in Latin América, the role of oral culture, as a topic of inquiry and a source itself, has been more fraught. Printed and hand-written texts often leave behind tangible archival evidence of their existence, but it can be more difficult to trace the role of oral culture in the development of such identities. Historically, Western society has deeply undervalued oral cultures, especially those practiced or created by non-Westerners and non-elites. Even before the arrival of the first printing presses to the Americas, starting with the very first encounters between Spaniards and indigenous peoples in the Americas in the late-15th and early-16th centuries, European conquerors understood and portrayed European alphabetic written script as a more legitimate, and therefore more valuable, form of history and knowledge-making than oral forms. Those cultures without alphabetic writing were deemed barbaric, according to this logic. Despite its undervaluation, oral culture was one of the principal ways in which vast numbers of Latinas/os were exposed to, engaged with, and exchanged ideas about politics, religion, social change, and local and regional community identity during the colonial period. In particular, oral culture often offers the perspective of underrepresented voices, such as those of peasants, indigenous communities, afro-Latinas/os, women, and the urban poor, in Latina/o historical, literary, and cultural studies. During the colonial period especially, many of these communities often did not produce their own European script writing or find their perspectives and experiences illuminated in the writings of the letrados, or lettered elites, and their voices thus remain largely excluded from the print archive. Studies of oral culture offer a corrective to this omission, since it was through oral cultural practices that many of these communities engaged with, contested, and redefined the public discourses of their day.
Oral culture in the colonial period comprised a broad range of rich cultural and artistic practices, including music, various types of poetry and balladry, oral history, legend, performance, religious rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and much more. These practices served as a way to remember and share ideas, values, and experiences both intraculturally and interculturally, as well as across generations. Oral culture also changes how the impact of print culture is understood, since written texts were often disseminated to the masses through oral practices. In the missions of California and the present-day US Southwest, for example, religious plays served as one of the major vehicles for the forced education and indoctrination of indigenous communities during the colonial period. To understand such a play, it is important to consider not just the printed text but also the performance of the play, as well as the ways in which the audience understands and engages with the play and its religious teachings. The study of oral culture in the Latina/o context, therefore, includes an examination of how literate, illiterate, and semi-literate Latinas/os have engaged with, resisted, or repurposed various written forms, such as poetry, letters, theater, testimonios, juridical documents, broadsides, political treatises, religious texts, and the sermon, through oral cultural practices and with various objectives in mind. Oral culture, in all of its many forms, has thus served as an important means for the circulation of knowledge and the expression of diverse world views for Latinas/os throughout the colonial period and into the 21st century.