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.
Iván A. Ramos
Disability studies is an interdisciplinary mode of inquiry that flourished beginning in the late 20th century. Disability studies challenges the singularity of dominant models of disability, particularly the medical model that would reduce disability to diagnosis, loss, or lack, and that would insist on cure as the only viable approach to apprehending disability. Disability studies pluralizes ways of thinking about disability, and bodily, mental, or behavioral atypicality in general; it simultaneously questions the ways in which able-bodiedness has been made to appear natural and universal. Disability studies is an analytic that attends to how disability and ability are represented in language and in a wide range of cultural texts, and it is particularly attuned to the ways in which power relations in a culture of normalization have generally subordinated disabled people, particularly in capitalist systems that demand productive and efficient laborers. Disability studies is actively intersectional, drawing on feminist theory, critical race theory, queer theory, and other analytics to consider how gender, race, sexuality, and disability are co-constitutive, always implicated in each other. Crip theory has emerged as a particular mode of doing disability studies that draws on the pride and defiance of crip culture, art, and activism, with crip itself marking both a reclamation of a term designed to wound or demean and as a marker of the fact that bodies and minds do not fit neatly within or beneath a historical able-bodied/disabled binary. “To crip,” as a critical process, entails recognizing how certain bodily and mental experiences have been made pathological, deviant, or perverse and how such experiences have subsequently been marginalized or invisibilized. Queer of color critique, which is arguably at the absolute center of the project of queer theory, shares a great deal with crip theory, as it consistently points outward to the relations of power that constitute and reconstitute the social. Queer of color critique focuses on processes of racialization and gendering that make certain groups perverse or pathological. Although the ways in which this queer of color project overlaps significantly with disability studies and crip theory have not always been acknowledged, vibrant modes of crip of color critique have emerged in the 21st century, making explicit the connections.
Liliana C. González
To think about queerness in Latina/o/x literature necessarily entails a consideration of how queerness is regarded within Latina/o/x cultural expressions. But within popular Latino/a/x queer expressions, it would be difficult not to invoke the image of Mexican singer/ and composer Juan Gabriel and his unabashed gestures and sensuality. Juan Gabriel became a symbol of Latino/a queer subjectivity by “being” and “being seen” as “queer” but never explicitly “coming out” in the US mainstream sense. His unwillingness to conform to masculine gendered expectations within Mexican ranchera music and his reluctance to accept globalized gay modalities in many respects continues to embody the Latina/o racialized sexual experience in the United States. “Queerness” herein refers to a position of being queer in defiance of social norms within a given sociopolitical context rather than articulating a fixed state with a single understanding of what it means to be queer. As an expression with political impetus, queer has the capacity to mobilize resistance against sexual and gender norms, and is as much a political identity as it is a way to read society. The “ness” in “queerness” enables queer’s ability to modify conventional analysis and enhance readings of social relations as difference but, more important, as relations of power. That is, queerness as a relational mode of analysis unfolds the disruption of hierarchical binaries such as man/woman, masculine/feminine, and homosexual/heterosexual. The emergence of Chicana lesbian theory in the 1980s and queer of color critique in literary and cultural studies signaled a significant shift in thinking queer within Latina/o/x culture and thinking race, ethnicity, and class as integral to queer analysis, which had been previously overlooked by queer scholarship. As such, queerness has come to be understood as a critical lens that is capable of reading antagonizing associations not only against what is deemed as the sexual norm but precisely the way in which sexuality interacts with racialized, gendered, and class-based discourses. As a corpus, Latina/o literature reflects a range of topics that grapple with what it means to be a US Latina/o and to hold an ambiguous place in American racial and cultural politics and an often nostalgic yet contentious relationship with Latin America. Queerness, specifically in relation to Latina/o literature, is to imagine and create between and beyond these rigid delineations of gay and lesbian identity but at the same time breaking with assumptions of US Latina/o/x experience as exclusively heteronormative. In this sense, queerness within Latina/o/x literature imparts an unequivocal motion of being, thinking, and feeling against the grain of both Latina/o patriarchal literary traditions and the white US literary canon.
Octavio González and Todd Nordgren
The definitional limits of the term queer have been under conceptual, political, and ethical dispute since its reclamation from its pejorative meaning during the early AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s. Reflecting activist recuperation, queer became a means to inspire and propel a coalitional politics oriented toward nonconformity and anti-normativity among diverse sexualities and across divisions of gender. Concomitantly, queer theory arose in academia as a way to expand upon and break what some scholars saw as the restrictive disciplinary boundaries of gay and lesbian studies, which were explicitly grounded in post–Stonewall identity politics. The term’s radical potential derives in part from its grammatical fluidity, as it operates as noun, adjective, and verb—combining action, identification, and effect into a single word. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, queer of color critique drew upon a different genealogy, beyond the postmodern rupture inaugurated by Michel Foucault’s work on sexuality and “biopower,” by foregrounding black and women of color feminisms, critical race studies, and postcolonial studies in order to analyze the intersections of race, nationality, coloniality, class, sex, and gender with a Foucauldian understanding of sexuality as a privileged mode of modern power– knowledge. Queer of color critique inspired and was mirrored in investigations of the analytic boundaries of the term, often defined as a binary distinction between a minoritizing and universalizing definition of queer.
Born in the lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa (1942–2004) was a prolific writer, scholar, and activist. Her corpus of work includes essays, books, edited volumes, children’s literature, and fiction/autohistorias. Anzaldúa’s life and writing are at the forefront of critical theory as it interacts with feminism, Latinx literature, spirituality, spiritual activism, queer theory, and expansive ideas of queerness and articulations of alternative, non-Western epistemologies and ontologies. The geographical proximity to the US–Mexican border figures prominently throughout in her work, as does her theorization of metaphorical borderlands and liminal spaces. Her oft-cited text Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is included in many university courses’ reading lists for its contributions to discourses of hybridity, linguistics, intersectionality, and women of color feminism, among others. Anzaldúa began work on her more well-known theories prior to the publication of Borderlands/La Frontera and continued to develop these theories in her post-Borderlands/La Frontera writing, both published and unpublished. After her sudden death due to complications of diabetes in 2004, Anzaldúa’s literary estate was housed in the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, Austin in 2005.
Feminist, queer, and transgender theory has developed an array of fruitful concepts for the study of gender. It offers critiques of patriarchy, the gender binary, compulsory heterosexuality, heteronormativity, and homonormativity, inter alia. New Materialist feminists have analyzed gender variance, continuous variation, and continuous transition through concepts such as rhizome, assemblage, making kin, and sym-poiesis (making-with). Feminists of color and postcolonial feminists have theorized intersectionality—that gender always-already intersects with race, class, sexual orientation, and so on—and gender roles outside the white middle-class nuclear family, such as othermothering and fictive kin. Materialist feminists have studied gender as social class, while psychoanalytic gender theorists have explored gender as self-identification and in terms of the relation of gender identification and desire. Queer theory has explored vexed gender identifications and disidentification as well as heterotopias, counterpublic spaces, and queer kinship beyond the private/public divide. Transgender theory has critiqued transmisogyny and theorized transgender and trans* identities. Indigenous feminist and queer theory has theorized Two-Spirit identities and queer indigeneity in the context of a decolonial vision. Theorists of masculinities have analyzed masculinities as historically specific, plural, and intersectional. Gender studies, in all this diversity, has influenced most fields of study—for example, disability studies in its theorization of complex embodiment, its development of crip theory, and so on. Gender studies, in turn, has greatly benefitted from the study of literature. Literature has been indispensable in the genealogy of dominant gender norms such as the 19th-century norms of the angelic/demonic woman and self-made man. In return, gender theory has offered fresh insights into literary genre, for example the Bildungsroman. Since the development of gender theory, it has taken part in an ongoing dialogue and cross-fertilization with literature, evidenced in self-reflexive and critically informed literary texts as well as in gender theory that includes autobiographical and literary (e.g., narrative, figurative, fictional, poetic) elements.
Writer Gil Cuadros (1962–1996) composed an influential collection of short stories and poems, City of God (1994), that recounts the experiences of gay Chicano life in the age of AIDS. Learning he was HIV-positive after the death of his lover due to AIDS, he wrote to grapple with the enormity of his loss. Cuadros developed an aesthetic vocabulary for relating the richly complex experience of a seropositive queer Latinidad. Seeking to represent the unrepresentable, his work ranges from unflinchingly stark and minimalist to amorphously dark and surreal, exposing and exploring the cross-currents of race, violence, love, and sex ever haunted by an awareness of mortality. Concerned with making visible a queer literary chicanidad, Cuadros crafted poems and stories that are grounded in physicality and developed a vocabulary of sensation and sensuality. The stories reveal the body as a source of knowledge. While not the subject of extensive critical work, Cuadros’s writing is drawing more extensive attention. Earlier criticism focuses on the tension that Cuadros’s writing generates as it explores the racial and social ambivalence of queer Latinx desire. These analyses privilege the formation of queer mestizo subjectivity and read the body as a contested text. Following developments in queer theory, more recent critics foreground aesthetic and thematic ambiguity as part of a complicated dynamic between legibility and disciplinary social repression. Cuadros’s darkly ambivalent aesthetics perform what it means to be gay, Chicano, and living with AIDS, foregrounding new relations as aesthetics, politics, form, and content bleed into each other.
David S. Reynolds
The richest period in American literary history, the American Renaissance (1830–1865) produced Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. A distinction is traditionally made between the so-called light or optimistic authors (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) and the dark or gloomy ones (Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville), with Emily Dickinson, occupying a middle ground, shifting between the light and the dark. Optimistic themes included nature’s miraculous beauty, spiritual truths behind the physical world, the primacy of the poetic imagination, and the potential divinity of each individual. Pessimistic ones included haunted minds, perverse or criminal impulses, doubt, and ambiguity. Americans probed these themes with special intensity largely because of the nation’s Puritan heritage. Calvinist preachers from John Cotton through Jonathan Edwards had devoted their lives to probing ultimate questions about death, God, and human nature. When this metaphysical impulse collided with 19th-century skepticism and secularism, the result was literature that ranged from the exhilarating to the disquieting, from Emerson’s affirmations to the ambiguities of Hawthorne and Melville. The American authors were strongly influenced by foreign literature, from the ancients to the Romantics. This transnational influence mingled with the styles and idioms of an emerging popular culture that was distinctively American, divided between conventional, sentimental-domestic writings and sensational or grotesquely humorous ones. Integrating themes and images from this variegated popular culture, the major authors also projected in their works the paradoxes of a nation that promoted both individualism and union, that touted freedom but tolerated chattel slavery, that preached equality but witnessed widening class divisions and the oppression of women, blacks, and Native Americans. These oppressed groups produced a literary corpus of their own that was once neglected but that has assumed a significant place in the American canon.