I saw him struggling, balancing all those sombreros they had put on him. Losing his balance until the lights faded, I felt myself about to fall with him: as if we, the audience, had been dancing and stumbling with him all along. There we were, remains. Piled high on the floor.
About a month back I attended the “Latin@ 4X4″ performance night held in Highways LA. Primera Generación, an up and coming dance company of first generation Graduate students at UC Riverside, brought us Latinxs home. From re-staging, and critiquing, racist 5 De Mayo commercials to extracting pan dulce and US flags out of McDonald’s happy meal boxes, “Ni Fu, Ni Fa” presented audience with the materials and movements that both limit and compel–“neither one nor the other,” as their colloquial title suggests–our movement as Latinxs.
As their biography boasts, they took us to el desmadre–the disasters–of being Latinx, of being queer, of never quite landing on the right side, step, foot of the border.
Stocked high, the sombreros that landed atop dancer Irvin Gonzalez’ head, I would later learn, were not intended to fall onto the ground. They were to remain on his head: for him to balance successfully. This seeming “mistake” or “failure” in the performance, however, felt appropriate and productive.
As the dancers pictured above illustrate, the sombrero had many uses. Intentional and not; gestured and not. They at once reminded us of all the “hats” we carry and wear to survive in the spaces we do, while also reminding us that we constantly betray the hats people often expect us to wear, particularly as queer Latinxs. A hat covering the ass revealed both a “covering” of the posterior while also very much displaying the, here male, “posterior” as a site of pleasure. A Folklorico tableux of kissing behind the sombrero produced exchanges of intimacy between each body, as they traded poses, same sexed and not.
I am often turned away by performances that deem a work as successfully “queer” for its placing same sexed bodies together. This often happens in specifically “gay white” performances. “Ni Fu, Ni Fa,” however, gave us that which is “queer” beyond such frameworks. For us queer people of color, who balance our dancing bodies in spaces that are very much dominated by the heteronormative structures our cultures are shaped by, moving with and against these scripts does not necessarily always limit us. Instead, it gives us alternative ways of maintaining queer relationships with the partners with whom we dance in those spaces. This performance, in other words, holds up sexuality, and the Latinx experience, as that which permeates our friendships, families, alliances, and loves.
Pictured above, Alfonso Cervera, the man in the striped shirt holds a sombrero over Rosa Rodriguez-Frazier’s suggestively placed head while Patricia Huerta closes in on his chest, turning away; and the man covering and revealing his ass to the audience, Irvin Gonzalez, creates a site of possibility, where both anal, perhaps gay, pleasure is enjoyed while he experiences the potentiality of Rosa Rodriguez-Frazier’s hand extended in front of him. Our jotería, in other words, manifests itself in many ways not limited to the homonormativity often prescribed by the “white gay male.”
These discursive exchanges, enacted by the sombrero, are telling of our constant renegotiating as queer Latinxs. The sombrero becomes the material sign of when and where we put the “Latinx” and “Queer” hats on. Moreover, the sombrero is also telling of our audiences: when and where others (including our own communities) put the hat on us or already see us in one, until we cannot move. That is at least until we stumble, spilling it all, the disaster we continue to pick up.
And so we pick up the sombreros when they fall. We pick them up like blankets under which we can open up, be vulnerable, and dance with each other. We maintain what we can of our pasos when our audiences read us, like those sombreros, as targets. Targets that also spill across the dance floor. Even then, we lie scattered, because we cannot be bordered; because our movements, even then, are not exhausted. And we dance.
Despite the overdetermined narratives by which the Orlando shooting continues to be narrated, I consider this performance “in the wake” of these current events. I tread the words “in the wake” carefully reminding us that as we eventalize violence–see its endpoint and destination–we also reproduce it, ignoring its continuity. Primera Generación, to my eye, offers us insurgent tools for thinking about the (re)produced narratives that continue to surround the shooting.
For someone who lies at the shoreline of a narrative–in the interstitial space of being a Queer Latinx–one could not help but feel and bear the narratological violence regarding Orlando. Some of my gay identified friends who were in the east coast the morning the shooting was reported experienced headlines that completely left out Pulse Nightclub as a gay space. The morning after the shooting, when news articles began to pay attention to the space as “gay,” headlines left out that it was a “LatinX night.” The bodies were brown and black and gay. Given current US immigration politics, one could only watch the news feeling as if those bodies had been left to die on the other side of the border. Already dead. Already not from here.
My Latinx family also claimed the only narrative that was pertinent to that which they could identify: the bodies were most importantly Latino. Their being gay was left out as they relayed the story to one another. “Que desmadre. Fue Latino night.” Perhaps it was the possibility of my being a target that silenced them; one cannot help but feel, however, as a queer Latino, when one’s community omits one narrative and deems the other of more import. I do not narrate my experience of mi familia to cast the US news as exceptional compared to my family. I do so, rather, to show what “hats” get dropped and picked up in the stories we tell.
The US media, as viewers immediately experienced, cared about the club being “gay” only insofar as it helped affirm an attack beyond the apparent homophobia the act of violence already reflected. If homophobia were a concern, and if an attack really had to be launched, it was on itself. Media focus on act of “terror,” however, quickly drove toward its islamophobic agenda and quickly drove away from the queer of color bodies that experienced violence that night. Omar Mateen’s name, his background as an Afghan man, became more important. Mateen, however, was US born, conditioned by the homophobic and racist nation that produced him: the US. Guised under an act of “care” and “prayer,” our queer bodies became ammunition. LGBT bodies only surged forth as vessels from which the US could launch its attack on Islam. Some of the most homophobic and racist people sent “prayers” via social media to Orlando only because Mateen provided them the possibility to hate Muslims and disavow their identification with a homophobic racist man. Mateen is a reminder of the ideological standpoint of our nation, from which many of these prayers came from the following day.
Jasbir Puar argues, “As the U.S. nation-state produces narratives of exception through the war on terror, it must temporarily suspend its heteronormative imagined community to consolidate national sentiment and consensus through the recognition and incorporation of some, though not all or most, homosexual subjects” (4). In pointing to Islam, the US could absorb the easier narrative. The mirror Mateen reflected could be removed, the borders that made him turned outside, disposed like the bodies on the dance floor. While Mateen was a man of color, and while this has time and again been brought into conversation to deny the act as racist, Mateen was also a US citizen living in a nation that continues to pathologize the black and brown Latinx bodies that walk in the everyday, the same nation that would later interpellate his body into the only islamophobic narrative they could produce. These black and brown bodies were already seen as disposable for being queer and for being gay. I, and many of my friends, knew we were targets long before the Orlando shooting.
Mateen, who has been rumored as possibly gay, knew this too. He was homophobic, even if he was gay. Systemic racism and homophobia produce self-inflicted hate too; one can be the target one identifies.
Pulse, which Mateen was said to have frequented, became the queer target. It was a place of renegotiating and redrawing our borders, queer and Latino. Queer clubs are often the only spaces in which we are able to find these redrawing capacities. Pulse was a place beyond the masculine contours that shape our interactions elsewhere. The bodies that were killed were queer men and women, including some ally mothers (not fathers). They cultivated the powerful space of the feminine, and it is important to note what that means for that particular space to become target. The violence that happened at Pulse was an act of betrayal inflicted toward bodies that always already betray every other masculinist determined space in which they move and enter. It was an act of sexual violence. Violence always is. Jennifer Doyle writes, “within a queer and feminist community, sexual violence is a betrayal of the social contract. Everywhere else, it is an affirmation of the social contract” (Campus Security, Campus Sex). Mateen affirmed the hyper-masculine and heterosexist social contract by which the world functions. That morning, so did US media.
While many individuals will now look at Pulse nightclub as a site of violence, now in need of protection, it is imperative that we think about the ways in which the systems that most often try to protect us are those that have already violated us. Might we go back to “Ni Fu, Ni Fa,” to look at the sombreros stacked high. The dancer tips over, the sombreros fall. We pick them up again, find new ways to carry them until we collide with one another so that we can care and move with each other. I visit Pulse thinking about the queer possibilities that happened, and that will continue to happen, in queer and feminist spaces. In so doing, we may, if we are fortunate, continue to stumble and fall into the dances that allow our carrying our movement.
Doyle, Jennifer. Campus Security, Campus Sex. Cambridge: Semiotext(e), 2015.
Puar, Jasbir. Terrorist Assemblages. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.