Common conceptions permeating U.S. ethnic queer theory tend to confuse aesthetics with real-world acts and politics. Often Chicano/a representations of gay and lesbian experiences in literature and film are analyzed simply as propaganda. The cognitive, emotional, and narrational ingredients (that is, the subject matter and the formal traits) of those representations are frequently reduced to a priori agendas that emphasize a politics of difference.
In this book, Frederick Luis Aldama follows an entirely different approach. He investigates the ways in which race and gay/lesbian sexuality intersect and operate in Chicano/a literature and film while taking into full account their imaginative nature and therefore the specific kind of work invested in them. Also, Aldama frames his analyses within today's larger (globalized) context of postcolonial literary and filmic canons that seek to normalize heterosexual identity and experience. Throughout the book, Aldama applies his innovative approach to throw new light on the work of authors Arturo Islas, Richard Rodriguez, John Rechy, Ana Castillo, and Sheila Ortiz Taylor, as well as that of film director Edward James Olmos. In doing so, Aldama aims to integrate and deepen Chicano literary and filmic studies within a comparative perspective. Aldama's unusual juxtapositions of narrative materials and cultural personae, and his premise that literature and film produce fictional examples of a social and historical reality concerned with ethnic and sexual issues largely unresolved, make this book relevant to a wide range of readers.
Introduction: Narrative, Sexuality, Race, and the Self
1. Querying Postcolonial and Borderland Queer Theory
2. John Rechy's Bending of Brown and White Canons
3. Arturo Islas's and Richard Rodriguez's Ethnosexual Re-architexturing of Metropolitan Space
4. Ana Castillo's and Sheila Ortiz Taylor's Bent Chicana Textualities
5. Edward J. Olmos's Postcolonial Penalizings of the Film-Image Repertoire
Conclusion: Re-visioning Chicano/a Bodies and Texts
Do not read any more—look! Do not look any more—go!
—Paul Celan, Engführung
My subject here is sex, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, and the self. Notwithstanding its multifaceted difficulties and complexities, I see it as a joyous, lively, complex, frequently surprising, and altogether gratifyingly controversial topic. One that has been treated in literature, cinema, and the arts from every angle of vision and from all ideological perspectives and yet remains as fresh and as inexhaustible as ever. One that bears a very close and concrete relationship with every aspect of our social existence, activity, and status and that is nonetheless often concealed or shut away in the private sphere or approached in mainly "universal," "impersonal," and more or less "deterministic" terms that variously characterize it as either a biological feature (male and female genitals, hormones, genes), an instinct (sexual energy, drive, libido, a certain entity situated between the somatic and the mental), or a fundamentally unintentional/unconscious component of life. One that plays an essential defining role for every human being as a "self," as a unique and independent agent/subject to which criteria such as those of freedom of will, responsibility, and accountability apply. And yet it continues to be largely terra incognita in the empirical and testable research fields of the social sciences and even psychology. Lastly, the topic has been the object of much speculative theorizing in poststructuralist cultural and literary studies on the basis of certain untested, untestable, and speculative ideas taken from philosophy, psychoanalysis, and sociolinguistics.
This topic of the self that oft appears as a labyrinthine collection of enigmas and contradictions I approach from a particular standpoint to explore closely the work of several queer (in its expansive connotation) Chicano/a authors and one film director. I chose the work of Ana Castillo, Sheila Ortiz Taylor, John Rechy, Richard Rodriguez, Arturo Islas, and Edward James Olmos not only out of admiration for and enjoyment of their significant contribution to literature and cinema, but also because their work creatively represents and complexly reflects the multiform struggle against homophobic, heterosexist, and xenophobic practices today.
I want to begin this book by mapping briefly the representational contours of the ethnosexualized self and then moving more extensively into a biological- and social-based discussion of ontology. I do so at the outset to provide a refined understanding of the ethnosexual self which will inform the literary and filmic interpretation that follows and that makes up the main body of Brown on Brown: Chicano/a Representations of Sexuality, Gender, and Ethnicity.
It is obvious that we are still benefiting from the large degree of freedom of expression gained in the 20th century. Many of yesteryear's taboo sexual expressions and experiences have moved from representational margins to mainstream centers in just a few decades. The Marquis de Sade's 18th-century orgiastic extravaganzas, James Joyce's Bloom masturbating to images of Gerty McDowell, Thomas Mann's Aschenbach spiraling into dizzying spells of desire for the still-pubescent Tadzio, Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert lusting for the archetypal ingénue Lolita—to recall a few examples taken from literature—are now evoked nonchalantly in everyday conversations. Madonna's gyrating with whip and studded collar has become commonplace in music videos; S&M leather-clad, body-pierced bad guys make a nonchalant appearance in the Wachowski brothers' Matrix Revolutions; many an "independent" film now makes commonplace the cybernetic voyeuristic delights seen in earlier films such as David Cronenberg's Crash. In photography, Mapplethorpe's post-AIDS shock queer iconography, which had generated heated controversy and was even censored in the 1980s, appeared not only in many a contemporary art museum but later, in book form, on many a coffee table. Following the lead of several European cities, Manhattan has opened a museum of sex. Novels, music videos, films, photographs, and museums are unceasingly opening hitherto closed doors; acts formerly characterized as supremely transgressive are more and more mainstreamed (and internationally exhibited) as ordinary, everyday manifestations of the American sociocultural framework.
The same is also true to a large extent for representations of bisexual and gay/lesbian self and experience. Queer sexuality has played a central role in popular American film and TV series and in some of the most innovative English-penned fictions of the 20th century. Certain ever-popular cable television melodramas such as Queer as Folk can now be rented in video and DVD formats at nationwide chains like Blockbuster, along with Jim Fall's queer-exalting film Trick and Richard Glatzer and Wash West's gay porn-industry tale The Fluffer. (The lipstick-lesbian Showtime melodrama "The L Word" is now also widely available at video rental stores.) Concerning the canonizing of erstwhile taboo novels, I think readily of Djuna Barnes's same-sex desiring characters in Nightwood, William Burroughs's polysexual, racially hybrid denizens of his "interzone" in Naked Lunch and Jeanette Winterson's bi/queer narrator/protagonist in Written on the Body.
Unfortunately, quite often the most widely publicized representations are also the ones that do the least to engage the public in a serious reflection and understanding of gay/lesbian and bisexual experiences and identity. Wittingly or not, most devolve into clichés that continue to reproduce age-old stereotypes of gender and ethnosexual identity. For example, in The Fluffer the physical love denouement between bisexual Sean (played by Michael Cunio) and straight, gay-for-pay Johnny Rebel (played by Scott Gurney) takes place only after they have crossed the U.S. border into Mexico, a country that the audience is expected to identify as a "natural" locus for the occurrence of transgressive sexual acts; it has been stereotyped as just such a transgressive, "primitive" space in many a film and in many a well-known novel by such authors as D. H. Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry, and Jack Kerouac, to name a few. Generally, audiences and readers are expected to recognize and easily accept such a myth because, very often, queer feelings, queer self-concepts, queer social identities, and queer behaviors have been and continue to be inscribed within a binary that ultimately Otherizes certain (dark-skinned) subjects and certain spaces (the economically and politically subordinate countries). In this binary, the so-identified Third World figures implicitly as dark and primitive, a site where "instinctual gratification" is more "natural and commonly accepted," and the "First World" figures implicitly as enlightened and civilized, a site of "sexual repression."
At the opposite pole of this racist and homophobic stand are the bisexual, gay/lesbian literary and filmic depictions that have been created in the last thirty-plus years by gay/lesbian Chicano/a novelists, poets, playwrights, and directors. I think readily of Ya vas, Carnal and Tattoo, the first collections of poems that queer Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcón published in 1985, and The Little Death, the first mystery novel focused on a gay Chicano, published by Michael Nava in 1986. By that time, of course, lesbian Chicana poets, fiction writers, and playwrights Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, and Alicia Gaspar de Alba had come into their own as shapers of a so-identified Xicana queer sensibility. And much more recently, representing and complicating bi/queer Chicano sexuality in the movies, there is film director Miguel Arteta. I think here also of the queer representations that have entered the Latino cinematic mainstream: Hector Babenco's critically acclaimed film adaptation Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), director Alfonso Cuarón's crossover success Y Tu Mamá También (2001), and Marcel Piñeyro's award-winning Plata Quemada (2001) that brought to life the true story of the romantic love affair between bank robbers Angel and El Nene.
At the same time that such writers and directors have been representing a complex gay/lesbian Chicano/a identity and experience, interested scholars have begun to reframe their scholarship with a more broadly inclusive critical outlook. In the mid-1980s, Juan Bruce-Novoa made a call to be inclusive rather than exclusive of gay, lesbian, and bisexual themes and characters when theorizing a Chicano/a canon, as this would allow Chicano/a scholars to forge a more "humane Chicano identity" ("Homosexuality and the Chicano Novel" in European Perspectives on Hispanic Literature of the United States, 105). His essay aimed to provide a schematic overlay that would help create a "progressive space of dialogue" between early Chicano writers like Antonio Villarreal and the newer, gay and/or lesbian identifying authors such as John Rechy, Arturo Islas, and Sheila Ortiz Taylor.
The approach recommended by Bruce-Novoa has been heeded and can be seen at work in a number of theoretical incursions: the essays included in a special issue of The Bilingual Review (1996) that employed a queer analytic rubric for readings of Chicano/a literature; the volume of essays titled Chicano/Latino Homoerotic Identities (1999), edited by David William Foster, which included groundbreaking analyses of writers such as Francisco X. Alarcón, Alma Luz Villanueva, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Alicia Gaspar de Alba; the more recent volume edited by Arturo J. Aldama, De-colonial Voices (2002), which includes very valuable queer postcolonial theorizations; and Mary Pat Brady's Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies, which explores powerfully the work of Chicana lesbian authors such as Terri de la Peña. Other important explorations and evaluations include Yvonne Yarbaro-Bejarano's seminal book-length study of Cherríe Moraga titled The Wounded Heart (2001) and the research by Chicana scholars such as Chela Sandoval, Deena González, Emma Pérez, Susana Chávez-Silverman, Cecilia Rosales, Catriona Esquibel, and Alicia Gaspar de Alba, which has made visible a complex array of Chicana/Latina lesbian representations in literature, film, and cultural iconography. (For a more comprehensive bibliography of Chicano/a lesbian, gay, and bisexual criticism, see Manuel de Jesús Hernández-Gutiérrez's "Building a Research Agenda on U.S. Latino Lesbigay Literature and Cultural Production: Texts, Writers, Performance, and Critics.") Of course, these and other scholars have begun to transform the Chicano/a cultural studies map. However, the necessary critical work is far from finished. Much new remapping remains to be done.
Brown on Brown: Chicano/a Representations of Sexuality, Gender, and Ethnicity aims to contribute to this immense and indispensable project of excavating, analyzing, and tracing a new cartography for queer (by and about) Chicano/a literature and film.
Back to the Future
In an effort to refine our understanding of ethnosexuality as textualized in the realm of queer Chicano/a literature and film, I want to reassess at length some assumptions about the basic property of our existence: the constitution of self. Here, I do not aim to have the last word on defining the self and its constitutive ethnic, sexual, and gendered elements, nor do I seek to replay those vacuously abstract and obscurantist formulations in vogue for quite a while now. Instead, I aim to formulate an emerging understanding of the self based on the way it is both biologically and sociohistorically constituted. I propose that verifiable information and scientific hypotheses can provide the raw material needed for us to pour a solid foundation for the building of a theory of what constitutes the self (ethnosexual or otherwise). Science (mostly pseudo) has certainly been used by oppressive elites to justify racism and bigotry, but this does not belie the fact that truth and scientific knowledge are essential for subaltern subjects worldwide to fight successfully against exploitation and oppression. It is in the spirit of this latter position that I wish to work.
Now, an important caveat. To base an understanding of the self in the empirically verifiable and material conditions that make up our past and present reality2 doesn't mean that I seek to elevate to the level of science my central interest: the analysis of queer Chicano/a literature and film. Nor does it suggest that my analysis of queer Chicano/a literature and film will help advance those scholarly fields I draw from, such as neuroscience and cognitive science, history, linguistics, and psychology. Nor is it meant to level the playing field between science and, say, history or literary analysis in the manner of a social constructivism that proposes all aspects of our reality to be equal. I intend such scholarly research outside of my primary field to serve as ancillary tools (a few among many others available) that clarify and make sense of how power, knowledge, and subjectivity really work in the real world. I turn to such tools as a way to lift a foreboding silence that has blanketed straightforward discussion of the subject of the self (subject/identity) as a result of in-vogue contentless formulations.
While this first section of the book deals primarily with questions of ontology, the overall thrust is to know better how Chicano/a authors and film directors organize aesthetically (via discourse, theme, and characterization, for example) their representations of sexuality and its many expressions (especially gay/lesbian and bisexual). However, even to analyze the representation of ethnoqueer Chicano/a selves, we first have to determine what identity is. After all, how can we even identify "Chicano/a" and "queer" (as either characters or real authors) if we do not first determine what differences make them different from everyone else?
Here we must hold two ideas in our minds. These are that narrative fiction is always in the final instance a representation of reality, even when (as in science fiction and other fantastic genres) the components in the diegesis differ from those biological and socially instituted facts that make up the real world; and that, though fiction ultimately refers to the real hors texte, it follows its own rules of organization.
Subject of the Self
Prima facie, the notion of the self implies the notion of a living human organism. At the most basic level, this means that the self is a bounded, living being formed by billions of organized cells. At this biological level, the self is a metabolizing entity which functions by distinguishing between what is in and what is out. This separate and bounded body is a natural kind (it belongs to the human species—and shares its biological blueprint or genome) while at the same time being unique (different from all other bodies and entities).
Though the brain's complex biochemical, neuronal, and affective processes have yet to be mapped completely, scientific research on the brain can help us refine this initially crude formulation of the self. Its advances poco a poco have provided a solid, material basis for understanding the self's constitution and function. I think here of the scientifically grounded and testable hypotheses formulated by those scholars included in The Self from Soul to Brain (LeDoux, Debiec, and Moss, eds., 2003). Such pathbreaking scholars and scientists as Antonio Damasio, Erik Kandel, Naomi Quinn, Henry Moss, Jacek Debiec, and Joseph E. LeDoux further establish how the brain's total cognitive and affective processes (the neuronal, synaptic, and biochemical activity that allows for the selection, storing, and retrieval of memory and emotion) constitute the self. This and other such scholarship identifies the importance of the brain/body's necessary engagement with objects and organisms other than itself both at the cellular level (metabolic regulation and basic learned response mechanisms) and at the more-general social level; the self is the result of the complete workings of hardwired activity in the brain and simultaneously the result of engagement with that outside of itself. Our individual mind/body's engagement with the world leads to different behaviors and habits unique to each one of us; this is what we commonly call personality. Morphological and phenotypical variation aside, this is why every person we encounter is different to an infinite degree as each of us can behave and subscribe to ideas in an infinite number of ways. I don't mean to posit that personality (individual behavior, opinion, and so on) is a phenomenological manifestation of the self, but rather that it results from that cluster of traits (good or bad, and so on) that constitute the self of the person.
Although there are many differences (personality traits) from person to person, there is much that remains stable and the same in the organic blueprint of the self. We are individual, unique, and changing (even at the cellular level), but we are also biologically and socially constant. That we are predictable provides practical everyday advantages. If we were to behave in unpredictable and inconsistent ways, we would face some serious survival problems. Would we risk driving a car if we couldn't predict the behavior of others? So, while we might experience personal epiphanies and transformations of opinion or might change chameleon-like within different social spheres (the way I act at work is not the same as at home), such transformations don't alter fundamentally the blueprint of our biogenetic (cognitive and neural) self. Stability at the social and biochemical level supersedes individually willed self-transformations.
The sociobiological self experiences a constancy in change. In The Feeling of What Happens (1999), Antonio Damasio further elaborates, identifying the interaction between a "core self" that is a "transient entity [that is ceaselessly] re-created for each and every object with which the brain interacts" (17) and the "autobiographical self" that is "a nontransient collection of unique facts and ways of being which characterize a person" (17). In Homo sapiens sapiens, both core and autobiographical selves work seamlessly as one self as a result of our higher-order consciousness, which is in turn formed by our engagement with the social; that is, our sense of a coherent narrative unit as both ceaselessly regenerative and bounded as a self-reflexive (acting) agent in a past, present, future world.
For our discussion of the human self (core, autobiographical, and higher consciousness) to mean anything, it must be distinguishable from everything else. Simply identifying it as different doesn't make the self a self, so what we must do is make a distinction between the self and that which is not the self. For example, we can distinguish the chemical property of oxygen from that of, say, hydrogen, but we don't refer to oxygen or hydrogen as having a self. That is, in understanding what constitutes the self we must focus on how its difference makes a difference (see Leibniz's principle of identity). That is, we must take into account not just distinctiveness and separation (isolation), but in the case of the human self, the notion of agency and responsibility. The action of, say, bacteria that causes another organism like ours to have a digestive problem is not an action with agency; hence, we never refer to the "self of a bacteria" because while it acts, its actions lack the component of agency and responsibility central to the constitution of the human self. When we do identify an amoeba as a pathological "agent" for dysentery we use the word in a technical sense that excludes any attribution of moral responsibility: no amoeba will be condemned in a court of law for causing dysentery.
Agency and responsibility are the difference that make a difference in determining the constitution of the human self. In the concluding essay of The Self from Soul to Brain, Joseph E. LeDoux and Jacek Debiec have identified this central property not only as an adaptive function that arises out of our being social animals, but one that gives rise to higher-order consciousness that becomes our guide to "authorship of action"—and "authorship of emotion" (309). They elaborate, "The person who feels will for action typically then feels responsibility for that action, and so will also be susceptible to moral emotions such as pride or guilt depending on the action's effects" (309). Our self is biologically constituted, and it has agency (responsibility) and the capacity for knowledge of self. So while our organic biochemical makeup differs from other "minded organisms" that regulate life functions in response to the outside world, what makes a difference is how our biological organism develops necessarily within the social. Yes, our self is grounded in our organism's specific biological, physical, and chemical components. However, the way these elements work together determines the engagement (and sense of belonging) with the material (physical, chemical, biological) and social world. Without appropriate and adequate neural stimulation, gene expression doesn't occur and so those elements that constitute extended or higher-order conscious selves don't develop. This is why child-rearing practices share much in common cross-culturally: all seek to create social environments that will most effectively trigger cognitive and emotive responses to allow for the healthy development of a sense of higher-functioning self (self-reflexive, responsible, and so on). Without stimulus reinforcement and other conditioning responses (at the neuronal level), necessary gene expression would not occur; the growth of synaptic connections necessary for learning, for example, might not develop. And, likewise, the self of the person who suffers from chronic depression might experience a diminished will to live; the biochemical and the social interact in such a way as to create a less-than-vital experience of the world and engagement with it.
Do people such as schizophrenics whose biological functions do not allow for a sense of agency and responsibility lack a self? This is not so much an ethical or ontological question as it is a question of the presence or not of a higher-consciousness self. Organisms that have a basic "mental concern over the organism's own life" (Damasio 25, emphasis his) in their regulation of metabolism and conditioned learning exhibit what Damasio identifies as "core consciousness"; we might identify this as a protean self where the organism is aware of the absolute "now" of itself only in the absolute now of time and space. While this might be the case in schizophrenics (and other non-normal functioning people), this is not the normal functioning, evolutionarily speaking, of Homo sapiens sapiens. Our organism's normal functioning is not that of a "minded organism" (cf. Damasio), but rather that which includes the full development of cognitive modules such as language, memory, and reason that make up our higher-consciousness self—a self aware of itself in a present, past, and future as well as with an awareness of self-agency within a world beyond its boundaries (our imaginative capacity). It is a self that has developed a capacity for imagining (worldmaking), grammar, memory, and empathy (that amplification of feeling for those separate from us), and for creating maps of its own maps (as delineated in these pages, even). Our organism's normal functioning self is of a higher order. This does not mean that those organisms whose biological hardwiring or social development has precluded this possibility have any lack of self; they simply lack this higher-order self. It is this difference that makes a difference between us and other organisms as well as between those selves functioning as per a healthy evolutionary (reproductive) trajectory and those selves that have been left behind in the adaptive order of things.
As discussed, as organisms we are both "basic-minded" (in terms of our habitual and "unconscious" biological functions like homeostatic regulation, metabolism, breathing, and so on) and "higher-minded" (self-reflexive, imaginative, responsible, and so on). We have evolved a protean-minded self that regulates and monitors everyday biological functions and that is an emanation of the body much like urine and mucus, as well as a higher-minded self that is the product of our engagement with the material and social world. I will turn to a discussion of those differences that make a difference in terms of this latter, higher-minded self as developed in the social.
One way or another, many fashionable formulations of the self (subject/identity) theorize it as boundary-less (disembodied) and/or self-written/written-upon; one way or another, they formulate the self as either willed or written into existence and/or as occupying all that exists in the universe. According to the basic principle of discernibility, this leads us nowhere in further refining our understanding of the self. Rather, as I've begun to formulate, the human minded self is distinguishable from other organic and nonorganic entities, and it is so not just biologically (as discussed above), but because of this important and necessary element of the social. The human self that is one way or another unable to have a healthy engagement with the social never develops what we've identified as a higher-minded self. We don't need to look to the example of schizophrenics to see this. We know from Piaget's work with children that those who are precluded from healthy social patterning (parenting, reward/punishment systems of learning) fail to develop healthy neurochemical brain functions (memory and language) that in turn allow for the development of a higher-minded self. The age-old case in point, Caspar Hauser, who was raised completely in isolation from the social world, never developed some of those necessary elements (symbolic representation) that would allow him to develop a higher-minded self. Of course, the mind/body's development of a higher-minded self begins much earlier in our development. We know from children conceived in countries where there is a shortage of food and basic health care, that even before the child is born it has been deprived of the basic nutrients necessary for its healthy biological development. It is our species' blueprint that determines that we can only exist, develop, and evolve as organisms intimately tied to other members of our species. Hence, in the case of the fetus developing in social conditions of insufficient nourishment, the social has already influenced the biological architecture to such a degree that once the child is born, its development of self has been already marked by such social conditions. So, while it is our organism's evolutionary strategy to develop a higher-minded self, the social conditions do not necessarily guarantee its formation.
Our higher-minded self is the healthy development and interplay between our biological makeup and our social engagement. The social is all that is man-made and all of nature that we transform according to our given needs and concepts of our time. Hence, the configurations of the social change not just from place to place (the poor of Zimbabwe versus the rich of the United States), but also historically. The self is formed in history, beginning with our ancestors first organization into social units. There is a difference between the self conceived, born, and developed in the 21st century and the pre-agricultural self formed ten centuries ago.6 The self is not the same when free as it is when enslaved or when it exists in a feudal society. The self that developed after the French Revolution swept away all remains of feudalism and the bourgeoisie rose to power is not the same self as that before the revolution. More generally, the self is not the same when living in a capitalist society where economics of private property determine everyday movement or restrictions of movement. The conception of self shifts along with the shifts of social transformation that make history and that result from the massive movements of people. So, in discussing the self, we must also keep an eye directed to its formation within the class struggle (to protect both one's individual and collective rights as worker and as owner of means of production.) For example, today in the United States, where only 10 percent or less of the working class are unionized, the self is not the same as it was in the late-19th century. And, because the modern self formed within the framework of the modern nation-state, which, as a result of the working-class struggle, has had to guarantee rights and protections, to destroy this nation-state, would be to destroy this self. The self under the tyrannical dictatorship of a Hitler, a Franco, or a Pinochet is one that, like the defenseless child of abusive parents, exists in a state of total subordination. Finally, the self is not the same if one is a person first bound to Mexico nationally, then an Anglo bound to the United States; nor is it the same for the Mexican who today crosses borders for gainful employment as it was for the homebound Mexican of yesteryear.
The understanding of the self (ethnosexual or otherwise) requires an understanding of the different ways that society has been organized in time and space. And each of these historical moments is shaped differently because of the different relations established between us in order to survive and develop as we metabolize nature for our survival; since the human being is part of nature, by transforming nature it transforms itself as nature. Moreover, we are unique in that our metabolizing of all of nature takes place necessarily in association with other members of the species: society. It this metabolizing of nature within the time and place of the social that allows us to establish that the self is constituted both biologically and socio-materially.
In understanding the self as formed in the social, we must further distinguish between society/culture and the nonhuman world. As a part of nature, Homo sapiens sapiens is capable of reflecting on all aspects of nature as well as of modifying all of nature that surrounds him/her. This transformation, achieved through labor/work/practical activity that seeks to sustain itself and to perpetuate itself, has to transform all the nature exterior to it. Then you have a valid distinction between society and man, culture and nature, and so forth. Culture is the whole product of man's activities: language, cars, art, and bombs. The distinction between nature and culture is based on what is man-made and not man-made.
However, all that is man-made is based on nature because man is a biological organism. This self-generating of man—that is, one part of nature—through his/her work produces what we call society and culture, society being the specific form in which this part of nature can self-generate itself by association with other members of the same self-generating part of nature. In sum: society is simply the collective formed by individuals—humans—in order to be able to self-generate and self-reproduce. If man were not by necessity, and therefore biologically, hardwired to be gregarious, if man were an animal that had been hardwired to be isolated from the other animals, there would be no culture, no society, no man. Homo sapiens sapiens can only accomplish self-generation and reproduction as a species by forming collectives. What separates man from other animals in the animal kingdom is man's specific mode of existence, the specific mode of self-generation and reproduction that leads to the production of what we call culture and society. Just as the spider is inseparable from its web (the mode of existence that allows it to reproduce and eat and continue living) so, too, does man have to spin out culture and society to live. When talking about the self of humankind, then, we are also talking about nature.
That the self is a socially and biologically constituted entity means that the very conception of humankind (and maybe even our immediately pre-Homo sapiens sapiens ancestors) is that it is one fragment of nature. In order to subsist and to maintain our existence evolutionarily speaking, we self-generate and self-reproduce ourselves by producing society and culture. Just as spiders continue existing and reproducing themselves for hundreds of thousands of years by secreting, so, too, do humans secrete society and culture to survive.
We have nature and only nature. Within this nature we have differentiation in the way that living organisms perpetuate themselves: the spider secretes its web and humans secrete culture and society to survive evolutionarily. If we diagrammed this as a series of sets, nature would be the largest circle, and within this circle we would have the circle of animal kingdom (all living life from microbes to Homo sapiens sapiens), and within this smaller circle we would have mammals, and within the circle of mammals we would have mankind. All of these circles are included within the larger set: nature. Within this large set of living nature all living organisms manifest different ways of maintaining their existence (reproducing themselves) over time both individually and as a species. This is to say that the sociobiological self is formed within the social, which is a part of this larger set we identify as nature. This is what makes us unique and individual (social beings) as well as what makes us a complete set as individual members that form the same species.
Why talk about all of this? Much of the theoretical formulation of the self circulating in the humanities today is completely devoid of a social materialist (historical) purview; many believe that the motor for historical shift is an abstracted movement from one idea to the next; others believe that an atomized performative self can resist oppressive hegemonic master narratives. The human (higher-minded) self is a self as formed in a society that is itself formed in history, which in recent times has been formed by the class struggle. So even before the self is ethnic or gendered, it is formed in relation to the class struggle (in which guaranteed rights and laws are opposite to the interests of a ruling class) within the framework of the modern nation-sate. To understand today's self is to subordinate gender and ethnicity to an understanding of it as formed and developed within a capitalist society. It is also to see that capitalism is not a determined element of a natural (biologically determined) human self. It is to see the human self historically and as arising within these social conditions.
Does Identity Matter?
The question of the self and its identities is complex and yet very simple. When we speak of queer Chicano/a selves, we identify aspects that make up an individually and socially constituted self. Here, however, when talking of the self and its identities, I want to sidestep formulations of the self as performative and in flux because to get to this point one must necessarily believe that everything that exists in the world is indeterminate. That is, there would be no difference that makes a difference in this infinitely regressive formulation: "borderland," "hybrid," and so on can be infinitely mixed and matched when talking about gay Chicano identity. Instead, I want continue to follow the basic principle of discernability to refine our understanding of queer Chicano/a identity.
Of course, as I've already discussed regarding our cellular and atomic constitution, nothing remains fixed and identical in the universe. However, this doesn't mean there isn't coherence and a sense of permanence. Not one single atom that made up my bounded self at the moment of writing this book will exist when it is finally in print, yet we can still identity me as Frederick Luis Aldama constantly. If there weren't a sense of coherence, we wouldn't be able to refer to me as Frederick Luis Aldama, nor drive a car, nor study matter (the distinguishing between A and B in biology, physics, chemistry), nor use language and writing to make a study of queer Chicano/a literature and film. At this most basic level, then, we must be able to identify the difference between A and B not subjectively, as a notion that is invented and that depends on my existence, but objectively.
Let me clarify further. For the human being to survive and to exchange information with the world (its vital function as a biological organism), it has to develop a sense of self. This development includes the forming of an awareness of the difference between its self and the rest of world; as this sense of difference develops we also develop a purposeful and intentional sense of acquiring and giving back information directly to the world. This world is constituted by all that exists outside of the human self; that is, if we were to disappear altogether as a species, rocks would still be rocks and they would still be different from water, which would still be different from fire, and so on. The existence or disappearance of that outside the self doesn't depend on my existence nor on my higher-minded self making distinctions. Even at this most basic level of understanding, we know then that there is a material and objective basis to establishing differences and therefore to identity.
Following this principle, then, we can't assert that, for example, it is biology that determines a queer Chicano/a identity. In the mapping of the human genome, we have determined genes for blood group, skin and eye color, and the like, and we have even been able to use such genetic information to follow ancestry: the genetic composition of a Native blood type in North America corresponds to that of a group in Asia, and thus we trace a line of descent for Native North Americans back to Asia. However, such a study doesn't alter the way the human race is characterized by a single genome that singularly characterizes our species and that first came out of Africa thousands of years ago. Namely, subordinate to my identification as queer and Chicano (or right-handed with dark hair and a medium build) is my sociobiologial self as determined by genetic composition as a member of the human race.
Identities matter, of course. How they matter, however, varies greatly depending on whether we are talking about identities that have become socially instituted, like ethnicity and gender, or are talking about the biological. From a nuts-and-bolts bio-evolutionary perspective, the identity that makes a difference is sexual. Here I mean sexual in the sense of sexual reproduction, and not sexual preference. My sexual preference might be for those of the same sex, but if I choose to reproduce biologically, then I will necessarily have to involve (via in vitro fertilization, say) a member of the opposite sex. So, sexual identity—that which identifies a man as different from a woman in terms of differently evolved and functioning sexual organs—is an identity that makes a difference in the evolutionary scheme. To reproduce the species, we must have the exchange of XX and XY chromosomal information and subsequent mitosis, whether in sexual copulation or by other means. There is no way around this as biological fact; this is how evolution has taken place. It is a material reality that preexists human beings; it preexists society. In this sense, then, the sexual—overtly identified by physical differences that mark every individual member of Homo sapiens sapiens—is an elemental identification that, in the case of evolution, matters.
What does sexual (biological) identity mean on an everyday level? As already mentioned, it means that if one desires to be with those of the same sex as well as to reproduce biologically, one must contend with biological fact. It means that to declare sexuality a performative construct neglects the biological material facts. It means that to replace "gender" for "sexuality" in an effort to emancipate women, or to "trouble gender" by performing constructs of the feminine, changes little for ordinary people like a farmer in Mexico or a factory worker in the United States. Evolutionarily speaking, my identification as Chicano doesn't matter; what matters is whether or not I function to reproduce the species. From an evolutionary perspective, sexual reproduction is the biological sine qua non to continued survival and development of the Homo sapiens sapiens self.
What of identification of the self based on what sex we desire? Again, from an evolutionary point of view, we must strip down desire—the sexual drive—and understand its biological function. Human beings have in-built sexual instincts (sexual drive) like other animals (although ours are perennial and theirs seasonal) that include a corresponding excitation of sexual organs. Evolutionarily speaking, this excitation happens for the purpose of reproduction and so a sexual drive has evolved that directs an attraction toward those of the opposite sex. Sexual drive, arousal, and this feeling of desire are parts of a very primitive biological mechanism that has evolved since our distant ancestors transcended the uni-cellular stage of cell reproduction. This doesn't mean that there is anything morally wrong when one desires someone of the same sex. It means simply that desire is not a difference that makes a difference in evolution and therefore in terms of the biologically constituted self.
For human beings everywhere, to exist is to reproduce existence not just biologically but socially. As already discussed, we exist and in our existence we transform nature, which process in turn transforms us. So, while biological reproduction is the minimum condition for survival of the human species, this does not mean that how we have sex or who we desire, for example, is evolutionarily predetermined. What is predetermined is the machinery that we need in order to biologically reproduce.
As I've begun to establish, the social and biological are intimately intertwined in the development of the human self. Today we have arrived at a stage in our evolution where we have created social institutions (the census, for example) that identify us as Chicano, Caucasian, African American, Filipino, Native American, and so on. Ethnic identity is the product of our transformation of the social. We see this with the official census forms that determine demographics that in turn determine public and social policy. Within this context, we have established many ways of identifying social differences. Some have led to the instituting of racist and homophobic exclusionary practices (one can say that those born in Mexico and their descendants will not have the right to sell their capacity to work, for example). Others aim to reform such practices; within a capitalist system where exploitation and oppression are the rule, much political organizing and action have helped advance otherwise exploited groups of people. Take, for example, the effects of the working-class-based civil rights movement, which has led to affirmative action programs and the creation of scholarships by institutions like the Ford Foundation that award them to those who historically suffered as a result of institutional discrimination: for example, Alaska Natives, Blacks/African Americans, Mexican Americans (Chicanos/as), Puerto Ricans, Native American Indians, and Native Pacific Islanders. The civil rights movement also opened doors for erstwhile socially discriminated against groups to finally have equal access to education. In this positive sense, it's because of social identification that I can write a book that focuses on queer Chicano/a literature and film.
Identity Matters . . . by Degree
Many literary and cultural critics (Chicano/a or otherwise) have explored the race/class/gender nexus. And many do base their understanding in material fact. For example, as Chicana lesbian scholar Alicia Gaspar de Alba sums up, "Sex and race are biologically determined, the genitalia and racial DNA with which we were born" (Velvet Barrios, ix). For Gaspar de Alba, gender and ethnicity are socially constituted and only inflect the biological facts of our differently sexed bodies. As she suggests, we must identify ethnic and sexual preference categories precisely because they have become institutionalized; that is, to fight oppression and exploitation based on these socially instituted categories, we must necessarily make visible such categories. At an even more basic and necessary level of self-identification, however, we must identify the self as it exists within today's society characterized by an economic system of capitalism: the making of all peoples and all relations dependent on the market for the most basic needs, which requires the bourgeoisie to maintain social order and conditions favorable for the accumulation of profit by means of exploitation. Class is thus a fundamental identification of self and an identification that makes a difference. Namely, without identification of class, we can't identify the huge portion of society made dependent on this economic structure that includes all exploited minorities—the working class, women, gays, lesbians, Mexicans, and so forth. Historically, it is what allowed women and gays, lesbians, and Chicanos to struggle effectively against institutionalized exploitation of women in their demands for rights such as equal pay and access to health care. A brief look at the women's struggle for equal rights—the right to vote, to work, to hold property, to divorce, for example—demonstrates its concrete link to the general workers' movement. In the United States we had the anarchist Emma Goldman, and in Germany the suffragette Clara Zetkin. Women have had to organize themselves within the labor movement to demand not just job security, social security, equal pay, and health benefits, but also basics like day-care centers.
Identity politics has become a projection of an expression of a very obscurantist, retrograde, reactionary way of thinking. Instead of isolating myself as a Chicano, I would do better to acknowledge that I am one among many who make up a collective experience of institutional discrimination, and therefore need to organize to form their own political parties to struggle alongside all the other people who have a vested interest in overthrowing capitalism. While identity politics makes visible those who have become targets of institutionalized homophobic and racist policies, for social transformation to take place, we must reach beyond our particular experiences to form solidarity with others who experience exploitation and oppression. For real transformation to take place, the struggle needs to be against capitalism. If we isolate our causes from one another, we simply supply capitalists with the weapons for our own destruction. Cesar Chávez knew this when he helped form trade unions in the fight to institutionalize equal pay for all members of the working class.
Just as social identification matters because we all are a social animal, so too do ideas matter. For example, as Henry Abelove discusses, "to say what they wanted to say politically about same-sex eroticism and the global history of their times" (Deep Gossip, xviii), writers like Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, and Alan Ginsberg circulated same-sex eroticism and ideas that fed into gay/lesbian struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. And, Abelove writes, those of the Gay Lesbian Front (GLFers) saw in Baldwin's Giovanni's Room "their own reflections, searched for the means to comprehend the ties imagined at the start of the book between colonialist conquest and the denial and betrayal of love, and searched too for the imitation of what they might yet need to learn to 'redeem sex' and, as they often put it, to decolonize America" (81). Abelove identifies how these writers and their ideas allowed the GLFers to see beyond their unique cause and to create bonds with larger communities of oppressed and exploited working-class groups. Speaking more basically, whether or not one's boss thinks a person is lazy or stupid because he or she is Chicano and/or queer will not change if one decides to wear a Che Guevara T-shirt to work. The worker will continue to be exploited until the individual organizes along with other individuals to create the massive material force necessary to transform the capitalist economic system that exploits the working class worldwide. Ideas only really matter when ideas materialize in the massive unification of millions of people that creates the material force necessary for transformation of the policies of the dominant class. So, while queer Chicano/a literature and films may encourage people in their struggles, they cannot be said to cause the struggles or determine their outcome. We must keep this in mind when analyzing literature and when determining a real politics of social transformation.
According to the original caveat, concepts are objective and true when they correspond to reality, in the same way that a map’s adequacy is determined by its correspondence to a given territory, even when the features it picks out are selected according to particular purposes or interests. But in its postmodern (relativistic and constructivist) new guise, the "territory" has lost all objective existence and the "map" is but an illusion; the world is no longer that which is out there, whether I or the whole human race exist or not, it is what I and the society I live in "make" of it and say it is. It is "that" which is "constructed" by society or "conceived" by language, through language, within the limits of language at a certain time and place. Accordingly, ideas are arbitrary in the sense that their contents are determined not by an independently existing reality but by the kinds of expressions authorized by language and society, which ultimately means that there is no escape from totalitarianism. For constructivism there is no objective truth, no objective reality, thus no universality of science: ideas are condemned to be perpetually held in a viselike grip by social, historical, and linguistic constraints, and only those ideas can be formulated that society, tradition, language, and the unconscious allow to be formed. Thus both Nietzsche's perspectival stand and postmodern relativism and constructivism are strongly "deterministic," notwithstanding their claims to the contrary, and inadvertently side with the political status quo. Everything we do is realized within society—therefore within certain social conditions.
It was against this constructivist backdrop that I sought to establish a materialist basis for understanding the ethnosexual self. Hence, this introduction's turn to an understanding of the self as socially and biologically constituted. However, such knowledge gleaned from scientific and nonscientific domains is intended only to provide a materialist background for what is the focus of this book: the aesthetic construction (storytelling technique, mood, and genre) of fictional (imaginary) objects and selves that include perspectives and themes that speak to the real-world issues of politics, history, and culture of gay/lesbian and bisexual Chicano/a experiences in a contemporary United States. This isn't to say that ethnoqueer novels and films do not have a determinate ontological status; after all, as cultural objects, they are part of the "stuff" that makes up reality and necessarily "point" to it. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that they are at the same time truth-independent.
Such a difference is the basis upon which I build the central concern of Brown on Brown: to explore how each of the authors and directors concerned invents a fictional world that engages its audience through a variety of storytelling genres and styles and that also disengages by expanding radically the Chicano/a and American literary and filmic narrative landscape and image repertoire.
In Chapter 1, "Querying Postcolonial and Borderland Queer Theory," I take stock of a number of queer theories (Chicano/a or otherwise) that bring us to a crossroads in the mapping of queer subaltern literary and filmic theory. I examine several main threads in queer theory (formulated via the work of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault) that seem to lead us blind alleys.
In Chapter 2, "John Rechy's Bending of Brown and White Canons," I ask, What are the necessary ingredients for one to identify a writer like John Rechy as a Chicano and gay writer? To answer this, I trace the genealogy of ethnic criticism that has deliberated his inclusion. I then explore Rechy's use of narrative technique and characterization in such novels as Numbers, This Day's Death, Sexual Outlaw, and The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez. As I show, not only does Rechy engage with established authors (John Dos Passos, Julio Cortázar, and James Joyce, among others) to provide narrative means and generic containers, but he also disengages from the canon in his texturing of bisexual and gay Chicano/a figures such as Jim Girard, Johnny Rio, and Amalia Gómez. As such, Rechy gives his reader much more than the representation of a Chicano (variously queered and gendered) experience and identity as he engages then redeploys world literary themes and narrative techniques.
In Chapter 3, "Arturo Islas's and Richard Rodriguez's Ethnosexual Re-architexturing of Metropolitan Space," I explore how their respective protagonists emplace and re-spatialize new ways of existing within a number of different metropolitan centers: Los Angeles, Mexico, Tijuana, and San Francisco. I analyze La Mollie and the King of Tears and Islas's use of the fast-paced tempo associated with the technique used in noir detective stories and Rodriguez's employment of an investigative journalist voice in Days of Obligation. I show how these gay Chicano authors engage and disengage their respective genres: Islas's noir is revised as the storytelling frame shifts from the white, hetero-masculine protagonist à la Chandler to the pachuco, caló-speaking protagonist Louie Mendoza; Rodriguez's journalistic-styled narration fictionalizes fact to richly texture a series of contradictory narrating voices.
In Chapter 4, "Ana Castillo's and Sheila Ortiz Taylor's Bent Chicana Textualities," I look into the way Castillo in her novels So Far from God and Peel My Love Like an Onion and her short stories in Loverboys, as well as Ortiz Taylor in her novel Coachella, variously employ genre and narrative technique to strategically engage, seduce, then disengage a reading public that might otherwise resist entering into their queer/lesbian border-erotic worlds.
In Chapter 5, "Edward J. Olmos's Postcolonial Penalizings of the Film-Image Repertoire," I analyze how Olmos invents a filmscape that engages with and critically disengages from Chicano and mainstream film reels that have historically relegated brown women and same-sex-desiring brown men to silent margins. I read American Me as a self-reflexive critique of the process by which certain Euro-Spanish colonial models of subjugation are internalized. When the protagonist, Santana, shows signs of "weakness," the film's connotative schema provides a map for us to decode this as his moving into a more ambiguous top/bottom, activo/pasivo, strong/weak identification that threatens the male-male (unquestionably macho) scripts of Chicano prison/gang vida.
In the concluding chapter, "Re-visioning Chicano/a Bodies and Texts," I close the book with a discussion of the problems of confusing language with cultural phenomena, as well as narrative fiction with ontological fact. I then assert the importance of distinguishing between aesthetic organization, history, language, and the sociopolitical material facts that make up our reality. I end this chapter by suggesting that for us to move forward in a productive manner in the study of queer (and straight) Chicano/a literature and film, we must sidestep the mystical formulations whereby verba (word) magically transforms res (thing); we must identify those differences that make a difference. This will allow us to avoid missteps that undermine the "real" social and political programs based on empirical fact that lead to the making of a "real" democratic polity. It will also allow us to enrich and further advance our understanding of one of our many activities: the making of and engagement with queer (and straight) Chicano/a literary and film narratives.
By Frederick Luis Aldama
Frederick Luis Aldama is Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor of English at the Ohio State University