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Imagining Queer Chican@s in the Post-Borderlands

Imaginer la communauté homosexuelle des Chican@s au-delà des frontières
T. Jackie Cuevas


Cet article révèle comment les tensions alimentant le choix entre une solidarité ethnique et une identité sexuelle/genrée non normative continuent de troubler les écrivains Chican@/Latin@, comme le démontre le roman de Luna Lemus, Like Son (2007). La fiction de Lemus illustre magnifiquement comment les personnages littéraires queer et genderqueer peinent à s’imaginer – et parfois ils n’y arrivent pas – comme des objets de désir dans un Latinotopia émergent. Même si la présence Latina/o imprègne de plus en plus l’imaginaire populaire américain, les textes queer Latin@ tels ceux de Lemus prêtent une attention particulière à une marginalisation permanente des genres et des sexualités non normatives au sein de la Latinidad.

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The brown body's ambiguity is endlessly generative.

Hiram Pérez, “You Can Have My Brown Body and Eat It, Too!”

  • 1 Following Domino Renee Pérez and other contemporary Chican@ Studies scholars, I use the hybrid ter (...)

1In her seminal 1993 essay “Queer Aztlán,” acclaimed U.S. Chicana lesbian author Cherríe Moraga articulated a vision for a homeland that embraces queer Chican@s and Latin@s.1 Moraga's vision imagined a place where queer Latinas/os would no longer feel forced to choose between Latin@ and queer community. This tension of choosing between ethnic belonging and non-normative sexuality has continued to trouble U.S. Chican@ and Latin@ writers. Contemporary texts such as the novels of Felicia Luna Lemus examine the plight of the queer – and particularly the queerly gendered queer – Latin@ as they traverse dystopic pasts and futures. In Lemus's edgy contemporary novels, queer and genderqueer figures struggle – and often fail – to imagine themselves as desirable subjects of an emerging world. Even as Latina/o presence further permeates the U.S. popular imaginary, queer Chican@ and Latin@ texts such as Lemus's remain attentive to the ongoing marginalization of non-normative genders and sexualities within Chicanidad/Latinidad and within the U.S.

  • 2 Here I draw on José E. Muñoz’s “disidentification” theory in which queer people of color refashion (...)

2The late twentieth century era of queer Chican@ cultural production was marked by the groundbreaking Anzaldúan notion of a borderlands theory of subjectivity for queer Chican@s trying to thrive on the metaphorical border between multiple cultures that threaten to split them apart. So, then, what might be gleaned from turning to the next generation of queer Chicana writers? As a voice of this next generation, Lemus draws on and extends the cultural work of the borderlands generation. For Lemus, in what I call the ‘post-borderlands’, subjectivities may be suggested as being Chican@ but do not struggle with what that may mean to them as an identity formation. They are also queer but do not necessarily struggle significantly with their sense of sexuality either. Their experience of existing in a third space between two or more cultures manifests so differently than the likes of Moraga and Anzaldúa's generational cohort as to demand a more expansive critical vocabulary in order to construct an account of the interplay among race, gender, and sexuality. For twentieth-first century queer Chicana writers such as Lemus, psychosocial identity struggles tend to coalesce around issues of non-normative gender expression or gender identity. Genderqueer subjects in Lemus's post-borderlands partially disidentify with both Chicanidad (Chicana-ness) and queerness by reconfiguring the relation between the two categories at the intersection of genderqueerness.2

3“Queer Aztlán” appeared in The Last Generation, in which Moraga pits loss against hope, working against her fears that she is the last of a dying breed of queer Chican@ mestizos. In “Queer Aztlán: The Re-formation of the Chicano Tribe,” Moraga proposes a vision for a future homeland for Chican@ queers. For Moraga, re-invoking the lost, mythical homeland of the ancient Mexica or Aztec indigenous peoples means envisioning a future for queer mestizaje, where Latinotopic and homophilic spaces would converge. Drawing on the rhetoric of the Chicano civil rights movement, Moraga proffers a queer version of the myth. Of the usage of Aztlán in the Chicano movimiento, Lázaro Lima writes,

[I]t was the paucity of narrative models that made the Chicano movement found a public identity centered on Mexico's indigenous heritage and the greatness of Aztec civilization through the invocation of Aztlán. […] Aztlán created a logic of presence that grounded Chicano experience and being in the United States. (17)

  • 3 I am grateful to Ana Ixchel Rosal for compiling an archive of ALLGO's history, to Priscilla Hale fo (...)
  • 4 ALLGO has since expanded into the first statewide queer organization in Texas and is now called ALL (...)

4Significantly, Moraga first presented a version of the “Queer Aztlán” essay at the first national conference of LLEGO, the Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization, held in Houston in 1992.3 LLEGO, which has subsequently disbanded, formed as an offshoot of ALLGO, the Austin Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization.4 The place and impetus for Moraga's proposing a “Queer Aztlán” occurred, then, within the context of the first nationally organized gathering of queer Chican@s and Latin@s in the U.S.

5Moraga’s conception of a “Queer Aztlán” offers an alternative vision to the fear of cultural destruction expressed throughout much of The Last Generation. It also serves as a mixed retort to the radical Queer Nation, a New York based group formed in 1990 to mobilize controversial direct actions against homophobia; the group was criticized by mainstream media for their daring tactics, such as outing public figures. Groups such as Queer Nation were also criticized by U.S. queer people of color for not doing more to include them. Arguing from the get-go for another way of making change, Moraga opens The Last Generation with an epigraph quoting Mexican novelist Rosario Castellanos: Debe haber otro modo… / Otro modo de ser humano y libre / Otro modo de ser (“There must be another way…/ Another way of being human and free/ Another way of being”). Moraga dedicates her collection of prose and poetry “To honor the legacies of Audre Lorde and César Chávez” and “For the yet unborn” [original emphasis]. Thus, Moraga cites multiple legacies of social movements. She calls upon the legacies of the renowned Black Caribbean American lesbian writer Audre Lorde, who died in 1992, and the Chicano Movement labor organizer César Chávez, who died in 1993. Moraga simultaneously suggests that she does indeed imagine and hope for a next generation to come in “the yet unborn”.

6Despite this initial glimmer of hope, Moraga makes it clear that her work emanates from her fear of the finality of imperial conquest. She writes,

In 1524, just three years after the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire, the Náhuatl sages, the tlamatinime, came before the missionary friars in defense of their religion. ‘Our gods are already dead,’ they stated. ‘Let us perish now.’ Their codices lay smoldering in heaps of ash. (2)

7Moraga thus identifies herself as operating within this legacy of the conquered Aztecs:

I write with the same knowledge, the same sadness, recognizing the full impact of the colonial ‘experiment’ on the lives of Chicanos, mestizos, and Native Americans. Our codices – dead leaves unwritten – lie smoldering in the ashes of disregard, censure, and erasure. The Last Generation emerges from those ashes. I write it against time, out of a sense of urgency that Chicanos are a disappearing tribe, out of a sense of this disappearance in my own familia. (2)

8Moraga’s fear of Chican@s disappearing from within her own family is partly borne of her own mixed race identity of Chicana and Anglo. The fear of losing Chicanidad or Chican@-ness within her own family extends outward to a globalized fear of total assimilation and erasure of Chican@s by absorption into the dominant Anglo culture. This fear of destruction or conquest is compounded by rejection by potential community allies, as Moraga details her own personal rejection as a Chicana lesbian by traditional Chican@s as well as by white lesbian feminists. Furthermore, she connects the struggles of Chicana lesbians to those of gay Chicanos, particularly around the impacts of HIV and AIDS: “The AIDS epidemic has seriously shaken the foundation of the Chicano gay community.” (162) As a result, argues Moraga, “[Chicano] gay men seem more willing than ever to explore those areas of political change that will ensure their survival.” (162) According to Moraga,

[i]n their fight against AIDS, they have been rejected and neglected by both the white gay male establishment and the Latino heterosexual health-care community. They have also witnessed direct support by Latina lesbians. (163)

9 Moraga claims that the ultimate struggle for lesbian and gay Chican@s and for Chican@s in general is aligned with the struggles of native peoples across the globe, citing the fight for self-sovereignty as a shared struggle. Yet, in her estimation, the dilemma of Chican@s is exacerbated by the fact that many Chican@s have turned away from or ignored the knowledge of their indigenous elders. Moraga ends her manifesto of The Last Generation by urging a “new Chicano nationalism” and by naming queer Chicanas as inheritors of La Causa Chicana as a form of hope for Chican@s to survive into the next millennium (174). She herself attempts to pursue this vision for a potentially queer Aztlán. In The Hungry Woman: Mexican Medea (2001), one of her dramatic plays, Moraga imagines what might happen if the indigenous peoples banded together with other marginalized groups of the Southwest U.S. to reclaim lands. But the future envisioned for queers in the recovered homeland disintegrates into a dystopia. Rather than a liberatory dream, the people of the new Aztlán re-appropriate indigenous lands and identities, imprison rebels, and drive freedom fighters to despair and auto-genocide. The Hungry Woman reveals how the intersectional contours of racist and homophobic structures can be deployed as horizontal oppressions by people of color and queers against each other.

10For both Moraga and Anzaldúa, the lesbian in the borderlands has no home and must make her own psychic and cultural home out of the remains of her loss and out of what Anzaldúa refers to as her “own feminist architecture” (Borderlands/La Frontera, 44). In the final passage of Cherríe Moraga’s mixed-genre text, Loving in the War Years – a collection of essays, poems, and vignettes – the butch Chicana lesbian narrator says: “En el sueño mi amor pregunta ‘Dónde está tu río?’ And I point to the middle of my chest.” (145). When her lover asks her in a dream, “Where is your river?” (145) and the lesbiana points to the middle of her chest, to her body's core or her corazón, she is responding in a similar vein to the narrator of Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera faced with a similar dilemma of navigating borders and notions of home. Anzaldúa’s voice of the new mestiza responds that her home is “a vague and undetermined place.” “Wherever I go,” she says, “I carry home on my back.” (43) Anzaldua and Moraga’s contemporaries echoed this shared sense of feeling lost in between a neither here nor there of the borderlands. In the 1991 essay “Chicana Lesbians: Fear and Loathing in the Chicano Community,” in Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About, Carla Trujillo suggests that Chican@s have historically perceived lesbians as threats. This lament has been widely expressed by Trujillo’s literary peers, such as Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Emma Pérez, and other late twentieth-century Chicana authors whose works navigate a borderland between Latinidad and same-sex love.

11As a Chicana lesbian text of the current millenium, Lemus’s fiction suggests that it is not lesbianism, same-sex desire, or even sexuality in general, but instead genderqueerness that poses greater challenges to the coherence of Chican@ community and a shared Chican@ and Latin@ imaginary. Lemus’s fiction signals a shift away from indexing same-sex desire as the ultimate Latin@ cultural taboo. Like some of her predecessors, Lemus does share some concerns around imagining a place for lesbians and queers in Chican@ and Latin@ community. While Moraga explores some aspects of gender expression and gender identity in terms of butchness and female masculinity, particularly in Loving in the War Years, Lemus extends this cultural work to a new level by writing genderqueerness and non-normative genders into the picture. In Lemus’s work, it is not just queer sexuality but genderqueerness that becomes the next borderlands of Chican@ identity to be crossed, entered, negotiated, constructed, interrogated, and imagined. Genderqueerness, because of its unreadability, poses a bigger threat to a Chican@ imaginary than same-sex desire. In Lemus’s first novel, Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties (2003), a Chicana dyke named Leti navigates adventures in love and family while being haunted by Weeping Woman, la Llorona of Mexican folk legend. Lemus’s second novel, Like Son (2007) tells the story of Frank, born Francisca, who negotiates similar adventures in love and family as a female-to-male transgendered person. Both of Lemus’s narratives explore how non-normative genders push the boundaries of sexuality beyond a straight/queer binary to include questions of gender expression.

  • 5 E.g. Juanita Ramos (ed.), Compañeras: Latina Lesbians, New York: Routledge, 1994; Lourdes Torres & (...)

12Lemus’s fiction considers the possibilities and binds of genderqueerness for Chicanas and opens up a space for talking about the shifting and complex dynamics between race and ethnicity and gender and sexuality in ways not necessarily taken up by many of her literary Chicana predecessors. Lemus’s fiction complicates the issues of gender identity, gender expression, gender variance, and genderqueerness, recognizing a range of what queer theorist Judith (Jack) Halberstam calls “female masculinities” (48) and paying particular attention to how her character’s female masculinities negotiate Chicanidad or Chican@ identity. Lemus’s texts are not concerned with naming or locating themselves within a geopolitical, ethnic, psychological, or spiritual borderland, as tended to occur in Chicana lesbian texts of the 1980s and 1990s. While much Chican@ literature has explored the oppositional dynamics of Chicano versus Anglo, citizen versus immigrant-as-foreigner, working versus middle and owning class, female versus male, queer versus straight, Lemus adds to the matrices of identity and power by exploring what it means to be genderqueer versus normative as well as punkera/punk versus mainstream. Lemus’s fiction considers the possibilities and binds of genderqueerness for Chican@s. Her work suggests that genderqueerness disrupts a sense of unified cultural wholeness in the Chican@ imaginary. But Lemus’s work is not just about rupture; it is also about reclamation and recovery in that for Lemus's characters genderqueerness allows for reclaiming lost history and coming to terms with a collective Chican@ sense of lost wholeness. Some Chicana lesbian works prior to Lemus’s use the term “lesbian”.5 Lemus, however, eschews the label “lesbian” altogether and tends to use “dyke” and “queer” interchangeably in her novels. Lemus’s usage enacts a shift away from “lesbian” and “gay” toward “queer” as a signifier within Latin@ fiction. While Lemus does not use terms such as genderqueer, transsexual, or transgendered, her work nonetheless takes up these issues and identities as inherently bound up in queer Chican@ experience.

13In GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary, co-editor Riki Wilchins offers a definition of genderqueerness that encompasses sex, gender, and sexuality: “In a society where femininity is feared and loathed, all women are genderqueer. In a culture where masculinity is defined by having sex with women and femininity by having sex with men, all gay people are gender queers” (12). She further observes that “whenever gender is mentioned, it is inevitably written down – and too often written off – as only transgender.” (15) Drawing on Wilchins’s generalized definition, I am using “genderqueer” to denote gender variant identities and expressions that seek to disrupt or transcend the female/male gender binary or to resist gender norms but do not necessarily coincide with contemporary uses of the term “transgender”. On the relationship between the terms “genderqueer” and “transgender”, David Valentine writes,

As the meanings around genderqueer evolve, it will be essential to think about how this category works not only against the solidity of identity categories but against the solidity of the broader categories of social experience which it describes: gender, sexuality, sex, race, class, and so on. (254)

14In an interview with Lemus conducted by Michelle Tea, the author describes her project of representing and imagining genderqueer Chican@s. Tea says that when she first read Lemus’s novel, she was confused by all of the gender fluidity. In Trace Elements…, the protagonist Leti does not assume or adopt either a feminine or masculine gender expression and stick with it as though it were a fixed identity. Lemus offers that representing gender fluidity “was important to [her] also in terms of being Chicana,” before going on to say:

I don’t know many androgynous Chicanas or anyone who plays that line quite like I see people of different ethnicities play it. People who are still very much in touch with their culture, who aren’t more assimilated, they still play by the kind of old school rules of butch/femme. And I respect that. There’s something about it culturally that works. (178)

15Notably, Lemus relegates butch-femme to the past, where “old school rules” are at work. Lemus also associates butch-femme in Chicana culture with the lack of assimilation into mainstream white culture. The old school rules of butch-femme, then, become for Lemus markers of an ethnic authenticity, a sense of being “in touch” with one’s culture. This positions butch-femme as traditional in Chican@ culture, which potentially opens a way for anything outside the butch-femme paradigm to seem more assimilated, and hence, less Chican@. Leti'’s gender fluidity challenges gender norms among Chicanas, queer and straight. Tea’s confusion about the text speaks to how the narrative enacts gender fluidity by disrupting any expectations or assumptions of a gender binary. This shifting terrain of gender expressions makes the main character's gender unpredictable and unreadable.

16In her fiction, Lemus explores what happens for Chicanas outside of the butch-femme binary. Lemus’s challenge of the Chicana butch-femme binary emphasizes how butch-femme has become a marked point of reference for Chicana lesbians. Indeed, Moraga’s autobiographical writings, particularly Loving in the War Years, contributed to the construction of butch-femme as a prevalent form of gender identities among Chicana lesbians. Moraga’s literary persona as a Chicana butch looms large among the representative body of Chicana lesbian literature. Given such a literary legacy, Lemus’s texts can be read as laments as well as celebratory representations of the (im)possibility of genderqueerness beyond butch-femme in Chicanidad. The unreadability of gendered subjects in Lemus’s novels makes certain kinds of genderqueerness more out of place in Chican@ culture than other kinds of lesbian genders. By focusing on versions of genderqueerness that do not work culturally, Lemus exposes how the cultural signs and systems that work and do not work get read, misread, or not read according to Chican@ understandings of normative genders.

17If butch-femme, as Lemus claims, “works” culturally, it is because it is to some extent accepted, or acceptable, in Chican@ culture. Lemus’s comment reveals how butch-femme can be viewed as homonormative among queers yet heteronormative within the context of traditional Chican@ culture. But this acceptability of butch-femme can be at the expense of allowing other gender identities or expressions to flourish; butch-femme can, unfortunately, render other forms of genderqueerness unreadable or unallowable. The idea that butch-femme entirely works in Chican@ culture breaks down in Lemus’s novels, however, in that the butch or genderqueer lesbians are rejected by or cast out of their families. How does butch-femme work if, in Lemus’s texts, the butch or masculine woman or genderqueer is cast out of Chican@ family and community? How does butch-femme work, if the butch part of the equation is not accepted on its own? There is an elision that occurs culturally between the lesbian frame of reference and a genderqueerness frame of reference. Butch-Femme is a lesbian gender system that is recognizable within a Chican@ context either because of its assumed resemblance to heterosexual gender paradigms or perhaps because of lesbian cultural work to assert its meaning. But a butch alone, without being coupled with or associated as paired with a femme, is typically read as genderqueer before she is read as a lesbian or dyke. That is, a Chicana butch gets read as gender variant before she gets read as a lesbian. Any genderqueerness is suspect or rejectable because it is presumed unacceptable and unreadable. Lemus's genderqueer protagonists are unreadable as either femme or butch, the only readable or discernible categories of gender expression deemed allowable for Chicana lesbians. And even within the tolerated binary of butch-femme, the feminine is considered socially acceptable, excluding the masculine woman, the butch, from what is allowed to be seen or expressed. Lemus’s novels incisively get at the reality yet impossibility of female masculinity among queer Chicanas.

18The novel Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties privileges a working-class, genderqueer Chicana dyke subjectivity, attempting to write this subject into an empowered position in the Chican@ imaginary. Yet, the text ultimately renders this Chicana dyke subject unreadable by mainstream Chican@s, leaving her with alliances outside Chican@ culture but without a Chican@ community. This move to position the genderqueer Chicana as liberated only outside of Chicano community addresses the problematic of genderqueer subjectivity in relation to Chicanidad. The text uses two queer Chicana characters, Leti and Edith, to show how Chicana lesbians negotiate aspects of their identity and can make radically different choices around them. Leti, as the central figure in the text, becomes the focal point for the development of a particular kind of Chicana dyke identity deemed authentic; Edith’s Chicana lesbian identity becomes discounted around the issue of class. Identity in this text is highly performative and centers around shared sexuality, gender expression, and class in ways that may privilege those aspects of identity over ethnicity, calling into question the notion that one's ethnicity is always central to one's identity. Furthermore, Lemus’s narrative configures Chicana dyke identity as so extremely performative and fluid as to become constantly in transition, and hence, indefinable.

19Leti is a college-educated Chicana lesbian with a working-class background who does not fret over what it means to be a Chicana. And once her character outs herself as a lesbian early on in the novel, she does not have any notable identity struggles over her sexuality. It is Leti’s genderqueerness that becomes the central aspect of her character's identity struggles. Leti, and other characters in the novel, push at the boundaries of traditional gender expression. Leti plays with gender expression by mixing feminine and masculine clothing and by referring to herself alternately as dyke, boy, boy-girl, femme, or princess At one moment, Leti is wearing pearls and insists on calling herself “princess” (35). Later, she dresses herself in what she refers to as “boy style” (235). In the narrative, Leti and her friends play with gender. This may involve dressing masculine or feminine, or being androgynous, or combining these attributes. They move seemingly randomly along a gender expression continuum, engaging in what critic Judith Halberstam describes in Female Masculinity as “layering”, the practice of donning a layer of outer attire that signifies one’s so-called opposite gender (261). Drag performers, for example, often engage in layering that does not try to fully “hide” the biological gender of the body underneath. According to Halberstram, one who engages in this type of gender play through dress does not hide but instead reveals – by allowing all of the layers to show at once – making a genderqueer performance a way of exposing the ludicrous limitations of a binaristic gender system. For Leti, this type of gender play becomes an integral part of how she moves through her queer world. Before going out to Crystal’s, her favorite dyke bar, she carefully chooses her attire, pointing out that she wears her pearl choker “especially if [she] was going to Crystal’s.” (56) Leti indeed engages in this type of layering gender play and seems to revel in queering her gender not just by occasionally dressing masculine but also by mixing elements of masculine and feminine dress, causing all of her layers of gender expression to show at once.

20By situating Leti as the central figure in the text, Lemus privileges a working-class, genderqueer Chicana dyke subjectivity in a way that few Chicana texts have attempted. These intersecting identity issues have been theorized by Anzaldúa and Moraga, for instance, but they have not, for the most part, been addressed in very many Chicana novels. What Lemus does with this subjectivity, however, raises a host of questions about how queerness figures in Chican@ identity, particularly in terms of how genderqueer is situated as opposed to, or outside the boundaries of, Chicanidad.

21Leti’s grandmother (Nana) becomes a significant player in Leti’s identity struggle. Significantly, it is around gender expression – not sexuality – that their relationship becomes threatened. Nana and Leti do not explicitly discuss Leti’s sexuality, her dyke identity, or her desire for other women. Throughout the text, Leti has a series of girlfriends but she never has a “coming out” moment in which she declares her sexuality to Nana, who is her mother figure. This is a curious absence in a lesbian novel but perhaps speaks to the silence that pervades many Chican@ families around issues of sexuality, particularly lesbianism. Leti does not go through a process in which she is wracked with indecision about whether she is a lesbian or not; she realizes her lesbian identity in college without so much as a second thought. Thus, she does not seem to have an identity crisis over her sexuality, and she does not seem to be faced with any desire to announce her newfound sexual identity to Nana. Whether Nana makes any assumptions about Leti’s sexuality is never hinted at in the text, and so we can presume that this was either passed over in silence or simply a non-issue.

22What does become an issue, however, is Leti’s gender performance. When her Nana visits her on Mother’s Day, Leti dons masculine attire for the occasion. She carefully irons one of her “grown-up dress shirts”, a “new skinny navy blue tie”, and a pair of “new dark brown slacks” (166). This is radically different than how she has dressed before. Although she has occasionally chosen a single marker of masculinity to accent her attire, such as an ex-lover’s pair of “Italian zippered boots” (43), she is typically depicted as feminine, wearing short dresses, her favorite pearl choker, and on one occasion, a cat suit. Yet, she claims to want to “get dressed proper for Nana” and likens herself to a chemistry “experiment” (165). Leti also radically alters her hairstyle for the occasion, losing her “sharp-edged bob hairdo” (typically coded as feminine), claiming it “dragged [her] down into a funk and put [her] in tears,” despite the fact that we have not been shown any such evidence of her unhappiness with her previous appearance. She opts for a “cropped barbershop clean-cut boy haircut.” She changes her appearance in this manner, “hoping that the elements would meld without too harsh an explosion.” (165) Thus, she expects some type of eruption from Nana’s reaction but hopes only that it will not be too harsh. When Nana arrives at Leti’s house and sees her dressed in a manly manner, Nana reacts strongly to her gender expression by exclaiming, “Dear Mother of God. Is that a boy or a girl?” (167) Nana’s reaction is especially significant because she does not say that Leti looks like a boy or man; she appears to not understand which sex or gender is being presented. Additionally, she does not refer to Leti by name or speak directly to her; she uses the word “that” as though Leti is not a person but an indecipherable object. Thus, Nana makes it clear that it is not Leti’s choice to express a ‘female masculinity’ that is a problem. It is the ambiguity of her gender performance that is not readable or tolerated.

23In grandmother’s reaction, by making an appeal to the Virgin Mary (“Mother of God”), is typically evoked when one is making a request in prayer (167). Opening such an appeal with “Dear”, however, increases the urgency, making the utterance either a direct appeal to the Virgin Mary or an epithet, doubly blasphemous in Chican@ Catholic culture because it curses both the holy figure and the sacred figure of the mother. The use of the word “that”, because it is a generic, not a gendered pronoun, emphasizes the volatility associated with upsetting traditional gender categories. Leti, here, is spoken about as an object, unidentifiable in terms of specific gender. The generic “that” also distances the two subjects from each other (that over there versus me here). In the absence of a gendered pronoun, the grandmother calls attention to the ubiquitousness of fixed ideas of gender; the grandmother has only the traditional gender binary to understand Leti: that Leti must be either a boy or a girl. The question is also infantilizing; the grandmother does not ask whether Leti is a man or a woman but asks instead whether Leti is a boy or a girl. She also does not speak directly to Leti, instead calling on her higher spiritual power to explain “that” which she sees before her.

24While we can interpret the grandmother's reaction as shock, disgust, or dismay at the loss of the possibility of gender normativity, we can also see it simply as a moment of utter confusion. In that moment of her exclamation, the grandmother fails (whether feigning or not) to read Leti because Leti does not register clearly as either female or male. This moment of un-readability according to the traditional gender binary is also a disavowal, a distancing, and ultimately a de-humanizing move that leaves Leti’s very personhood in doubt. That Nana does not ever have such an outburst around Leti's sexuality suggests that silence or denial is the mode of operating around that issue. Leti does not ever specifically “come out” (in the sense of a discrete declarative event rather than a long-term process) to her grandmother, who serves as Leti’s connection to Chicana culture. However, this scene of unreadable gender performance is a type of coming out, one of genderqueerness, and Nana essentially rejects her. Although we may sympathize with Leti's rejection during her coming-out moment, her actions call into question her choice to force the issue in this manner. After this scene in which the grandmother is shocked by Leti’s masculine gender expression, the grandmother suddenly dies. It is as though Leti’s gender ambiguity – her unreadability – has killed her Mexican grandmother. Thus, the novel engages in what I call the ‘killing-the-Mexican-syndrome,’ in which the feminist protagonist can live fully only once the text kills off her Mexican past. Leti also breaks off her relationship with Edith, the other Chicana lesbian in the novel, because she learns that Edith is from an economically privileged background. This severs Leti’s only other connection to her Chican@ community.

25Leti forms a friendship with a fellow genderqueer, working-class white dyke, Nolan. In the novel’s final scene, Leti and Nolan, Chicana dyke and white dyke, sit together, while Leti waxes nostalgic about stories Nana has shared with her of her Mexican heritage. In the end Leti is left with two things: her Chicana stories and her alliance with Nolan. On the one hand, Leti’s alliance with Nolan can be seen as transformative because it crosses ethnic borders, even as it leaves the Chicana without her Chicana community. To read this ending, one might be tempted to look to Anzaldúa’s borderlands theory to provide a framework for reading the racialized genderqueer Chicana and her predicament around gender, sexuality, class, race, and nation. In Borderlands/La Frontera, Anzaldúa argues that the Chicana lesbian has no race or nation (102). And Lemus’s novel seems to demonstrate this, in that if Leti wants to be a genderqueer queer person, she can do so only after escaping the boundaries of Chican@ family and community. But in Anzaldúa’s vision of the new mestiza, the Chicana lesbian (and Chicana in general) emerges from the crucible that is the borderlands with a transcendent consciousness and radicalized politic organized around social activism. In Lemus’s narrative, the Chicana lesbian is without a nation. She is neither envisioned back into her Chican@ nation nor envisioned as altering that nation so that it will accept her.

26On the one hand, Lemus may seem to tread on familiar ground here, implying a forced choice – between Chican@ community and queer community – for Chicanas who, like Gloria Anzaldúa, choose to be queer. But Lemus combines an Anzaldúan facultad, a capacious facility for borderlands metamorphosis, with Moraga’s concept of creating a queer Aztlán, in which genderqueer Chican@s reconfigure Chicanidad into their own potentially transformative cultural space. This capacity for transformation by the genderqueer Chican@ operates through non-normative gender expression as well as at the level of self-representation through language. Lemus portrays this fluidity of gender via the fluidity of language in the novel. Lemus’s peculiar use of repetitive descriptions evokes a poetic device employed by the Mexica, or ancient Aztecs. In Náhuatl poetry, renaming through repetition is common, as is the use of compound words and phrases, such as in the term in xochi in cuícatl which translates to the compound “flower-song” or flor y canto, or poetry (Leon-Portilla, 103). This repetition for emphasis is also a poetic strategy used by seventeenth-century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, known for her outspoken feminist critiques of Mexican social and religious institutions. In Chicano Poetics: Heterotexts and Hybridities, Alfred Arteaga associates Sor Juana’s use of inverted repetitive phrases as a gendered chiasmus, a rhetorical device illustrative of the feminist resistance expressed in her work. In the case of Lemus, the redundant phrases occasionally use a part to describe a whole in the form of a metonymy or synecdoche but are more often simply descriptive or stylistic excess for effect. For example, when Leti and her friends get thrown out of a San Francisco gay men’s bar because it is for gay men only, Leti describes the dive they wind up at as “an old movie-house balcony with seats so sunken-down broken-springs that we might as well have sat on the sticky floor.” (104) Then when they find a lively dyke venue, Leti describes the scene thus: “[t]he place was wall-to-wall delicious dykes and good ambience,” (104) where she and her lover “messed around in a curtained caboose seat” while being observed by “[t]wo tired corporate-tower types who were totally out of place in the tough vibe of the bar.” (104).

27The repetitive, tiered descriptions align with the conversational tone of the novel. For example, the narrator engages in many asides, such as claiming that every word of the story is true or asking the reader not to laugh at a particularly salacious or embarrassing detail. After a tangential explanation, the narrator returns to the main narrative thread with a conversational and improvisational sounding, “So anyway […]” (52) or “I'll be honest […].” (55) This is a regular feature throughout the book that becomes not just part of the characters’ vernacular but also the descriptive and expressive linguistic style that characterizes the entire narrative. This could also be compared to the queer Black vernacular strategies of Sharon Bridgforth's work, with slashes and renaming that create an expansiveness of description, using expansiveness as a method for approaching specificity or the intensity of emotion: “Our sex wasn’t exhibitionism, it was public service of a kind and it made me feel high and mighty and sleepy-eyed just-been-loved.” (104) The compound words here serve as stylistic antics and experimentations to do descriptive justice to the playful, hedonistic, and erotic lesbian social scene depicted. At the end of this bar scene, Leti’s lover K calls her a “rebel girl” (104), a type of compound in itself, which conveys how Leti is not just a rebellious youth but specifically a rebel against the traditional idea of a what a girl should act like.

28Lemus also deploys this linguistic play with hyphenated compound verbs that capture action that incorporates or falls between two specific verbs. For example, when Leti first meets K, she tries to sound smooth and flirtatious after her best friend embarrasses her by mentioning that she works as a dog groomer. Attempting to recover from the embarrassing career revelation, Leti says, “I kind of laugh-breathed.” (64) The compound construction suggests not quite a laugh and not quite a full breath but both simultaneously, stressing a sense of in-betweenness or too muchness, a sense of not fitting in or of feeling too much discomfort for common language to hold or express. Lemus resorts to compound or repetitive adjectives to express a single complex idea. She describes a group of boys trying to appear tough as exhibiting “gangster-proud expressions they copied from their older brothers.” (77) When describing a lover’s mouth, she says that she has “luscious orange lipstick lips” (105), using excessive detail to capture the hyper-feminine seductive excess associated with femme femininity. The flowing adjectives are imitative or expressive of a flowing feminine speech as well as a resourceful inventiveness resonant of the do-it-yourself attitude or aesthetic of the queer punk scene also being depicted. The windy descriptions and tangled phrasings make it sometimes difficult to follow the logic or action or sentence structure, contributing further to the text’s ‘unreadable’ sensibility. Lemus’s linguistic play amounts to an articulation and creation of a vocabulary that can adequately express genderqueer experience where singular, straightforward wording does not suffice.

29In Lemus’s first work of queer Chicana fiction, it is clearly the unreadability of genderqueerness, rather than queer desire, that causes disconnections between the young Chicana protagonist and her Mexican American culture and family. Lemus’s representations of genderqueerness pose questions about what it means to be seen, to be visible, or to be unseen. In Unexplained Presence, poet and critic Tisa Bryant extends the work of Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination to explore how black presences in Eurocentric literatures have been used to construct ideas of whiteness. Bryant asks, “What if we grew uncomfortable with mere visibility and found power in being unseen?” Bryant’s question reminds us that for minoritarian subjects, seeking visibility does not necessarily result in power, justice, or positive social change.

30Lemus’s novel makes genderqueerness visible within a Chican@ frame yet remains uncomfortable with mere visibility. Lemus’s text provokes an exploration of how and why queers continue to figure as unreadable to other Chican@s even in the new worlds imagined by contemporary Chican@s. It causes us to ask how moments of unreadabiliity of the other may be interpreted not as a disavowal but as an opportunity for self-construction. In a time of renewed anti-Latin@ and anti-queer fervor in the U.S., Lemus’s fictive imaginings suggest that illegibility in the form of genderqueerness does not have to result in the loss of community and does not have to be redeemed by a rendering invisible. It can become a productive, generative site for constituting pleasurable queer Chican@ lives in unknown futures.

31Lemus’s queer lifeworlds insightfully exemplify how bodies may shift, cultures may transform, and structures of being may transform in the process. When the racialized queer Chican@ body eludes recognition among other Chican@s, it serves as a reminder that, as Hiram Pérez observes, “The brown body's ambiguity is endlessly generative.” (You Can Have …, 185) While one may wish to avoid imposing a model of linear progression or multicultural additive approach to understanding difference, it is difficult not to observe how Lemus indeed shows there are always more boundaries to cross. Examples might include the less examined conceptual borders of racialized dis/ability, the in/visibility of the undocumented im/migrant, the radical alterity of as-of-yet unrecognized or identified subjectivities and bodies that will reveal more fissures and destabilize yet another constrictive binary of Anglo-centric Occidental dominance. The fiction of Felicia Luna Lemus suggests that the notion of a Latinotopia, for non-normatively gendered queer Latin@ subjects, need not be exclusive. It may be a rather queer future indeed, one that is seemingly impossible yet a potentiality worth seeking.

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1 Following Domino Renee Pérez and other contemporary Chican@ Studies scholars, I use the hybrid term Chican@, shifting away from the use of the slash or the more cumbersome spelling out of both words, as in “Chicana and Chicano”. See D. R. Pérez, There Was a Woman…, 210. I sometimes use Chican@, Mexican American, and Latin@ interchangeably in order to trouble the geopolitical distinctions between the terms.

2 Here I draw on José E. Muñoz’s “disidentification” theory in which queer people of color refashion codes of dominative culture for their own purposes.

3 I am grateful to Ana Ixchel Rosal for compiling an archive of ALLGO's history, to Priscilla Hale for maintaining the archive, and to the many people involved with ALLGO over the years who contributed archival materials important for preserving and documenting queer Chican@ histories.

4 ALLGO has since expanded into the first statewide queer organization in Texas and is now called ALLGO: A Queer People of Color Organization.

5 E.g. Juanita Ramos (ed.), Compañeras: Latina Lesbians, New York: Routledge, 1994; Lourdes Torres & Inmaculada Pertusa (eds.), Tortilleras: Hispanic and U.S. Latina Lesbian Expression, Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2003.

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T. Jackie Cuevas, « Imagining Queer Chican@s in the Post-Borderlands », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. XI – n° 2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2013, consulté le 02 avril 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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T. Jackie Cuevas

T. Jackie Cuevas, originally from South Texas, is an Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Syracuse University. She earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the co-founder of Evelyn Street Press and a member of Macondo, the creative writing collective founded by Sandra Cisneros. Cuevas’s writing has appeared in the Tanto Tinto Press Chapbook Series, Ixua Review, Sinister Wisdom, Stone Canoe, Nakum, and in the introduction to the third edition of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (Aunt Lute, 2007).

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