Three Recent Books about Trans Latinx Lives

March 2, 2022   •   By Marcos Gonsalez

Brown Trans Figurations: Rethinking Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Chicanx/Latinx Studies

Francisco J. Galarte

Translocas: The Politics of Puerto Rican Drag and Trans Performance

Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes

Nepantla Squared: Transgender [email protected] Histories in Times of Global Shift

Linda Heidenreich

THREE RECENT BOOKS explore the exciting intersections between trans studies and Latinx studies, offering close readings and case studies in transgender and gender-nonconforming Latinx historiography, performance, and cultural studies. All three stress the importance of considering trans and Latinx together, and make a strong case that we need more trans of color theorizing and critique.

Latino/a/x studies has been a mainstay in US universities for several decades. With the inauguration of Transgender Studies Quarterly in 2014, and the establishment of one of the first transgender studies programs at the University of Arizona, trans studies has seen a boom in scholarship, academic programming, and intellectual exchange. Bringing Latinx and trans studies into epistemological proximity, however, highlights disciplinary and conceptual limitations specific to each field. While on the one hand, queer and trans studies has been overwhelmingly white in terms of its analytic purview, its objects of analysis, and the actual researchers doing the work, Latinx studies, on the other hand, has had trouble with early masculinist leanings and is today circumscribed by cisheteronormativity, exemplified by debates over the use of gender-inclusive language and whether Latinx/e should be widely used. Thinking trans and Latinx together provides pathways for more rigorous and complex approaches that do not cleave apart race, sexuality, nationality, and gender, and trans of color theorists are making fierce strides at articulating this conjuncture.

Francisco J. Galarte’s Brown Trans Figurations: Rethinking Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Chicanx/Latinx Studies is a needed contribution to trans Latinx studies. The book offers a series of compelling close readings of literature, photography, film, and other accounts of Chicanx trans people and representation in the United States. Galarte joins in the call other trans of color scholars have made to conceptualize trans studies in relation to race and ethnicity. The category of trans, like that of queer, cannot be delinked from other vectors of identity, as this monograph makes clear. Galarte looks to the work of trans theorist Eva Hayward and feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti, whose scholarship on the porosity and transformational capacities of the body allows him to understand Chicanx transness as prioritizing “processes as opposed to concepts.” By doing so, Galarte asserts, we can refigure — figure otherwise — Chicanx/Latinx trans lives and narrative.

Galarte mounts a powerful critique of Cherríe Moraga’s 2009 essay “Still Loving in the (Still) War Years: On Keeping Queer Queer,” one that will prove instructive for trans Latinx thinking to come. In this essay, Moraga develops a trans-exclusionary feminist argument about how butch lesbians of color are succumbing to the desire to become men. Moraga believes that such yearnings reproduce toxic forms of masculinity that women of color feminists have long fought against. Galarte meticulously unpacks the fallacies in Moraga’s argument, illustrating how crucial it is to adopt a critical stance when working with foundational thinkers in fields like Latinx studies. He demonstrates how we hold our forebears’ thinking accountable and, by doing so, make their work serviceable for trans analytic frameworks and liberatory practices. His reading of the essay shows how we work with our antecedents, generously yet critically, and in a manner that productively finds an alternative to simply throwing prior texts and thinkers into the dustbin of history when we find them outdated.

In Translocas: The Politics of Puerto Rican Drag and Trans Performance, Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes presents an engaging and wide-ranging study of Puerto Rican transgender, queer, and gender-variant performance. He posits a notion that he calls “translocas”: modalities or practices of gendered transgression that emphasize “translocal Puerto Rican, American, Latin American, and Caribbean national imaginaries and social processes” and “serv[e] as a mechanism for historical memory and for intergenerational transmission of knowledge.” The word trans denotes both transgender embodiment and gender-nonconforming performance, yet the prefix also speaks to the specificity of border crossings in the Puerto Rican context, to transnationalities and transhemispheric movements. La Fountain-Stokes rejiggers the Spanish pejorative loca, typically deployed as a misogynistic and/or anti-femme slur, to refer to trans and cisgender drag performers, cisgender gay rappers, and other Puerto Rican queer/trans peoples whose “performance [of gender] negotiates contradictions and envisions new possibilities: it is a practice of critical imagining.”

La Fountain-Stokes’s readings provide richly descriptive ethnographic analyses of Puerto Rican drag performers and performances. In chapter two, for instance, he presents a poignant analysis of one competitor in RuPaul’s Drag Race, Nina Flowers, showing how the program seeks to box in Spanish-speaking and Latinx performers according to particular scripts. Flowers herself invoked the term loca on the show as a kind of catchphrase for her persona, but this information was only provided to viewers later in the season. La Fountain-Stokes’s chapter on New York City–based transgender drag performer and lip-synch artist Lady Catiria, who died from AIDS-related causes in 1999, offers a striking homage. Appearing as a cameo in the cult classic film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), and frequently performing at Escuelita, the legendary Black and Latinx queer nightclub in Manhattan, Lady Catiria amazed audiences with her cabaret-styled performances and signature manner on the stage. She rarely spoke during performances, electing to lip-synch and dance instead, a method La Fountain-Stokes eloquently summarizes as “a silence in generative tension with the mouthing of the lyric of divas.” La Fountain-Stokes’s analysis of Lady Catiria’s performances combines autoethnographic and archival research to explicate the distinctiveness of her Puerto Rican trans aesthetic and performance style. La Fountain-Stokes provides well-researched accounts of these individuals, though several of these are rather short, leaving you wanting to know more.

Drawing together historiographic and theoretical approaches, Linda Heidenreich’s Nepantla Squared: Transgender [email protected] Histories in Times of Global Shift illuminates the challenges of writing the histories of trans Latinx and [email protected] peoples. Following ideas developed by Gloria Anzaldúa, Heidenreich utilizes the term Nepantla for their historical recovery of trans [email protected] lives and movements. Heidenreich sees Nepantla, a Nahuatl concept translating roughly to “in-betweenness,” as a means of “view[ing] the world through motion-change,” where “motion is generative, allowing for structural change, in fact driving and shaping it.” In order to understand trans [email protected] lives, Heidenreich argues, we need to trace the various historical, economic, political, spatial, and gender conditions that constitute those lives in their situatedness. Motion-change is a way for trans [email protected] peoples to resist the interlocking oppressions that structure the world, a way to explore other ways of being that are seemingly foreclosed by racial, sexual, and transgender violence.

The book is organized around two biographies of trans [email protected] who lived in California at different historical moments. The first is Jack Garland, a transmasculine Mexican European person from the turn of the 20th century who was the subject of a 1990 biography by transman writer and activist Lou Sullivan. The second is a young transwoman, Gwen Amber Rose Araujo, who was killed in 2002 after a group of her cisgender peers discovered she was trans. These two case studies provocatively illustrate how gender informs and structures movements in colonial-capitalist systems, particularly for racialized trans people. Garland, for example, fashioned a transmasculine life by dressing in men’s clothing, serving as a Spanish translator in the Philippine-American War, and working as a newspaper reporter in Stockton, California, despite the scrutiny and chastisement he was subjected to by the community for his comportment and self-presentation. Heidenreich’s incisive contribution to the understanding of Garland’s transness attends to the ways his gender crossing intersects with his biracial identity, and how those intersections condition the possibilities of living a trans life under capitalist systems of labor, settler occupation, and US empire in Asia.

The story of Gwen Amber Rose Araujo is a major focus for both Galarte and Heidenreich. Galarte incisively examines the Lifetime film that recounts her story and death, A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story (2006), while Heidenreich interviews local community groups and Sylvia Guerrero, Araujo’s mother. What emerges from both analyses is a framework for apprehending Araujo’s life story as a racialized trans experience and, just as importantly, an understanding of how a predominantly white audience makes her story palatable for consumption. “[T]ranssexuality and Chicano culture become limitations to overcome,” Galarte says about the movie, “and the lack that is associated with the two is only resolvable through Araujo’s death.” Both Galarte and Heidenreich emphasize the ways in which the experiences of trans people of color are rendered illegible — or impossible — within the predefined rubrics of trans intelligibility, which presume a hegemonic whiteness.

As these three books show, animating trans Latinx narratives, histories, and lives calls for a speculative mode. Speculative inquiry allows for trans Latinx experiences — ones not defined or constrained by cisnormativity, stereotype, erasure, and absence — to emerge from the archive. In his 2017 book Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, C. Riley Snorton sees the speculative mode as a means of vitalizing archives of anti-Black erasure and violence, allowing for stories and histories to emerge despite the impossibility of ever fully knowing. This approach to historiography corresponds with Saidiya Hartman’s notions of critical fabulation and close narration, methods that read against the grain of archives produced and managed by white-supremacist state apparatuses. As Heidenreich comments, apropos of Garland’s movement through the world, “Could it be that he, in this space of chaos and motion change, met other persons striving to move beyond the gender assigned them by the dominant society?” Speculative inquiry is a promising mode through which to vitalize trans of color lives, especially those from prior eras. Given the vulnerability of trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people of color to varying forms of suspicion, erasure, violence, and premature death, speculative methods are crucial for tracing histories of trans resistance, survival, and, most importantly, thriving.

Speculative inquiry can be the means of imagining pasts, presents, and futures that center trans Latinx joy, pleasure, euphoria, humor, and other affective categories that frequently get sidelined in favor of narratives of pain and trauma. I have written elsewhere on how prioritizing quotidian displays of queer/trans Latinx life in behind-the-scenes footage of the 1990 film Paris Is Burning can reframe how we tell queer/trans of color narratives. Galarte, Heidenreich, and La Fountain-Stokes highlight, through their respective case studies, the limitations of narratives centered on violence and death, particularly when those narratives are predominately told by and targeted for cisgender and white audiences. Trans Latinx stories deserve to be more robust. They deserve to be campy, banal, zany, erotic, quotidian, and out of this world. They deserve the inventive thoroughness and experimental reflection that the speculative mode unlocks. These alternative affective and performative categories are crucial for modeling worlds in which trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people can live and flourish.

These three books are compelling contributions to how we understand trans and Latinx identities, urgently addressing the question of how gendered embodiment is conditioned by sociopolitical factors. One cannot perceive or perform gender, these authors instruct us, if it is not articulated in relation to contexts and histories of migration, racism, empire, and colonial-capitalism. Gendered identity, like Latinx identity, is always situated. Moreover, these books show that documenting trans Latinx experience does not need to be about sensationalizing or prioritizing stories of violence, trauma, and death. Rather, each in its own way provides a narrative that fosters trans Latinx lives, worlds, and freedoms. The Jack Garlands with their masculine swagger tramping through the borderlands into the 20th century. The Gwen Araujos and other trans girls of color fashioning lives for themselves despite it all, flirting and dreaming and having fun. The bombshell beauties like Lady Catirias, spinning and shimmying for audiences in archipelago colonies and city barrios, performing for the adulation they deserved. All the Jack Garlands and Gwen Araujos and Lady Catirias of yesterday who live now, too, and tomorrow.

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Marcos Gonsalez is an essayist, author, and professor of literature.