(Un)certainty and Assumptions of the Archive: On Monica Huerta’s “Magical Habits”

Reading Monica Huerta’s “Magical Habits,” Rosa Boshier wonders how to live a life alongside scholarship.

(Un)certainty and Assumptions of the Archive: On Monica Huerta’s “Magical Habits”

Magical Habits by Monica Huerta. Duke University Press Books. 200 pages.

THIS FALL, I started a PhD program. I had not been living far off from the world I was about to enter, adjuncting at a number of art schools, teaching art history and critical theory and Latinx studies, mostly straddling my bed in front of the stained white wall of my bedroom, tamping down my pillows and comforter so my setting didn’t tell on itself. Such was the nature of teaching during a pandemic, holding lectures and student meetings from my greasy laptop screen in rented rooms, first in Los Angeles and then in Portland. Angling the camera away from my floor mattress and laundry pile, strategically selecting sweats that doubled as pajamas for those 8:00 a.m. classes. But after reading Monica Huerta’s Magical Habits, I wondered: What was the point of shielding my students from my life? Of neatly separating thought and the rudimentary grit of my day-to-day experience?

Perhaps in this fidelity to division I was mirroring the inherent isolation of adjunct work — being given access to $5 Duke University Press exam copies but no health insurance; operating both as an integral part of, yet remaining outside of an institution, like a phantom limb that only firms and animates at the behest of the body for purely functional purposes, like lifting a cup of coffee. Then, a year later when I returned to school in person to pursue my PhD, I was shocked by our closeness, literally breathing the same air as we co-crafted metaphors, the networks of buzzwords and assumed archives that define our field. Barely separated by the thin skin of fabric covering the better part of our noses and mouths, we pored over the musty secondhand pages of our texts, tried to connect their themes to what was happening outside our classroom, an army of raised hands gunning to share interpretations, concepts shifting like clouds in relation to one another’s comments. I had forgotten that academia is a collective, and I had also forgotten that its lexicon is constantly in the process of being both reinforced and redefined.

In Magical Habits, Huerta writes, “Think, if you will, of disciplines as a kind of magic some people know how to practice until it’s as though they always knew, either the hunkering down or the cordoning off of parts of the world.” Sitting in a circle of colleagues agreeing with each other on our syntheses of Fred Moten, Jack Halberstam, and Julietta Singh, amassing the kinds of scholarly approaches that we thought might allow us to both survive and subvert the academy, I wondered if we were we digging ourselves below and out of the institution — or if we were simply building glass rooms at its heart, highly visible chambers that only a handful of people could sidestep in and out of. I looked around at a classroom of bright, caring doctoral students perplexed by, yet still committed to, the possibilities of being in the world with our thinking, and wondered if we were aware of when the magic had set in, when we had started to label certain streams of thought as “useful” and others irrelevant to the particular kind of archive we wanted to represent ourselves as. If there was a turning point after which we had demarcated ourselves as archives.

Magical Habits’s blend of personal archive and theory prompts the reader to question their assumptions around what constitutes accepted archives and heralded academic discourse, posing the book as a “holding environment” for Huerta’s many inquiries. Within a relatively slim text, Huerta performs a rich kind of self-ekphrasis, looking at material from her own life and family for clues about how to live alongside scholarship: television, family lore, tales from her love life that read like movie reels. Writing at a breakneck intellectual speed, shifting from topics like agency in the age of the internet, to economic death, to cultural co-optation within the span of a few sentences, Huerta examines her parents’ chain of Mexican restaurants in Chicago (As Huerta puts it, “The business arrangements structuring the possibilities of love”) through the prism of memories, photographs, interviews, text messages, and more to render ties between cultural identity, assumptions of authenticity, and capitalism. Drawing these unconventional archives into her practice as a scholar, Huerta wedges lived experience into the narrow canals of academic thought, shoehorning romantic affairs and accounts of her grandfather’s relationship to his body next to robust historical contextualization of Mexico-US relations and the 2007 recession, thus expanding the points of connection between art, thought, and life.

Yet despite Huerta’s hyperawareness of academia as power apparatus, she seems just as hopeful about scholarship as she is critical. She writes, “[Each critical act] could carve out, not disinterest, but a habit of disinvesting in the power through which arguments are made to seem final, as though we might stop time — or want to.” Through a close interrogation of the dangers of certainty, particularly as they pertain to the relationship between cultural “authenticity” and capitalism, Huerta asserts her own belief in the potential of uncertainty and the imperative of living alongside scholarship in order to carve out more equitable and embodied intellectual practices.

“Of specific concern to this book,” Huerta continues,

are certain habits of thought to which we’ve been called in the hopes of both deconstructing racial and settler-colonial capitalism’s structural and philosophical life and filling out historical archives shaped through and by these historical violences and imbalances of power. This book performs the questions of whether these same critical imperatives — meant to liberate minds and so futures — can be livably lived in, that is, what they yield to and in a life when critical turns of thought are practiced like habits for living.

Can one enliven thought? Huerta wonders. Is it actually possible for one to embody these academic questions? Can this habit of curiosity be used to generate more power as opposed to simply pointing out and metaphorically shrugging toward how few people are allowed to possess it?

Magical Habits reads as a practice in sustaining contradictions, purposefully drawing them out and activating them. Part of this invocation means driving at the heart of certainty’s fallacy and its inherent violences. Huerta equates certainty, or assumed knowledge, with dogma and binary thinking. She uses the tired question of, “Where are you from?” to illustrate certainty’s role in solidifying white supremacy and colonialism in the everyday. This moment is also a jumping-off point for Huerta to discuss the murkiness of beginnings and endings, especially within the context of diaspora. What if your history splays across countries and languages, Huerta asks the reader, “migrations and genocide and rape”? She notes the asker’s relief when Huerta is identified, pointing out that their relief with regards to a kind of final identification says more about the asker’s need to solidly locate themselves in contrast to her.

Huerta later unscrolls this notion of belonging to include the nomadic life of a scholar. Throughout the text, Huerta refers to the various cross-country moves she has made in pursuit of higher education and teaching, from the Bay Area to New York and back several times, leaving a trail of possessions behind with friends. Of this simultaneous shedding and gifting, Huerta reflects, “[T]here are hundreds of people all over the country who dress like all the versions of me I dreamed up.” When a loved one asks Huerta where home is, Huerta replies, “I guess where my clothes are,” which of course, is another way of cataloging, of archiving the self and lived experience. Later, she asks, “Do we keep reinventing the impulse to believe in a magical power of the word: If I know all of your names, then you are mine.” As dedicated students of thought, are we constantly trying to name each other? Is this one of the risks we face as scholars, or one of the bad habits we are in danger of replicating? The urge to create new kinds of certainty out of the critique of the ones we have already labeled menacing?

Huerta uses an ex-lover as an example of this critique of certainty solidifying into itself: a white boy Marxist in love with his own voice, transforming theories into slogans, offering “tantrums as declarations,” reinscribing his personal relationships with the same essentialism that he attempts to unwind in his professional life. Huerta invites the reader to take the temperature of this impulse, asking, “Is there another way to insist on otherwise possibilities than through claiming that change begins with any kind of certainty?” Yet, there may be comfort in the inherent cyclicality of divesting from certainty, as Huerta points out. She continues with hope, nodding to the crevices between historically and socially constructed certainties, reminding us that “history doesn’t go anywhere but it can be reviewed.” Here, I think again of the collective, of the wide-eyed conversations I have had in cramped classrooms, all of us straining against the constrictive U-shape of our blonde pine school desks and fighting our bodies’ 8:00 p.m. calls toward dinner and bed to discuss Moten’s assertion that study is what you do with other people. [1]

This thread on certainty leads Huerta into a meditation on its function within economic systems, particularly the cruel and speculative nature of capitalism — that it is dependent upon speculative but certain loss. Evoking the transatlantic slave trade and the United States’s everchanging policies on Mexican labor and border control, Huerta states, “[T]he certainty that some people would die became the engine for a market that spanned oceans but lived in imaginations just as firmly as on lands.” In prose that veers into the poetic, she further expands on the hypocrisy of capitalism, writing, “[M]oney became something I could have a hard time understanding because it wouldn’t sit still, because it was fueled (in the sense that it became itself) by the anxious inevitability of death, but more precisely, of murder.”

Through analyzing menus and restaurant photographs, Huerta looks at capitalism’s dependency on cultural authenticity as a barometer for the success of Mexican and Mexican American businesses. She points out that the loss of an “authentic” cultural self in exchange for a commercially palatable version of Mexicanness is necessary to turn food into profit. One example is her own father Salvador Huerta’s use of the Alamo iconography — which serves as the background for a family portrait — and the Chicago skyline in his restaurant chain’s menus. The former evokes the feeling of the US-Mexico borderlands, to which Huerta had no real ties, while rooting the viewer in a perceived “real” Mexican domestic scene. The latter served as a safety net of North American reference and familiarity. The author recalls that the family portrait was originally taken at an entertainment center in suburban Chicago and meant to evoke the Wild West, “another mythic site of Americanity’s constitutive imperialism.” Huerta analyzes, “[T]he domestic portrait replicates the ways in which family histories authenticate the food being served in restaurants. […] This fictionalized intimacy cloaked in fictionalized history serves a commercial function; together they create what appears as Mexicanness.”

To pronounce the racialized double standard around this tether between food, money, and cultural authenticity, Huerta describes the contrast between white North American chef Rick Bayless’s presentation of Mexican food (whose success, Huerta points out, Bayless owes to Taco Bell founder Glen Bell) to that of Bayless’s former chef Geno Bahena, who later opened his own restaurants. Rather than cultural lineage, Bayless leans on his research of Mexican food, namely his listing of food ingredients by their Spanish names, as opposed to family narratives or photographs. Huerta points out that Mexicanness for Bayless “is an intellectual project, not a relation verified through family histories of migration and displacement.” As a white man, Bayless escapes the criteria for cultural authenticity and instead is heralded by food critics for revising traditional Mexican food through his creative vision, placing his culinary work squarely within the contemporary. Huerta writes, “Bayless is given license to reinvent the terms of authenticity through which he is evaluated,” which sounds a whole lot like writing your own job performance review.

Conversely, Bahena’s restaurants call to a nebulous Mexican past, marketing around family tradition and drawing on Bahena’s role as a faithful Mexican American son “carrying forth his family’s values and kitchen secrets into the American marketplace.” Huerta also emphasizes that while Bahena’s restaurants are often referred to in relation to Bayless, Bahena is not given equal credit for influencing Bayless, despite the fact that Bahena worked with Bayless for 12 years and helped to open his first restaurant. Thus, showing how certainty flexes its power from personal relationship to economics, Huerta demonstrates that certainty is a shifting and menacing concept that serves merely as the gatekeeper of hierarchies.

However, Huerta sees a chink in certainty’s armor through new strategies in thinking and education. At the end of the day, Huerta is a romantic about learning. She believes in its potential for radical change, writing,

[T]he dirtiest secrets and deepest historical hauntings hide in what is left unspoken, and power lies in the ability to unearth and make known. History so often meets the present as an unmarked grave. One way to mark them could be to reclaim their silence as sacred, to reclaim what’s unmarked as the site of (un)holy battles lost and won.

By building a different kind of archive that serves as a trail to a nuanced kind of thought, Huerta asserts that we can lead ourselves to new, more liberated ways of living. I was left, wondering, however, what happens after students unearth these dirty secrets? What modes of free(er) living get gathered into the classroom? What can we do to decolonize the classroom besides simply thinking, or performing thinking in text? How does one actually embody thought? But perhaps, this is Huerta’s point: that this embodiment, this marking, this translation of silence to sacred, is an individual choice arrived at through curiosity.

Huerta is not naïve about this endeavor, putting the responsibility of this freer thinking/living on the reader. “I’m invested in insisting that there are no heroes,” she writes, “just us and the habits we might choose to insist on and inch our ways to elsewhere.” On working ethically and rigorously, Huerta implores scholars to wander “eagerly and attentively toward our needs […] as toward one other as toward the horizon abolitionists articulate. […] [A] call to be responsible for becoming a safe haven.”

During a recent creative writing workshop I led with undergraduates, all of us masked and austere-looking under the florescent light, we examined a student poem about matrilineage and colonial violence. Many of us in the room were products of civil war or dictatorship or forced migration. We were all deeply engaged in the sparse page of text in front of us: words scattered to symbolize movement, loneliness, isolation, the precarity of national identity, we mused. I opened my mouth to elaborate on what I perceived to be a juicy bit of insight, only to find that the student whose work was being workshopped had turned away from me, their gaze falling squarely on their neighbor, elbows draping over the edge of the desk. “I wanted to know what you thought of this line here,” they said tentatively, pulling gently on their neighbor’s sleeve and shyly pointing to the page.

I am perhaps too much of a cynic to believe that equity can be achieved through thought, especially given who is allowed into the classroom in the first place. But I do believe in the power of the collective, and its ability to advance any notions of educational equity more rapidly. I see the institutional machinery wearing away whenever a student divests from my assumed authority as their instructor and lets their thinking and writing, as Huerta puts it, “wander” toward each other instead, seeing their minds change in real time about themselves and each other, embracing each others’ ideas, making each other kin.


Rosa Boshier is a writer whose work can be found in Literary Hub, The Guardian, The Washington PostHyperallergic, and The Rumpus, among others. She is finishing a novel on latinidad and London punk.


[1] The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Fred Moten & Stefano Harney

LARB Contributor

Rosa Boshier González is a writer, editor, and educator whose work has appeared in Guernica, Catapult, The New York Times, and Artforum, among others.


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