The Loneliness of Essentialism

Moraga’s A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness espouses a view of humanity, inheritance, and identity that I react pretty strongly and instinctively against. Yet I try to be sympathetic towards the text. I too find the need to localize queer desire within specific regional and national traditions important. I too qualify my sexual identity with my ethnic one, though not as strongly or thickly as Moraga does.

And I find her draw to certain traditions based on similar political leanings compelling, her draw to Indian literature and to Toni Morrison. I think this sort of literary affinity says a lot. For my own concept of my Cuban-American identity, for example, I draw on queer Cuban authors like Reinaldo Arenas or Cuban exiles’ music and food because these sources align more with particular intersections that are important to my identity: Cuban x queer, Cuban x American. Trying, however, to find the right source can be difficult, especially once the intricacies of being an immigrant or the child of one are brought into play. Which stories can I buy into or should I buy into? This isn’t an academic or a reasoned process. It’s emotional, personal, and impulsive, and so I can speak only of those that I like on instinct, really. The same sort of logic applies to which cultural narratives of identity we can accept.

I’m not Chicano, so I cannot speak to her confusion that so many Chican@ writers “remain so enamored with white people, their privileges, and their goodies: the seduction of success. Why do we remain confused about who we are?” (5). But as a Cuban-American I can say that the confusion about categorization that arises from being “Not Black. Not Indian. Not white” and yet not not one or more of these things is real in my own life, as well (5). Yet this lack of categorization itself strikes me as queer, if we want to (and I do want to) take queer as a marker of marginality: being in between or just outside the lines.

To call oneself queer and/or Cuban-American is, in a way, to enact constant transgression. Cuban-Americans (Latin@s in general, actually) somehow manage to confound American concepts of race and ethnicity, because for me, for example, I am Hispanic plus white: each application requires answering the question, “Are you Hispanic or Latino/a?” before you can fill in the rest. So we require extra paperwork, extra thought: a work-intensive identity! I don’t keep any illusions that these extra moments add up to some sort of jam in the system, but I prefer to frame it this way when people try to define me better, limiting me to “really white” or “really Hispanic.”  Much like a multiracial or multiethnic person, a Cuban-American, by keeping a foot in more than one door of racial/ethnic classification, poses a challenge to expectations of “neatness” in self-presentation of race. And I think that this challenge is in accord with the challenge queerness presents to frameworks of sexuality that would prefer we all be heterosexual or maybe homosexual in a predictable, monogamous, and domestic way. The political charge of the word “queer” has a similar charge, by avoiding neat explanations and culturally common categories, by requiring extra paperwork or thoughtful confrontations.

These small confrontations form part of everyday life—the awkward cringe and “well…” each time somebody refers to me as white, or the weird qualms when I’m filling out a form that requests too little or too much specificity about either my sexuality or my ethnicity—that the personal second-guessing of which movement one belongs to that Moraga refers to in her text feels familiar. I can see why her approach to this identity’s ostensible clumsiness, its dislocation, its colonization reads as a burdened and anxious experience. I want to feel her anxiety with her. Yet she pushes away readers who might feel this tug of familiarity, by framing her experience as so personal (and political) within such a tightly particular intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and location that I can’t fully give way and relate to her. The distance between us, while in theory laudable for respecting our autonomy and refusing to collapse complicated categories of identity, ultimately leaves me not inspired or educated but lonely. -EE

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Filed under Week 9: Cherrie Moraga and Alison Bechdel

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