Masculinity and Latin American Literature: Gender Shares Flesh.
Ben Sifuentes-Jauregui begins with "a simple, working definition of 'transvestism': transvestism is a performance of gender" (2). In the rest of the book, he extends and complicates transvestism, using it as a multivalent critical tool, a filter to understand not only the transvestite but also the world around the transvestite. This is Sifuentes-Jauregui's most important claim. Transvestism is a flexible social construct; its performance creates a simulacrum that mirrors other social constructs (e.g., gender, masculinity, nationalism), a mirroring that can produce new and interesting opportunities for social analysis. Sifuentes-Jauregui does not, though, treat transvestism as a universal critical form. He differentiates it from North American discussions of transvestism (e.g., Judith Butler's), particularizes it within a Latin American context--e.g., the collapsing of homosexuality and transvestism in Latin America--as well as claims its particular usefulness within that context.
Sifuentes-Jauregui characterizes transvestism as the third gender, analogous to the third world and, thus, Latin American society. Sifuentes-Jauregui best states the purpose of the book at the end of Chapter One on the "41" of Mexico:
I venture to generalize a history of Latin American sexuality--that has yet to be written. Recuperating the legacy of the "41" means peeling away the repressive historical writings of the event; recuperating means moving away from caricature and focusing on gay subjectivities, transvestite and otherwise; and rethinking the possibilities of narrative (melodrama and camp, in particular to tell about queer lives and experiences. (Sifuentes-Jauregui 2002, 51)
The discovery of 41 men, half dressed as women, at a dance in Mexico City in 1904 precipitated a national scandal. Sifuentes-Jauregui uses journalistic, artistic (Jose Guadalupe Posada's work), and literary discourses to explore how a national fit of "homosexual panic" (20) whose aim was to disappear homosexuality from Mexican society (e.g., by sending the men to an army training camp in the Yucatan) actually assured the homosexual a place in Mexican society. Through the popular press and the moralism of the obscure 1906 novel by Eduardo A. Castrejon, Los cuarenta y uno. Novela critico social, there is the reactionary assertion of the preeminence of heterosexuality, but Sifuentes-Jauregui notes that Guadalupe Posada's works are parodic but not particularly homophobic, and they kept the "41" in the popular imagination. However, it is Sifuentes-Jauregui's readings of the reactionary works that is most interesting, because through them he reveals the existence of a long-standing and publicly-recognized community of homosexuality in Mexico, ferreting out a backhanded admission of existence while demonstrating that for a nation to define its gender roles it needs something to exclude. In other words, Mexican society needed cross dressing to privilege gender binarism.
What I find theoretically most fascinating--as well as most true to form--is Sifuentes-Jauregui's ability to put on and adapt a variety of other theories and theorists to his own uses. In the chapter on the '41', he introduces Shoshona Felman's critique of J.L. Austin's constitution of the referent in the speech act and her redefinition of the referent from a substance to an act. Sifuentes-Jauregui then argues that gender is not a pre-existing form but an enactment of a social construct. The difficulty comes in policing the act to assure that the norm is enacted correctly. Moreover, it is in the failure to act out that norm correctly that opens up the space of gender: thus, transvestism is a "failure" that becomes a site of resistance and community. Sifuentes-Jauregui makes transvestism the product of signifying--it occurs in the very act, of meaning, the product of a society's normatizing regime--and he demonstrates the impossibility of norming, of perfect performativity, the flawless articulation of ideology in action.
The fourth chapter of the book is dedicated to Sifuentes-Jauregui's primary theoretical predecessor in Latin America, Severo Sarduy, and his discussion of transvestism. Sifuentes-Jauregui is critical of Sarduy's early structuralism, because it is grounded in gender binarism and, thus, cannot effectively capture a fluid performance of gender. Sifuentes-Jauregui points out, though, that Sarduy works himself away from structuralism toward a post-structural fluidity of the signifier and performativity: Sifuentes-Jauregui's own position. Using Sarduy, Sifuentes-Jauregui then performs a rereading of Jacques Lacan's Imaginary, Symbolic and Real as well as the mirror stage, rendering them as dynamic, interactive and continuous rather than as discrete, exclusive stages of development. Throughout the book, Sifuentes-Jauregui builds transvestism from a simple act into an omnivorous critical meta-trope that seems ready to assimilate everything into an overarching transvestitic telos.
Sifuentes-Jauregui's most successful execution of his primary goal--the recuperation of gay and transvestite subjectivities--comes in his discussion of Alejo Carpentier's fashion writing, Jose Donoso's El lugar sin limites (1966), and Manuel Puig's El beso de la mujer arana (1976).
Carpentier wrote a fashion column for the Cuban magazine Social in the 1920s, masquerading as a woman, Jacqueline. Carpentier was not comfortable with the female persona he created, and thus his transvestism was flawed. Sifuentes-Jauregui notes that Carpentier
speaks of women as a male author does, with excess speaks of women at a distance never uses "I" to speak of his transvestite persona, Jacqueline constructs his version of women and women's fashion out of a bricolage of other women's voices. He does not speak out of a subjective experience of a woman; that is, he does not construct a speaking female subjectivity.
Carpentier's performance is not only dominated by gender binarism but by the masculine side of the binary. As a transvestite, Carpentier masculinizes female subjectivity. Transvestism here is a masculine prerogative, and its enactment, rather than producing a radical Other, only secures masculine dominance.
As with Carpentier, in El lugar sin limites, Sifuentes-Jauregui looks closely at how gender identity and transvestite subjectivity are constructed and reconstructed. He focuses primarily on the transvestite character, La Manuela, whose gender identity is always under the control of the men who come to see her perform at the bordello. Although she identifies herself as a woman, the men have the power to rework that identity, reconstructing her as their woman or their man (e.g., when his penis is revealed early in the novel), and when she transgresses that control she is punished. At the end of the novel, to face her antagonist Pancho Vega, La Manuela acts out the Diva: her best performance ever. Pancho is aroused, tries to hide this arousal, but La Manuela notes and speaks that arousal, triggering homosexual panic and a heterosexual identity crisis. La Manuela is subsequently raped and killed because she has transgressed and dared put the men's gender identity into question. Raping La Manuela forces her back in the role of woman while reinforcing conventional male identity. Again, as with the '41', Sifuentes-Jauregui shows how integral transvestism is for male heterosexual gender identity as well as how it can challenge and loosen that identity. He also notes the dangers of such public "crossings": the resultant gender role flux and the reactionary response of normative gender binarism.
Concerning El beso de la mujer arana, Sifuentes-Jauregui uses transvestism to interesting effect by being counter-intuitive and focusing much of his analysis on Valentin. As such, Valentin "crosses" as a Marxist and a heterosexual, masking his bourgeois preferences, his love for his girl friend, and his homosexual potentialities behind an austere masculine, Marxist veneer; moreover, Valentin identifies masculinity with Marxism. In this sense, Sifuentes-Jauregui is making the same point that he does in the rest of the book, that heterosexuality is another form of transvestism, another way of performing gender. But Valentin's transvestism is not well practiced. Molina, on the other hand, uses his transvestism, both with Valentin and as the narrator of the b-movies that he retells, to take on a variety of roles, complicating and blurring identity, ultimately moving Valentin to complicate his identity and, if only momentarily, give up the reductive Marxism=masculinity identity. Sifuentes-Jauregui also notes that once Molina leaves prison, he becomes political by acting out his love for Valentin. Romance becomes political, and Sifuentes-Jauregui successfully demonstrates the power of transvestism to blur more than gender boundaries.
The book needs a concluding chapter, though. As I read, I enjoyed charting how Sifuentes-Jauregui extends, complicates, and applies his initial definition of transvestism, and I liked the variety of ways that he applied it. But, in the end, the book still needs a comparative measure of the analyses that have been done in its five chapters. Sifuentes-Jauregui touches on a set of thematics (e.g. masculinity, subjectivity, nationalism) throughout the book, and it would have been helpful to have them laid out comparatively in a concluding chapter.
Transvestism, Masculinity and Latin American Literature: Gender Shares Flesh is a valuable book, because Ben Sifuentes-Jauregui takes up an aspect of Queer Theory, particularizes it to a Latin American context and develops it into a multivalent critical trope which not only brings fresh insights to a canonical text like Kiss of the Spiderwoman but acts as an omnivorous analytical engine which digs deeply into the cultural landscape of Latin America to uncover latent and deeply-rooted homosexual discourses behind the veneer of heterosexual, masculine sociocultural norms. Sifuentes-Jauregui successfully loosens conventional gender constructions from their binary moorings. Putting them in play, he allows the reader to discover a more nuanced and complex sexual history of Latin America and to wonder about both broader and more particular applications of transvestism within and without Latin America.
Christopher Newport University
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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