To make 'the one' impossible: multilingualism and same-sex desire in the poetry of Francisco X. Alarcon.
--Bernice Zamora, "So Not To Be Mottled"
In a book regarding the mother tongues of the European literary and philosophical tradition, Barbara Johnson proposes that "the plurality of languages and the plurality of sexes ate alike in that they both make the 'one' impossible" (25). Queerness and multilingualism fracture the tacit Nationalist injunction that each person will strive to speak a native language well (a mother tongue) just as he of she will have a well-defined, predetermined gender and sexuality.
In this article, I argue that Latino and Latin American literary discussions of non-normative human sexualities often take multilingual form; this is due to the political nature of queerness and multilingualism, conditions that threaten monological and totalizing visions of the nation and its unitary subject. When taken together, multilingualism and queerness further destabilize the notion that each national subject should speak one language well just as he 'speaks' only one gender, of performs within the ranges of only one sexuality. Diasporic Latino American writers, furthermore, do not just advocate pluralism and tolerance (hallmarks of American homonormative movements) but rather a difference that strikes at the roots of the categories of gender, sexuality and national belonging. To accomplish the aforementioned examination, this paper analyzes the work of an acclaimed, but critically ignored, Chicano poet and educator, Francisco X. Alarcon. (1)
In what little analysis exists of his poetry, Alarcon has been criticized for both failing to incorporate Spanglish and for hesitating to portray same-sex practices explicitly. Daniel E. Perez, for example, portrays his poetry as "committed to maintaining the ambiguity in gender" (37), which ultimately "functions as a way to circumvent the perils that arise from making samesex relationships visible in a heteronormative environment" (40). Perez argues that Alarcon's representations of same-sex desire ate collaborationist, as his representation of desire is too often ethereal, too mystical and not bodily enough to be political. Although he does not make a connection between queerness and bilingualism, Perez does note that this characteristic failure (to explicitly portray same-sex relationships) occurs in a body of poetry written "primarily in standard Spanish. He rarely uses bilingualisms or Spanglish" (Perez 37). This analysis is then followed by a caveat to what seems to be Perez's indictment of Alarcon's attempted preservation of linguistic purity: "Nevertheless, his poetry collections are published in bilingual editions: each poem in Spanish features vis-a-vis a version in English (often translated by Francisco Aragon). Therefore, in some way there does exist a minimal amount of hibridization of the two languages and consequently, the two cultures" (ibid.). In this way, Perez notes Alarcon's failures: the explicit portrayal of same-sex desire that mayor may not be accompanied by a more radical cross-pollination between English and Spanish; and, a more risque style--one that is more closely alligned to the identity politics of queerness and Chicanismo.
This article disagrees with Perez, instead arguing that Alarcon's poetry is, in fact, ripe with ambivalent declarations of linguistic affinities. These nuanced declarations take place as metalinguistic discussions of the love/hate relationships that bilinguals may develop with their respective languages, as they may with a potential partner. Perez's line of criticism dismisses more subtle attempts to fracture linguistic boundaries and demonstrate how language duels are often fought against more than one adversary. Although code-switching might have become a reified marker of hybridity at the heyday of pro-civil rights poetry (Tato Laviera and Miguel Algarin come to mind in the Nuyorican field, as do Alurista and Tino Villanueva for Chicanos), Alarcon takes a different approach. (2) As a most mechanical example, we may consider that Alarcon's apparent hesitation to code-switch between Spanish and English distracts us from the fact that he very often code-switches between different registers of Spanish and Nahuatl, or that he and Francisco Aragon, who has translated most of Alarcon's poetry, often engage in bilingual games between original and translation, games we may further describe as flirtatious when the voice of one Francisco becomes indistinguishable from that of the other. (3) When taken together, translation and original perform the sexualized mystical fusion his poems bespeak. (4) In Alarcon's poetry, sexual difference troubles and enriches any direct identification with the distinct, yet related, movements of Chicano and Puerto Rican nationalist vindication. This consideration is particularly pressing in the case of Alarcon because, to date, queer visibility at the borders of Chicanismo has been brought about by women and not by gay men. (5)
It may seem contradictory that one of the most highly-regarded Latino poets for children in the United States has an adult body of work ripe with queer undertones, explicit references to Federico Garcia Lorca, scatological imagery, and the depiction of violence against women and the colonized. Alarcon is profusely aware of these apparent contradictions. As if to give them voice, his poetry is full of doubling, double negatives and attempts at self-erasure. If "I am Joaquin," the most widely anthologized, highly recognizable Chicano epic poem (today os at the height of el Movimiento) insisted on ebulliently giving face and name to the Movement and to the forgotten, prospective heroes of Chicano history, Alarcon's "Francisco" and Alarcon's "X" adopta politics of ghostly disappearance that highlights the fluidity of his queer, translocal identity. Although this feature is certainly not unique to Alarcon, queer self-erasure and the consideration of love as romantic love do set Alarcon apart from current trends in Latino poetics. (6) As happens in the poem below, "Mestizo," Alarcon's lyrical voice often fragments itself in verses with few syllables, its letters in small caps oscillating between affirmation and self-erasure:
my name is not Francisco there is on Arab within me ... my eyes still see Sevilla but my mouth is Olmec ... my feet recognize no border no rule no code no lord ... for this wanderer's heart
("Mestizo," From The Other Side 80-81)
Structurally, "Mestizo" differs from most poems we find in this collection because Alarcon and Aragon do not provide a translation. (7) The bilingual effect of the missed translation--the ghostly one--is that it highlights the translational nature of the original itself, as if the poem they present us were, in a sense, a double translation. In a poem about the "I," this lack of translation--which is also the ghostly presence of a double translation--has multiple repercussions. By erasing the translation, the poem reiterates the attempt at self-erasure it contains: "my name is not Francisco," to be followed closely by a triple anaphoretic negative in the ninth stanza, the iambic "my feet" trampling over another negation, "recognize/no border," the poem's only dactilic verses along with "wanderer's," the dactilic expressing stylistically the difficulty of wandering as of passing over a border.
Although included in Alarcon's latest anthology of poetry, "Mestizo" hails from Snake Poetas, the author's most critically acclaimed book of poetry and a valuable academic exercise in its own right. The book is nothing if not Bakhtinian. "Intrigued," the backcover reads, "by the disquieting possibility that Ruiz de Alarcon might be a distant relation, Francisco X. Alarcon has composed a unique, trilingual work that combines parts of Ruiz de Alarcon's Spanish treatise, original Nahuatl incantations, and Alarcon's poems in English." The book is dialogical from the outset: Alarcon offers poetic glosses of the transcriptions into Spanish that, in 1629, Hernando Ruiz de Alarcon had done of "texts" dealing with Nahuatl incantations in his Tratado de las supersticiones y costumbres gentilicas que hoy viven entre los indios naturales desta Nueva Espana. (8) These texts were not texts in the sense we understand them today, but rather oral testimonies provided by native Nahuatl informants, whom Hernando Ruiz de Alarcon subjected to vile tortures for the sake of "exposing heathen practices among the Indians and to extend the repressive practice of the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico" (Arteaga "Before" ix). They are testimonies provided, for the most part, under extreme duress--a feature that already makes one suspect many might have been invented by the Indians to lessen torture or avoid it altogether.
The first section, "Tahui" opens with a quote from Ruiz de Alarcon's treatise that points--pun intended--towards a missing origin: "Los flecheros llaman cuatro veces a los venados, repitiendo cuatro veces esta palabra tahui, que hoy no hay quien la entienda, y luego gritan cuatro veces a semejanza de leon" (4; original italics). Although Francisco has provided us with a "Glossary of Nahuatl" terms at the end of his book, tahui does not appear, as though he were mimicking his namesake's declaration of ignorance, "que hoy no hay quien la entienda," that opens the book. "Tahui" functions as an invitation to poetry in Franscisco's book, which, according to Arteaga's testimony from the poet's readings, adopts, via Snake Poems, one of the most characteristic elements of Chicano poetry since Alurista: its performative aspect. This performative aspect, however, whose addition to Chicano poetry Candelaria, too, attributes to Alurista, in Francisco Alarcon has a split origin. On the one hand, it alludes to those foundational texts of Chicano poetics tied to the movement, such as Floricanto en Aztlan (pub. 1971) and Nationchild Plumaroja (1972). On the other, it rescues the voice of the tlamacazqui, the "old priest" in Ruiz de Alarcon's Tratado performing his incantation in Nahuatl, the language that Ruiz de Alarcon has botched in his bid for becoming an Inquisitor.
Snake Poems achieves an additional translational subversion. Although Francisco quotes Ruiz de Alarcon often, the poems devoted to the Nahuatl incantations are translated directly into English from Ruiz de Alarcon's transcriptions of the Nahuatl originals. For example, the incantation below can help one, aided by tobacco leaves, to ward off "unruly ants" (58), in English as in Nahuatl:
tla cuel! come now! Xoxouqui Tlamacazqui Green Spirit Xiuhpapatlantzin Tobacco tle axtica? why delay more? tla xocontocati chase them away in popotecatl close their town
Translations of his own poems in other collections generally follow a facing-page format, if a translation is offered at all. Nahuatl and English in Snake Poems share the same page, a proximity that only underscores the fact that Ruiz de Alarcon's Spanish translations of the original Nahuatl testimonies are mostly absent. Rather than "giving voice" to the original Nahuatl accounts--as the mediator in the scene of testimonio might have--Francisco's strategy then, in the direct translation of Nahuatl into English, has the added effect of silencing Ruiz de Alarcon.
"Tropical," one of Alarcon's strongest poems to thematize migration and nonbelonging uses enjambment to display how one verb may belong to either verse, just as the lyrical voice professes to be different here and there, "alla" or "down there:"
alla no hablo down there I don't speak canto I sing arpa se vuelve mi corazon my heart growing strings alla no miro down there I don't see pinto I paint hojas le salen my hands sprouting a mis manos leaves (Body/Cuerpo 46)
The first "canto" can be read as either a noun metonimically related to "arpa," of as a verb that substitutes "hablo" after a missing comma, rendering the first stanza as either "alla no hablo/canto" or "canto/arpa se vuelve mi corazon." The Spanish original denies us the spatial specificity that English provides by turning "alla" into "down there," a phrase that, in turn, can be euphemistic for a sexual referent. Translation makes dialogism evident, as we saw with Snake Poetas. Moreover, in Aragon's translation of "Tropical," the poem might very well be sexual, whereas in Spanish it is not, a translational, dialogic effect we could relate to migration, to leaving one's country and one's language so that coming out of the closet may become a possibility. The poetic voice comes out of the closet in English, "down there" signaling the possibility of coming out "up here," associations that "alla" lacks.
Alarcon's "Mestizo" and "Tropical" suggest that the constitution of a queer postcolonial subjectivity is, indeed, a rather messy affair, as happens in the poem by Zamora that opens this essay, "So As Not to Be Mottled." Mottling and mimicry ate semantically close, but Zamora's comical mottling underscores the failure that Bhabha's highly productive term does not. The difference is qualitative: Mottling is uneven and nuanced, whereas mimicry is either effective or not, solidifying "white" and "not quite" into the only two viable options.
To accuse Zamora's lyric voice of being schizophrenic is to underestimate her, whose fractures are more than one, like those of Alarcon's verse in "Tropical." "Tropical" deals more explicitly than Zamora's poem with border crossings, regardless of whether these crossings relate to bodies, languages, sexualities or the nostalgic longing for a undifferentiated, lost "alla" that facilitates symbolic expression. Note, however, that Alarcon's border crossings are only metaphorically allied to "border theory," (9) the theoretical paradigm that--with good reason--has dominated critical approaches to Chicano literature. That frontera of "border theory," as Yvonne Yabro-Bejarano cautions in a reading of Anzaldua, is spatially and temporally specific, the 2,000 mile border dividing Mexico and the United States, subject to what Jose Saldivar discusses as a "low-intensity" military "conflict." In the voice of a Chicano author from Guadalajara and Los Angeles, "Tropical" dislodges the traditional association of the tropics with the Caribbean, charting a new geo-political map between California, Mexico, the invented Mexican Caribbean, and the Caribbean. This map emphasizes continuity rather than rupture, leaving behind simplistic opossitions between here and there.
Disruptive Rhizomes: "Roots / Raices"
Puerto Rican sociologist Juan Flores opens an essay in Divided Borders with a poem by "Francisco, a sensitive student of Chicano culture" (182) who has an interesting relationship with his roots. Alarcon's epigraph to Flores's essay reads:
I carry mis raices my roots las cargo with me siempre all the time conmigo rolled up enrolladas I use them me sirven as my pillow de almohada (qted. in Flores Divided 182)
"Roots" hails from Alarcon's first book of adult poetry, Tattoos, but, in this quote, Flores has performed some significant, albeit small, modifications. The critic has transposed the Spanish and English versions of the poem, as though he were responding to the malleability between the two languages that characterizes Alarcon's poetry, a kind of serpentine dance between two languages these slender, minimalist verses highlight. The second modification Flores--or Flores's editor--has made is that he has removed the accent over the "i" in raices, which appears, properly, in both Alarcon's Tartoos and From the Other Side of Night/ Del otro lado de la noche, where the poem was later collected. I say it appears "properly" because as I shall explain below, ortographical propriety characterizes Alarcon's written Spanish, almost to a fault.
This accent over raices may, after all, have been lost in the editorial process of Divided Borders, as happens so often thanks to hasty mass-production. Accents are lost. But there is another aspect of Flores's essay that makes this lost accent significant, namely, its very title: "'Que assimilated, brother, yo soy asimilao': The Structuring of Puerto Rican Identity in the U.S.'" Flores's essay, it turns out, has a double poetic epigraph. In addition to Alarcon's "Roots," he quotes from an enjambed verse in Tato Laviera's "asimilao." "Asimilao," as is well known, appears in Laviera's book of poetry AmeRican, and it is here where that missing accent in Flores's raices becomes significant. As Sommer and Castillo have discussed (Castillo 5), Laviera's AmeRican puts a doubly-unnecessary accent over the "i" because accents are the first thing to go in the liberal American fallacy of a tolerance that equals forced assimilation. "This syncopation," Castillo concludes, "that in the specific sense we can associate with interlingual poets like Laviera, in a broader sense hints at a troubling dislocation, what we might see as an infinitesimal disturbance in the grammaticality of the literary-cultural enterprise as it currently exists" (7). The lack of accent over Flores's raices has the opposite effect, namely, to smooth out that syncopation, consistent with a political project that, while admissive of the differences between Puerto Ricans and Chicanos, depends on the erasure of sexual difference.
Flores's reflection on Alarcon's poetry does not stop, at least not entirely, at using him as an epigraph. In fact, the entire first section (182-186) of his essay on Puerto Rican identity in the States consists of a dialogic exchange with Francisco Alarcon, whose middle initial, an "X," has also gone missing. The premise of the first section in the critic's essay, which serves as a springboard for his reflection on Nuyoricans, is that "Chicanos and Puerto Ricans in the U.S., the present pillars of the so-called 'Hispanic" minority, stand at the same juncture, straddling North and South America and embodying unequal, oppressive relation between them" (182). The essay primarily concerns nuances akin to: What are the continuities and differences between Blacks and Puerto Ricans? How are we both parts of the same African diaspora, and thereby unprocessable by the American machine of assimilation?
In their brief dialogue, Flores and Francisco expound upon the similarities ("bilingualism and biculturalism;" "solidarity and disadvantage") between Chicanos and Nuyoricans, then upon their differences ("closeness between Puerto Ricans and Blacks"). They ultimately arrive, as a dialectic may, at a more enlightened synthesis: "This probing of differences led us back to a sense of the parallels between our two groups, but this time the convergences were of a deeper, more subtle kind than those indicated by our common label as 'Hispanics.'" The parallels between Chicanos and Nuyoricans, Flores claims, exist to a degree that the term Hispanic, imposed as it is by the U.S. American State, does not account for. "Beneath and beyond that officially promoted category of Spanish language minority," he goes on to write, "Chicanos and Nuyoricans are caught up in a similar spiritual dynamic, one which, in each case, meshes 'outside' and 'inside,' Latin American background and the internal U.S. cultural context." Bureaucracy cannot account for the metaphysics of in-betweenness that binds Chicano and Puerto Rican experience in the United States. Flores concludes: "The close, long-standing interaction between Puerto Ricans and Blacks, and between Chicanos and Native Americans, exposes the superficiality and divisiveness of the term 'Hispanic' in its current bureaucreatic usage" (Divided 184).
This conclusive analogy that African-Americans are to Puerto Ricans as Native Americans are to Chicanos was a thread Francisco had offered him at the end of their conversation. The logic that pulls this analogy together is that Blacks and Native Americans are for Puerto Ricans and Chicanos, respectively, "a kind of cultural tap root, a latent bond to ethnic sources indigenous to the United States, yet radically challenging to the prevailing cultural hierarchy" (184). The analogy has been used elsewhere--most evidently in Juan Bruce-Novoa's analysis of Chicano poetry--to highlight not continuities, but differences between Chicano and Nuyorican poetics (i.e., Chicano poetry glorifies the farmer and the field, whereas Nuyorican poetry is markedly urban; Chicano poetry is often interlingual, whereas Nuyorican poetry tends to be less so). (10)
Flores, for the most part, drops his initial conversation with Francisco in order to allude to it awry by the end of his essay, when he asks: "And in reaching across the U.S., not assimilating but growing together with neighboring and concordant cultures, how could the Nuyorican poet rail to embrace the Chicano?" He then concludes with slight self-assurance: "Getting to Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles, Tato Laviera surely sensed what Francisco felt during his days in New York. Chicanos and Nuyoricans, concentrated at opposite ends of the country, branching out in different cultural directions, still exemplify a close cultural affinity" (194). Ah extensive quote of Tato Laviera's "Vaya carnal" gives Flores's essay its circular, synthetic closure. But this circular, synthetic closure hinges on a series omissions. Laviera's poem reads: "linguismo, raza, pana, borinquen, azteca, macho, hombre, pulmones/de taino, de indios, somos/chicano-riquenos, que curado" (Laviera qted. in Flores Divided 195).
I would like to suggest that what gives Flores's essay its final synthetic moment is not the coming together of "chicano-riquenos" in Laviera's verse. It is, instead, that initial lack of accent in raices, an omission echoed in Laviera's final "borinquen, azteca, macho, hombre." For the real accent that Flores's argument, just as Laviera's poem, omits, is the accent of sexual difference. Cuidado, I say, when Flores asks "how could the Nuyorican poet rail to embrace the Chicano?," because the queerness of this Chicano poet, a queerness on whose erasure Flores's entire synthetic project hinges, threatens the familiarity of this embrace. Francisco's return embrace might be a little too tight, a bit too wet. It might make the Nuyorican poet hesitate to call him his carnal, as it has made the Puerto Rican critic subsume queerness under the familiar, heterosexist, rubric of sensitivity, trading the possibility of homosexuality for poetic and scholarly aptitude: "And Francisco, a sensitive student of Chicano culture, suddenly became even more aware of the remarkable cultural convergence and correspondences that accompany such shared historical experiences" (182). The danger of such a conclusion is that it erases the possibility that anagnorisis may come differently to homosexuals and that, no, we may not share the same "historical experiences," or share them differently. The importance of this criticism cannot be understated because the core of Flores's argument has to do with refurbishing and proclamation: "Rather than being subsumed and repressed, Puerto Rican culture contributes, on its own terms and as an extension of its own traditions to a new amalgam of human expression" (192). But in order for this "Puerto Rican culture" to come about, it needs to subsume and repress its own deviants--luckily, Francisco is already different enough for queerness to be written-off under the ever-expandable rubric of "difference."
But, what about Francisco, we may ask? Why does his own queerness, beyond the suspicious rubric of "sensitivity," not figure prominently in his assessment of Nuyorican and Chicano cultures, as retold by Flores? Why should I voice for him what he himself does not? A possible answer may be that queerness matters to different people differently. Another possible answer, however, and a more theoretically productive one, may be that bilingual and bicultural people are used to living with such flagrant contradictions.
Just as Gilroy discusses in relation to The Souls of Black Folk, "double consciousness" in Latino poetics "emerges from the unhappy symbiosis between three modes of thinking, being and seing" (Gilroy 127). These modes are, first, "racially particularistic, second, nationalistic" and, third, "diasporic or hemispheric." In the case of Alarcon, the particularisms of race hail from his vindication of la raza through the reclaiming of an imagined pre-colonial Mexica (and Olmec, Toltec, Mayan, Mixtec, etc.) past unspoiled by current forms of colonial oppression. This feature of Alarcon's poetry is consistent with that of most Chicano poetry from the very beginning of el Movimiento. I would like to suggest, however, that the pre-Columbian substratum Alarcon so often evokes serves a second purpose for this queer poet. The imaginary past unspoiled
by colonial oppression is also a utopic past unspoiled by homophobia. Francisco's poetry poses, in the present, a challenging question to identity politics:
?que queda de la izquierda si el sexo afuera se queda? ("Izquierda" From the Other Side 179),
a poem that, in English, exploits the polysemy of the word "left," but constricts the multiple meanings that "sexo" may have in Spanish:
what's left of the left if sex is left out?
Alarcon consistently sublimates same-sex relationships as he idealizes the Aztec past because the poet is aware that both issues are fraught with longing, incompleteness, and indeterminacy.
Alarcon's poetry trades the unhappiness of Gilroy's symbiosis of consciousness for a semantic neighbor that seems to be more appropiate when dealing with multilingual subjectivities: melancholia. Doris Sommer has commented that bilinguals are especially melancholic, for they ate twice removed from that transcendental language that Benjamin described in "The Task of the Translator" or that Derrida longed for in his Monolingualism of the Other. It could well be argued that on account of this multiplied melancholy--the longing for being cysgendered and for uttering an expression that could have been better uttered--the work of queer migrants is particularly ripe with metatextual reflections about sexualities and languages.
Just as many other migrant writers, Alarcon "himself" provides a reflection about the gains and loses of multiple belongings. That "X" is a queer letter in the Spanish language invites poetic reflection in the "The X in My Name.TM "X" is an ominous stand-in for whom he could have been, but now is not, and for his extant double-conciousness. "X," he writes, corresponds to "the poor / signature of/my illiterate / and peasant self." Alarcon's name multiplies through migration, as happens to so many migrants. But, adopting new names, and speculating on the meaning of older ones--infusing old words with new meanings--is not only the work of migrants. It is also the work of poetry, one that is hardly tolerated by people who are fond of cogent lists and calling las cosas por su nombre (al pan, pan y al vino, vino).
A symptom of melancholia, the past weighs heavily in the migrant writing of Alarcon, even when the longing for a place of origin may not. Throughout his poetry, Alarcon, in a sense a second class citizens of his respective Nation-States, develops the notion that fleeing may not be a requirement to feel alien in one's own skin or one's own language. Non-belonging allows for the possibility to experiment, it opens a space for play, or, as Kristeva put it, to engage in "borderline aesthetics," that are also the aesthetics of love. Thus, Alarcon often incorporates Nahuatl in his poetry, betraying the neat separation of English and Spanish that his titles and double-language editions set up. For example, in a short poem entitled "Song," he swiftly offers a trilingual bouquet:
xochitl flower flor
By virtue of alluding to it in Spanish, English and Nahuatl at once, the poet renovates that most cliched of poetic--and sexual--tropes, the flower. Whereas the Latin American avant-garde had felt compelled to inventa new poetic language, Alarcon knows that drawing from three imperial ones is already enough to evoke the strangeness that poetry demands, particularly since these three languages have historically waged war against each other. (12)
I myself cannot read Nahuatl, and must rely on a dictionary to shake the suspicion that, in the poem above, Alarcon could very well be playing a multilingual game with me. And he is. Although xoehitl does mean flower, and rescues an extensive Precolombian tradition of Nahuatl poetry, it is also a daysign on the Aztec calendar, one ruled by Xochiquetzal (Delgado Marias 44), the goddess of flower and song, mistress of the arts. (13) Furthermore, it coincides with the name of one thirteen-day period of "Aztec week," the xochitl trecena, ruled by the trickster Huehuecoyotl, the god of deception. In a sense, xochitl, the first verse, is a translation of the poem's title and makes smoother the transition between the title and the remaining two verses of the poem. "Song" ends quickly because songs, like flowers, fade quickly, just as beauty of a day on a calendar. Placing the monosyllabic flor as the final verse gives the poema quick closure, tying the bouquet nicely. It also underscores the classical trope that is already, counterintuitively, hinted at by the Nahuatl: seize the day(sign), and beauty. The tricky Alarcon proves to be a little Aztec god, as Huidobro would have had it.
Alarcon insists on not allowing the reader to fully determine in which language the poems were originally written, even when translators are clearly acknowledged. He does so not only by switching codes irregularly, but also by ocassionally shuffling the Spanish and English versions of his poems between the left page and the right, keeping us from granting privilege to the writing on the left. He often leaves a poem untranslated from either language to the other, a ploy that may trick us into thinking that there (at last!) we have found a text in its original language. But, then, he switches code again, as happens, for example, in the poem that closes the first section of his anthology, "Un Beso is Not a Kiss." "Un beso," Alarcon writes, is "more dangerous" than a kiss. It can even be "fatal." Content with his bilingual game, Alarcon provides no explanation for the beso's danger. Nor will he identify his sources when he appropiates them creatively. His anthology, for example, opens with a passage from Saint John's "Noche oscura del alma," transforming it, first, into a metaphor for his own dark (homosexual) desire, then into the oppressive "Cuarto Oscuro" of "Dark Room" (34) of machismo and, then, finally, writing a second poem where he draws out the latent physicality of San Juan's "Cantico espiritual." In "Todo es un cuerpo inmenso" ["Everything is an immense body"], Alarcon writes:
todo es everything is un cuerpo an immense inmenso body las sierras the sierras muslos extended extendidos thighs los arboles the trees en el valle in the valley pelo en pecho hair on a chest las bahias the bays bocas mouths lengua el mar tongue the sea
From San Juan's "!Mi amado, las montanas / los valles solitarios nemorosos / las insulas extranas..!," Alarcon learns how to manipulate metonymy, a procedure that other queer Latin American poets had learned to toy with. Villaurrutia, for example, disregards such technical nuances when he desublimates the sacred in his "Nocturnos," but Sarduy abuses these formalities when, with great respect, he parodies mysticism(s) in Cobra. Queerness, these poets teach us, follows its own syncretic practices, and being able to switch between the sacred and the profane, to step in and out of the closet, to code-switch and to dance between cultures are distinct privileges, queer Latino American privileges, that do not come without their own risks.
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Torres, Lourdes. "Introduction." Tartilleras: Hispanic and U.S. Latina Lesbian Expression. Lourdes Torres and Inmaculada Pertusa, eds. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2003. Print.
Urciuoli, Bonnie. "Language and Borders." Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 525-546. Print.
Zamora, Bernice. "So Not To Be Mottled." 1976. Releasing Serpents. Tempe: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue, 1994.61. Print.
Juan Pablo Rivera
Westfield State University
(1) The 2002 nominee for poet laureate of California, Alarcon was born in California, about 100 miles south of Los Angeles, but returned as a child to Guadalajara. This translocal back-and-forth characterizes most of his life and a good portion of his poetry.
Alarcon may well appropriate all three terms used in literature and media to describe U.S.-born Mexicans: Chicano, Mexican American, Mexican citizen. The centrality of such appropiation to the configuration of Chicano, Puerto Rican and, ultimately, Latino Studies as activism and academic discipline cannot be overstated. In fact, many historians and sociologists now canonized in the field (Acuna, Flores) prefaced their early books with discussions about the distinction between "Latino," "Mexican," "Hispanic," "Chicano," "Mexican American," "Nuyorican," "Raza." Suzanne Oboler dedicates an entire book to these distinctions, onomastic proliferation that, in my opinion, arises as a marker of non-belonging and of the fluidity of identity that Latinos may choose, or may choose not to, claim for themselves. It is a symptom of how Latinos challenge monolingual and monocultural attempts to group them as a single totality.
At the age of eighteen, Alarcon settled in California once again to attend the State University at Long Beach. Having done graduate studies at Stanford University, he now directs the Spanish for Native Speakers Program at the University of California, Davis, where he has published several textbooks for teaching Spanish as a second language under the series Mundo 21. Most importantly for my purposes, Alarcon has published ten volumes of poetry to date, beginning in 1990 with Body in Flames/Cuerpo en Llamas and ending in 2002 with the collection New and Selected Poems. He has also received many prizes for his bilingual childrens' poetry, which strives to vindicate a taste for bilingualism and multiculturalism in children, inserting itself creatively in current discussions on the precarious survival of bilingual education in the United States. Tied to this work as a cultural agent is Alarcon's membership on the nonprofit Board of Directors of Children Book Press in San Francisco, which has published multicultural books for children for over 25 years.
(2) Baptized as the 'poet laureate' of the Chicano movement (Bruce-Novoa X), Alurista contributed to Chicano poetics its radical multilingualism and, almost singlehandedly, its grounding in ritual (Candelaria 92). Although Alarcon's poetry softens the first element, it retains the second strongly.
(3) For a consideration of the fundamental differences between literary bilingualism and literary code-switching, see Urciuoli in the list of works cited. Urciuoli refers to code-switching as the possibility for 'functional syncretism' (527), a description that extends to the religious and pan-sensual blending in Alarcon's poetry.
(4) In his own critical work, Francisco has advocated for an aesthetics of mesticismo (mestizo + misticismo), as quoted by Hartley (285) and Conway: "'El mesticismo le da vuelta a la tortilla,' escribe Alarcon, 'and sets out a fluid ontology in which any notion of 'self' must include the 'others,' equally trespassing neat demarcations like subject/object, human/nature, us/them, and other similar dichotomies common to Western thought'" (Conway 22). Mesticismo is, blatantly, a deconstructive aesthetic, but its implications are neither limited nor exhausted by deconstruction, for it maitains, as "misticismo" implies and Hartley (285) clarifies, an animistic belief that everything in the world is sacred.
Note that, in addition to the racial connotations that mestizaje has traditionally held in Latin America, mestizaje in criticism of Chicano poetry also refers to the multilingual blending of Spanish, English, slangs, calo (the Pachuco tongue that Anzaldua discusses poetically in Borderlands/La frontera), Nahuatl, Mayan dialects, and their corresponding symbolic repertoire that, in Candelaria's chronology, has characterized Chicano poetics from "Phase II" onward.
(5) Lourdes Torres notes this "rare instance" (1) of lesbian visibility in her "Introduction" to Tortilleras.
(6) Although I do follow Candelaria's chronological division of Chicano poetics into three flexible phases, it is important to note that her analysis does not include a single consideration of a gay or lesbian poet, something that may have changed her conclusion that "raza poets treat the theme of love with the same post-modernist unromantic anxiety we associate with other twentieth-century writers" (199). Proposing perhaps that queerness is incompatible with/a raza will not satisfy: Along with Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua and Chela Sandoval, Alarcon provides one of the strongest examples.
(7) It is different from other poems in "The Other Side of Night," but not so from those in Snake Poetas: An Aztec Invocation, where it was originally published in 1992.
(8) In order to highlight onomastic confusion, I shall refer to the poet as Francisco, to his translator as Aragon, and to the colonial Inquisitor as Ruiz de Alarcon.
(9) I have not found la frontera mentioned even once in Alarcon's poetry. He has, however, stated the following: "This is my own conflict, belonging to two cultures. The border is right here inside me" (qted. in Hartley 303). Because the border is within him, we may conclude that Francisco alludes to Anzaldua's paradigmatic border, but note how he refers to it as his own conflict and thereby resists the generalizations that characterize the latter portions of Anzaldua's Borderlands/La frontera, whose argument moves from the particular to the general (never, however, to the univeral). The same paradigm has been applied to the Nuyorican condition in highly regarded essays, such as Flores and Yudice's "Living Borders/Buscando America" in the list of works cited. Frances Negron-Muntaner, in another article, cautions that Anzaldua never quite spoke about the Caribbean in her writing, but proceeds to build the Chicano-Caribbean alliance that Alarcon's "Tropical" intimates.
(10) See the first 5 chapters of Retrospace, particularly pp. 33-40.
(11) Antonio Cordoba reminds me that a simple indication of the letter's minority status is the small space it occupies in the Spanish dictionary. Alarcon's middle initial is actually J. (for Javier?), so that the "X" iterates a double-erasure.
(12) English speakers who have read this chapter remark that in this poem they hear an echo of yet another migrant's verse, Gertrude Stein's "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," which, coincidentally, was published in the aptly titled Geography and Play the same year as Vallejo's Trilce. I thank Dana Lindaman and Francois Proulx for this insight, and Catherine Savini for her editorial aid.
(13) A tradition that is itself condensed by the phrase in xochitl in cuicatl, "la expresion con que los antiguos mexicanos de habla nihuatl designaban la poesia" (Leander 3). De Leon Portilla utilizes the phrase to represent art in general, "el valor supremo del arte que es 'flor y canto"(14), whereas Jaggart concludes that "lo mas abundante en la poesia nahuatl son las referencias a la flor" (59).
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|Title Annotation:||Estudios y confluencias|
|Author:||Rivera, Juan Pablo|
|Publication:||Confluencia: Revista Hispanica de Cultura y Literatura|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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