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Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of essays on Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde. Read the rest.
Traditionally, the locus of enunciation should not matter. Any statement about the avant-garde and its relationship to identity politics would aspire to be valid regardless of when, where, or by whom it was formulated. Convention has dictated that it is best to avoid bringing in contextual information about the position from which one speaks. Such information highlights contingencies instead of the general point one is trying to make, is therefore petty and in bad taste. If it does not necessarily exclude from the conversation those who do not share the same position, then it particularizes or relativizes one’s arguments to such a degree that they cannot possibly lead to the emergence of a general truth.
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______ began writing this piece in Marfa, Texas, where ______ had an odd exchange with an Anglo woman worth recalling. ______ had said to her that ______ am Mexican and she seemed perplexed—a response ______ often get because of ______ complexion. (As if, the thinking goes, you cannot play the race card if you do not look the part. Then again, what if you do not want to play the card in the first place, but others play it for you? Read “tokenism.”) Granted, ______ too have wondered about ______ propensity to identify ______ more readily as Hispanic than Caucasian given ______ mixed background and the fact that, by now, ______ have spent almost equal amounts of time living on both sides of the border. It could be that ______ patriarchal tongue proved more decisive than ______ mother tongue in shaping ______ identity. But, then again, patriarchal in what way? In sheer biological terms? By mere relocation to the United States, the patriarchal system in which ______ was brought up was turned on its head, becoming circumscribed here to a minority, proving that the meanings of terms like the ones here discussed, despite their categorical aspirations, are nothing if not relational.
Only through form am ______ able to resist identity as hashtag, as commodity.
______ was born and raised in a city of twenty-something million inhabitants, a majority of them mestizo. ______ did not feel the need to claim ______ American heritage, in part because American cultural artifacts prevailed in the Diet Coke–sipping, Madonna and Michael Jackson–listening middle-class milieu of the 1980s, to the chagrin of anti-imperialist intellectuals—a group whose ranks ______ (perhaps pretentiously) aspired to join. Even more, ______ sought to disavow one half of ______ identity by conveniently not mentioning it. If pronouncing ______ mother’s home state, Connecticut, in Spanish was difficult, glossing over ______ bi-national status was not. South of the border, hyphenated identities are as uncommon as, say, taco salad, to put it glibly. Yet, in all seriousness, ______ am aware that their rarity could very well be due to complicated notions of diversity, the assumption being that many of the haves have mixed backgrounds and the crushingly disempowered minorities constituting the have-nots do not. (Yet another notion flipped north of border.) And any sense of ethnic diversity among autochthonous populations is annulled by the rubric of indígenas under which they are commonly lumped.
The woman ______ had been chatting with asked if ______ knew how far back ______ family went. ______ had never been asked that before, and even though ______ father once told ______ about some distant relatives who had traced the family’s Spanish origins, ______ could not remember the dates. ______ made up an answer, just to get out of the situation. Even so, the dates would not have settled the matter of race. The Spanish Inquisition’s fixation with safeguarding the purity of its national identity only further led to complicated hybridity by making it impossible to trace, as with crypto-Jews’ adoption of generic Spanish surnames. ______ last name figures in lists of surnames corresponding to conversos such as the one put forth by the Spanish writer Pere Bonnin in Sangre Judía (Jewish Blood). ______ did not mention this, of course; the conversation was casual. After spending a few more days in town ______ realized she had surmised ______ was claiming to be not a Mexican from Mexico but, instead, a local Tejana, for the Mexican-American community does seem to know how long their families have been here, especially in relation to the U.S.’s annexation of Texas in 1845, after the Mexican-American War.
Wouldn’t ______ identification with the local community on the basis of ethnicity elide the much more significant differences in terms of opportunities we have each been afforded, historically? Here, far from Mexico City, the population was marginalized by the central Mexican government prior to the annexation—in fact, this was precisely what led to its severance from the Mexican state. Afterward, segregation of African Americans and Tejanos was widespread in the area until the civil rights movement. How not to see the irony in the name of the old part of town, south of the train tracks, where a majority of Tejanos reside? “Sal Si Puedes” (Leave If You Can) is right outside the almost religiously pristine premises of the Chinati Foundation, founded by Donald Judd. Judd famously wanted to place art in context, but then again, which context? He clearly never meant it to be the social and political ones.
Marfa is about 190 miles away from both the nearest Mexican city, Ciudad Juárez, and the nearest American city, El Paso. Mexican and Central American undocumented workers and children risk their lives by the thousands attempting to cross over into the United States to escape conditions that, for instance, made possible the police-sanctioned murder of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero in September 2014. Southwest of San Antonio, a massive for-profit family detention center is being built in order to “accommodate the influx of individuals arriving illegally on the Southwest border,” according to a spokeswoman of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It will be run by the private firm Corrections Corporation of America, whose record is more than questionable. Again, in terms of heritage, what kinds of gross elisions would ______ be perpetrating if ______ adopted the subject positions of the families who might wind up at the center, one of the largest in North America?
At this point in history, ethnicity is not the sole issue. Systematic, often endemic, patterns of exclusion and inclusion are based as much on class as on race, if not more. And reductive binaries are particularly pernicious in that, when attempting to dismantle them, it often proves impossibly difficult to resist polarities as well—they continue to spawn offspring. Some critics of the us-versus-them rhetoric of the (either perceived or self-appointed) watchdogs of the avant-garde continue to fall into the same sweeping generalizations and discursive traps they decry.
Moreover, if the officially or unofficially sanctioned disempowerment of vast numbers of individuals is cause for outrage, ______ indignation as a citizen of the world has little to do with ______ being an “avant-garde minority poet.” As such, however, ______ can practice and trigger an active solidarity by rehearsing the following approaches to a minor, de-territorialized writing (Deleuze & Guattari), in English, the language of Empire:
Performing a polymorphous subjectivity that undermines essentializing notions of identity and their insistence on one-to-one correspondences, which inevitably cancel multiplicity. An optimal post-racial scenario, in this sense, might be one in which a systematic questioning of assumptions concerning race and identity is continually taking place.
Inserting into my work illicit presences that critique hegemonic, exclusionary discourses, including those pertaining to identity politics, and thus contribute to the expansion of frames of reference.
Disrupting the expectation that, as a Mexican-American poet, ______ speak for a collectivity. If the avant-garde requires radical presence, ______ can conjure the singular presences of all those for whom ______ cannot speak, and whose experiences ______ own abysmally different one can speak to, but does not reflect.
It is only via questioning of conventional form that ______ can explode both representation and normative conditions of reception, in order to frustrate the expectation that ______ play the part assigned to ______. Only through form am ______ able to resist identity as hashtag, as commodity. And my engagement with form, and not my commitment to politics, has given me certain strategic advantages vis-à-vis experimental writing, considering that, by and large in the U.S., the avant-garde’s organizing axes concern formal innovation and not politics. Yet, if those in its ranks prefer to disavow themselves of ______ politics, their loss, not ______ .
Mónica de la Torre is the author of six books of poetry, including The Happy End/All Welcome (Ugly Duckling Press) and Feliz año nuevo, a volume of selected poetry published in Spain (Luces de Gálibo). Born and raised in Mexico City, she writes in, and translates into, Spanish and English. She teaches in the Literary Arts program at Brown University. Her translation of Omar Cáceres’s Defense of the Idol is now available from UDP.
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