Border Identities: Uses of the Alter Ego in Latinx Art

Aldeide Delgado

I believe in the power of decorating and anesthetizing the body in order to exaggerate, challenge and problematize mythical notions of the Mexican Other. In the American imagination, Mexicans are allowed to occupy two different but strangely complementary spaces: we are either unnecessarily violent, hypersexual, cannibalistic and highly infectious; or innocent, “natural”, ritualistic, and shamanic. Both stereotypes are equally colonializing.

From Guillermo Gómez-Peña´s Performance Diaries, 1997

Border identities struggle through the “colonial difference”[1] while also reflecting complex and heterogeneous realities that supersede any form of essentialism. How have contemporary artists critically engaged this discourse in their practices? Can we understand the Latinx artist from a border subjectivity? This text, in dialog with these questions, offers a lens to study the work of three Latinx identified artists who perform specific alter egos as vehicles to explore identity as a social construct.

In Claudia Cano´s work, the alter ego Rosa Hernández “La Chacha” embodies the stereotypes of Mexican immigrant women in the United States.[2] Rosa Hernández is a 53-year-old cleaning worker who carries out her services in spaces that legitimize the “coloniality of power.”[3] Rosa diligently cleans without wasting time during her hours of service; she moves slowly, limps from her right hip, and remains silent given her lack of fluency in English. Why create a submissive, selfless, and stereotyped persona characterized by the forces that reproduce coloniality rather than a character that reconfigures power relations? Rosa is derived from the real border identity of Claudia Cano- from her displacement and belonging to the “third space.” In Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa argues how the mestiza consciousness reclaims its legitimacy through its imposed silence and marginalization; speaking from a position of silence, –she adds- and politicizing indifference, constitute the symptoms of a divergent political praxis.[4]

If in Cano´s work, the persona’s silence calls into question the asymmetric relations of “colonial difference”, in Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz´s alter ego “Chuleta”, linguistic mestizaje denote her border identity. Raimundi Ortiz has developed her work around the investigation of the Latin experience in the United States while confronting stereotypes directed at Puerto Rican culture. She expressed: “I could speak of disenchantment, marginalization, critique intersections where these worlds [Latinos, Americans, as well as the art world] met for me. I began making work about living in the fracture of multiple lives, all the while challenging the parts of our culture that are problematic.”[5] Chuleta embodies the cultural norms of the Nuyorican urban community while wielding the Spanglish language as a distinctive element of her character. Through the artist’s YouTube channel, Chuleta spontaneously discusses a wide range of topics from Christmas decorations to appropriation, identity, and contemporary art. Her personal language is characterized by the use of informal rules of communication, as well as linguistic and timing variations that evidence her bicultural experience.

Challenging the coloniality of language has also been crucial in the work of Yali Romagoza. In the performance Monument to the Great Living Artist (2018), Romagoza embodies the alter ego Cuquita “the Cuban doll”[6]– dancing along to Se Acabó by the Cuban singer La Lupe while reciting the essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? by the US art historian Linda Nochlin. At the conclusion of the performance, Cuquita presents the following messages, respectively signed by Ana Mendieta and herself: “American Feminism as it stands is a white middle-class movement” and “The Choice is yours. Say it but with an accent.” The notion of contamination breaking the purity of the colonizer language, mestizar el lenguaje, is manifested through the attention to silence, accent and hybridity. These approaches effectively become strategies to subvert the homogenization, folkloric categorization, and exoticization of Latin-American people in the United States, and more specifically of Latinx artists in the art world. After emigrating from Cuba in 2011, Romagoza focused her practice on the exploration of identity, power, and feminism in an intercultural space. The quasi-alien appearance of Cuquita “The Cuban Doll” – note the association between alien beings and immigrants – constantly transforms in order to question the stereotype of a single Cuban female identity.

The critical discourse of diaspora studies offers a space to define border identities. In the text Diásporas «trans», fronteras corporeizadas y tránsito(s) migratorios en México, Victoria López Fernández argues that the concept of “border” is implicit in the notion of “diaspora” from a symbolic and metaphorical perspective. She refers to them [the borders] as social, gender, cultural, economic, linguistic, religious and historical barriers.[7]  Diaspora identities are linked through the possibility of returning to the “place of historical origin”. This symbolic return constitutes a paradox of the diasporic identity, as the subject simultaneously belongs and does not belong to the “place of origin” as much as they belong and do not belong to the “adopted place.” In this regard, the consciousness of the diaspora implies a sense of difference and multiplicity, a sense of ´otherness´ and therefore of displacement.[8] As we continue reading López Fernández: “La diáspora, enunciada desde un entendimiento de ´lo queer´,[9] comparte la hipótesis de la hibridez, emergiendo desde la complejidad y con todas las fisuras y contradicciones de una Latinoamérica heterogénea.”[10] Living in the diaspora is living in the “third country”, in the contaminated and intersectional zone or, as Guillermo Gómez-Peña reminds us, it is to live on the borderlands.[11]

The Latin America migration policy that Donald Trump established during his presidential campaign motivated a debate around prejudices toward Latin American immigrants in the United States. In this national context, the artist Elia Alba organized the event Latin America, Immigration, and Race[12] at the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation as part of the project The Supper Club.[13] This thematic conversation problematized the notions of pigmentocracy, colonialism, and Latinidad, prompted by fundamental questions such as “At what point do you allow people to self-identify?” “At what point is that self-identification imposed, and to what degree?” And “Who sets the terms of identification?”[14]

The creation of alter egos can be a useful prism to establish a historiography of Latinx art. A distinctive feature of these second selves is the externalization of the artists’ non-identification with their past and present place. In the borderland, the use of the alter ego is a survival strategy. These personas are built from the artists’ autobiographical stories, sharing several of their concerns and feelings of vulnerability, displacement, and otherness. At the same time, their actions constitute a critical positioning in resistance to the monotopic system of representation.[15] Latinx artists, in the process of questioning cultural homogeneity, are forced to enact their own restitution- abandoning the Self for the Other in order to express their border identity in the public space.

Notes:

[1] Walter Mignolo conceptualizes the “colonial difference” as the hegemonic mechanism utilized, from the sixteenth century to the present, to marginalize non-Western knowledge. The “colonial difference” is defined by a wound marked by the relation inside-outside, center-periphery, colonizer-colonized, civilization-barbarism. See Walter D. Mignolo, “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference,” accessed July 8, 2019, http://www.unice.fr/crookall-cours/iup_geopoli/docs/Geopolitics.pdf

[2] Among other alter egos developed by Claudia Cano is Carmencha “La Rica”: a despotic woman who escaped from corruption and violence in Mexico.

[3] According to Aníbal Quijano, the “coloniality of power” is the motor that has produced and reproduced the colonial and imperial difference through which all dominated populations and all newly created identities have been subjected to the hegemony of Eurocentrism. See Daniela Pilar Pazurro and Valeria Engert, “Diferencia colonial: Lugar de Encuentro,” accessed July 8, 2019, https://www.unrc.edu.ar/publicar/borradores/Vol10-11/pdf/Diferencia%20Colonial,%20Lugar%20de%20encuentro.pdf

[4] Carolina Meloni González, “Bárbara y mestiza: el feminismo de Gloria Anzaldúa,” El Salto (March 7, 2019), accessed June 28, 2019, https://www.elsaltodiario.com/el-rumor-de-las-multitudes/barbara-y-mestiza-el-feminismo-de-gloria-anzaldua

[5] Katidia Barbara Coronado and Erika Rodriguez Kight, “Wanda Raimundi Ortiz,” in LatinX Voices: Hispanic in Media in the U.S, (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2019), accessed June 28, 2019, https://books.google.com/books?id=yQFlDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT136&lpg=PT136&dq=wanda+raimundi+ortiz#v=onepage&q=wanda%20raimundi%20ortiz&f=false

[6] Yali Romagoza’s alter ego references cuquitas cubanas (Cuban paper dolls). These two-dimensional figures, drawn or printed on paper, were distributed in the Cuban magazines Mujeres and Muchacha for young girls’ entertainment.

[7] Victoria López Fernández, “Diásporas «trans», fronteras corporeizadas y tránsito(s) migratorios en México,” accessed July 10, 2019, http://www.scielo.org.mx/pdf/crca/v25n71/2448-8488-crca-25-71-9.pdf

[8] Gali Weiss, “Diasporic looking: Portraiture, diaspora and subjectivity,” accessed July 10, 2019, http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/n1957/pdf/ch03.pdf

[9] Some authors point to the necessity to queerize migration studies in order to intersect and problematize sexualities within other fundamental fields of power in the configuration of subjectivity.

[10] “The diaspora, articulated through a ´queer´ understanding, shares the hypothesis of hybridity, emerging from complexity with all the fissures and contradictions of a heterogeneous Latin America.” See Victoria López Fernández, “Diásporas «trans», fronteras corporeizadas y tránsito(s) migratorios en México.”

[11] Gómez Peña proudly speaks on his dual nationality or, more accurately, his “double otherness”. That is, he belongs to a third country, the borderlands, which in the end is no habitable land for government authorities as the third country is understood in terms of virtual nationality, in particular, in relation to the interwoven languages that the artist lives through on a daily basis.

[12] Participants were David Antonio Cruz, Arlene Davila, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Alexis Duque, Marlon Feliz, Tania Katerí Hernández, Fabiana Lopes, Miguel Luciano, Esperanza Mayobre, Ivan Monforte, Guadalupe Maravilla, Rachelle Mozman Solano, Lina Puerta, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, Yasmin Ramirez, Sara Reisman, Juan Sanchez, Carlos Sandoval de Leon and Tashima Thomas.

[13] Since 2012, Elia Alba has developed The Supper Club, a series of thematic conversations organized around dinners where approximately 500 artists, writers, critics, and curators have attended to discuss identity, race, and visual culture.

[14] Elia Alba, “The Supper Club,” (New York: The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, 2019) p. 77.

[15] As Walter D. Mignolo, and other authors have pointed out, a monotopic hermeneutic presupposes a notion of a single History that is dynamic but unchallenged by alternative horizons.

Border Identities: Uses of the Alter Ego in Latinx Art

Aldeide Delgado

I believe in the power of decorating and anesthetizing the body in order to exaggerate, challenge and problematize mythical notions of the Mexican Other. In the American imagination, Mexicans are allowed to occupy two different but strangely complementary spaces: we are either unnecessarily violent, hypersexual, cannibalistic and highly infectious; or innocent, “natural”, ritualistic, and shamanic. Both stereotypes are equally colonializing.

From Guillermo Gómez-Peña´s Performance Diaries, 1997

Border identities struggle through the “colonial difference”[1] while also reflecting complex and heterogeneous realities that supersede any form of essentialism. How have contemporary artists critically engaged this discourse in their practices? Can we understand the Latinx artist from a border subjectivity? This text, in dialog with these questions, offers a lens to study the work of three Latinx identified artists who perform specific alter egos as vehicles to explore identity as a social construct.

In Claudia Cano´s work, the alter ego Rosa Hernández “La Chacha” embodies the stereotypes of Mexican immigrant women in the United States.[2] Rosa Hernández is a 53-year-old cleaning worker who carries out her services in spaces that legitimize the “coloniality of power.”[3] Rosa diligently cleans without wasting time during her hours of service; she moves slowly, limps from her right hip, and remains silent given her lack of fluency in English. Why create a submissive, selfless, and stereotyped persona characterized by the forces that reproduce coloniality rather than a character that reconfigures power relations? Rosa is derived from the real border identity of Claudia Cano- from her displacement and belonging to the “third space.” In Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa argues how the mestiza consciousness reclaims its legitimacy through its imposed silence and marginalization; speaking from a position of silence, –she adds- and politicizing indifference, constitute the symptoms of a divergent political praxis.[4]

If in Cano´s work, the persona’s silence calls into question the asymmetric relations of “colonial difference”, in Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz´s alter ego “Chuleta”, linguistic mestizaje denote her border identity. Raimundi Ortiz has developed her work around the investigation of the Latin experience in the United States while confronting stereotypes directed at Puerto Rican culture. She expressed: “I could speak of disenchantment, marginalization, critique intersections where these worlds [Latinos, Americans, as well as the art world] met for me. I began making work about living in the fracture of multiple lives, all the while challenging the parts of our culture that are problematic.”[5] Chuleta embodies the cultural norms of the Nuyorican urban community while wielding the Spanglish language as a distinctive element of her character. Through the artist’s YouTube channel, Chuleta spontaneously discusses a wide range of topics from Christmas decorations to appropriation, identity, and contemporary art. Her personal language is characterized by the use of informal rules of communication, as well as linguistic and timing variations that evidence her bicultural experience.

Challenging the coloniality of language has also been crucial in the work of Yali Romagoza. In the performance Monument to the Great Living Artist (2018), Romagoza embodies the alter ego Cuquita “the Cuban doll”[6]– dancing along to Se Acabó by the Cuban singer La Lupe while reciting the essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? by the US art historian Linda Nochlin. At the conclusion of the performance, Cuquita presents the following messages, respectively signed by Ana Mendieta and herself: “American Feminism as it stands is a white middle-class movement” and “The Choice is yours. Say it but with an accent.” The notion of contamination breaking the purity of the colonizer language, mestizar el lenguaje, is manifested through the attention to silence, accent and hybridity. These approaches effectively become strategies to subvert the homogenization, folkloric categorization, and exoticization of Latin-American people in the United States, and more specifically of Latinx artists in the art world. After emigrating from Cuba in 2011, Romagoza focused her practice on the exploration of identity, power, and feminism in an intercultural space. The quasi-alien appearance of Cuquita “The Cuban Doll” – note the association between alien beings and immigrants – constantly transforms in order to question the stereotype of a single Cuban female identity.

The critical discourse of diaspora studies offers a space to define border identities. In the text Diásporas «trans», fronteras corporeizadas y tránsito(s) migratorios en México, Victoria López Fernández argues that the concept of “border” is implicit in the notion of “diaspora” from a symbolic and metaphorical perspective. She refers to them [the borders] as social, gender, cultural, economic, linguistic, religious and historical barriers.[7]  Diaspora identities are linked through the possibility of returning to the “place of historical origin”. This symbolic return constitutes a paradox of the diasporic identity, as the subject simultaneously belongs and does not belong to the “place of origin” as much as they belong and do not belong to the “adopted place.” In this regard, the consciousness of the diaspora implies a sense of difference and multiplicity, a sense of ´otherness´ and therefore of displacement.[8] As we continue reading López Fernández: “La diáspora, enunciada desde un entendimiento de ´lo queer´,[9] comparte la hipótesis de la hibridez, emergiendo desde la complejidad y con todas las fisuras y contradicciones de una Latinoamérica heterogénea.”[10] Living in the diaspora is living in the “third country”, in the contaminated and intersectional zone or, as Guillermo Gómez-Peña reminds us, it is to live on the borderlands.[11]

The Latin America migration policy that Donald Trump established during his presidential campaign motivated a debate around prejudices toward Latin American immigrants in the United States. In this national context, the artist Elia Alba organized the event Latin America, Immigration, and Race[12] at the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation as part of the project The Supper Club.[13] This thematic conversation problematized the notions of pigmentocracy, colonialism, and Latinidad, prompted by fundamental questions such as “At what point do you allow people to self-identify?” “At what point is that self-identification imposed, and to what degree?” And “Who sets the terms of identification?”[14]

The creation of alter egos can be a useful prism to establish a historiography of Latinx art. A distinctive feature of these second selves is the externalization of the artists’ non-identification with their past and present place. In the borderland, the use of the alter ego is a survival strategy. These personas are built from the artists’ autobiographical stories, sharing several of their concerns and feelings of vulnerability, displacement, and otherness. At the same time, their actions constitute a critical positioning in resistance to the monotopic system of representation.[15] Latinx artists, in the process of questioning cultural homogeneity, are forced to enact their own restitution- abandoning the Self for the Other in order to express their border identity in the public space.

Notes:

[1] Walter Mignolo conceptualizes the “colonial difference” as the hegemonic mechanism utilized, from the sixteenth century to the present, to marginalize non-Western knowledge. The “colonial difference” is defined by a wound marked by the relation inside-outside, center-periphery, colonizer-colonized, civilization-barbarism. See Walter D. Mignolo, “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference,” accessed July 8, 2019, http://www.unice.fr/crookall-cours/iup_geopoli/docs/Geopolitics.pdf

[2] Among other alter egos developed by Claudia Cano is Carmencha “La Rica”: a despotic woman who escaped from corruption and violence in Mexico.

[3] According to Aníbal Quijano, the “coloniality of power” is the motor that has produced and reproduced the colonial and imperial difference through which all dominated populations and all newly created identities have been subjected to the hegemony of Eurocentrism. See Daniela Pilar Pazurro and Valeria Engert, “Diferencia colonial: Lugar de Encuentro,” accessed July 8, 2019, https://www.unrc.edu.ar/publicar/borradores/Vol10-11/pdf/Diferencia%20Colonial,%20Lugar%20de%20encuentro.pdf

[4] Carolina Meloni González, “Bárbara y mestiza: el feminismo de Gloria Anzaldúa,” El Salto (March 7, 2019), accessed June 28, 2019, https://www.elsaltodiario.com/el-rumor-de-las-multitudes/barbara-y-mestiza-el-feminismo-de-gloria-anzaldua

[5] Katidia Barbara Coronado and Erika Rodriguez Kight, “Wanda Raimundi Ortiz,” in LatinX Voices: Hispanic in Media in the U.S, (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2019), accessed June 28, 2019, https://books.google.com/books?id=yQFlDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT136&lpg=PT136&dq=wanda+raimundi+ortiz#v=onepage&q=wanda%20raimundi%20ortiz&f=false

[6] Yali Romagoza’s alter ego references cuquitas cubanas (Cuban paper dolls). These two-dimensional figures, drawn or printed on paper, were distributed in the Cuban magazines Mujeres and Muchacha for young girls’ entertainment.

[7] Victoria López Fernández, “Diásporas «trans», fronteras corporeizadas y tránsito(s) migratorios en México,” accessed July 10, 2019, http://www.scielo.org.mx/pdf/crca/v25n71/2448-8488-crca-25-71-9.pdf

[8] Gali Weiss, “Diasporic looking: Portraiture, diaspora and subjectivity,” accessed July 10, 2019, http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/n1957/pdf/ch03.pdf

[9] Some authors point to the necessity to queerize migration studies in order to intersect and problematize sexualities within other fundamental fields of power in the configuration of subjectivity.

[10] “The diaspora, articulated through a ´queer´ understanding, shares the hypothesis of hybridity, emerging from complexity with all the fissures and contradictions of a heterogeneous Latin America.” See Victoria López Fernández, “Diásporas «trans», fronteras corporeizadas y tránsito(s) migratorios en México.”

[11] Gómez Peña proudly speaks on his dual nationality or, more accurately, his “double otherness”. That is, he belongs to a third country, the borderlands, which in the end is no habitable land for government authorities as the third country is understood in terms of virtual nationality, in particular, in relation to the interwoven languages that the artist lives through on a daily basis.

[12] Participants were David Antonio Cruz, Arlene Davila, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Alexis Duque, Marlon Feliz, Tania Katerí Hernández, Fabiana Lopes, Miguel Luciano, Esperanza Mayobre, Ivan Monforte, Guadalupe Maravilla, Rachelle Mozman Solano, Lina Puerta, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, Yasmin Ramirez, Sara Reisman, Juan Sanchez, Carlos Sandoval de Leon and Tashima Thomas.

[13] Since 2012, Elia Alba has developed The Supper Club, a series of thematic conversations organized around dinners where approximately 500 artists, writers, critics, and curators have attended to discuss identity, race, and visual culture.

[14] Elia Alba, “The Supper Club,” (New York: The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, 2019) p. 77.

[15] As Walter D. Mignolo, and other authors have pointed out, a monotopic hermeneutic presupposes a notion of a single History that is dynamic but unchallenged by alternative horizons.