Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Guest Blogger Natalie A. Martínez on Poch@ as Queer Racial Melancholia!

Author's note:
I was really inspired by Marissa's post. Thank you for letting me share my thoughts on poch@ this week. paz-Natalie

by Natalie A. Martínez

Knowing the color of the sky is far more important than counting clouds. Or to put it another way, the most radical art is not protest art, but art that takes us to another place, envisions a different way of seeing, perhaps, a different way of feeling.  
– Robin D. G. Kelley, “Freedom Dreams: Black Radical Imagination”
Cultural memory is, among other things, a practice, an act of imagination and interconnection. The Intermediary begins to imagine her heart—her memory. Memory is embodied and sensual, that is conjured through the senses; it links the deeply private with social, even official, practices…Memory like the heart, beats beyond our capacity to control it, a lifeline between past and future.
–Diana Taylor, “The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Américas” 
A Queer Assemblage

The short film linked above, Hemispheric Memories: En cada mente, su propio mundo, co-created with friend, Alan Smith over the past two weeks, was no doubt an attempt to re-understand loss and melancholia, and perhaps even alter its effects.  The film is not only disorienting for the viewer because of the quality of the original VHS film, but its parts, like memory, are incomplete; assemblages of what I gathered as the most salient moments of loss, awkwardness, identity, and the familial of all bodies involved. I picked these 9 minutes and 40 seconds of images out of an archive of roughly two hours of film taken during a Martinez-Baca Family reunion in 1994 near Chama, New Mexico because it offered the most revealing tensions about the relation of memory and affect to identity. Specifically, if I can claim as much, I would say these are first and foremost poch@ memories. 

Poch@ as Queer Racial Melancholia
I became interested in Cruz’s invitation for me to posit poch@ as a form of queer racial melancholia for a number of reasons. 
In two critical texts I was reading, The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy, and A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia, author David Eng makes an interesting claim. By and large, structures of feeling like intimacy, privacy, home or freedom were “given ideological support” through the colonial legacies of New World material conditions like that of slavery and diaspora (12). Such an observation notes the colonial and racial dimensions that such structures of feeling carry. I see poch@ as a potential structure of feeling that is a product of these sorts of legacies.          
   In Loss: The Politics of Mourning, where Eng’s dialogue with Shinshee Han appears, the authors attempt to carefully investigate “depathologized structures of feeling" (344) and see marginalized people not as permanently “damaged” or incomplete subjects, but as subjects in “conflict” (363). Eng goes on to describe the sorts of struggles he saw among many of his Asian American students who experienced depression or conflict over issues of assimilation, immigration, and language. Similarly, work like that of sociology professor Gabriela Sandoval’s, uses Anzaldúa’s notion of Coatlicue state and mestiz@ consciousness to help explain self-injury among Latinas as a way of coping with the complexity of societal violence. Her use of Coatlicue, one particular expression of melancholia of the Américas, attempts to detach the stigma of self-injury to the individual, not to valorize the practice, but to recast it as a larger effect, an expression of melancholia on the skin, and an attempt to mark on the body publicly, very private losses, the kind of losses not sanctioned in everyday discourse.  
 Poch@ shares this similar strand of concern. Largely defined as a Mexican-American who is rejected or assimilated into dominant culture, this rejection has mostly been linked to the language or discourse one uses. I want to re-inflect the term with another shade of meaning or possibility. Or better stated, a similar meaning but from a different register. 
Of course the questions become for us then, in the context of positing poch@ as an expression of queer racial melancholia, what are we mourning? Grieving? And specifically, what have we lost?
When I think of the word poch@, being the word nerd I am, I can’t help but link it to its literal meaning— bruised fruit, and all that this image conjures up for me. At its most literal, I think of the skin. A distinct marked difference. A record of activity. I also imagine the labor, networks of capital, and communities connected to fruit as an industry. I think of fruta and its link to idiomas surrounding one’s sexuality. I think of strange fruit and artist Ken Gonzales-Day’s work that makes the absent present in his Erased Lynchings and Hang Trees series which chronicles “19th Century concepts of difference” as a reason for immigrant latin@s in the Western United States to be hung at a time when black lynchings were epidemic and horrifically spectated as a norm. I think of Communication professor and GLBTQ activist Karma Chávez’s work on Victoria Arellano, a transgender immigrant who was denied AIDS medication while being detained by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in San Pedro, California and who later died while in custody because of inadequate care. These are some other hemispheric memories that largely go unseen or unfelt. These are the sorts of losses we grieve for, but often don’t have a discursive space to do so, perhaps, because discourse is not enough. 
When I have spoken of my work in these ways many have responded to it as a form of re-victimization or identity politics. The response is, “Well, eventually we need to get over it.” Another form this takes is looking only for positive representations of latin@s as in studying the rhetorics or emotional discourses of hope or pride contextualized within various hemispheric or Latin@ contexts. Our “political present” directs us otherwise. Rather, we need to dwell in these “despised states” (shame, brooding, grief…) a little longer or the very least feel their generative possibilities.
In this way, we can read poch@ as queer. Queer because its methods rely on a non-normative approach. I also read poch@ as “a conflict, rather than the damage” within the “continuum between mourning and melancholia” of an idealized form, never subsumed by idealized feelings or affects around the experience of being Mexican-American or mestiz@ but in a constant state of negotiating the demands of institutions, history, and society (Eng 363). Poch@ then is not an essential estrangement, an essential difference, nor an essential lack, but rather a state of constantly negotiating these various structures of feelings.

Genealogies of Affect in the Américas
            I think conceiving of poch@ as a form of queer racial melancholia and similar lines of inquiry are important and timely. Affect studies or what has been coined within many disciplines (including Rhetoric and Composition) as the affective turn (perceived as renewed interest in embodiment, corporeal rhetoric, and emotions) has for the most part continued to cite hemispheric rhetorics that analyze and theorize affect in the Américas as only “mining emotions,” but not much more (Micciche 16). Largely, the affective (re)turn or (re)valuing of “emotion’s rhetoricity” has by and large returned to Greco-Roman traditions in what appears to be a seamless recovery of the body for the discipline’s already unchallenged historiography. Doing so whether intentional or not erases the contributions writers, artists, and activists have long understood as an interstitial life: one felt, lived, and experienced in and on the body among other bodies—because of identities. 
There are exceptions of course. Outside of the discipline of rhetoric and composition, Anne Cvetkovich and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano’s assessments of Cherrie Moraga’s work are sustained and refreshing to say the least. And within the discipline itself, Kristie Fleckenstein’s work, Vision, Rhetoric, and Social Action in the Composition Classroom while greatly indebted to Cicero and Kenneth Burke for rhetorical concepts of antinomy and agency, is one of the first more mainstream composition and pedagogy books to engage rather than simply cite a hemispheric writer or artist, when she dedicates at least ten pages of discussion to performance artist Coco Fusco as a way of theorizing “empathic social action” and “corporeal rhetoric.” Still, I want to push the presence of these theories within dominant conversations about pathos and agency that preoccupy our field further. What if we placed María Lugones’ rhetorical theory of “active subjectivity/resistant agency” or “brooding” as a “complex incarnate memory” linked to invention which emerges as a re-enactment of Anzaldúa’s concept of Coatlicue alongside Fleckenstein’s discussion of agenic invention? What if we understood Lugones’ concept of brooding as a much more complex, rhetorical form?
An even more productive question we might begin to ask instead is: what does affect/emotion/ways of feeling do in the context of the Américas? And what would a methodology that frames itself around affect within in the Américas look like? Or to put it another way, what might a poch@ methodology or politic look like if affect were its terms?
            As a scholar, my work has attempted to map out a genealogy of affect within the Américas. The affective vocabulary I’ve encountered (and in no way is this list exhaustive) includes such concepts as coatlicue state, la facultad, intimate terrorism, nepantla, conocimiento, wounded skin, vendida, and now poch@. 

A Not So Final Cut—Una herida abrieta
To keep the wound open, or to engage in a “living melancholia” –a “refusal to view identities under social erasure as individual pathology and permanent damage” and instead commit to its “communal appropriation” is indeed a difficult and exhausting task (Eng and Han 366).
In this exhaustion, I want to come back to the film that begins this blog entry and the reason for the two epigraphs by Robin D.G. Kelley and Diana Taylor. 
In the past few years I have experienced what queer theorist, Anne Cvetkovich would call “an affective life.” It is a life where “[an] archive of emotions [has resulted] from ungrievable losses…”  called into question for me long held assumptions about agency, memory within the body, and the effects of trauma not just on an individual but collectively (qtd in Eng and Kazanjian 15). This affective life I speak of consisted of a few things in the span of two years:  First, I lost my father not to death, but to unspeakable trauma, and thus I lost a living link to my identity as a latin@. That same year I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A year later after moving to Tallahassee, Florida from Arizona, I lost my partner from the stress that illness put on our relationship and the very real struggles queer people encounter daily, advocating on behalf of, or for the rights and health of their loved ones in a system that does not recognize their relationship as valid in the first place.  
As if this loss were not enough, my illness was one that literally made my body disappear. I had nerve damage caused by an earlier viral infection which left my stomach paralyzed, among other things and made it so that I could not digest food. This condition went misdiagnosed for nearly eight months. Even with a diagnosis there was no treatment but hope that with time it would slowly heal. I witnessed, as if outside myself, the body rebel. In doing so, I began to question the way we largely make the individual body responsible without accounting for its history of affects, nor the effect it has on others. Despite no clear etiology, one fact remained. The muscles of my body had remembered, recorded years of trauma, but my mind, which was part of that body, forgot. One reaction to the intensity of these experiences in such a short period was the loss of my memory. A year later I am just beginning to recall things that happened.
Days before Cruz sent me a Facebook message asking if I’d like to write for his blog, I found among a stack of unpacked boxes a DVD recording of a 1994 Baca-Martínez Family Reunion. The day my father gave it to me, two days before his 50th birthday, was the last time I ever spoke or saw my father in person. 
The title of the film came from a dicho my close friend and poet, Fernando Pérez, shared with me. The saying was in response to losing a close friend of ours who took his own life. In trying to make sense of this loss, Fernando’s father tells him in Spanish over the phone, essentially “In each person’s mind is their own world.” I selected this saying or because it is both true and not. While much of our thoughts and feelings may stay private, the way we relate to the world is largely through emotion and the bodies that feel, experience, and produce these emotions with us. 
Making this film was a way of altering or transforming memory in a way that produces a new feeling, imagines another path and therefore a new relation to its history and the history it purports to tell. The process included erasing some voices in certain places and looping or splicing them in at others:

Frame  1. That is my great-grandmother, Theodora Baca Martínez, correcting my grandfather’s memory. She moves seamlessly in translation. This was our first house. 
Frame  2. I try to imagine the interior life of my father. The sorts of longing he had behind his VHS camcorder capturing his history. A biracial, bicultural son. He was raised by his single-mother, a blond haired, blue-eyed daughter of German and Scandinavian immigrant farmers. On weekends he visited his father’s family in Ogden; the same families you see gathered here in these moving frames. I imagine a longing to know. A sense of grief or loss over a tongue that won’t turn, trill, or move in the ways it wishes it could. 
Frame 3.  This collection of film was the last thing my father gave to me. I have not spoken to him in over three years. This same year, 2008, I fall in love. This is also the same year I am diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is not to say the two, love and trauma, are related.
Frame 4.   Pocho/a.  Bruised fruit. Discoloring of skin. A queer feeling. 
Frame 5.  Memory in Mexica thought resided in the heart rather than the head. This gives new meanings to pulling at the heart strings, arrhythmia, and the fact my father had to have his fixed.
Frame 6.   If this is indeed the living museum, between my hand, sweeping red rock and canyon, I want to know then, who is its uneasy curator?
Frame 7.   Even in pain I was an unusually happy and smiling kid. But in these moving pictures, I am awkward, uncomfortable, picking at my skin.
Frame 8.   One of my students from last quarter reminds me that nostalgia means home-sick.  I think of my grandfather’s phrase which Alan and I engineer and make a refrain: There used to be home. 
Frame 9.   This is the last time you say out loud, I love you. Years later, I still think your body will bloom back and walk through the door waiting for me to greet you with my mouth. Instead, I am stuck with candles and virgins that bear your same name.
Natalie A. Martínez , is a poet and PhD candidate at Arizona State University in Rhetoric, Composition, and Linguistics. She was a 2008 CCCCs Scholar for the Dream recipient and 2009 RSA Queering Rhetorical Studies Workshop Participant at Penn State University. Her research is concerned with Queer Latin@ rhetorics that theorize affect and posit it as a methodology. She is fortunate enough to have Keith Miller, Damián Baca, and Duane Roen as her mentors and will defend her dissertation this fall of 2011. She is healthy and newly adjusted to the rain of her native Seattle where she currently resides. If you have questions or comments feel free to email her at Natalie.Martinez@asu.edu.


  1. This is stunning, Natalie. A collage of bruises + theory = transcendent poetry.

  2. Thanks chica. You are one of my talented friends who has encouraged me to be brave enough to write this.