Latina and Latino Studies

views updated


Since the early 1990s, the most thriving subfield of Latino studies in the United States has been queer studies. Finding its strongest anchor in literary studies, Latino studies scholarship that addresses LGBT gender roles and sexualities has challenged many of the heterosexual assumptions embedded in much Latino-American writing. Queer Latino studies has simultaneously placed the lives and cultures of queer Latinas and Latinos within mainstream LGBT studies. Queer Latino studies has thus had the dual role of making race and ethnicity necessary categories of analysis in LGBT studies and of bringing questions of gender, sexuality, and desire to the center of Latino studies. The authors building a queer Latino studies literature have come from Chicana and Chicano (Mexican American), Puerto Rican, Cuban, and several other national and ethnic backgrounds, and from varied disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts. They have produced fiction, essays, poetry, plays, performance art, film, video, and academic writing in the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts. Many of them began their work not in universities but in community-based coalitions of artists, writers, and activists committed to making connections between racial and ethnic conditions and sexual consciousness. While a great deal of queer Latino studies has focused attention on the U.S. mainland, often the writings cross national borders in their content, politics, and audience. Given Latinos' ongoing transnational economic, cultural, and political relationships with Latin America, U.S.-based LGBT Latino studies often investigates relationships between sexualities "at home" and abroad. Given these ongoing transnational relations, queer Latino studies has also differed along national lines. Queer Chicanos and Chicanas, for example, have explored their racialization in the United States while simultaneously exploring the historical legacies of patriarchy in their Mexican ideological roots. Likewise, queer Puerto Ricans have investigated their ongoing historical relations "at home" in the United States and "at home" in the island, addressing the ways in which race, language, and class mark insider and outsider statuses in both locations. Queer Cubans and Cuban Americans, on the other hand, having a different relation as "exiles" from a country deemed an enemy by the United States, have explored in part lesbian and gay Cubans' experiences in the islands during the revolutionary period.

Historical and Political Contexts

The growth of social protest movements in the 1960s and 1970s gave birth to what can be considered the first writings linking Latino and LGBT studies. Though sporadic, early publications—such as New York City's Spanish-language Afuera (1972)—discussed Third World liberation, Marxist thought, and patriarchy from a gay Latin American perspective. Over time, newsletters and occasional articles from organizations such as San Francisco's Gay Latino Alliance (GALA, 1975–1983), New York City's El Comité de Homosexuales Latinoamericanos (COHLA, around the mid-1970s), and Boston's El Comité Latino de Lesbianas y Homosexuales (about 1979) began to create a small corpus of writings.

Despite the fact that Chicano and Puerto Rican studies began to take institutional form at this time at several East Coast and West Coast colleges and universities, the few writings circulating outside the academy that brought together LGBT studies and Latino studies did not shape the curriculum in any significant way. Homophobia and rigid heterosexist nationalist positions in these early programs argued for national liberation without making space for feminist and LGBT critiques of patriarchy and heterosexuality. Yet despite the lack of institutional support, a growing body of work addressing queer sexuality from Latina and Latino perspectives began to take form in the late 1970s.

Latina and Latino Literary Challenges

Well-known gay author John Rechy, who is of mixed Scottish and Mexican descent, could be considered the first contributor to what would eventually take form as queer Latino studies. In his classic City of Night (1963) and the more politically engaged The Sexual Outlaw (1977), Rechy addressed sexuality and gay oppression. Because his writings have not always explicitly marked the intersection of sexual and racial identities, the first generation of Chicano literary scholars refused to consider him a Chicano author, given his gay sexuality and his mixed-race background. In his Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez (1991), Rechy brought closer the relationship between gay and Latino lives in Los Angeles, the most recurrent location for his novels. Despite Latino critics' homophobia and racial essentialism regarding Rechy's background, a cross-generational LGBT and Latino audience has become aware of his work. More recent LGBT Latino critics have returned to his writings and placed him alongside other well-known Latino writers. These critics have been more appreciative of the ability of mixed race writers like Rechy to contribute to dialogues about multiracial identity and sexuality.

Chicana and Latina lesbians initiated more explicitly political discussions linking sexuality, race, gender, and nationality in Latino studies. The groundbreaking first edition of This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color (1981) gave a national platform to many Latina authors addressing lesbian sexuality. Conceived in 1979 by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, This Bridge mixed poetry, nonfictional narratives, personal letters, and political manifestos to create a multiracial dialogue among Third World women. Followed by other foundational publications from Moraga and Anzaldúa, This Bridge remains the most important intervention into LGBT studies from a Latino perspective.

Two important Chicana and Latina lesbian anthologies in the 1990s continued to address Queer and Latino studies from lesbian positions. Representing many writers from the Southwest, Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About (1991) broke important political and theoretical ground in Chicana and Chicano studies. Mixing poetry and essays with more academic treatises, Chicana Lesbians offered powerful critiques of Chicano patriarchy. With strong East Coast Latina representation, Compañeras: Latina Lesbians (1994) similarly explored identity, nationality, liberation, and sexuality in Latina lesbian lives. More transnational in its scope than Chicana Lesbians, Compañeras offered important historical and political discussions on the forging of cultural, political, and social Latina lesbian networks in the Americas.

Queer Latino men's anthologies have been fewer and less politically focused than those of Latina lesbians. Ya Vas Carnal (Go Head On, Brother), a 1995 poetry compilation by three gay Chicano cultural workers and writers in San Francisco, was one of the first gay Latino men's anthologies to address queer sexuality openly from a Chicano perspective. Subsequently, the 1999 publications Virgins, Guerrillas, and Locas: Gay Latinos Writing about Love and Bésame Mucho (Kiss Me a Lot) offered personal fictional and nonfictional accounts of love, desire, family life, and health. Along with the contributions of the Colombian Jaime Manrique, the Cuban Rafael Campo, the late Cuban exile Reinaldo Arenas, and the Chicano novelist Arturo Islas, gay Latino men's writing is slowly becoming a significant body of work addressing male gender roles and sexualities.

Theater and Performance

A strong component of queer Latino studies has been the work of creative performers and artists and the scholars who write about their productions. Foremost in the list of Chicana lesbian playwrights has been Cherríe Moraga, who has produced three collections of plays. In her work, Moraga has consistently explored spirituality, sexuality, family, and the home. A younger generation of playwrights including Ricardo A. Bracho and Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas continues to challenge assumptions about queer and racial and ethnic identities in the United States. Long-established performance artists Monica Palacios, Luis Alfaro, Marga Gómez, and Carmelita Tropicana have brought to the stage queer Latino and Latina life in dramatic and hilarious fashion. Their collective work has received wide acclaim from varied audiences, including non-Latinos. Filmmakers Frances Negrón-Muntaner and Mary Guzman have explored identity, migration, gender, and sexuality from lesbian Latina perspectives. Also active in video and filmmaking have been Teresa "Osa" Hidalgode la Riva, Janelle Rodriguez, and Veronica Majano, all members of a new generation of Latina lesbian filmmakers from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Questions of language and nation have been central in most of these artists' and performers' work. They have consciously made bilingualism and "Spanglish" the preferred mode for queer studies. Often bridging immigrant and post-immigrant Latino communities, these artists reveal the tensions in their lives as they straddle at least two different cultural positions. While their work explores the painful experience of leaving their racial and ethnic communities in hopes of finding a sense of place in the white-dominant lesbian and gay enclaves and institutions that often stereotype and denigrate them, they just as often delve into the process of returning home.

History and the Social Sciences

Historical examinations of queer Latina and Latino communities have been largely missing in queer studies, with only one extensive study of the San Francisco Bay Area having appeared as of the early twenty-first century. As this study, by Horacio N. Roque Ramírez, demonstrates, the making of queer Latina and Latino communities has been multinational and multigendered. Queer Latina and Latino history in San Francisco has grown out of the social, political, and cultural lives of both queer migrants and individuals already established in the Bay Area. The impetus to head for the Bay Area involved a combination of the desire to live more open sexual and political lives and the attraction of the region and its famous countercultures. María Cora and Karla E. Rosales have explored Latina lesbian cultures in this region as well. Respectively, their work has examined black Puerto Rican lesbians and self-identified butch Latina lesbians. Despite these contributions to the history of queer Latinas and Latinos in the Bay Area, there has been little comparable study elsewhere in the nation, which has meant that queer studies in general lacks the racial and cultural complexity that more local histories would bring. Some scholarly works, however, have shed light on individual Latina and Latino contributions to gay and lesbian history. These include Martin Duberman's work on the Puerto Rican Sylvia Rivera in New York; Marc Stein's work on the Cuban American Ada Bello in Philadelphia; and Michael R. Gorman's work on José Sarria in San Francisco. The historical scholarship of Ramón A Gutiérrez, Emma Pérez, and Antonia I. Castañeda also addresses the relationship between gender and sexuality among Latinas and Latinos.

More extensive has been the work of sociologists and other social scientists. Tomás Almaguer's 1991 essay "Chicano Men: A Cartography of Homosexual Identity and Behavior" is one the most extensively anthologized. Generally, Almaguer argued that, in the "Mexican/Latin American male sexual system," it is not the object of attraction but the question of who penetrates or gets penetrated in anal sex that defines homosexuality. He also argued that "there is no cultural equivalent to the modern 'gay man' in the Mexican/Latin American sexual system" (p. 75). The essay, published at a moment when there was no existing sociological research on gay Latinos, overemphasized the top-bottom reductionist hypothesis. It also reduced the experience of gay Chicano and Latino men to one of stigma and shame within their communities, and failed to acknowledge the variety of gay experience throughout the Americas. A more ethnographic discussion of gay Latinos is that of the late sociologist Lionel Cantú, who "queered" migration studies by demonstrating the central role of sexuality in the experience of gay Mexican immigrant men in Los Angeles. Cantú also explored transnational relations between these immigrant men and the ways in which their lives are culturally and socially connected to both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Along these lines of investigating migration and sexuality, Oliva M. Espín has explored the process of healing in the lives of Latina lesbian migrants in the United States. Arguing for the need to recognize the diverse class, racial, and sexual backgrounds of Latina immigrants, Espín offers a framework that explores but also critiques dominant (white) feminist theories of identity. Finally, the research of Barbara V. Marín, Héctor Carrillo, George Ayala, Lourdes Arguelles, Horacio N. Roque Ramírez, and Rafael M. Díaz on AIDS in Latino communities explores the racial, class, gender, and cultural factors that must be acknowledged more overtly to respond to the epidemic more successfully.

Cultural Studies

One of the strongest areas in queer Latino studies, and in queer studies in general, has been cultural studies. Generally based in large research universities, this work is part of the burgeoning tendency since the early 1990s toward theoretical exploration of the meaning and production of various cultural texts: novels, films, television, plays, music, and other kinds of popular media. Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, José Esteban Muñoz, José Quiroga, Juana María Rodríguez, Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez, David Román, and others have written on multiple levels about the politics of identity expressed in Latino cultural forms.

These scholars have probed the intersecting, multiple ways that gender, sexuality, and culture find expression in Latino life. Usually in conversation with work in performance studies, American studies, Latin American studies, and ethnic studies, queer Latino cultural studies expands the national and temporal borders of queer studies. Though largely based in the United States, this work takes up questions of imperialism, conquest, and patriarchy in Latin America as they relate to Latino life, culture, and sexuality in the United States. In this sense, they explore the notion of Latinidad—that is, the formation and expression of identity among Latinas and Latinos—and queer Latinidad, specifically. In exploring queer Latinidad, they make more explicit the heterogeneous historical, cultural, and regional roots of Latinos and their queer sexualities. The field has been successful also in making visible white racial assumptions in queer cultural studies. In addition it has shed light on the difficult negotiations queer Latinas and Latinos carry out to claim visibility, language, space, identity, and rights.

Works in Latino studies that address transgender and bisexual sexualities have been few. With the exception of AIDS health research addressing risk factors and behaviors associated with bisexual and transgender identities, Latino studies has yet to focus critical attention on the politics and cultures of bisexual identity and transgender Latino communities.

With the exception of the well-known writings of Moraga and Anzaldúa and a handful of other essays, few contributions from Latino studies have found their way into the center of LGBT studies. Often relegated to superficial discussions of "diversity" and "difference," queer Latino studies has nevertheless challenged many assumptions about what constitutes LGBT community, sister-hood, brotherhood, and history. At the same time, various scholars and artists have strengthened Latino studies in the last three decades by expanding notions of culture, identity, and liberation.


Almaguer, Tomás. "Chicano Men: A Cartography of Homosexual Identity and Behavior." Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3, no. 2 (summer 1991): 75–100.

Cantú, Lionel, Jr. "Border Crossings: Mexican Men and the Sexuality of Migration." Ph.D. diss., University of California, Irvine, 1999.

Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. 3d ed. Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 2002.

Negrón-Muntaner, Frances. "When I Was a Puerto Rican Lesbian: Meditations on 'Brincando el charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican'." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 5 (1999): 511–526.

Ramos, Juanita, ed. Compañeras: Latina Lesbians. New York: Latina Lesbian History Project, 1987.

Reyes, Rodrigo, Francisco X. Alarcón, and Juan Pablo Gutiérrez. Ya Vas Carnal: Poetry by Rodrigo Reyes, Francisco X. Alarcón, and Juan Pablo Gutiérrez. San Francisco: Humanizarte, 1985

Rodríguez, Juana María. Queer Latinidad: Identity Practices, Discursive Spaces. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Roque Ramírez, Horacio N. "Communities of Desire: Queer Latina/Latino History and Memory, San Francisco Bay Area, 1960s–1990s." Ph.D. diss., University of California at Berkeley, 2001.

Trujillo, Carla, ed. Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About. Berkeley: Third Woman, 1991.

Horacio N. Roque Ramírez

see alsoanzaldÚa, gloria; islas, arturo; latinas and latinos; latina and latino lgbtq organizations and periodicals; moraga, cherrÍe; rechy, john.

About this article

Latina and Latino Studies

Updated About content Print Article