for Alexander Milán and Raquel Albarrán
“Do I have a fucking flow, do I kill it where I go?
If you can’t handle me, bro, mala mía.
Yeah, I come hitting hard and my breasts getting large.
Took your man, and I took charge, mala mía.
I come full throttle, straight from the malecón.
Think I’m just rambling on? Mala mía.
Santa Rosa Bayamón, Minillas in my heart
Can’t take the heat? Don’t start. Mala mía.”
—Villano Antillano, “Mala mía”1
“The refusal of empiricist historiography and its denouncement of utopian longing has long been an important cue for this project. […] Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain.”
―José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity
A Brief Tour of Trans Temporality and Representation
Colette Arrand is a poet and editor of trans experience without whom I would not be writing this introduction. Together we edited the online literary magazine The Wanderer for three years, and, during that time, we read a lot of poetry written by trans people. Colette, my friend and mentor, often asked me, “What is trans literature?” For Colette, there were several problems with calling something “trans literature,” but the main one was the assumption trans experiences exclusively shape all of our writing. Her concern was that it would relegate us to oversimplified readings and that we would not be valued for the work itself, since we would end up being fetishized as local informants of otherness. I always understood my friend’s concern and it is not new or exclusive to our experiences as trans people. It corresponds to a notion of an unmarked universal subject who is white, cis, heterosexual, etc. Although the majority of the population falls outside of these rubrics, to enter the literary, that majority has had to explain their own absence and fight for scarce spaces. Writers like Samuel R. Delany have already detailed the relationship between canon, paraliterature, and marginalization, so I am not going to go over these lengthy debates. Suffice to say, my coeditor’s concerns are based on the premise that fetishization is something we can or should resist and avoid as writers.
I understand. I empathize. But this text opens with an alternate premise. Instead of suggesting that we have to negotiate with canons that will deny us either way, I would like to suggest that as long as there is transphobia, capitalism, and exploitation in the wake of colonialism and slavery’s legacy and the binary that it has imposed, we will be continuously excluded, no matter how hard we fight for inclusive representation, but that doesn’t mean our work is irrelevant. For it is the work of those who open the ground to make these brief utopian oases in order to exist as patxs and trans in and from within poetry. It is very relevant, for it is the enormous smallness that sustains us.
In their essay “Žižek’s Trans/gender Trouble” Che Gossett argues that “gender nonconforming people are situated (like the violence of the gender binary which we oppose) within the theoretical and political coordinates of history and history’s present tense—the afterlife of slavery and colonialism.” Their accurate observation that we are and always have been, also responds to the active and hypervisible invisibilization of that history by one of the best-known contemporary left-wing theorists.2 Gossett’s essay exists on that border between our selective hyper-visibility and the invisibility that serves as a backdrop. When cis institutions and thinkers insist that we are something new, that we arrived yesterday, that we are a phenomenon, an offshoot, of youth, as Žižek did, they erase the systems of power that make visible a very small strip of trans people for a cis gaze to which we are not new, but rather novelties.
Every cis person knows someone trans. Perhaps they formed a friendship with that person, perhaps they rejected or denied him/her/them. In all probability they caused them harm and don’t even remember. The feeling that trans people are new is a response to a new form of power, albeit limited and selective, and to our visible entry into spaces where we have historically been denied and to which we have been denied access. There is a stinging silence throughout the twentieth century—the century of the great Avant-gardes—of Puerto Rican literature and literary criticism in the archipelago. The first trans person and poet to appear in the archives of the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, the University of Puerto Rico Lázaro Library’s Colección Puertorriqueña, and other bodies of knowledge that continue to feed the digital platform El proyecto de la literatura puertorriqueña/ The Puerto Rican Literature Project was: none, N/A, [
noone]. I suspect that some who lived as cis people might have been trans. José de Diego, for example, included the poem “Por lo que el hombre es débil” (translated by Urayóan Noel as “Why Man Is Weak”) in his poetry book Jovillos: coplas de estudiante (1916):
Of the beautiful theories put forth,
one may shed light on the depths of the brain
but none of them can clearly ascertain
if the soul is male or female, or both.
He ends the poem with the following stanza:
The body follows the soul, its nucleus…
And still we boast about our being men
when we have the woman inside of us!3
But it can always be argued that this poem is a rhetorical exercise and, anyway, these are vain speculations, filled more with my projections than with any verifiable data ; ). For these reasons, we—myself and the team of people I work with—had to look for poets from this century, not because trans people didn’t exist before, but because those people had to move or hide who they were in order to survive.
In Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz writes that heteronormativity “speaks not just to a bias related to sexual object choice but to that dominant and overarching temporal and spatial organization of the world that I have called straight time” And what is “straight” time according to Muñoz?:
There is something black about waiting. And there is something queer, Latino, and transgender about waiting. Furthermore, there is something disabled, Indigenous, Asian, poor, and so forth about waiting. Those of us who wait are those of us who are out of time in at least two ways. We have been cast out of straight time’s rhythm, and we have made worlds in our temporal and spatial configurations. […] It seems like the other’s time is always off. Often we are the first ones there and the last to leave. The essential point here is that our temporalities are different and outside. They are practiced failure and virtuosic (182–183).
This queer time, this trans time belongs to those who wait in line, to those who live off the so-called “dependencia” or are “dependant” on government support (a term widely deconstructed by crip thinkers such as Robert McRuer and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha), economically and socially, because there is no jobs for those who look like us. Following Ariadna Godreau-Aubert’s work in Las Propias, in Colonial Debts: The Case of Puerto Rico, Rocío Zambrana exemplifies how debt “posits the colonial condition, the territorial status, anew […] by actualizing the work of race/gender/class evident in the unequal distribution of precariousness, dispossession, and violence in the territory [of Puerto Rico].” In other words, in the “indebted” colony, things get worse for those who already live with less visible debts: the burdens of a history that denies their existence and feeds off their labor.4
And let’s not forget the time that belongs to (or should I say is snatched up by) those who die without being able to leave behind legacies, pretty stories about growing old and bonding with loved ones. In Puerto Rico, few know the name Sophia Isabel Marrero Cruz, although they claim to know Alexa Neulisa Luciano Ruiz. Every semester, during the first week of classes, I ask my students to make a list of the institutions and social organizations that house collective memory: the church, the state, educational institutions, and the family. Then we think of the collective body that Marxist thinkers proposed as an alternative to these institutions: the revolutionary Party. In Puerto Rico, the organizations that aspired and aspire to be parties have also failed to provide inclusive spaces for people of trans experience and not for lack of Marxist, anarchist, and revolutionary trans folk. This is what I tried to point out (with affection and laughter) in lo terciario/ the tertiary (Noemi Press, 2019), that trans people have been denied not only the right to temporality (by killing us) but also a right to History. They want to know us as victims of the system, not as thinkers, activists, or voices.
For a trans person, being an “elder” starts at thirty. For many who read me, this age belongs to youth. For us, it is a mature age that was born from survival, from the spaces we had to create, sometimes collaborating with people who didn’t even believe in our humanity. Trans history is this: to fail, to fall, to live as long as we can and to help each other. Trans history is invisible to the eyes. We imagine it retrospectively. We rescue it and project it and, on fleeting occasions, it shows up in some archive.
How Well We Know the Art of Silence
“We fed people and clothed people. We kept the building going. We went out and hustled the streets. We paid the rent. We didn’t want the kids out in the streets hustling. They would go out and rip off food. There was always food in the house and everyone had fun.”
As Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel explains in ‘Sexilios’: hacia una nueva poética de la erótica caribeña,” the term “sexilio” or “sexile” for “critics who study the queer Caribbean” refers to the term identified by Manolo Guzmán in 1997 as “the exile of those who have had to leave their countries of origin because of their sexual orientation,” but it had another meaning for the students of Martínez-San Miguel in 2011, since “one of [her] students confessed that ‘sexile’ meant something very different to their generation: it’s the word used to refer to someone who has been ‘kicked out’ of a shared room in order to allow their roommate to have sex there.” Martínez-San Miguel takes advantage of this split between a popular definition and an academic one to theorize, a move that I appreciate and that I have performed in my own work.6
But on this occasion, I do not want to theorize in this way, nor do I necessarily want to propose new critical ways of understanding the four poets that have gathered in this folio. I don’t have, for example, to invent the term “transilio” or “transile” to explain that trans people have had to leave their countries in search of hormones, surgeries, homes, jobs, and support. I want, above all, to resist the desire to emphasize a separation between trans theory and trans poetry, because if these texts share something, it is that, however contrasting and different they may be, they do not aspire to explain themselves, nor do they work to amend a theoretical insufficiency, nor do they care much for exegesis, which is already an almost automatic response for those of us who love theory. They instead propose a theoretical, ethical approach and commitment to poetry as a space where we can rehearse the incommensurable, but also where we can propose other ways of being that do not exist separately from ways of knowing.
I can, without going into anti-intellectual reflections, acknowledge that the spaces where both la literatura puertorriqueña and Puerto Rican Literature and Theory have been canonized, have been hostile to people of trans experience, both in terms of daily interactions and in the languages chosen by those who write and frame us in order to catalog our lives. Many articles and essays have been published about the “perreo combativo” that took place at the protests during the summer of 2019. Even more has been written about the Bad Bunny phenomenon, but in all these articles and essays, trans people are rarely cited as critical sources, as creators who live beyond the spontaneity of those protests. We appear as fascinating, “young” subjects, new elements or representatives of hope and—without denying our incredible potential to create the future that José Esteban Muñoz emphasizes in the epigraph—this look and reading that borders on a gaping fetishism grows tiresome.
Gazing with a dropped jaw could however be a first step (although rarely do those who look at us like this know how to move away from their comfort zones or acomo[darse] (accommodate) to ours). When I work with physical archives I am often in awe. So much has been done and those who are new are not so new, but I am also filled with a deep sadness for those who I know could not be there. When we interview trans poets and include them, it makes up a little for that pain that numbs me. I would like to say that one gets used to that silence. Most of the trans people who have passed through academic spaces have dropped out, not because they are lazy, vain, disrespectful or spoiled (anyways, who defines these pejoratives?), but because it is an tired and noisy silence that is repeated as the only truth and unquestionable authority, even by those we admire. We say, “We always have been!” But how can that be proven if we appear in the archives, not as writers, but as anthropological material, bodies that dance for other eyes.
Sylvia Rivera and the collective she helped form called their manifesto STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). Today, a Puerto Rican nationalist position (one, not all) that intersects with the majority of the positions of an ultra-reactionary right and that treats trans people as invaders would perhaps tell Rivera that she was arrogant for calling STAR a revolutionary organization, since what STAR did was not a revolution, except for trans people, by planning rent parties and creating a safe space for sex workers to bring their clients and use drugs. According to the cis rubrics, what STAR did would be a great waste of funds, but Rivera continued and did not let all the violence of the system determine the path STAR took. Instead, it was governed by the very needs of trans people. This is trans wisdom.
I offer this summary of a type of absence without resentment, because resentment is something I can’t afford. If I harbored resentment each time I was attacked—on the train, in the living room, on the street, at home—I would be dead. Resentment belongs to people who had access to universality. That is why I am talking about shutting the open jaw and continuing onwards with an open heart, of nourishing oneself with the trans wisdom that permeates these poems and proceeding as apprentices to those who have been listening, observing, and learning for so long.
According to the Editorial Casa Cuna website, founder and artist Ketsia Ramos describes their artist practice as follows:
I turn to art in an attempt to battle against death and name my desires and experiences and my philosophical, political, and erotic self-exploration. Through art, I intertwine the intimate and the public, offering my own historical journey as a non-binary, black person from the countryside, that is, I also conceive it as a political project. I am in constant dialogue with the artistic work and the poetic storytelling of other artists in order to search among our discourses and identities for the enclaves of feeling like a domesticated colony, while connecting experiences from my early life with the collective process of healing generational traumas. I use my body as the central axis and the first space of resistance from which I seek to understand displacement, violence, ancestral spirituality, oppression, pain, and mourning in such a way that my artistic work appears as an aesthetic symptom of living in rebellion.7
It is from their body that Ramos writes history in the poem “la historia del mamey,” where they thread futures under construction with pasts that are being forgotten. The braid is a prayer, an opening to a temporality that is made through the poem’s undoing. Ramos writes:
my blueprint is an abuelo that never
remembered my name
an ark that I carry like a lightbulb in the head
the awe of so much endless thirst
and in my zeal
so that we may remember more
para que seamos gente de formas más humanas
and not like this
every time we have to count
on what is no longer there
By invoking “what is no longer there” Ramos embodies it, in the mamey, that “was a cuir revolution in [their] mouth.” Similarly, in “nostalgia is a hurricane” the poet invokes those who are no longer present, to be able to forgive them in the poem and in “the embrace that could only be brought by disaster.” They don’t ignore a rupture with forgiveness, nor do they ignore the pain of not being understood by “Pá,” but there is a love there as intimate as flesh.
Ramos is a Black artist, activist, cultural curator for whom these are not just identifiers but embodied aspects. I pause and I know that I am not the person being invoked with these verses, but I see something in them that calls to me, as a trans person, and that denies me, because I am a white Puerto Rican and I already wander other worlds. I appreciate the difference and the closeness. From my conditional visibility, I recognize one of many artists who have been made invisible by the violence of educational institutions, scholarships, competitions and exclusions; artists who are fire and don’t ask or want permission.
In this folio, Ale, Alejandra Rosa leaves us many glittery poems. In particular, I confess that I keep rereading Rosa’s poem “la liberación cuir en esta piel/a pesar de ustedes” or “queer liberation is in this skin/ despite you all”, which repeats a mesmerizing prayer:
Which I translate as:
because we have the power
because we have the power
because we have the power
because we have the power
because we have the power
because we have the power
because we have the power
Unfortunately, although, in Spanish, the repetition and sound parallelism—as the poet and structuralist Roman Jakobson called it—built by alliteration and assonance, in Spanish create a semantic slip, in English, it has slipped out. These verses almost become a tongue twister and the words are transformed on my tongue:
poder nos poder
My best rendering of this misreading is trans:
because we have the power
because we have the power
because we have power to power us
we have the power to power
have the power to empower
have the power to have power
An inheritor of beauty, not just violence, Rosa refuses to accept the silence imposed by a history of churches, racist institutions, and systemic exclusions, but, even more importantly, refuses to deny their pleasure and their body as a garden for what Audre Lorde called “the erotic [as…] a resource within each of us […] firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feelings.”8 They not only celebrate this pleasure on the page, but animate the page, touch it, smell it, spit it, perform it:
we leave our sunflower DNA
planted in each post
we visualize our affect
no one does it better than nosotres
nosotras, ellas, elles, us, brujes,
enby witches of the daily crop
we root pleasures
where others, death
we burn crucifixes
with each exhalation
our wind hits us suddenly
we declare ourselves farms
pink, turquoise, oranges
traveling the universe
however we please
because we have the power
give future meaning
to this present
that murmurs in our ears
not heaven, nor hell;
Like Ramos, Rosa emphasizes that to exist is to gaze, pointing with that look at the deeper verb: ser, to be and being. The poem ends with a stanza where ser must first be dreamed up, both as a verb and as subject:
we will dream once more
despite you all
a fire tuber
The hindrance of “ustedes,” or the formal use of “you,” doesn’t slow down the velocity of these verses, of this “fire tuber/ that glitters” burning and shining with everything it has.
The first thing that struck me about üatibirí was their brilloteo, but after that initial shine, a challenge fell in my lap: how was I going to translate this cricalismo maximus? To begin with, the word “crical” or “krikäl,” in üatibiran, isn’t big enough to contain the overflow that rips us out of our seats and our daily dead-tired-and-done. Somehow, üatibirí rescued Avant-garde poetics from the machismo that also characterized the Avant-gardes and reminds us that so-called formal experimentation has another timbre when it is born from our cuerpes, bodies that have undergone the greatest social, medical and cistémika, or cistemic, experimentation.
When the poet asks a question, it always burrows into our chests as if it came out of there, shooting and tender. For example, in the poem that begins “me duele justo en el kulo de mi korasona”—which I translate as “eet hurts rayt een thee ass of may hart(a)”—the poet asks us that heartbreaking question, bringing heat, “¿hoo weel anser mee an anserles qwesteeon?/ ¿or under thee cadav+rs of may s+bleens (¡trans!)/ hoo weethowt justees beecum poems so maeebee thaee reeĉ u?” Here, we are back to the scission between literature as embellishment, something to be devoured, and poetry as non-transferable corpus, such as “thee cadav+rs of may s+bleens (¡trans!)” that become reanimated in the poem in the form of what that Yolanda Segura called a “glitch”9 or the graffitied sign, which turns its back on legibility with a gesture. The + marks the tomb without a name, marks the vowel that identifies, gender in its most elusive moment, submitting us to violence and precariousness.
I immediately think of that argument, always made by cis people, that they do not see or care about gender. This universalization and cooptation of being non-binary completely denies the ways in which being illegible when facing the binary implies the performative hypervisibility noticed by Judith Butler, and can mean bullying, harassment, and even death for trans people. It reveals total cis ignorance of what it is like for us to just live our lives, which only appear decoratively in poems. I am also thinking of the textual experimentation of the literary Avant-garde and the gender conservatism of the circles and poets that made up its membership. I now understand that this contradiction, which always pained me, sprang from a deeply buried awareness of our existence that was eventually formally abstracted and incorporated into the sign. I thank üatibirí for pointing out that the patriarch has no clothes and releasing those eels that Fray Ramón Pané transcribed: our signs.
My late reading is a response to the poetry of Myr Olivares, whose exploration of the act of naming(oneself), begins as a rearticulation of embellishment, no longer a decorative gesture, but now an aesthetic-political potential. In the poem “Cleanse”, Olivares writes:
I erase the last letters in my name
but still don’t tell my mother
I don’t want her to think
she makes me ashamed.
Olivares resorts to this image of the name that has bloomed and their removal of its final petals. The gesture reminds me of the children’s game “He loves me, he loves me not.” Like a dangerous bet, this game turns love into a binary decision, a “yes” or “no” that does not allow for otherness. By removing the petals, Olivares runs the risk of losing the love that accompanied being named, but there is no regret, nor does the gesture lose beauty. By naming the change, they became beautiful again. Here poetry operates as an equalizing force, it gives us back the beauty that the world took.
I’m grateful for the opportunity these poets have given me. I’ve seldom been able to celebrate us as a rhizomatic group. When reading these poems and translating them, I realized that despite the loneliness we trans poets often find in literature, we continue to sow little seeds of dissent with our names and the forces that guide us.
—Raquel Salas Rivera
- My I-did-my-best-translation of Villano Antillano’s instant classic “Mala mía”:
“Que si tengo flow cabrón, que si meto la presión,
si tú no puedes conmigo, mala mía.
Que si vengo pesaita, que si ya tengo tetitas,
si me tiré con tu gato, mala mía.
Que si vengo a to motor, vengo desde el malecón.
Si no entiendes lo que digo, mala mía.
Santa Rosa, Bayamón, Minillas de corazón,
si no aguanta calentón, mala mía”↩︎
- See “Žižek’s Trans/gender Trouble”: “gender nonconforming people are situated (like the violence of the gender binary which we oppose) within the theoretical and political coordinates of history and history’s present tense—the afterlife of slavery and colonialism.”
And again: “Žižek ignores the fact that we can’t think the gender binary outside of the context of racial slavery and colonialism within which it was forged. Žižek also leaves unthought the entire scope of trans studies in general and trans of color critique in particular. He ignores the ways in which the gender binary is imbricated in racial slavery and colonization, and he perpetuates an epistemic erasure of the entire scope of trans studies in general, and queer and trans of color critique especially. He also enacts a historical erasure of queer and trans left theory and praxis—especially of color—as eroticopolitical worlding. How does one manage to write about trans subjectivity with such assumed authority while ignoring the voices of trans theorists (academics and activists) entirely—especially when the very issues of psychoanalysis and neoliberalism he discusses have already been subjects of scholarly inquiry in trans studies itself? Finally, Žižek never seems to consider that the very object of critique—such as neoliberal trans subjectivity—is actually what trans left movements have been organizing against and beyond for many years.”↩︎
- Translation by Urayoán Noel for El proyecto de la literatura puertorriqueña/The Puerto Rican Literature Project:
Habrá teoría, entre las más hermosas,
que los abismos del cerebro aclare,
pero ninguna de ellas que declare
si el alma es macho, o hembra.. o las dos cosas.
Mas es mujer. Cuanto el amor ampare
fecunda en sus entrañas generosas;
finge, cual las muchas veleidosas,
y, al cabo, un sueño la seduce… y pare.
Desde que Eva le echó del Paraíso
vive así Adán, tras sus pomposos nombres,
el femenil espíritu sumiso.
El cuerpo sigue al alma que es su centro…
¡Y todavía alardeamos de hombres,
cuando tenemos la mujer adentro!
- See Colonial Debts: The Case of Puerto Rico, Duke University Press, 2021.↩︎
- See Feinberg, Leslie. “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.” ↩︎
- My translation. See Martínez-San Miguel, Yolanda.”‘Sexilios’: hacia una nueva poética de la erótica caribeña”, América Latina Hoy, vol. 58, 2011, pgs. 15-30, Universidad de Salamanca, Salamanca, España.: “Primero, el sexilio permite identificar otro grupo importante y de reciente formación entre los migrantes provenientes del Caribe que se establecen en centros metropolitanos y cosmopolitas. Segundo, este término también comunica un aspecto importante de un estereotipo que se usa para definir el Caribe como una zona sexualmente vibrante y como una de las paradas principales en las redes del turismo sexual. Tercero, el sexilio permite establecer un vínculo entre el Caribe y su relación problemática con el nacionalismo, ya que, como se sabe, muchos países de este archipiélago no han llegado a la postcolonialidad o no han experimentado el proceso de constitución de un Estado soberano, como sí ha ocurrido en la mayoría de los países que constituyen la América Latina de la «Tierra firme». Esto sitúa al Caribe en una posición anómala en los debates sobre el nacionalismo, e incluso en los estudios más recientes configurados a través del lente de la teoría postcolonial. Por lo tanto, la meta de este ensayo es expandir el alcance semántico de «sexilio» que manejan los estudios de teoría queer en el Caribe (sexilio 1) (Guzmán 1997; La Fountain-Stokes 2005 y 2009), para proponer una narrativa que permita pensar en la configuración de identidades individuales alternativas o en subjetividades comunales que van más allá́ del imaginario de la nación y que se articulan por medio de negociación (sexilio 2)”.↩︎
- See “Ketsia Ramos“: “Acudo al arte en un intento de batallar contra la muerte y apalabrar mis deseos, vivencias y autoexploración filosófica, política y erótica. Entrelazo en esta lo íntimo y lo público proponiendo un recorrido histórico propio como persona no binaria, negre y campesine, es decir, que lo concibo también como un proyecto político. Dialogo constantemente con el trabajo artístico y el relato poético de otres artistas con el fin de rebuscar entre nuestros discursos e identidades los enclaves del sentirse colonia domesticada, a la vez que conecto experiencias de mi etapa temprana con el proceso de sanación colectivo de los traumas generacionales. Utilizo mi cuerpe como eje central y primer espacio de resistencia desde el cual busco entender el desplazamiento, la violencia, la espiritualidad ancestral, las opresiones, el dolor y el duelo, de modo que mi quehacer artístico aparece como síntoma estético de ese vivir en rebeldía.”↩︎
- See “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” paper delivered at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Mount Holyoke College, August 25, 1978, and reprinted in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, Crossing Press, 1984.↩︎
- See, “El lenguaje incluyente es un glitch” Centro de Cultura Digital, 19 de octubre del 2019.↩︎