Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Talk by Larry La Fountain (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)
The Puerto Rican performance artist, podcaster and drag queen Fausto Fernós has been performing in drag since the early 1990s, when he started studying under Linda Montano at the University of Texas, Austin. He transformed his drag cabaret Feast of Fools, created in Chicago in 1998, into an award-winning podcast in 2005, now known as Feast of Fun. Fernós and his partner Marc Felion have recorded over 1,750 hour-long shows, many with recurrent guest visitors. The show regularly features drag queens and trans women and is accompanied by extensive drag video production and occasional live drag appearances in Chicago. Numerous American drag and trans pioneers and stars such as Holly Woodlawn, Lady Bunny, Hedda Lettuce, Coco Peru, RuPaul, Kate Bornstein, and Heklina have been interviewed, as well as more recent drag celebrities such as many of the contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race. In this presentation I discuss the drag and performance career of Fernós and historicize drag and trans presence on the Feast of Fun. I also analyze the transformation from public access TV programs and live shows to podcasts and YouTube/Internet videos; map the complex intersections between drag and trans experience; and discuss the political use of technology and its intersection with live and recorded performance, as projects destined to promote Latina/o and LGBT acceptance and visibility in the U.S. and abroad.
1880 Campus Drive
Evanston, IL 60208
CONTACT: Joanna V. Maravilla-Cano +1 847 467 3980
Sponsored by the Latina & Latino Studies Program, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities.
Facebook event here.
Sunday, May 5, 2013
What does it mean to be a person of Latin American descent in the United States in 2013? For one, it means being part of an oxymoron: the majority minority, an increasingly growing population marked by the great success of very particular individuals accompanied by overall persistent social challenges such as poverty, lack of representation in many spheres of power, and aggressive harassment, particularly for the undocumented. This paradox is worthy of sustained attention, precisely of the sort we offer in many of the undergraduate and graduate Latina/o Studies classes we teach at the University of Michigan. How can we go about understanding this?
The publication in January of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World sheds light on some of these complexities. In her book, Justice Sotomayor traces her life experiences in great detail, from her birth to Puerto Rican parents in the Bronx in 1954, her educational experiences in Catholic parochial schools and later at Princeton and Yale Law School, to her experiences as an Assistant District Attorney in NY under Robert Morgenthau, her life in private practice in the law firm of Pavia and Harcourt, and her eventual confirmation as a judge, first at a federal District Court, then at the Court of Appeals, and in 2009 to the Supreme Court. Her memoir is filled with lucid details and moving anecdotes about the benefits of affirmative action, which she wholeheartedly endorses; the health challenges of living with type 1 diabetes; and her difficulties at successfully maintaining a personal relationship, which led to her divorce from Kevin Noonan. Sotomayor’s book is an engrossing read filled with inspiring stories and profound insights about the meanings of a life well lived. It is a profoundly optimistic story that emphasizes the importance of public service, of helping others and living in community, be it that of your friends, family, or the nation-state. Fiercely insistent in her non-partisanship as an independent voter, we can see in many of her positions a historic link to causes espoused by the Democratic Party, to which she also owes her judicial career: she first became a judge due to the nomination of a Democrat, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan from New York, and was appointed to the Supreme Court after being nominated by President Barack Obama.
Sotomayor’s story is enormously inspiring but it is sobering to realize how unusual it is; how few Latinas/os there actually are at the upper echelons of power in Washington, D.C., in spite of the fact that the entire Mexican-American Southwest has been part of the U.S. since 1848, that Puerto Rico has been a colony since 1898, and that Cubans have been arriving in large numbers since 1959. Professor John A. García’s book Latino Politics in America: Community, Culture, and Interests (revised edition 2012) discusses this uneven electoral integration; he includes a list of the Mexican-American and Cuban-American men who have served on the Senate, listing only four, the first three from New Mexico, plus Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey); we can now add the dramatic rise of Cuban-American Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2013. (Fortunately, Latinas/os have been better represented in the House.) Professor García, who is a faculty associate of our Latina/o Studies Program, has spent his life analyzing the role of Latinas/os in American politics, be it at the local, regional, state, national, or international level, nudging his fellow political scientists to engage with this matter in a serious way. In his book he offers a nuanced story of the many challenges faced and of many strategies for effectively overcoming some of these.
Sonia Sotomayor is just one of many wise Latinas to leave her mark in the United States, as we learn from Professor María Cotera’s groundbreaking book Native Speakers: Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, Jovita González and the Poetics of Culture, published in 2008. As Cotera describes, González’s efforts at documenting South Texas history and folklore led her to write books such as Dew on the Thorn and the novel Caballero (co-authored with Margaret Eimer); her political interests led to her participation in the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in the 1930s and 40s and later motivated her struggle to institute bilingual education for Spanish-speaking students with her husband Edmundo E. Mireles. Professor Cotera highlights how in spite of her fervor and talent, González (1904-1983) was frequently unable to find publishers for her books, and how it was only recently (in the 1990s) that some of these pioneering texts have seen the light.
The struggle for social justice embodied by Sonia Sotomayor’s life has impacts on our own Ann Arbor campus, for example in the Coalition for Tuition Equality’s efforts to achieve in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students who have graduated from a Michigan high school but currently have to pay out-of-state fees. The Latina/o Studies Program is an active member of this coalition and has lent its voice at Board of Regents’ meetings and through letter writing, for example in support of Kellogg Community College’s affirmative measures on this matter. Latina/o Studies alumna Carla Fernandez (Class of 2011) works with many of these youth at the Voces Community and Cultural Center in Battle Creek, Michigan, before they enroll in KCC. Her work is a close-to-home example of how activist efforts can lead to actual change: how the positive labor of transforming American society happens at a local level as much as at the national one.
Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes
Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes is Associate Professor of American Culture, Romance Languages and Literatures, and Women’s Studies, and director of the Latina/o Studies Program. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Published in American Culture News (Spring 2013), Department of American Culture, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (page 13).
Saturday, April 13, 2013
The extraordinary Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro wrote the kindest words for my birthday this week! Thank you so much, Luis, ¡eres muy dulce! Luis talks about our participation in a march at the LLEGÓ conference in 1997. (The National Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization, better known as LLEGÓ, sponsored its conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico from October 9 to 13 of that year, as José Quiroga discusses in his book Tropics of Desire). Luis also mentions a panel held as part of the Latina/o Focus Group Pre-Conference on Monday, August 2, 2010, before the ATHE (Association for Theatre in Higher Education) annual conference held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles, CA. (That was the same day I got a $185 jaywalking ticket downtown while going to the open mike at the Company of Angels located at the historic Alexandria hotel! The very handsome, African-American motorcycle-riding policeman who stopped us was not persuaded by our argument that we were from out of town. I was supposed to read some fiction at the open mike but ended up offering some stand-up comedy instead.)
I am moved my Luis's words, and also by the knowledge that we have known each other for so long and have coincided in such different places! My favorite memory of Luis is when he picked me from the audience (or perhaps I volunteered?) to be his assistant in his performance at the CLAGS Crossing Borders U.S. Latina/o Queer Performance Conference held at the University of Texas, Austin, February 2 to 4, 2001. I was supposed to serve shots of tequila that Luis would gulp down periodically. He soon caught me sipping the tequila myself and stealing the show! (For a discussion of this conference and of Luis's Twinkie-eating segue, see Jill Dolan's review "Remembering Beyond the Self: Crossing Borders 2001" in the CLAGS Summer 2001 newsletter, available here.)
¡Gracias, Luis, por tantos años de amistad y tan lindas memorias!
This is what Luis wrote this week:
Who is the happiest academic I have ever met? I would have to say the most wonderful Larry La Fountain at the University of Michigan. A specialist in Latin-American, American, English and LGBT issues, Larry is his own special person and I always get the feeling that no one enjoys life more than he does.
In academic settings, he seems to break down the walls of the academy to create spaces for others to be truly themselves. I haven’t seen him in a long time and I have only danced around the edges of his spotlight a few times. I can remember a human rights march through the streets of Puerto Rico sometime in the mid 90’s and watching Larry as if he was marching through the streets of Disneyland.
A few years ago at a conference in Century City, I was on a panel, and people were slowly dutifully streaming in, kind of stoic and reverential, and it was quiet and there were not enough chairs and all of sudden (super hero music) Larry strolls in, not on the panel, but he could have been the Broadway producer of it, and he YELLS out, “Oye, why are we acting like we are in church? Everybody grab a chair and come in, all the way in, there are seats down in the front, this is going to be very fun, I am really looking forward to it! Hurry up, let’s not waste any time, let’s start, the Latinos are here, we have to bring the fun!” It was a kind of call to action by way of party invitation. I love that about him. Sweet, funny, smart and so very full of life. Happy Birthday, Larry La Fountain, wherever you are! — with Larry La Fountain.
Sunday, April 7, 2013
This promises to be a fantastic series of events! Viveca Vázquez is a leading postmodern choreographer and dancer in Puerto Rico that has collaborated over her career with many of the most important dancers, actors, and performance artists on the island. (Many of her performers have gone on to have stellar careers of their own.) The museum is holding the first full retrospective of her work. Videos of many of her performances can be accessed through the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics' Digital Video Archive.
Saturday, February 2, 2013
Monday, December 24, 2012
Monday, December 3, 2012
By Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes
(Comments presented on October 2, 2012, in a panel on New Ways to Engage Students in Interdisciplinary Learning: Pedagogies of Translation at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Also published in the University of Michigan Translation Theme Semester Blog.)
I want to talk to you about untranslatability, about living between cultures and the distinctions between insider and outsider knowledge, about authenticity and appropriation and subaltern power and artistry and skill and how you translate or transmit these in a classroom. The teacher is the ultimate translator, although never unaccompanied or unchallenged, and of course, her or his goal is precisely to transmit not simply the specific knowledge but also the technique, the critical ability or hermeneutics, the ability to carry out that same type of interpretation or translation on your own. To teach by example and model, but also, ideally, to create situations that allow reciprocal modeling or dialogism to occur. In other words, to avoid practicing what Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed calls the banking model of education: the idea that students are empty vessels that are to be filled with the knowledge that the professor transmits (or in this case, the mechanical competency to translate like a machine or software program without cultural nuance).
I teach U.S. Latina/o and Latin American and Caribbean literature and culture in English and Spanish here at the University of Michigan and face constant challenges and opportunities for translation, broadly defined. In this scenario, linguistic competence is a crucial knowledge but frequently is not enough. It is not enough to simply know the meanings of a standard set of vocabulary items that correspond to a vaguely defined “neutral Spanish” as it is called in the studios of major Spanish-language TV networks such as Univision and Telemundo according to news anchor Jorge Ramos, and that comes closer to the Spanish undergraduates learn in their first and second year of language training. Clearly, study abroad opportunities serve to widen students’ linguistic repertoires and help them familiarize themselves with specific regional or national dialects, most frequently Spanish or Chilean but sometimes Mexican and even Cuban. It is never enough. Even native speakers can spend a lifetime recognizing linguistic variation in more than 20 countries where a wide variety of languages and dialects are spoken, not to mention the challenges of cultural variation and diversity. How, then, should one approach teaching U.S. Latina/o and Hispanic Caribbean studies in English or Spanish in a U-M classroom?
The Dominican American Pulitzer prize-winning and MacArthur genius grant recipient Junot Díaz begins his 1996 debut collection of fiction Drown by quoting Cuban American poet and scholar Gustavo Pérez Firmat in an epigraph:
The fact that I
am writing to you
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else.
Pérez Firmat’s sentiment, echoed by Díaz, speaks to us of the incommensurability of language and experience for individuals who live between languages and cultures (those of the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States, in their case) and who have self-chosen or been molded by the dominant hegemonic language, English. It speaks of belonging to English while being profoundly aware of its falsification, that is to say, of one’s exclusion and outsider status, of the incompleteness of monologic communication. To say something in English clearly transmits the message but leaves much out.
In his landmark volume Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way Pérez Firmat privileges the figure of the musician and performer Desiderio (Desi) Arnaz, best known as the husband (and then ex-husband) of Lucille Ball, with whom he starred in I Love Lucy in the role of Ricky Ricardo. One of his most memorable musical numbers (a veritable American classic) is “Babalú.”
There is a lot going on in this clip. At one level, we have the lyrics of the song:
Yo quiero pedir
Que mi negra me quiera.
Que tenga dinero
Y que no se muera.
Ay, yo le quiero pedir a Babalú
una negra bembona como tú
que no tenga otro negro
Pa' que no se muera.
¡Olé olé olé olé! (x2)
Yeah yeah yeah yeah!
¡Arriba con las congas!
Most Americans of a certain generation know this song and enjoy it, dismissing it as light, exotic entertainment; they certainly don’t see it as an authentic manifestation of religious devotion or as sacred music and don’t recognize this religion (Santería or the Yoruba worship of the Orishas) as such, but rather as superstition or backwards heathen belief. The act of translation here has to do with enabling religious tolerance or awareness, a consciousness raising about the validity of Afro-Caribbean religion: sharing knowledge of Santería and its relation to Cuban popular music, the fact that Babalú Ayé is the orisha or divinity of illness, syncretized as Saint Lazarus. Conveying the complexity of this scene also entails explaining the metaphor of caballos (horses): the invocation for spirit possession (to be mounted by the orisha, be ridden by him or her, to serve as a tool or mechanism for his manifestation and communication on earth).
Translation of this song and performance also has to do with Caribbean racial vocabulary (bemba, bembón, negra), with the specificity of black Afro-diasporic experience, and also with recognizing the hybridizing mixture (a type of “anything goes” attitude), where the Cuban invocation of African divinities is accompanied by the Spanish interjection of “olé!” (a standard of bullfights and flamenco in the Old World) and by the American “yeah”: a veritable melting pot, or rather, ajiaco (stew), as the Cuban ethnographer Fernando Ortiz would say, using this metaphor as a sign for the coexistence of diverse elements in Cuban culture.
At the performative level, it is important to recognize Arnaz’s musical skill and the intensity of his musical execution, which is captured well through the alternation of camera angles. Also noticeable are the idiosyncrasies of the band, located in the background: their flashy rumba costumes and instruments, particularly the use of the harp—not unusual in Veracruzan Afro-Mexican music, but not common in Cuba.
In teaching this clip, it is valuable to discuss Arnaz’s race, personal biography, and migratory status, some of which are analyzed by Pérez Firmat. Here, one is advised to resist idealizations of Arnaz as an exemplary (and unproblematic) performer, who does not embody his own contradictions and exclusions. “Babalú” allows for a discussion of Latina/o culture in the U.S. as a hybrid mix (translation as an act of inclusion) but also of its inherent marginalizations.
Finally, this clip invites an argument precisely against translation, pointing to the risks or limitations of engaging particular cultural performances that are overdetermined by their previous circulation. This song and performance have long been part of a process of exoticization, appropriation, and tropicalization of Afro-Caribbean culture by Anglo-American and white Hispanic Caribbean audiences and artists, as discussed more broadly by scholars such as Frances Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman. English-language versions such as the one available here partake of limiting views:
Jungle drums were badly beating
In the glare of eerie lights:
While the natives kept repeating
Ancient jungle rites.
All at once the dusky warriors began to
Raise their arms to skies above
As a native stepped forward to chant to
his Voodoo Goddess of love.
I 'm so lost and forsaken
Ah, great Babalu.
Teaching this song in an English-dominant university in the United States inevitably invokes (even if only marginally) the hegemonic vision captured in the above-cited translation. Perhaps one could argue that the performance in itself and the fifty years of cultural associations it has accrued are profoundly tainted, and that the best strategy would simply be to move on.