Monday, December 3, 2012

Translating Latina/o Studies in the Classroom with Ricky Ricardo and Babalú Ayé

 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
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
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.

¡Ea! ¡Caballos!

¡Babalú ayé!

¡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:

Babalu aye
Babalu aye
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.

Great Babalu!
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.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


ESTO ES MI PUERTO RICO. Por si las dudas, por si alguien no sabía o quería saber. ¡REINA DIOSA DIVA QUEER, mamisonga del Caribe, Macha Colón (Gisela Rosario), divina gracia bajada del palo de mangó, predicadora del pueblo de las causas perdidas y los corazones rotos, del gozo y del goce! Con sus INCREÍBLES músicos LOS OKAPI! Y todo Santurce y Río Piedras y el Viejo San Juan, las caras lindas de la alternidá! ¡Qué felicidá! Gracias, Macha Colón y Los Okapi por estar jayás!!!!



Entrevista: Macha Colón y los Okapi

Foto: Joelly Rodríguez (Puerto Rico Indie)



Fuerza, presencia y canción

Macha Colón rebasa con su estilo cualquier estereotipo de la estrella musical

* Eduardo Alegría y Macha Colón conversan sobre ¡música! (REVISTA CRUCE)

Eduardo Alegría y Macha Colón conversan sobre ¡música! from Revista Cruce on Vimeo.

¡Felicidades a Macha!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Travestismo vegetal y musical/Musical and Culinary Transvestism

Extraordinario video del proyecto culinario/musical vasco Mugaritz. El melón de agua se convierte en carne; la voz del contratenor se confunde en los registros de lo masculino y femenino. La incertidumbre del travestismo.

Extraordinary video by the Basque musical/culinary Mugaritz project. Watermelon becomes meat as the countertenor's voice oscillates between male and female registers. The uncertainty of transvestism.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Speaking at Univ of Wisconsin, Madison, on Monday Oct 15!

Theorizing Translocas, Transmachas, and Translatinas: Trans Queer Feminist Thought. Monday October 15, 4:30pm, 120 Ingraham Hall, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison.

For more information see

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Latino Midwest Symposium at Univ of Iowa (Oct 11-13)

I am very excited to attend and participate in this event this week!
The Obermann-International Programs Humanities Symposium
October 11 through 13, 2012
 The Latino Midwest will examine the history, education, literature, art, and politics of Latinos in the Midwest in light of the demographic changes experienced by states in this region with growing Latino populations. A central concern of this Symposium is the role of international migration in shaping Latino Midwestern communities.
Confirmed keynote speakers include José E. Limón (Director, Institute of Latino Studies, Julian Samora Chair in Latino Studies, and Notre Dame Professor of American Literature, University of Notre Dame) and Vicki Ruiz (Dean of Humanities and Professor of History, UC Irvine). The University Lecture Committee is hosting our third major speaker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican writer, Junot Díaz.  Hancher is hosting our fourth confirmed participant, the singer-songwriter Lila Downs who will close the symposium with a concert.
For more information, please contact the symposium directors or Neda Barrett (

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sexing the Borderlands at UT Austin

Sexing the Borderlands: Conference at UT Austin, 12-13 October 2012 

The Brown Commons: The Sense of Wildness 
Keynote by José Esteban Muñoz, NYU

Borders, Portals, and Spatial Reorientations
Moderator and Discussant: Neville Hoade, Department of English
Body Portals: Sexuality and Flows through Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer
Carlos Decena, Rutgers University
Gentrify My Love: On the Borders of Neighborly Desire
Richard Rodriguez, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Shameless Sex: From Porfirian Ruins to the UFW 
Moderator and Discussant: Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez, CMAS and Department of American Studies
Desire Among the Ruins: Naked Children and the Politics of Pleasure in American Photographs of Porfirian Mexico
Jason Ruiz, Notre Dame University
“Indiscriminate and Shameless Sex”: The Strategic Use of Sexuality by the United Farm Workers
Ana Minian, Stanford University

Circum-Gulf Pedagogies of the New Borderlands: Sexuality, Blackness, and Queering “The” Nation
Moderator and Discussant: Lyndon Gill, African and African Diaspora Studies 
Vocal Pedagogy: Ruth Fernández and the Role of the ‘Musical’ in Colonial Puerto Rico
Licia Fiol Matta, CUNY Lehman College
Triangulated Racialized Sexualities: Spectatorship and Cross-Border Desires and Anxieties in Mexican Rumbera Cinema, 1940s-1950s
Laura Gutierrez, The University of Arizona

Yo Soy: Perspectives on Queer Latinidad

Yo Soy...: Perspectives on Queer Latinidad. Tuesday, October 9. 
Latin@ Heritage Month, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The Coalition for Queer People of Color (CQPoC), MESA/Trotter, and the Center for Campus Involvement invite you to celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer Latino/a identity in honor of Latino/a Heritage Month! The evening will begin with a photo gallery viewing of brave Latino/a LGBTQQ or similarly identifying people and allies expressing this intersection of identities and end with a dynamic panel discussion. The panelists will be discussing their experiences living, teaching, and researching Queer Latinidad. 

Panelists include: 

* Larry La Fountain-Stokes, Director of Latino/a Studies; 
* Isabel Millan, PhD candidate in American Culture; 
* Anthony Mora, Latino/a Studies Associate Professor; 
* Ramiro Alvarez Cabriales, Undergraduate Member-at-Large for the CQPoC; 
* Elise Hernandez, Joint Social Work & Developmental Psychology; 
* Jose Bauermeister, M.P.H., Ph.D, Director of SexLab. 

The series will be on display the day before the actual event. Viewing on the day of starts at 6:30pm, panel discussion starts at 7:00pm; the entire event will take place in the Art Lounge of the Michigan Union (1st floor, near State St. entrance). **If you are someone that identifies or similarly identifies as a Latino/a ally or Latino/a & LGBTQQ then you have the opportunity of modeling for the photo series! Simply contact Ramiro Alvarez Cabriales ( before October 6th for more details. 6:30-8:30pm, Art Lounge of the Michigan Union (1st floor, near State St. entrance).

Sunday, September 23, 2012

UCLA Queer Studies Conference 2012: QUEER OF COLOR GENEALOGIES

I am greatly looking forward to participating in this conference! If you are in LA, come by! Free and open to the public.

UCLA Queer Studies Conference 2012

Friday, October 19, 2012
314 Royce Hall, UCLA


9:30-10:45    Addressing the Community Needs of LGBT Youth of Color
Organized by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA School of Law
Moderator: Bianca D. M. Wilson, Senior Scholar of Public Policy, The Williams Institute
Laura E. Durso, Public Policy Fellow, The Williams Institute
Project Access: Addressing the Community Needs of Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Male Youth of Color in Los Angeles

Angeliki Kastanis, Public Policy Fellow, The Williams Institute
The RISE Initiative: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) Children & Youth In Foster Care

Lisa Powell, Attorney at Law and Co-Founder, Black Lesbians United (BLU)
LGBT Youth Mental Health Project

10:45-11:45 Keynote Address
Sandra K. Soto, University of Arizona
For Those Who Were Never Meant to Survive: Queering Attrition in Arizona

11:45-1:00 Queer Indigeneities Unsettling Settler Colonialism
Moderator: Mishuana Goeman, UCLA

Jodi A. Byrd, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
We Are All Native Here: Colonial Critique and Its Queer Errant

Qwo-Li Driskill, Oregon State University
Asegi Archive: Cherokee Gender, Sexuality, and Memory

Dan Taulapappa McMullin, Claremont Graduate University
Tiki Porn: Appropriation of Pacific Islands Cultures by Western Kitsch, Art, and Film

1:00-2:00       Lunch

2:00-3:35     The Other Archive of Desire:  Remapping LGBT Histories
Moderator: Maylei Blackwell, UCLA
Kai M. Green, University of Southern California
Towards a Black Queer Geography: The Struggle Over the Uses of Erotic in a Time of  Crisis

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind
Breathe: A Colored Ritual for Queer LA

Horacio N. Roque Ramírez, University of California, Santa Barbara
Racializing Risk, Sexualizing AIDS: (Gay) Latino San Francisco, 1980s

Alice Y. Hom, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy
Unifying Differences: Lesbian of Color Community Building in Los Angeles and New York, 1970s-1980s

3:40-5:15 Transnational Aesthetics/Erotics
Moderator: Uri McMillan, UCLA
Vanessa Agard-Jones, New York University
A Serial Killer in the Family

Chitra Ganesh
Her Head in the Flames?

Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Theorizing Translocas and Translatinas: Trans Queer Feminist Thought

Roy Pérez, Willamette University
The Queer Excesses of Martin Wong's Nuyorico

5:15-6:15 Keynote Address
Jafari Sinclaire Allen, Yale University
All the Things We Are Now: A Meditation on Black Queer Genealogies

6:15 Reception
306 Royce

General Information

The conference is free and open to the public.  No pre-registration is required.


Royce Hall is located on the UCLA campus.
For directions to and maps of UCLA click here.

Parking is available in UCLA Parking Structure 4 at a cost of $11 per day. From Sunset Boulevard, enter campus by turning south onto Westwood Plaza, then proceed straight ahead to Structure 4. There is an information booth as you enter where you can purchase a parking ticket. Please let them know you are attending the LA Queer Studies Conference in Royce Hall. Since Structure 4 can get quite busy, we recommend that you leave extra time for parking


The UCLA Queer Studies Conference 2012 has been organized by Maylei Blackwell and Uri McMillan for the UCLA Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies Program with generous support from the David Bohnett Foundation, the UCLA Division of Humanities, Division of Social Sciences, Graduate Division, Office of Faculty Diversity and Development, Institute for Society and Genetics, Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, the Bunche Center for African American Studies, Asian American Studies Center, Chicano Studies Research Center, Center for Jewish Studies, Center for the Study of Women , the Interdepartmental Program in Afro-American Studies, and the UCLA departments of Anthropolopgy, Art History, Asian American Studies, Asian Languages and Cultures, Chicana/o Studies, Comparative Literature, English, Film Television and Digital Media, French and Francophone Studies, Gender Studies, Germanic Languages, History, Information Studies, Musicology, Psychology, Sociology, and Theater.

For further information, please contact the LGBTS office at 310 206 3032 or

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Banda Uó - O Gosto Amargo Do Perfume

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