Latina Lesbian Literary Herstory: From Sor Juana to Days of Awe
tatiana de la tierra
lesbian literature is the unwritten bestseller that all lesbians are reading, all the time: it consists of our every moment.
I was a new player from the Greek isle of Lesbos, a twenty-two-year-old enthusiastic lover of women. Hairy women, radical women, feminist women, witchy women—women were my home. The moment I came up for air, when the love haze floated to the surface like oil on water, I hit the bookstores, the libraries, the music shops. I went in search of me, or rather, a reflection of me, a Colombian immigrant and proud maricona. I knew exactly what I was looking for: a Latina Monique Wittig, a Latina Virginia Woolf, a Latina Sappho, a Latina Amazon. But it was 1982 and Latina lesbian literatura and culture was happening everywhere in the world except in the card catalogs. The white lesbian-feminist publishing revolution of the seventies that had birthed feminist publishers and bookstores coddled white lesbian feminist culture. Latinas and other women of color–we had to fend for ourselves.
At the turn of the millenium, though, I can name hundreds of Latina lesbian writers and artists. How can this be? Did I step through a magical-realist wall into a room packed with literary jotas who reside on another planet? Hardly. Latina lesbian literatura has been around for as long as Latinas and literature have existed. There has always been a problem however, in being able to identify, collect, store, and retrieve this body of work.
lesbian texts are passed from hand to hand and mouth to mouth between lesbians. they are located on the skin, in the look, in the geography of the palms of the hands.
Any library whose mission includes providing service to Latin patrons should have a decent collection of Latin@ lesbian and gay literature. Homosexuality is not a North American invention. South Americans, Mexicans, Caribeñ@s, Latin@s, “Hispanics,” and Chican@s are also gay. We are immigrants from el sur, we were born on US soil, we hail from Aztlán, we are “Americans” with Latin roots. We speak Spanish, English, Spanglish, and Caló. We are US citizens and Resident “Aliens” and “illegals.” Latin@ lesbians and gays do not fit into a neat category, we do not have a singular voice. However, we do exist, we do have a body of literature, and our books should be on bookshelves in libraries everywhere. Homosexuals, queers, dykes, maricones, jotas, patos, areperas, tortilleras, manfloras—whatever the term may be—have the well-documented tradition of going to the library and looking ourselves up in the catalog as part of the “coming out” process. We need to see ourselves reflected in literature. To not see yourself in print is the equivalent of not existing.
lesbian literature exists in pieces: in flyers, newsletters, magazines, chapbooks, bathroom stalls, notes, novels, e-mails, love letters, on tiny scraps of paper.
The following is a selected herstorical overview of Latina lesbian publishing. The discussion will focus on works authored by Latinas in the US as well as texts from Latin America, Mexico and Spain. Books in Spanish, regardless of their origin, belong in this discussion, as these are scarce. Brazilian works and authors are not included because I am not fluent in Portuguese or sufficiently knowledgeable in this literature. This overview will be a reflection of my own experiences as a writer, researcher, publisher, and librarian. And it will be shaped, in part, by the inherent complexity of the “latina lesbian” identity—language, culture, politics, geography, and lesbofobia—which has contributed to the difficulty of pinpointing what exactly constitutes Latina lesbian literature.
I want to acknowledge the connection between Latina lesbians who reside in the US and lesbians from Latin America and the Caribbean. US Latinas have been visible (and sometimes unwelcome) participants in the Latin American Lesbian Feminist Encuentros that have taken place since the first gathering in Cuernavaca, México in 1987. The Encuentros, which have been hosted in Argentina, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and Brasil, have provided an opportunity for the informal sharing of lesbian publications. Periodicals, hand-made poetry books, pamphlets, zines, and one-print-run novels have been passed from hand-to-hand, from Latin America to the US and back, for some time.
lesbian literature also exists in texts that don’t seem to have anything at all to do with lesbians or literature: a customer copy of an American Express receipt, dinner for two at Café Aroma; a torn pack of Trojans that once housed bright red lubricated condoms; a box of Celestial Seasoning’s Raspberry Zinger; a matchbook cover with “Le Metro” on the outside and “call me” on the inside.
The herstory of published Latina lesbian literature began in the 17th century with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695), Mexican nun and brilliant poet reputed to have been enamored of Leonor Carreto, the Marquise of Mancera, object of some of Sor Juana’s ardent love poems. Prominent and homophobic scholars such as Octavio Paz passionately refute the possibility that Sor Juana was una jota cloistered among nuns. But Sor Juana has also been revisited by feminist and queer-friendly scholars and translators who interpret her life and her work through a lesbian lens. Sor Juana is a Latina lesbian icon whose legend has inspired notable creative productions, such as the film Yo, la peor de todas (1990), made by the Argentine director Maria Luisa Bemberg; the compact disc Sor Juana Hoy (1995), a musicalized recording of Sor Juana’s texts by the Mexican performer Ofelia Medina; and the historical fiction novel, Sor Juana’s Second Dream (1999) written by Chicana lesbian scholar Alicia Gaspar de Alba. Sor Juana was una chingona who opted for the convent’s women-only space, a feminist who challenged the patriarchy at its intellectual core, a heretic who communed with God, a poet of the highest category. She is the great-great-great literary grandmother of nosotras, “the worst of all,” the Muse who penned the infamous words herself: “Yo, la peor de todas. I, the worst of all.”
We have other literary ancestors, but we don’t know all of their names, or we don’t yet have the “proof” or literary scholarship that will allow us to name them. Chilean Nobel poet Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) is also considered to have been a lesbian by some scholars. Like Sor Juana, she did not leave lesbian (or bisexual) declaratory statements behind, yet if you read between the lines of her work and piece her life together within the context of the times, you think that yes, it’s likely that Gabriela Mistral was a lesbian.
There are also writers whose names we do know as Latina lesbians who consciously avoid or deny these identifiers; these writers will remain unnamed here. Homophobia, whether it is self-imposed and internalized or whether it exists as a social construct, does affect literary production and distribution. Also, the separatism under which lesbianism often exists contributes to the “disappearance” of lesbian texts. The herstory of our literature is incomplete.
lesbians live in houses with writings on the wall that indicate the way to lesbianism. these texts abound but they are offered only to lesbians; this is why lesbian literature seems scarce.
In 1971, Uruguayan lesbian Cristina Peri Rossi published Evohé, a collection of erotic poetry (translated into English in 1994). The first poem, “Definiciones/Definitions” sets the tone:
PALINSESTO. — Escrito debajo de una mujer.
PALIMPSEST. — Text written underneath a woman.
Other poets and writers were published in the seventies and eighties, such as Magaly Alabau and Lourdes Casal (Cuban); Bessy Reyna (Cuban/Panamanian); Alicia Gaspar de Alba (Chicana); Sabina Berman, Nancy Cárdenas, Amparo Jimenez, and Rosamaría Roffiel (Mexican); Nemir Matos, Coqui Santaliz, and Luz Maria Umpierre (Puerto Rican); and Diana Bellesi, Alejandra Pizarnik, Reina Roffé, Ilse Fuskova, and Mercedes Roffé (Argentinian).
In the eighties, easily identifiable Latina lesbian texts began to flourish. This is when a number of significant books were published, the first (known) of their kind, books that left their mark in contemporary herstory. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), while not exclusively a Latina lesbian publication, involved Latinas in a collective voice of resistance that continues to resonate. This Bridge was also translated into Spanish as Esta puente, mi espalda, and a new 20-years-later version is due to be published in 2001. Argentine lesbian Sylvia Molloy published her novel, En breve cárcel in 1981 (translated into English as Certificate of Absence in 1989). Chicana writer Sheila Ortiz Taylor published Faultlines in 1982 (translated into Spanish as Terremoto in 1991). Cherríe Moraga, who successfully conceptualized her Chicana and lesbian identity using a mezcolanza of literary techniques, published her classic Loving in the War Years in 1983 (a revised edition was published in 2000). Lesbian-edited Cuentos: Stories by Latinas was also published in 1983. My favorite book, Las andariegas, by Colombian writer Albalucía Angel, was published in 1984. A band of gypsy women travel together in this book of poetic prose, all written in lower case, with text that meanders on the page like a dream sequence:
estaban en un claro de la selva, rodeadas por criaturas que parecían también encandiladas, como si vieran sílfides o gnomos y sólo el vuelo de mariposas con las alas azules cruzaba ese dulzor.
Another outstanding book, published in 1987, is Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, a landmark work of poetry and prose that brings consciousness to being (a lesbian) on the border of the US and México. Compañeras: Latina Lesbians, an Anthology was also published in 1987; this book’s value lies in its herstorical documentation. Rosamaría Roffiel’s autobiographical novel, Amora (1989) intimately exposes the lesbian-feminist discourse and drama of the author’s home in Mexico City. And Carmen de Monteflores’ novel, Singing Softly/Cantando Bajito (1989), set in her native Puerto Rico, is unique in that it contains a good dosage of Spanglish.
You might suppose that by 1990 Latina lesbian literature would be easy to locate, but that was not the case. It took many years for some of the authors just named to become identified as lesbians within the “grapevine.” Books were getting published one by one in different parts of the US and the world in different genres and languages. You found out about them through friends, at the Latin American Lesbian Feminist Encuentros, or maybe you would never even know that they existed, or by the time you did, they were out of print. I did not know about many of these authors and titles during the time that the works were being published, and I was actively looking; in some cases I found out about them years later. Electronic communication had not taken off yet; access to such information was limited. In fact, the grapevine was often the best and sometimes the only source of this information. For the most part, these books were not getting reviewed or examined by literary critics. This happened much later, in the mid-nineties. An excellent source for retrospective analysis of some Latin American and Caribbean lesbian literature is Elena M. Martinez’s Lesbian Voices from Latin America: Breaking Ground (1996).
In 1991, esto no tiene nombre, revista de lesbianas latinas was launched in Miami, Florida, in part as a response to a lack of literary representation. I was one of the founders of esto no tiene nombre, which was followed by conmoción, revista y red revolucionaria de lesbianas latinas, in 1995. A total of 9 editions of esto and 3 editions of conmoción were published and distributed on a national level. To date, these are the only Latina lesbian magazines of their kind in the US. Several Latina lesbian groups, such as Las Buenas Amigas (New York City); Mujeria (San Francisco); Ellas (San Antonio); and Lesbianas Unidas (Los Angeles) published regional newsletters, but none of these had a national focus or distribution.
The fine print in esto’s editorial box reads, “esto publíca material de lesbianas latinas que refleja nuestra diversidad y rompe con los estereotipos que nos han clavado. Nuestro objetivo es crear un foro donde las ideas y las imágenes contribuyan a la fortaleza y orgullo de nuestra comunidad.” We were aware that the published word was a reflection of us and we were hopeful that our magazine would stimulate organic dialogue between us. conmoción went even further, though. The editorial box states that “conmoción is an international latina lesbian vision que utiliza la palabra publicada para apoderar y aterrorizar, para derrotar y crear. publicamos, apoyamos y desarollamos cualquier tipo de actividad que conlleve al mejoramiento y a la mayor visibilidad de la lesbiana latina.” conmoción was a raging Latina lesbian magazine, we wanted to rock the world with our published selves, and we did it in sinvergüenza style.
We published poetry, reviews, essays, cuentos, interviews, commentary, news, photography and graphics in esto and conmoción, all with a Latina lesbian vision, in Spanish, English and Spanglish. For the sake of herstory, I will name some of the writers we published within these magazines: Carmen Corrales, Olga Melania Ulloa, Luzmaría Umpierre, Rosamaría Roffiel, Rosita Libre de Marulanda, Mariana Romo-Carmona, Margarita Castilla, Vanessa Cruz, Maria de los Ríos, Cristina Peri Rossi, Karleen Pendleton-Jimenez, Marcia Ochoa, Loana Valencia, Susana Cook, Naomi Morena, Tina D’Elia, Cherríe Moraga, Amy Concepción, Terri de la Peña, Carla Trujillo, Lesley Salas, Juana Maria Rodriguez, Josi Mata, Teresa Mendoza, Roberta Almerez, Karla E. Rosales, Maya Alba, Ana Inés Rubinstein, Gina Anderson, Miriam Lavandier, Lori Cardona, Nena Cammarano, Lourdes Pérez, Ananda Esteva, Naomi Morena, Doralisa Goitía, Kimberly Aceves-Denyer, Yvette Colón, Nora F. Kerr, Theresa Becerril, Odette Alonso, Annette Gaudino, Dolissa Medina, and the one and only Erotiza Memaz. I consider esto no tiene nombre and conmoción as examples of activist and survival publishing. These magazines were tools that we used to establish a dialogue within our community. They palpated the poetry and politics of the moment. And unfortunately, there is no contemporary equivalent to these publications.
Latina lesbian texts by individuals continued to be produced and published, however. Fiction took off in the early nineties in the US with the publishing of novels and short story collections by authors such as Ibis Gómez-Vega, Sara Levi Calderón, Terri de la Peña, Emma Pérez, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Achy Obejas, Kleya Forte-Escamilla, Mariana Romo-Carmona, and authors from América Latina. Also, the anthology, Chicana Lesbians, was published in 1991.
There has been a noticeable “boom” in Latin@ lesbian and gay publishing from the mid-nineties to the present, particularly in the academic arena. As queer Latin@s move through the academy, we are leaving a noticeable publishing trail in our path. Today’s books have transgressive, telling titles such as Reading and Writing the Ambiente: Queer Sexualities in Latino, Latin American, and Spanish Culture (Chávez-Silverman, 2000); Tropics of Desire: Interventions from Queer Latino America (Quiroga, 2000); Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Muñoz, 1999); and Eminent Maricones: Arenas, Lorca, Puig, and Me (Manrique, 1999). Among the queer Latin scholars who are researching and re-thinking literature, social studies, queer theory and cultural studies are: Chela Sandoval, Bernardo Garcia, Emma Pérez, Lourdes Torres, Juana Maria Rodriguez, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, David Román, José Esteban Muñoz, Maria Lugones, Sylvia Molloy, Deena González, Michael Hames-García, Catriona Rueda Esquivel, José Quiroga, Marta Cecilia Vélez Saldarriega, Yolanda Leyva, Osa Hidalgo, Ramón Garcia, Mary Pat Brady, Ondine Chavoya, Tomás Almaguer, Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, and Juanita Ramos. And the Latin@ lesbian and gay canon is in the process of being re-defined as academics explore the works of some of our antepasados, including writers such as Porfirio Barba Jacob, Luis Cernuda, Gabriela Mistral, Federico García Lorca, Xavier Villaurrutia, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Salvador Novo, Reinaldo Arenas, and Manuel Puig.
While I appreciate my literary herstory and I have my own “old favorites” (such as Reinaldo Arenas’ autobiography Antes que anochezca (1992)), what garners my attention now are new works by contemporary authors such as Angel Lozada, Gloria Anzaldúa, Alina Troyano, Rafael Campo, Gustavo Alvarez Gardeazábal, Fernando Vallejo, Francisco X. Alarcón, Erasmo Guerra, and two notable españolas, Lucia Etxebarría and Lola Van Guardia. Gay and lesbian books in Spanish are being published with greater frequency today due to translations and to a proliferation of Spanish publishers that focus on this market, such as Horas y Horas, Gay y Lesbiana, Ediciones Destino, and EGALES.
In the US, Cuban writer Achy Obejas stands out, not only for her talent, but also for her success; her novel, Days of Awe is to be published by Ballantine/Random House in 2001, making her the first “out” Latina lesbian to be published by a mainstream press. This is significant, given the difficult state of the publishing industry now. I also want to point out two gay Latin anthologies that were published in 1999, Besame Mucho (Manrique) and Virgins, Guerrillas and Locas (Cortez). These anthologies are also a sign of the times; they exemplify the fact that anthologies are able to showcase a multiplicity of voices that are not getting published outside of anthologies, including writers such as: Monica Palacios, Roger Schira, Miriam Sachs-Martin, Rober Vásquez-Pacheco, Luis Alfaro, Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, Lisa Gonzales, Joel Antonio Villalón, Ramón García, Karleen Pendleton Jimenez, Maria de los Rios, Al Lujan, Ricardo A. Bracho, Adán Griego, Lito Sandoval, Sonia Rivera Valdes, Horacio Nelson Roque, James Cañón, and myself.
I will stop naming names now, but I want to point out that there are more names to add to all of the lists that I have presented in this overview. Through the naming, though, I have wanted to show that there is an abundance of names. We are definitely out there, working, writing, researching, and getting published, and this has been the case for some time.
Yet there are serious problems with finding many of these titles in library catalogs, including inadequate cataloging and inappropriate and outdated sexual and ethnic identifiers (“Hispanic” versus Latino and Latina; “Mexican American” versus Chicano and Chicana, etc.). Also, the Library of Congress did not recommend assigning subject headings for works of literature until recent years, leaving most of our literature completely inaccessible via subject and keyword searches. And it is difficult to locate writers getting published in anthologies, as most cataloguers only enter the editor’s name, leaving the twenty or so contributors lost in the bibliographic wind.
Librarians need to work to bring greater visibility to queer Latin materials. We need to employ third-level cataloging with appropriate subject headings and the names of all contributors in anthologies. We need to use retrospective and contemporary bibliographies. We need to review books as they get published, add them to our collections, give the writings their due space on the bookshelves, and give the authors their due space in the libraries by organizing readings and exhibits. We need to teach patrons how to conduct research that will lead to our published works.
We need to remember that bibliographic invisibility disempowers the entire Latin community. We need to be conscious that the library is not just a place that stores and serves information. That it is a politicized space and that we are the gatekeepers. We need to think about the teenagers who are coming out, the compañeras, las locas, the pretty boys and the stone butches that expect and deserve representation, respect, and visibility in the library.
24 de septiembre de 2000, buffalo, nueva york
1. This is from “Lesbian Literature;” it is an excerpt from Lesbian Phenomenology/Fenomenología Lesbiana, which is my unpublished collection of poetic prose. All subsequent italicized prose in this paper is also from this same piece in Lesbian Phenomenology.
2. While I am aware that others may use certain “queer” Latin words in a derogatory fashion, I use “maricona” and other such terms as an affirmation and celebration of lesbian and gay culture. Also, I do not italicize words in Spanish; I will not marginalize my native language and I believe that Spanglish is a natural and valid linguistic hybrid and should be visually treated as such.
3. “@” is used here and elsewhere to symbolize both of the feminine/masculine identifiers, a/o, of “gendered” Spanish words; this “wild card” function has mostly a symbolic visual effect, as there is not yet an accepted way to verbalize “@”. I came to use this symbol as a result of participating in Arenal, a Latin@ lesbian and gay electronic list; I’ve known “@” to be employed as “a/o” since approximately 1996.
4. Cristina Peri Rossi, Evohé, bilingual ed. (Washington, D.C., Azul Editions, 1994), 10-11.
5. Albalucía Angel, Las andariegas (Barcelona: Editorial Argos Vergara, 1984), 130.
6. esto no tiene nombre: revista de lesbianas latinas (Miami Beach: Lambda Community Center of Greater Miami, 1991-1994).
7. conmocion, revista y red revolucionaria de lesbianas latinas (Miami Beach: Lambda Community Center of Greater Miami, 1995-1996).
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