Queer Latino/a Voices: “Patos, Tortilleras y Locas”

Many topics familiar to queer studies mavens were highlighted and explored at the Spring 2001
Seminar in the City, “Patos, Tortilleras y Locas.” Among them: the contingent and constructed
nature of social identities; the diverse arenas in which conflicts and contradictions between
traditional social structures (primarily “the family”) and heretofore unrecognized personal and social
needs are enacted; the historical context for the emergence of queer Latino/a voices and identities in
patterns of migration, in socio-economic realities, and in relation to all the various political and social
movements of the last half-century.
The texts chosen by the seminar leader, Larry LaFountain-Stokes, really worked to break down the
enormity of the stated theme — “contemporary queer Latino/a issues” — into digestible but substantive
pieces. Jaime Manrique’s Latin Moon in Manhattan was a perfect introduction for the entire seminar,
getting us very quickly to issues concerning constructed and contested queer Latino/a identities through
a narrative rooted in the contestation of social and physical space both in the Colombian immigrant
community in Jackson Heights, Queens, and in the social engineering efforts around Times Square
beginning in the 1980s. In contrast, the conflicts around sexual identity and national and racial differentiation
in Manny Xavier’s Christ-Like are played out against the oppressed yet autonomous world of
mostly Puerto Rican “club kids” who flirt, fight, get high, experience violence, discover love and form
constructed families around a fictionalized “Limelight” of early 1990’s New York. Cherríe Moraga’s Loving
in the War Years raised many questions about the inter-relationships among identities and social
movements constructed around gender, sexuality, and nationality. Achy Obejas’s We Came All the Way
From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? brought yet another experience into the mix through a collection
of stories filled with strong and vivid characters, conveyed with copious warmth and humor.
Encouraging open discussion, LaFountain-Stokes began each session by asking all the participants to
introduce themselves. Then he’d provide some background appropriate to the text at hand: on migration
patterns and demographics, on the social and political conflicts of the particular national community of
origin of each writer, and on the writer’s work as a whole. He’d ask participants their reactions to the
works and cull significant issues from our responses, shaping a discussion around what the participants
brought to the table, but never letting anyone take us too far afield from issues rooted in the work.
Of course not all participants in CLAGS’s Seminars in the City are queer studies mavens. Indeed, the
Seminar series is one important way in which the intellectual labor of “queer studies” is interwoven with
the social movement and community from which it emerged. There is no fee for the Seminars, which
are open to all and held at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center (not at the The Graduate Center, CUNY).
They meet during “non-work” hours. All this suggests that the “barriers to entry” are quite low and that
the seminars might attract a standing-room-only crowd. But attendance is fairly modest and, moreover,
intermittent. Perhaps that’s because the Seminars take place in the context of a celebrity-obsessed society
which seriously devalues intellectual work of any kind and instead, cultivates “consumers” of “culture”
rather than the nurturing of autonomously thinking participants in a rich civil society. Then there’s the
corresponding long and sad history of a disconnect between those engaged in full-time intellectual work
from those not so employed, the entrenched individualism of American life, and the way in which the
ubiquity of home video and the Internet has exacerbated all these tendencies to privatization, even in
urban life.
Especially given this context, “Patos, Tortilleras y Locas” was incredibly successful. I took from this
seminar not only a deeper understanding of the challenging, rich, and highly varied queer Latino/a
reality, but also the sheer joy of substantive discussion of provocative writing in a setting that encouraged
an honest exchange of ideas.

Paul Horowitz is an unemployed information technology manager, on sabbatical from years of activism in antiwar,
feminist, anti-imperialist, and lesbian & gay movements.