Envisioning Latino/x Futures with Leticia Alvarado
Leticia Alvarado, who teaches American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, developed a practice around theorizing new forms of resistance in contemporary Latino/x performance art such as irreverent and disruptive aesthetics in her book Abject Performances: Aesthetic Strategies in Latino Cultural Production (Duke University Press, 2018). The book emphasizes works that do not showcase pride, rebellion, celebration, or redemption, but rather works that show shame and disgust as a way to deviate from the mainstream stereotypical Latino/x aesthetic. The negative, odd concepts and vocabulary mentioned in this book, help us better understand Latino/x performance art because these illuminate strategies implemented by the community as an innovative form of social and cultural critique, which aims to highlight a refusal of identity coherence and expectation that our society has self-imposed into the Latino/x artist.
Abjection refers to actions that are separated from the conventional norms and rules that society has set up as morally correct. The notion of the ‘abject’ helps us understand how artists attempt to engage in radically different ways within conversations and self-imposed norms that fail to meet what the true Latino/x identity is. We refer to these failures as ‘slippages’ embedded in current transnational Latino/x aesthetics and contemporary and historical violence in the United States. These slippages range from encounters with dynamics of power in the Latino/x artistic field to questions of diversity in institutionalized spaces.
One of your most impressive projects is your book Abject Performances, which discusses disruptive aesthetic strategies used by Latino artists and cultural producers. Based on your analysis done here, what is the dynamic between power and abjection?
I was interested in understanding our relationship to power and how it is structured by creating a majority and simultaneously an abjection realm. I'm not by myself in doing this thinking. There's other theorists whose work I draw from, who study abjection in Asian American Studies and African American Studies. The abjection realm helped me think about how Latinx subjects get constructed as always being outside, what I talk about in the book as push and pull dynamic. What was so interesting to me about abjection is the way that theorists of abjection talk about it not being entirely repulsive, but ambivalent, and seductive. The dynamic is incredibly compelling to me and lined up with what I knew about Latinidad in the United States. For example, the push and pull of bodies across the border that are being recruited for labor while at the same time being expelled from the national body. For activist movements, it has been important to combat negative dynamics with positive representation. I was interested in the weirder work that was happening alongside the mural projects, often associated with the civil rights movements of the Chicano movement and the Puerto Rican movement on the East Coast. In particular, the work of the Chicano artist collective, ASCO, gives us a different way to think about community building. The work charted an entirely different aesthetic and its political possibilities that had us think about elaborating a minoritarian relationship to power and making evident the processes by which individuals are minoritized.
How does your background in visual arts affect your academic work?
One of my undergraduate degrees is in visual arts; I was a sculptor. I was someone who was really interested in the process. Yes, the final product mattered, but more important to me was the process of getting to the final piece. As a writer, it makes me very conscientious of all of the things that have to happen before an artist shares their work. So many artists are such brilliant researchers and theorists. They do so much work before they've even started rehearsing, building, or just thinking about how they will convey their message. From research to consideration of materials to construction, all of that for me is just as interesting and revelatory as the work itself. I gave a talk at Tufts a couple years ago that had a lot of artists and curators in the audience, which is not usual for me. I didn't end up finding this out until the Q&A. I was so nervous because I have so much respect and admiration for artists. Afterwards, they told me that they could tell that I had spent time in a studio in the way that I treat the kind of artists' pieces, that there was precisely an attention to process that for them was really important. There wasn't necessarily an intentional effort as much as a recognition. One of the artists that I have written about is Xandra Ibarra, who is a reader of theory. She does so much theorizing and thinking before she does any work. It’s really inspiring, the different shapes that research can take.
What do you think are the most prominent barriers Latino/x artists have in the performance sphere in the US?
For the artists that I've worked with, there's two kinds of general challenges. The first challenge is survivance: the material challenges of paying for their needs such as their apartment, food, materials, and studio space. There is a difficulty to be compensated appropriately for their work whether it be their artistic work or teaching or whatever other jobs they take on to sustain themselves. The second challenge is conceptual. Artists are expected to perform their Latinidad in a specific way. They are expected to show their brownness, race, and gender in a particular way. Their art is expected to cover only certain topics within Latinidad. Xandra Ibarra was part of an exhibition in Texas that was censored because it was inappropriate. Xandra Of course, according to local government officials, not the curators who put her into the show. Inappropriate, for whom? There are also expectations of majoritarian presenters who expect racialized, minoritized artists to fulfill a certain diversity and inclusion function. There's these limiting expectations for what their work should be, which feels like it limits the kind of work they're able to make. But, then there’s other artists who are honestly smart as fuck, who see this as an opportunity to wage a certain kind of critique from the level of their work. It's successful, you put it into the space, but then once it's in the space, it's able to generate certain kinds of ideas or conversations. This is the work of ideology that cultural texts are able to enact because of the ways that they allow viewers to imagine different possibilities for themselves.
There has been an ongoing debate about Latinx-ness/Latinidad, since many people have distinct definitions and ways to use the term. What does Latinx mean to you?
When I say Latinx I mean individuals in the United States of Latin American descent. They do not necessarily have to be born in the United States, but they reside in the United States. You have agency to identify however you want . If I'm working with an artist who was born in the Dominican Republic, and they refuse the label of Latinx. I'm going to honor that refusal and not call them Latinx. If they identify as Latin American as their predominant identity that is what they get to identify as.
What does the diversity of Latino community within the United States really mean?
There is, of course, a Latin American elite. For example, the intention of diversity and inclusion initiatives is to bring underrepresented communities into spaces where they have historically been excluded. This doesn't mean importing an elite from another country and calling it diversity. It, in fact, means incorporating individuals that have not been included here, the historically subjugated, underdeveloped, abused populations, who have a particular relationship to majority power here in the United States. It's complicated because Latin America also exists in a particular imperial relationship to the United States. It's complicated all the way around.
Ultimately, you became an academic because you wanted to work more directly with your community. What prompted your decision?
I thought I was going to be an artist. I was a scholarship student; I came from a very poor working class family. I decided that I was going to work in the community. I did the New York City Teaching Fellows; one of the country's largest and most selective alternative routes to teacher certification. I was very unhappy in the position. When I decided that I didn’t want to do this anymore, there was a teacher with 20+ years experience ready to take my place. Later on, I worked at a number of places: the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Planned Parenthood, Brooklyn Children's Museum, and the Museum of Sex and Planned Parenthood. Then, the Museum of Sex offered me a full time job. I was in charge of the collection and doing preventative elementary conservation and research. I found that I really loved the bits of research, understanding that objects and cultural texts carry so much history and tell us so much about the way that power and ideology works. I applied to graduate programs. When I started, I was not convinced I was going to be a professor until I TA-ed for the first time. I really loved teaching, and I decided to go for it. We make plans; we try things out. I tell myself that it's okay if I'm not a maker anymore or if I want to make different things in different ways now. I am really happy doing what I'm doing now.