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Cultural Erotics in Cuban America (review)

From: Hispanic Review
Volume 76, Number 2, Spring 2008
pp. 224-228 | 10.1353/hir.0.0002

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Ricardo L. Ortíz's Cultural Erotics in Cuban America seeks to expand the parameters from which to critique Cuban American cultural production beyond the limitations inherent to identitarian projects that seek legitimation through orthodoxies of state affiliation. The axis of this important study of Cuban American and Cuban transnational cultural production centers on how, for Ortíz, political resistance to compulsory forms of cubanidad can be most radically destabilized through an "erotic dynamic" that eschews normative ideations of sexuality, citizenship, as well as cultural and national affiliation. He accomplishes this by studying how the affective interplay between desire, diaspora, and the disappearance of national anchorings can allow us to imagine cubanidad outside the strictures of Cuba, the island, and Cuba as a transnational cultural imaginary against the still pervasive "specter of coherence . . . among national, cultural, and historical registers" of cubanidad (40).

In keeping with this deterritorialized analysis of cubanidad, Ortíz studies cultural production from as varied a contingent of geopolitically dispersed cultural agents as Reinaldo Arenas, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, Rafael Campo, Albita Rodríguez, Eduardo Machado, Cristina García, and Celia Cruz, among others. Engaging these literary and cultural producers also entails revisiting their critical legacies in order to reimagine their futures, and Ortíz does so with brilliant critical dexterity. In so doing, he generously considers his critical intervention as additive, rather than corrective, to the work done by other prominent Cuban and Cuban American studies scholars in the field, yet the overarching theoretical and interpretive strengths in this work supply a corrective course for the still emerging field of Cuban American studies. Ortíz establishes the framing question for his project in the introduction when he asks, "What . . . should be the fate of Cuban-diasporic thinking and the Cuban-diasporic study it might produce . . . away from and against the originating national term according to which it persists in naming itself?" (36). The book's three principal divisions go about engaging this fundamental query.

The first part of Cultural Erotics in Cuban America, "Bodies of, Bodies in Evidence," is comprised of three chapters in which Ortíz reads Reinaldo Arenas's work, especially the Doorman and Before Night Falls, as well as Arenas' own life, as emblematic of the fundamental tensions surrounding a highly symbolic psychoanalytic construction of Cuban political reality that could be read as "a quasioedipal struggle between the . . . hated Fidel, el hombre, él, and Cuba bella, patria, the feminine gendered fatherland to whom Cuban exiles consecrate their deepest loyalty, their most profound fidelity" (44). The purpose for Ortíz here is to interrogate how Arenas's writerly erotics, his sexual and political desires, can lead "to more direct political questions of what kind of labor (and by whom) produces politically efficacious forms of pleasure (and for whom)" (45). Central to a possible answer is the role of art in just such an enterprise where queer desire can be expressed as both a desire for a free state and as forms of affective and erotic affiliation that aren't within the state's control. Ortíz positions Arenas's work and life as a bridge between a pre-1980s Cuba rendered narratively in much of his work as political critique written in s/exile and a post-Cold War Cuban "Special Period" that saw cultural texts, such as Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Strawberry and Chocolate (1993), gesture toward less repressive forms of sexual and state subjection for consumption outside of the island, while keeping the revolutionary ideals of "el hombre nuevo" on the island distinctly heteronormative even half a century after its introduction as a progressive revolutionary imperative.

The second chapter in this section takes up Cuban "prison writing"—including Arenas's and his commentators', especially Ricardo Pau-Llosa's evocation of Arenas in his poem "Conscience"—to show how this narrative investment in memorializing the state subjection of homosexuals as political dissenters effectively "queers" all political dissenters by positioning both as antirevolutionary irrespective of erotic object choice. For Ortíz, prison writing, read this way, "does not seek to punish the punishers, even if it does indict and condemn them," as much as it compels readers...

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