- Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Diaspora
Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes’s Queer Ricans is a groundbreaking exploration of queer Puerto Rican and Diasporican poetics and expressive cultures. In its cartography of art practices and forms, it is also a significant contribution to a variety of emerging and ongoing lines of inquiry in US Latino/a cultural and performance studies. While unprecedented in its scope and detail, Queer Ricans may nonetheless be profitably read alongside such books as Frances Negrón-Muntaner’s Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture (2004) and Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé’s Queer Latino Testimonio, Keith Haring, and Juanito Xtravaganza: Hard Tails (2007); all three books help us “queer” the Puerto Rican corpus, mining the art and performance cultures of Ricans on the mainland in an effort to [End Page 148] underscore the performativity (in a Butlerian sense) of Puerto Rican identity practices, always plural and provisional. In doing so, they nudge us away from print-based and island-bound conceptions of Puerto Rican identity and towards complex diaspora-centric and body-centric perspectives.
What is perhaps most remarkable about La Fountain-Stokes’s book is its scope. From the canonical yet confounding short stories of the island’s most celebrated contemporary writer, Luis Rafael Sánchez, to the independent films of Chicago-born director Rose Troche and the dance and performance works of Bronx-based artists Arthur Avilés and Elizabeth Marrero, Queer Ricans reads Rican sexualities in ways that complicate binaries (high-low, island-mainland, gay-straight), calling instead for broader frameworks and for new ways of reading and relating. In his introduction, La Fountain-Stokes characterizes the book as an attempt to “see how sexuality has been a constitutive element in shaping Puerto Rican migration principally (but not exclusively) to the United States, and how different artists have represented or publicly articulated this issue” (xii), and argues that we must look to prejudice, ignorance, and/or sexism and homophobia as reasons for the “longstanding, historical refusal to acknowledge the centrality of sexuality to migration” (ix). La Fountain-Stokes’s conception of queer Rican-ness, then, is not only trans-genre (fiction, poetry, dance, theatre, film, etc.) but also trans-local, and trans-generational, as it attempts to account for the poetics and cultural productions of artists from both the island and the mainland, those who left Puerto Rico as adults and those born and raised on the mainland. The complexity of this double move is matched by the slipperiness of the archive at hand; Queer Ricans is at its most wonderfully open-ended and suggestive in its analyses of the performances of Avilés (or of Erika López, whose work I was not familiar with before reading this book).
For all its groundbreaking energy, Queer Ricans is not simply revisionist. La Fountain-Stokes convincingly reads the ambivalences and distancing effects in Sánchez’s story “¡Jum!” (1966) as emblematic of an anxiety over sexual difference (and, more specifically, over masculinity and its proper representation) that permeate island literary (and national) imaginaries. In the next chapter, he considers the shape-shifting fiction and poetry of Manuel Ramos Otero, the iconic transnational gay Puerto Rican writer, as a defiantly radical working through of the politics of the queer body that Sánchez’s story can only engage with indirectly (Ramos Otero as, perhaps, a queer counter-canon?). Displaying a command of the existing critical literature, La Fountain-Stokes chronologically reads key moments in Ramos Otero’s variegated and challenging work, emphasizing how Ramos Otero “physically places his body (of writing, of flesh and bone) as a space of encounter” (63). This beautiful phrase—the body as a space of encounter—also works as a summation of La Fountain-Stokes’s own project.
My only issue with the book is that I wish the author had more fully theorized his body-centric queer Rican politics/poetics. Some of this, to be sure, happens at the level of the close reading of particular texts and artists. For...