- “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down”:Honoring the Life and Legacy of José Esteban Muñoz
The haunting voice of the late Marc Bolan, lead singer of the glam rock pioneers T. Rex, sings to me as I reflect on the loss of José Esteban Muñoz. Bolan’s voice captures the melancholy of the moment, the affective register of loss—an affective register that has become all too familiar as of late. I like to imagine that Muñoz, who came to find possibility and identification in punk music, would appreciate the queerness of my musical choice as I write about his legacy. Bolan sings of the affective changes that mark the shift from childhood to adulthood, from laughter to tears.1 My backwards glance meets his, looking to the possibility of the future.2 On December 4, 2013, the temporality momentarily shifted as we learned of the death of José Esteban Muñoz.
My first experience with Muñoz’s work came when a mentor presented his work to me, suggesting I review Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics for a journal. As a master’s student, I gladly accepted the challenge without knowing that Muñoz’s work would transform my entire being. I had never really left my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. The thought never crossed my mind. It seemed simply unimaginable, as did the idea that I could be out with my family about my queerness. As a Chicana raised in a traditional Catholic Mexican American family, I negotiated quite a bit of shame as I continued to experience and perform desire for men and women. I had no role models. At least, I knew of none, or they weren’t visible to me. I simply knew [End Page 133] that the relationships I had with some members of my family would change dramatically, as would my cultural lifeline, should they ever know about the queerness of my desire. But Muñoz’s work gave me a glimpse of queer potentiality and a world I wanted to be a part of; a world populated by queers of color.
Queerness … never fully disappears; instead, it haunts the present. More nearly it is something whose position of mourning is a condition of possibility for other modes of sexuality that are less problematic.3
Between 1998 and 2000, the Latin invasion/crossover/explosion came to the forefront in the media, and its face was Ricky Martin. I had grown up with Ricky Martin, as pictures of him as a member of Menudo graced the teen magazines of my youth. He always seemed a bit queer to me; however, being presented with Martin now, in light of my own coming to understand and name my queerness, and driven by the insights of Muñoz, I began to connect with Martin on a different register. The negotiations Martin made in the public eye as he continued to be interrogated by reporters, such as Barbara Walters, who attempted to out him, resonated with me as I continued to try to balance my desires with those of certain members of my family who became more and more suspicious of me. I started to care less about being found out. Inspired by Martin’s pre-coming out performances, which I understood as disidentificatory performances of sexual and racial ambiguity, I devoted my master’s thesis to Martin.4
But it was more than just Martin that offered hope. It was the work of Muñoz that, for the first time, offered a glimpse of what my life could be. As he so eloquently wrote, “[d]isidentifactory performances and readings require an active kernel of utopian possibility. Although utopianism has become the bad object of much contemporary political thinking, we nonetheless need to hold on to and even risk utopianism if we are to engage in the labor of making a queer world.”5 Driven by a queer potentiality of freedom, hope, and desire, I became determined to leave my home once I finished my master’s degree.
Willingly we let ourselves feel queerness’s pull, knowing it as something else we can feel, that we must...