- “Turrrtle”Displacing and Recovering a Queerly Gendered Body in Helena María Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came with Them
Helena María Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came with Them has readers trudge through East Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s, exposing how freeway construction and city development have threatened and destroyed the lives and personal histories of the city’s inhabitants. Within the novel, the history of Los Angeles’s transformation into the metropolis it is today represents the continuance of western advancement, causing the dislocation and erasure of its eastside community.1 This “freeway expansion,” as Sarah D. Wald explains, “echo[es] the displacement and loss of land Mexican inhabitants suffered after California transferred from Mexican to US ownership” (73).2 Following each character as she navigates through the drastic changes of East Los Angeles during this period, the text moves through the overlapping narratives of four young women. Buried beneath the rubble of the city’s reconstruction and interlaced with the other narratives in the novel is the story of Turtle: a young, homeless, female gang member who passes for male. When Viramontes decided to write Turtle as female instead of male as she had originally planned, she explains that through this metamorphosis, the “floodgates” for her novel “opened,” and Turtle “came with a whole history” (qtd. in Shea 41).3 Turtle performs as a man because she shares an identity with her brother and uses this masculine performance to survive transient life. For Turtle and her fellow male gang members, Turtle’s female body evokes a sense of fear and weakness that is symptomatic of the youth’s anxiety over the city’s rapid changes. Not only do others accost Turtle, but she also deprecates herself for occupying a female body. Just as the East [End Page 231] Los Angeles community is victimized by the city’s reconstruction, her body is degraded, displaced, and rendered invisible. By creating a queerly gendered character with an almost unimaginable life, the novel works to recover the untold histories of those who were ignored and forgotten during the city’s development.
As most critics agree, Turtle’s character suffers the most due to the drastic spatial changes caused by city planning and the Quarantine Authority (a militarized police force that tracks and shoots any moving object after curfew in order to regulate a rabies outbreak). Discussing the characters’ loss of private and public property, Mitchum Huehls notes that Turtle has lost the basic needs for survival within the city: “her house, money, and food” (161). While Alicia Muñoz argues that the novel serves as a form of resistance toward these “erasive consequences of race and class” by “forming independent spatial meaning,” she also highlights how Turtle “finally succumb[s] to the erasive consequences of spatial racism” (24, 36). Dale Pattison also explains how Turtle’s experience displays the ways in which these “freeways have erased sites of social exchange and likewise have eradicated the culture of empathy that once existed in the barrio” (123). While these critics take note of Turtle’s loss, little discussion includes the way her queer gender performance and its relation to her female body and Chican@ identity shape her subjectivity and suffering within the text and emblematize the community’s anxiety during this time period.4
Turtle’s gender identity cannot be pinned down to any term within the multiplicity of non-heteronormative classifications. Instead, her gender performance follows Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s description of queerness as being “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (Tendencies 8). While Turtle passes for a man, she never explicitly identifies as one nor does she reveal any sexual desire toward other characters. Rather, Turtle’s masculine gender performance conveys her powerful identification with her brother Luis Lil Lizard, and she uses it as a way to survive the violence within her home and on the streets. Finding comfort and strength in each other while living within a violent household, the siblings form...