- Abject Performances: Aesthetic Strategies in Latino Cultural Production by Leticia Alvarado
In the introduction to this succinct study, Leticia Alvarado illustrates her argument for an aesthetics of abjection by counterpoising two figures: the aspiring student Dreamer and the abject immigrant mother. Whereas depictions of the Dreamers (undocumented young people who arrived in the United States as children) often play into an assimilationist politics of respectability, Alvarado notes that immigrant mothers are more apt to be vilified as the irresponsible progenitors of “anchor babies” and hence an invasive threat to the nation’s integrity. Taking this pathologized character as her cue, she makes a case for the political power of artists who “cohere their aesthetic gestures around negative affects—uncertainty, disgust, unbelonging—capturing what lies far outside mainstream, inspirational Latino-centered social justice struggles” (4). [End Page 154]
The author begins her loosely chronological trajectory by revisiting the legacy of the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta. Rather than privileging Mendieta’s celebrated Silueta series, the first chapter shifts the focus to a number of more unsettling works that she created in the early 1970s as an MFA student at the University of Iowa and views them in light of the artist’s experience as a young Cuban exile in a rural Midwestern community where she was racialized and redefined as non-white. Alvarado reads the live installation Rape Scene as an intersectional critique of sexual violence; she also draws out the specter of blackness haunting the photographic self-portrait series Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints) and Untitled (Facial Cosmetic Variations), arguing that such pieces “provide a site to reflect on embodied alternatives to weak multiculturalism’s reification of identity” (27). The following chapter, which deals with the Los Angeles-based collective Asco, approaches the “uncivic engagement” (86) of its public art actions as an alternative to the heteronormativity of Chicano nationalism. Although one might quibble with her tendency to label all experimentalism as queer, Alvarado’s attention to the competing tendencies and tensions among Asco’s members lends nuance to her discussion and makes this a significant contribution to the growing body of scholarship on the group. Slightly less compelling is the third chapter, which offers a thorough but unsurprising critique of the Ugly Betty TV series and contrasts its mainstream appropriation of abject aesthetics with the performance pieces of Nao Bustamente, whose grotesque bodily contortions and deformations align the Chicana artist with the animal, the alien, and the homeless. In the final chapter, Alvarado performs a self-reflexive turn by setting her sights on the Mormon religion in which she was raised and examining performative testimonies and pageants in which Latino identity (via the discourse of mestizaje) is linked to the Lamanites, a racialized civilization in the Book of Mormon. It is a fascinating topic, though its treatment here feels far too cursory and the role of performance is insufficiently theorized to do it justice.
Indeed, Abject Performances is admirable in its interdisciplinary ambitions, but like many studies that foreground the role of affect, it could benefit from a more sustained attention to the differences in how abjection operates across diverse media such as performance art, television, and texts. The absence of any markedly indigenous or Afro-descendant artists, and the focus on well-known figures and phenomena (with the exception of the chapter on Mormonism), are also indicative of a contradiction at the heart of the book: although she offers up abjection as a means of theorizing the “incoherence [End Page 155] and instability of interpellative identitarian categories” (4), Alvarado invokes a familiar set of theoretical and critical references that carefully position her own work within the field of Latino studies while doing little to unsettle its boundaries. To be clear, however, this is a solid and in many ways insightful book, and my objections have roots in my own sneaking skepticism about the subversive power of abjection within the context of academic critique.