- The Turn to Aesthetics in Latinx Literary and Cultural Studies
Ralph E. Rodríguez’s Latinx Literature Unbound: Undoing Ethnic Expectations and Leticia Alvarado’s Abject Performances: Aesthetic Strategies in Latino Cultural Production textualize current scholarly approaches and debates around the role of aesthetics and formalism in reading Latinx literature, visual and performative arts, and cultural productions in general. While Latinx Literature Unbound seeks to “undo” the facile and unquestioned category of “Latinx” and “Latinidad” identity as an analytic, from a literary corpus that is heterogeneous, rich, and aesthetically dynamic, Abject Performances proposes reading “abjection as an aesthetic practice” (6) in an archive that spans from the visual texts of Ana Mendieta to the performative testimonies of Latinx Mormon subjectivities.
While both books constitute significant scholarly interventions in Latinx literary and cultural studies, they each approach the concepts of Latinidad and Latinx, as well as their selected literary and cultural texts, in significantly divergent ways. While Rodríguez aims to reject ethnicity as a category for grouping a specific literary corpus as coherent, proposing “genre” and formalism as an alternative approach for understanding Latinx literature in all of its richness, for Alvarado Latinidad is a “promising rubric [End Page 143] within which to explore the offerings of abjection” (10). Their different stances as to the place and function of literature and cultural production in the framework of the long racialization of Latinx in the United States clearly demarcate their unique proposals. Rodríguez’s formalist lens tends to separate the politics of our humanity and racialized lives from the linguistic craft and artistry of literary making. Alvarado’s interdisciplinary approach (visual and performative arts, television, and religious testimonies) and serious engagement with racialization, queer theory, affect, and belonging position the texts studied within a larger historical framework that connects aesthetics to the politics of our lives and to the formation of our subjectivities.
Latinx Literature Unbound, as its author introduces us to the project, denounces the “cult of ethnicity” (15) that “places a burden of representation on the writer” (15). The book attempts to “break open the canon of Latinx literature and the expectations that are imposed on Latinx writers” (15), thus contesting long held notions of “authenticity” and of essentialist Latinx identity as a “blood identity” (43). The first chapter examines novels as “a universe of fictional nobodies” (24), critically engaging three instances of author identities—Danny Santiago, Brando Skyhorse, and Eduardo Halfon—that clearly contest rigid definitions of Latinx as ethnic and biological identity. I personally remember the scandal over the real identity of Danny Santiago (Daniel James) in the 1980s and how it triggered among many Latinx literary scholars at the time discussions and debates around cultural appropriation and the racial privilege of whiteness. Rodríguez now critically undoes the narrative of Danny Santiago as ethnic fraud and exhorts us to consider that “what has been missed or avoided is a discussion of the ways the novel troubles what it is we know or think we know about the category of Latinx literature” (31). While during the mid to late 1980s as scholars we were writing to produce a corpus and claiming the requisite legitimacy to be included in the larger United States literary canon, it would have been counterproductive for us, at that moment, to question and challenge the very categories we were trying to build. The notion of Latinx literature, per se, was still in its nascent stages, barely emerging and fragile, at best. It is now, a couple of decades later, that we can safely challenge an author’s identity as a central step in our national debates around the terms Latinidad and Latinx. In addition to Santiago, Rodríguez lucidly examines Brandon Skyhorse, author of Madonnas of Echo Park (2010), as an embodiment [End Page 144] of “the tension between a blood identity and a lived identity” (43), thus challenging the expectations of...