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The Altermundos of Latin@futurism

Cathryn Josefina Merla-Watson

New Mestiz@ Aesthetics 2.0

 

Latin@futurism has yet to register within the hegemonic popular imagination—one historically drenched in whiteness and heteropatriarchy. At best, it is recognized as a quaint oddity, an errant outlier, or banished to now tired conversations of magical realism. At worst, it is merely not acknowledged. However, after co-curating and editing with B.V. Olguín two thematic dossiers in the journal Aztlán and a related collected works entitled Altermundos: Latin@ Speculative Literature and Popular, both dedicated to theorizing this nascent, though vibrant, field, I am here to assure you, dear reader, that the Latin@ speculative arts are thriving and continuing to proliferate. Moreover, Latin@futurism and alternative futurisms are revolutionizing how we think about the speculative genre at large.

 

It's Alive! Latin@ futurism is enjoying a renaissance in the contemporary period 

 

Recently, there has been a veritable renaissance of Latin@ speculative texts, encompassing, most famously, Dominican American writer and public intellectual Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2007 novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This brilliant speculative novel marshals and combines elements of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and myriad popular cultural references to portray the brutality of the US-sponsored dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo from 1930 to 1961 and its haunting legacies. It further emblematizes the heterogeneity and trans-Americanity animating Latin@futurist texts, and demonstrates how Latin@futurism may function as incisive social critique. Díaz’s novel is a literary coup d’état for its sheer narrative ingenuity in addition to adumbrating that Latin@s are in fact writing speculative fiction and radically transforming the genre. Importantly, too, it contributed to launching the “speculative turn” within Latin@ studies.

Latin@futurism references a spectrum of speculative aesthetics produced by U.S. Latin@s, including Chican@s, Puerto Ricans, Dominican Americans, Cuban Americans, and other Latin American immigrant populations. It also includes innovative cultural productions stemming from the hybrid and fluid borderlands spaces, including the U.S.-Mexico border. Building on Catherine Ramírez’s foundational prism of Chicanafuturism—which, in turn, builds upon Afrofuturism—Latin@futurism excavates and creatively recycles the seeming detritus of the past to imagine and galvanize more desirable presents and futures. The architecture of this pan-ethnic genre is animated by what Alicia Gaspar de Alba calls “alter-Native” knowledges and practices indigenous to the Americas, particularly by “disidentification” (Muñoz 1999) or “rasquachismo” (Ybarra-Frausto 1991); see here for a video of Tomás Ybarra-Frausto explaining rasquachismo).

 

“La Raza Cósmica”: Latin@futurist texts often blend speculative genres, such as sci-fi, fantasy, horror, creating new, hybrid forms reflective of cultural mestizaje 

[Image by Alex under a CC BY-NC license]

These terms signal Latin@ sensibilities of “making do” and repurposing dominant forms pursuant to survival as well as cultural critique and affirmation. Since Latin@futurist texts often blend speculative genres, such as sci-fi, fantasy, horror, whereby they create new, hybrid forms reflective of cultural mestizaje or what Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos called “La Raza Cósmica.” Latin@futurism is not derivative or mimetic of dominant speculative genres, but instead insists on its own terms and conditions. To apprehend how Latin@futurism melds putative generic parameters and foments new mestiz@ aesthetics, Shelley Streeby argues, these texts should be approached through the umbrella genre of the speculative. Reminiscent of Victor Frankenstein’s monster, Latin@futurism stitches together seemingly incompatible parts, electrifying an articulate body who insistently questions mastery and social power from the dark, interminable and sometimes unintelligible margins. 

In brief, this is an exciting moment in Latin@futurism, evinced in the proliferation of speculative cultural production and scholarship beginning to uncover alternative Latin@futurist genealogies and conceive new theoretical tools, critical vocabularies, and hermeneutics. In what follows, I briefly map out alter-Native imaginative worlds or “altermundos” of Latin@futurism, including a survey of its aesthetics, methodologies, and critical contexts.               

 

Rasquache Remix

While it would be naïve to say that Latin@futurism exists independent of dominant speculative genre, it must be noted that Latin@futurism disidentifies with it, creatively recycles and repurposes it a lo rasquache. Historically, the speculative genre has been inhospitable to non-white peoples—as both creators and subjects—as the speculative imaginary grew out of white European encounters with the other. Sci-fi and fantasy, for example, became central sites wherein the colonial imaginary could safely stretch its gaze, explore and bring into being its wildest fantasies as evinced in Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia (1516) or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) (Rieder 2008: 2). It is no accident, then, that sci-fi emerged as a cohesive genre during the height of British imperialism in the nineteenth century (Rieder 2008: 3). Moreover, early gothic horror novels such as Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto betray a fear of foreign immigrant others.

Contemporary speculative production in the U.S. and beyond, moreover, remains firmly entrenched within a largely white, middle-class, cisgender male purview. An overwhelming majority of sci-fi and fantasy films and popular novels rely on familiar colonialist, racist tropes. Catherine S. Ramírez diagnoses a “messianic white boy” complex endemic to popular film during the 1990s such as the Star Wars series. Ramírez remarks humorously—though seriously—how she believed that the genre was reserved “for immature white male nerds with dubious politics” (Ramírez 2015: 127) until she read the speculative novels of African American feminist author Octavia Butler. Charles Ramírez Berg, Adilifu Nama, and William Nericcio have similarly pointed out that people of color have been excluded from mainstream speculative film and fiction, relegated to “narrative subtext or implicit allegorical subject” (Nama 2008: 2), figured as the monstrous and alien, or completely disappeared altogether. Such erasure ironically evokes the multiple ways in which the laboring bodies of Latin@s are systematically made invisible, a conceit dramatized in the part-sci-fi, part-telenovela, part-satire 2004 film A Day Without A Mexican directed by Sergio Arau in which Mexicans in California magically disappear into a pink fog.

 

Key texts of Latin@futurism: Sleep Dealer (2008), Cosmos Latinos (2003), Cathryn Josefina Merla-Watson's co-edited forthcoming volume, Altermundos (2017) and the drama of  Luis Valdez

[Images used under fair dealings provisions]

 

But if central aspects of the speculative pivot around imaginings of the future, what do such absences index about the futurity of Latin@s? In his one-man stand-up performance in Freak (1998), directed by Spike Lee, Colombian American actor John Leguizamo remarks sardonically: “There were no Latin people on Star Trek” and continues that this elision “was proof that they weren’t planning to have us around for the future.” Leguizamo voices how the filmic and more general discursive excision of Latin@s from the future signals a deep-seated and even genocidal desire of white America to disappear Latin@s altogether. This seething desire is felt acutely as President-elect (at the time of writing) Donald Trump threatens to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and deport millions of Mexican immigrants. Indeed, Latin@ cultural producers have responded with creative forms of resistance, drawing on speculative aesthetic tactic to express the sheer absurdity and horror of Trump’s xenophobic proposals, including Ale Damiani’s sci-fi short film “M.A.M.O.N.—Latinos Vs. Trump,” featuring a murderous “Trumpbot” replete with crotch missiles aimed at helpless Mexicans or protesters holding up banners that read “Trump es Chupacabra [“goatsuker”],” comparing Trump to the folkloric vampiric creature. As well, on 20 January 2017 when Trump will assume office, queer Chican@ Richard Gamboa’s web series Brujos will air, imagines a not-so-alternative world in which white affluent male descendants of New World colonizers conduct a witch-hunt against queer and queer of color graduate students. The show allegorically dramatizes recent heightened homophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Through disidentificatory speculative tactics Latin@futurism defamiliarizes dystopic realities, demands real change, and gestures toward other possible futures and ways of being. Latin@futurism insists upon our right to exist, to not only survive but also to flourish: “¡Latin@futurism ahora!” (Merla-Watson and Olguín 2017: xi).  

 

“A Future With a Past”                                      

Even though Latin@futurism dates back to at least the late 1960s, it is just recently that scholars have begun to study it in a focused manner. Anthologies such as Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain (2003) document an established tradition of Latin American sci-fi, and there exists a robust body of scholarship dedicated to interpreting this literature. Yet, curiously absent have been anthologies shoring up U.S. Latin@ sci-fi and attendant scholarship. However, two forthcoming publications are on the cusp of changing this status quo. The anthology Latino/a Rising edited by Matthew Goodwin, due out January 2017, coalesces for the first time U.S. Latin@ speculative fiction, showcasing its dazzling breadth and creative force. Second, our collected works Altermundos, due out March 2017, will also be the first of its kind to coalesce new scholarship dedicated to Latin@ speculative aesthetics that features new, representative speculative fiction in tandem with Latino/a Rising. These publications codify and valorize a heretofore largely unrecognized and undertheorized corpus within academia and popular culture. It is our hope, too, that our collective work issues a clarion call to scholars and the larger public to continue unearthing, theorizing, and enjoying Latin@futurism in all its profound illuminations, ranging from the horrific to the sublime.  

Attending to the ethnic particularity of Latin@futurism, scholars have begun to identify alter-Native genealogies and prototypical speculative texts. In the final scene of Peruvian American Alex Rivera’s 2008 dystopian, cyberpunk sci-fi film Sleep Dealer, the main character Memo Cruz, after redeploying a U.S. drone to destroy a privatized dam withholding water from Oaxacan farmers and citizens in his hometown, rebuilds his life and future in the borderlands of Tijuana. As the film's poster makes clear (see left-hand image above), with its Gibsonian "jacking-in" of the main character, this cyberpunk text positions Memo in a near-future Mexico concerned with digital technology and corporate power. Memo reflects that it is “a future with a past,” revealing how for Latin@s and other oppressed groups more emancipatory imaginings and instantiations of the future must reckon with the past—that we do not have the privilege of choice of beginning ex nihilo, to forget. This imperative to remember voices a “prime directive,” to borrow from the Star Trek universe, for scholars of Latin@futurism to turn to the specific and unique histories and ontologies informing Latin@ speculative aesthetics. In his analysis of representations of the apocalypse in Mexican sci-fi, Samuel Manickam, for instance, suggests that while the apocalypse has been mainly defined through Eurocentric lenses, motifs of the apocalyptic in Mexican sci-fi stem from ancient Mexican indigenous ontologies. Manickam humorously observes that from the perspective of the pre-Columbian civilization of the Aztecs, “the Spaniards who rode in on strange four-legged beasts and donned seemingly unassailable shiny armor and wielded fire-throwing weapons might as well have come from another planet” (Manickam 2012: 97). Much in the same way Junot Díaz has underscored how the brutal Trujillo dictatorship could only be understood as a horrific sci-fi tale, Manickam similarly foregrounds here how conquest for indigenous peoples was experienced as otherworldly and science fictional. Manickam, in conjunction with Díaz, signals how Latin@s need only to look to our own histories and lived experiences to compose speculative worlds that perhaps ultimately are not all that strange or distant. 

 

Exhibition of the head of Joaquin [Murrieta], the bandit who features in Valadez's PBS film 

[Image by Gary Stevens under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

 

In a similar vein, scholars have begun to identify prototypical texts comprising Latin@futurist literary and aesthetic history. Notes of gothic horror resound in the nineteenth-century corrido or Mexican ballad of “Joaquin Murrieta,” based on “Mexican Robin Hood” figure who was the subject of violent racism in mid-nineteenth-century California after the Mexican American War. Purportedly, California Rangers decapitated him and stored his head in a glass jar filled with alcohol and later displayed in various mining camps for profit—a macabre tale that informs Chican@ filmmaker John Valadez’s part-fiction, part-documentary PBS film The Head of Joaquin Murrieta in which Valadez reframes the decapitation as collective historical or racial trauma still shaping the present lived experiences of Chican@s. Gothic horror pulsates in the pages of Américo Paredes’s 1955 novel The Shadow, which is set in post-revolutionary Mexico and draws on Mexican folklore to dramatize demons arising from class and racial conflict. Works such as these that mobilize gothic horror for both social critique and aesthetic pleasure set the stage for a slew of contemporary Chican@ gothic production, such as the plays of Cherríe Moraga, the novels of Marta Acosta and Manuel Muñoz, the multi-genre work of S. Joaquin Rivera, the young adult literature of David Bowles and Xavier Garza, the creepy short stories of Myriam Gurba, the dark poetry of Erika Garza-Johnson and Edward Vidaurre, the horror films of Robert Rodriguez, the haunting visual art of Alma López, or the musical performances and aesthetics of the bands Prayers and Girl in a Coma.   

There are also several prototypes of Latinx sci-fi, fantasy, and cognate subgenres. Dystopian and utopian currents course through early movement texts from the late 1960s, including Rodolfo “Corkey” Gonzáles’s 1967 epic poem “I am Joaquin”/ “Yo Soy Joaquin” celebrating Chican@ identity and pride or the 1969 Chican@ manifesto Plan Espiritual de Aztlán articulating cultural nationalism and self-determination. A cyborg appears in the 1969 cyberpunk one act play Los Vendidos (“The Sellouts”), by Luis Valdez, founder of El Teatro Campesino, to embody assimilation or “selling out.” The late Chicana feminist writer, scholar, and philosopher Gloria Anzaldúa’s late 1970s short stories incorporate posthumanism and trans-speciesism to explore the intersections of sexual difference, race, and spirituality, while Oscar Zeta Ocosta’s 1972 novel The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo marshals the psychedelic and fantasy to conceive cultural identity. Moreover, playwright, poet, and journalist Gregg Barrios had his Chicanx high school students perform Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1976 in Crystal City, Texas—where the historic 1969 student walkouts to protest racist schools occurred—to think through the relationships between “the alien” and capitalism. Early speculative texts and performances dovetail with prototypical gothic works in paving the way for a plethora of Latinx sci-fi, fantasy, and other generic new mestiz@ hybrids. Representative works include, to name but a few, José Torres-Tama’s sci-fi, noir 2010 performance “Aliens, Immigrants, and other Evildoers”; the sci-fi, fantasy, horror hybrid novels of Ernesto “Mondo” Hogan, co-writers Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita, Rudy Ch. Garcia, and Alfredo Véa Jr.; the short stories of Lawrence La-Fountain Stokes; the post/apocalyptic performances of Adelina Anthony, Virginia Grise, Guillermo Gómez-PeñaAmalia Ortiz, and José Rivera

 

Performance artist José Torres-Tama and his award-winning solo piece Aliens, Immigrants, and Other Evildoers, a "sci-fi Latino Noir Multimedia solo" that humanises Latino immigrants

 

Traces of earlier speculative works also inhere in commercially successful popular cultural forms, ranging from the fantasy and sci-fi-inflected comic book series Love and Rockets by Los Bros Hernandez (Gilbert and Jamie) and Marvel’s new series America featuring a Puerto Rican lesbian super hero written by Gaby Rivera to the sci-fi-horror cinematic productions of Guillermo del Toro, or even Elicia Sanchez’s highly publicized “Trek-Mex” wedding.  Contemporary Latin@futurism and its multitudinous genealogies, in sum, attest to how this aesthetic corpus continues to thrive, multiply, and metamorphose. It is rhizomatic, cultivated–or cruelly begotten—by particular histories and ontologies, its outgrowths connecting with eclectic, hemispheric influences.         

Yet, many of these cultural texts are contingently tethered by the same Latin@ utopian anhelos or longings that sustained early Chican@ movement poetics of the 1960s, echoed in a broad spectrum of recent cultural production, ranging from queer Latin@ philosophical treatises on queer utopias to Cuban duo Gente de Zona’s (featuring Marc Anthony) song “La Gozadera” (“good time”) that imagines a global pan-Latin@ party and altermundo in which we all eat Puerto Rican arroz con habichuela and move to Afro-Caribbean beats produced the Dominican merengue bass drum in the bustling streets of Cuba. Interconnecting the diverse altermundos of Latin@futurism are aesthetic movements toward the future steered by reckonings with the past and present. Inspired by altermondialism and Chican@ feminist and queer of color theory, altermundo indexes third space visions grounded in concrete realities while gazing toward the decolonial and utopian” (Merla-Watson 2017: 242). These utopian visions are heterogeneous and dissensual, bespeaking the actual pluriversality comprising Latin@ identity and our shared alter-Native futures. c/s 

 

CITATION: Cathryn Josefina Merla-Watson, “The Altermundos of Latin@futurism,” Alluvium, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2017): n. pag. Web. 15 March 2017, https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v6.1.03

 

Dr. Cathryn J. Merla-Watson is an Assistant Professor in the Literatures and Cultural Studies Department and affiliate faculty in Women and Gender Studies as well as Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas, Río Grande Valley. Currently, Dr. Merla-Watson is completing a book examining how queer, trans-American Latinx performances enact affective politics through re-imagining the gothic and the post/apocalyptic.

 

Works Cited:

Gaspar de Alba, Alicia. Chicano Art Inside/Outside the Master’s House: Cultural Politics and the CARA Exhibition. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Merla-Watson, Cathryn J. “Transmission Possible: The Coloniality of Gender, Speculative Rasquachismo, and Altermundos in Luis Valderas’s Chican@futurist Art.” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies, 40(2) (2015): 239-57.

Merla-Watson, Cathryn J. and B. V. Olguín (eds.). “Altermundos: Reassessing the Past, Present, and Future of the Chican@ and Latin@ Speculative Arts.” In: Altermundos: Latin@ Speculative Film, Literature, and Popular Culture, pp. v-xxxv. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, forthcoming 2017.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Manickam, Samuel. “Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary Mexican Science Fiction.” Chasqui, 40(2) (2012): 95-106.

Nama, Adilifu. Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2008.

Ramírez, Catherine S. (2008) “Afrofuturism/Chicanafuturism: Fictive Kin.” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, 33(1) (2008): 185–94.

Ramírez, Catherine S. (2015) “The Time Machine, from Afrofuturism to Chicanafuturism, and Beyond.” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies, 40(2) (2015): 127-30.

Rieder, John. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Sleep Dealer. Directed by Alex Rivera, Maya Entertainment, 2008.

Streeby, Shelley. “Reading Jaime Hernandez’s Comics as Speculative Fiction.” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies, 40(2) (2015): 147-66.

Ybarra-Frausto, Tomás. “Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility.” In: Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965–1985, ed. Richard Griswold del Castillo, Teresa McKenna, and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, pp. 155-162. Los Angeles: Wight Art Gallery, University of California, 1991. 

 

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