The first chapter of Juana Maria Rodriguez’ Queer Latinidad, “Divas, Atrevidas y Entendidas,” provided me with some useful vocabulary, and raised some important questions about the formation and categorization of marginalized identities in relation to the structures of power which themselves create those very identities. One term she introduces, strategic essentialism, refers to the tactical imagining and expression of a unified and monolithic group identity in service of specific political agendas. Once example which she gives is the “myth of harmonious Mexican nationalism,” a discourse which renders invisible the complex ethnic, cultural and political histories of la patria, but which also serves “as a form of resistance to dominant Anglo-American culture”: “The imposed necessity for “strategic essentialism”…serves as a double-edged sword, cutting at hegemonic culture as it reinscribes nation/gender/race myths on both sides of the border (11).” The essentialism which she describes organizes itself for the purpose of challenging orders of domination and oppression, yet in so doing represses and erases the complexities of its own constituency, committing a similar form of violent dominance. Is it possible to achieve a group identity which does not sacrifice its complexity for the sake of solidarity? Are the categories created by power (i.e. nationality, gender, sexual orientation) inherently repressive, or can they serve as rallying points to challenge the very power which created them?
These questions become further complicated by the book’s second chapter, “Activism and Identity in the Ruins of Representation,” in which the author describes the revolutionary workings of Proyecto, a community-based health and education center in San Francisco. Even as she outlines the collective’s radical platform, she also acknowledges the financial and political complications it encounters as a state-funded organization. In order to procure the monies and resources necessary for its programming—which are allocated by the state based on the specific missions of each funded organization—Proyecto must necessarily compete with other Latin@-defined organizations for state support. Rodriguez notes poignantly: “…the strategically essentialized identity categories asserted in opposition to the state have now become a centralized feature of the workings of the state (81).” Power, as the example illustrates, is adept at absorbing activist efforts into the tools of its own promotion and maintenance. Is the bind in which Proyecto finds itself proof that the categories created by power can never truly serve to dismantle its authority?
Rodriguez cites the words of scholars and activists who have fought notions of troubling such categories as race, nationality and gender, arguing that such postmodern efforts efface collectivism, community visibility and organized political action. Why, these figures ask, are the categories with which we seek to name and bolster ourselves under attack? Yet, Rodriguez argues, the true act of naming one’s self “…can take place only outside the tyranny of binary categories (45).” For her, the defining of the self through the polarizing effect of the other is an important root cause of repressive essentialism. Do the imaginings of gender, sexuality and nationality outside of a binary model aid in the fostering of more a nuanced and revolutionary type of solidarity?