The right to have a gringorican monkey-baby in Loisaida

I found this picture on the Wikipedia page for Loisaida (the lower east side of Manhattan), the setting of The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle by Edgardo Vega Yunqué. The caption reads: “The author of this photo is me, David Shankbone. Taken 5 August 2006. Signs of gentrification, such as trendy bars juxtaposed against the more traditional denizens of Loisaida such as the homeless, dot the landscape of Avenue C.

I was really impressed the way that many different genres of writing are incorporated in this totally off-the-wall novel. For example, we learn more about the setting of the story by reading about Flaquita’s own reading of a sociological monograph that describes how the Lower East Side became so segregated through racist urban planning that forced Puerto Ricans into public housing projects – a process that is changing as wealthier folks move into the neighborhood and make it too expensive for anyone else to live there (as shown in the above photo).

In that interdisciplinary spirit, I was inspired to bring even more social scientific knowledge into conversation with this story. The other book I’ve been reading over break is called Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement by Jennifer Nelson. This book chronicles the ways that the mainstream (white) feminist movement was pushed to shift its focus from legalizing abortion to a much wider range of concerns that were brought up by feminists of color and their ties with Black and Puerto Rican Nationalist politics in the 70’s and 80’s. Specifically, women of color were not only struggling for the right to abortion, but also the right to have healthy children of their own – a concern that middle-class white feminists rarely had to deal with, for “while women of color and poor women lacked access to abortion and contraception, they also encountered reproductive abuses such as forced or coerced sterilization” (4).

Nelson also discusses how in the 1990’s poor women and women of color more generally were disproportionately targeted for prosecution for being pregnant while addicted to drugs. State authorities would (and continue to) take children away from poor drug-addicted women and incarcerate poor pregnant women for “delivery of illegal substances to minors” (183). The expressed purpose of this crackdown was to protect the fetus and children, but Nelson points out that this is clearly a lie: “when the state opts for incarceration of pregnant women over the provision of prenatal care and drug treatment, it is difficult to understand how authorities can claim to be protecting the fetus” (183).

Issues of power and control regarding pregnancy and child-rearing are prominent in Omaha Bigelow, as the story revolves around Maruquita Salsipuedes and her desire to have a “gringorican baby” with the title character. Particularly interesting and confusing is the scene directly after she gives birth to her baby. Because Maruquita had been using her brujería (witchcraft) to change herself into different animals during her pregnancy, the baby she gives birth takes the form of a little monkey. This startling fact is not so concerning to Maruquita (why should it be?) and when the doctor tries to take the baby away, Maruquita resists because they have already told her that that baby is perfectly healthy. She demands to know why they want to take her baby away and the doctor responds:

“We simply want to conduct further tests. Although you’ve tested negative for the HIV virus, it’s possible that the birth of this child involves some sort of cross-species contamination, and we want to make sure that both mother and offspring are not affected adversely” (309).

What is going on here? Why, out of nowhere, does the doctor imply that having a monkey-baby would even have anything to do with HIV transmission? Is it a reference to the fact that HIV is thought to have jumped from other primates to humans? I guess that would make sense because of the doctor’s concern with “cross-species contamination.” He seems to be accusing her of reproducing with a monkey, and this is unacceptable from a medical standpoint (not a sexual consent standpoint, which is a whole different issue) even though it appears to pose no threat to the baby’s health. The doctor tells her that “you’re really in no position to go against the medical profession and its responsibilities to the common good (309). The true nature of the clinic is revealed right here, then: the doctor isn’t there to help you or your baby, but rather to protect humanity from what appears to be the ultimate of all reproductive transgressions, the “cross-contamination” of the human race, and not unlike other poor women of color described by Nelson, she is punished by having her baby taken away for the defense of society.

Maybe this representation of Maruquita having a monkey baby can queer our notions of normal reproduction and can intervene in the speciesism that is rampant in the medical-industrial complex. Don’t monkeys share 98% of human genes anyway?

(why does wordpress/mozilla say that “Puerto Rican” isn’t a word??!?)

One last thing on the topic of reproductive rights! check out this Wesleyan student-produced video!

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4 thoughts on “The right to have a gringorican monkey-baby in Loisaida

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. Let me first start by saying that i really liked the issues that you address and how history connected tohe Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle by Edgardo Vega Yunqué. In my FGSS class last semester we did a unit on force sterilization in America but also in third world countries by First world Countries. One of the cases we looked at was how American doctors introduced a form of Planned Parenthoods in India because “women were having to man babies and there was not a lot of resources.” It was believed that overpopulation was the poor people’s fault and it had to be stops. The government would offer poor women money to go to clinics and sterilized themselves. When a women refused, the government went after her husband and tried to convince him to take her. Indian girls as young as 15 were secretly being sterilized through pills or because the family was given monetary rewards. The video we watched in class was one of the most graphic and saddening things i’ve seen for class at Wesleyan. Nonetheless, tying it back to your post, I liked how in both cases you used, that or Marquita and Nelson, you tried to explore what implications are made because the women in focus are women of color and what that implies in terms of race, education, women’s rights, and reproductions.

    ps. This video was soaring crazy through facebook!

  2. I loved this post as it brought so many important dialogues into play, the gentrification of the Lower East Side, Planned Parenthood, and the ways in which the state controls Woman’s bodies for their own causes. I was struck by all of them, but am currently in my life personally dealing with the gentrification of the Lower East Side.
    The Lower East Side holds a place in my heart. My girlfrends’s grandmother, Nana, lived there all her life and I lived there for a year with her until unfortunately Nana passed away. Unfortunately, as it goes, the apartment was immediately seized. It was under rent control and it was hysterically ridiculous how much the prices increased after it was put up to its “real” price. So since no one could pay we had to take all the stuff out and a new resident, whom we never met moved in.
    This is the way that NYC loses its history. In most neighborhoods property and houses get passed down from generation to generation. But, in the Lower East Side this has not been the case. For as Yunque so eloquently points out, people like Robert Moses and Robert F. Wagner made it their mission to gentrify and segregate making sure that the lower class was pushed out and the upper class replaced them. Thus, unless families had lots of cash, which the majority of residents in the Lower East side did not, the neighborhood would have no resemblance to the place it was in the previous generation. Thus, if in the case of the Lower East Side/Losaida there was a tremendous artistic, politically revolutionary, and inspiring atmosphere in the next generation there would not be a continued spirit of this sort. This is the sort of thing you see now as you walk the bourgeois streets of the Lower East Side, as all the families disperse, traces of a history and a tradition have been lost for capital interests. The battle is still being fought though as residents still remain whose family have been living in the neighborhood for generations.
    The book Selling the Lower East Side by Christopher Meles that Yunque brought up is a wonderful analysis of the situation, and they made a companion website which has some amazing photographs and interesting historical accounts of the transformations this area has been witness to.
    http://www.upress.umn.edu/sles/default.html
    And for an organization still fighting the battle
    http://www.universitysettlement.org/what/project-home.html

  3. This idea of cross-contamination of the human race also seems to pop up in other parts of the novel. At the very end, Omaha is banished to the Losaida jungle, and as a monkey he can only mate with fellow monkeys. In order to please Maruquita sexually he has to be morphed into a human––in both cases species do not mix. This idea of contamination and barriers between species seems to bleed over into the idea of race in the novel. Ultimately the narrator weds Omaha and Winnifred, superseding Omaha’s relationship with Maruquita. It is interesting that the racially pure white baby of Omaha and Winnifred is “perfect and blond… [with] blue eyes” (307), while Omaha and Maruquita’s racially hybrid baby is a monkey-human, seemingly ugly and perverse. What does this symbolize and suggest? Is racial mixing as manifested through the relationship of a white American with a Puerto Rican supposed to represent the transgression of social norms and contamination? By looking at how the children from the two different relationships are characterized, it is difficult to see what Vega is ultimately proposing. While Maruquita’s daughter “queers notions of normal reproduction,” she seems to be spirited, liberated, and fiercely independent, while Winnifred’s son, who fits within societal expectations, is set up for a life devoid of agency and with complete dependence on the financial support of the Buckley family.

  4. I thought your post was really great. I really think it is interesting to look at women of color and reproduction rights. I have heard about the forced sterilizations before, and I haven’t learned about them as much as I should so I really appreciate that you put the topic out there 
    Additionally, I really liked May Lee’s point. I just really saw the whole comparison between Maruquita and Winifred’s babies as an emphasis on one of the recurring comparisons of the novel, being the “ghetto,” uneducated-ness of Maruquita who is Puerto Rican and then the “refined”, educated, rich background of Winifred who is white. The babies just seem to enforce this issue. Winifred has the “perfect” baby and Maruquita has the baby who is a monkey-hybrid, even though Maruquita has no problem with her baby.
    I was actually really interested in seeing what other people might think about this but one question I had was why the baby was born a monkey vs. the peacock? These seem to be the two animals that Maruquita usually turns into and it seems to be pretty evenly distributed in the amount of times she transformed into these animals. The peacock seems to be even more of a symbol of Maruquita to me personally because when Winifred is supposedly seeing Maruquita in her house all the time during her depression, she sees a peacock. I was just wondering why Yunque chose the monkey. Perhaps it is because that was the last animal she changed into before having her baby? That seems too simple though, at least to me.

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