About Julissa Peña

"but bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma i havent conquered yet"

Transnationalism and Identity

Large numbers of Latin@ migrants remain heavily involved within their communities back in their native countries while adjusting and living in a brand new community within the United States. For these migrants and their offspring, this creates a two-pronged identity, with one foot entrenched in their communities here in the United States and another entrenched within their communities in their nations of origin. This going back and forth between a first home and second home thus facilitated the development of an identity for their participants that is many times confused and broken. Maruquita exemplify this rupture in identity.  The fluidity present between the United States and Puerto Rico develops a unique and equally as fluid identity for her. The creation of this fluidity thus questions the notions of representation that Vega Yunqué is using within his work. Furthermore, one of the main goals of Vega Yunqué is to contest stagnant notions of representations for Latin@s by creating fluid identities for his characters. The creation of this unbalance is then crucial to the narrative, and I would argue, necessary to the overall project of Vega Yunqué. Without it, his work runs the risk of essentializing the Latin@ experience. Through the intricate development of Maruquita, Vega Yunqué sets the stage for an overall reconceptualization of what the Latin@ body and experience within the United States consists of.

Vega Yunqué’s narrative tells the story of Maruquita Salsipuedes, Omaha Bigelow and their tumultuous relationship. Vega Yunqué’s way of constructing the Latin@ body is like none presented before within the Latin@ literature canon; his self-interjection into the narrative on a regular basis coupled with the ways in which he developed and created his characters on stereotypical biases which he then sought to deconstruct led to the evolution of one intense, entertaining and intellectually driven piece of literature.

The development of the character of Maruquita Salsipuedes is a complicated one to track because of the ways in which Vega Yunqué developed his novel. In the beginning, Maruquita is presented as a stereotypical “Puerto Rican home-girl:” ghetto and unintelligent, thus relegating her to a position where social mobility seems impossible. Constantly compared to her “foil,” her brother, Samuel Beckett, Vega Yunqué places Maruquita in a position where she seems stagnant and never changing. However, Maruquita’s constant and consistent “trips” to the Island make it so that her character is developing in ways that are unbeknown to the reader. By the time that Vega unveils the Maruquita that her grandmother, Bizquita, claimed she knew existed at the beginning of the novel, Maruquita has arrived at the crossroads of her American and Puerto Rican identities. Vega depicts this moment in the following quote:

It was as if, through the combination of eating from the Golden Mango of Wisdom and swimming in the ocean waters of Luquillo Beach, the thick veil of innocence, which had hidden knowledge from her, had been washed away. She smiled and saw the bound volumes of the Great Books in her mother’s living-room bookcase, stacked neatly in her mind, and knew that she could recall anything from them: Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Shakespeare, Dante and every humanist volume and literary book ever published. She saw great big chunks of Ortega and Gasset, Thomas Veblen, and James Joyce. More importantly, she knew that she could see the interrelation between the subjects contained there-in and the theorectical and speculative inquires they would produce in her mind. She smiled, got dressed, and walked along the beach until she was back at her apartment. The first thing she did was to cut her hair short. She then removed her hoop earrings, and for the first time in nearly two years, she got her eyeglasses from a box in the closet and put them on. She looked at herself in the mirror, and she looked like a J-Lo nerd.

She shrugged her shoulders and smiled with satisfaction (pg 314)

It is in this moment that she eats from the mango and her consciousness is awoken. This awakening is made possible by her unconscious journey to finding her identity and herself. The fluidity between the stagnant Loisaida Jungle (which is also the Island) and Loisaida itself makes it difficult for Maruquita to establish where she belongs within the discourse of Puerto Rican transnationalism.

Vega Yunqué positions stereotypical depictions of “the Island” as a way to then deconstruct notions of backwardness and stagnancy. Maruquita does not awaken and thus is unaware of her identity until the moment in which she sucks on the mango and as a result, gains consciousness of her person as a Puerto Rican body, as a Latin@ body and as a transnational body.

It is vital to understand what Vega Yunqué is doing with his work: he is redefining the Latin@ body so that it is not constrained to one definition but has access to a multiplicity of definitions. By doing this, Vega Yunqué combats schools of essentialization that have hindered understandings of latinidad. Through Maruquita, we see an immense amount of agency and power in the Latin@ body to reshape, recontextualize and redefine the ways in which they are represented. It is also through this paradigm that Latin@ authors are contesting notions of representation within the Latin@ community. Transnationalism is but one thing that falls into the list of issues that represents the Latin@ experience in the United States; however, it is through Latin@s fighting for the right to self-identify that new strategies and types of representation are developing and evolving. Ultimately, the goal of Vega Yunqué is to prove that the Latin@ body and culture are not stagnant concepts; rather, these concepts are always changing, morphing and expanding in new ways.


“Latinidad” and the Defining and Contestation Thereof

Identity is more than a list of categories that name our sexuality, gender, HIV status, nation, age, ethnicity, ability, class, language, citizenship status, and religion. Even if we expand the list to include all the other significant features of ourselves, what do these attributes actually explain about our lives? What aspects of identity exceed the categories we have created to define our places in the world? How do memories of desire and violence mark us in ways that are similar and different from the ways we have been marked by color and gender? How do street corners and kitchen tables, friends and lovers, lullabies and taunts, private violations and public betrayals leave traces on our lives? How do the many moments of our daily existence determine how we view ourselves and the world around us? – Juana María Rodríguez, Queer Latinidad: Identity Practices, Discursive Spaces

Even before reading Rodríguez’s part on Afro-Latin@s in this chapter, this paragraph hit straight home for me. Rodríguez urges us, the reader, to critically think and analyze things, ideas, concepts, in ways that we may or may not have considered before. She really expects a whole lot from her reader, which is refreshing because I certainly do not just want to be talked to. Identity is constructed, deconstructed, reconstructed, recycled and upcyclyed; I’m just glad that I am reading someone who not only realizes, but understands that this is the case.

Identity is a very tricky subject to talk about. What counts as a part of your identity? For me, dominicana, nuyoquina, Afro-Latina, woman, U.S. American (because saying that the nationality of a U.S. born citizen is American makes no historical sense. Before the United States hijacked the term “american,” it meant a citizen of the Americas, aka the New World. In fact, Simon Bolivar (aka the George Washington of Latin America – dude was responsible for the independence of 5 Latin American countries in the 1820’s – Venezuela, Columbia, Bolivía, Peru, Ecuador) in many of his documents, including his famous Letter from Jamaica, speaks of the unification of Americans, and he was not referring to the unification of U.S. Americans, rather to the Americans that formed a part of the Americas. Unfortunately, there is no word in the English language for a person from the United States except for American. Some people like to use the word USer (person from the US; also, user =D. Rodríguez would love this). However, in Spanish, there is such a word, estadounidense. Yes, a mini rant, but I would argue, useful food for thought.) are all things that pop into my head. These things are not separate entities, but different aspects of my being that work together and complicate and restructure each other everyday. I am Latina, but I am also a black woman, who was born to Dominican parents in the Bronx who is now at an elite private liberal arts institution. These are all parts of me, all aspects of me that I must learn to navigate and understand in order to understand my identity.

Rodríguez’s section of Afro-Latinidad emphasized something crucial: “‘Queer’ is not simply an umbrella term that encompasses lesbians, bisexuals, gay men, two-spirited people and transsexuals; it is a challenge to constructions of heteronormativity.” (24) By defining queerness and queer identity in such a way, I find another name for what I am in the mainstream Latin@ canon: queer. I am the missing, the silenced, the ignored and rejected, and that’s fine. I don’t need to be fully accepted or understood, I don’t even need to be liked, I just need to be respected. I just need it to be known that I am, and that’s it, the end. And while Rodríguez advocates for her reader to think outside of theories and paradigms, she acknowledges that even her own work is being hindered by theories and paradigms. She too is queer, not only within the mainstream Latin@ culture which she problematizes, but also within academia.

Academia works to be Rodríguez’s biggest silencer; while she yearns for freedom to do and say as she pleases, she knows she cannot and that there is a limit. The realization of such a thing makes the cage that surrounds her more visible and apparent to the reader. However, Rodríguez, like many other bodies, exercises agency within her entrapment and, in her case, produces radical and revolutionary academic work. The production of her work = queerness. My interpretation of her work = queerness. In fact, within Divas, Atrevidas y Entretenidas, Rodríguez makes all the more apparent that anything against the Self is queer. The Latin@ is queer next to Anglo-American, the latina is queer next to the latino, homosexuality is queer next to heterosexuality, etc. This is the most important thing to take with you from Rodríguez. Her examples of activism, law and cyberspace are vehicles through which she could further her initial, most basic and most necessary conclusion: queerness does not only address gay/lesbian/trans/anything not straight bodies, but also all of the silenced bodies that do not form a part of the dominant culture. When you think about it this way, a large majority of us are queer. Who would have known?