Creating Home in Sexile

The first thing I noticed about Sexile was the cover. Not the craziest thing you’ve ever heard, right? When you pick up a book (or open a pdf file on your computer, as I did with Sexile), you generally see the cover before opening the book. What made Sexile different, however, was that I went back to the cover at two specific points while reading. In this graphic novel written and illustrated by Jaime Cortez, the cover image appears twice more at key points in the story of Adela Vazquez’s life; the copies of this image are nearly identical, differing only in a few details. 

The image appearing on the cover of Sexile and twice more throughout the story depicts a nude swimmer. On the cover, the swimmer’s body is flat-chested and a dick is not visible. The flat chest may indicate the swimmer is male, the lack of a dick may indicate otherwise. But who cares? Adela Vazquez is trans*, and this is her story. Furthermore, the “missing dick” isn’t necessarily realized by the reader…at least until the image appears again, identical in every detail except for the very obvious dick (50). The third time the swimmer appears, the dick remains but other details are different: the flat chest is replaced by breasts, the armpits are shaved, the fingernails are longer and painted, and the hair is lighter and longer (as in the novel’s other depictions of Adela) (64). 

Repetition is one of the “literary devices” you learn to look for in lit. classes pretty early on, where the object of repetition generally has some significance in the larger story. It was interesting for me seeing this repetition with images rather than words. What could it mean? What is the significance of this particular picture? Well, it’s a nude body, presumably the narrator’s, but it changes slightly with each reappearance. This raises the question: How important is body image to Adela, and how does this image shift throughout her life? As a nine-year-old, the narrator “knew that when I turned 10… my dick would fall off… my pussy would grow and finally I’d become a complete girl” (6). To Jorge’s (Adela’s) nine-year-old self, body image mattered. You simply couldn’t be a girl and have a dick, so when would hers fall off? In my mind, this connects back to the cover image of the flat-chested (read as male) dickless (read as female) swimmer: could this be a nine-year-old’s dream? 

As Adela grows up in Cuba, she seems to reconcile with the idea of having a dick. She explores the world of drag and make-up and fashion, but changing anatomy is not mentioned again until much later. She has become the second image and a male body – with a flat chest and a dick – is hers both in Cuba and, for a time, in the U.S. (50). She made this work for her, wielding the power of “sex and beauty,” and having sex with everyone – but “never gay sex. [She’s] always the girl, he’s always the man” (9). It worked, but it wasn’t everything she wanted; after emigrating from Cuba in the Mariel boatlift, she was stuck between two worlds. “Exile is a bitch, baby. You can’t completely leave home. You’re always still arriving home. Sometimes at night, you dream of your tired, lonely body swimming swimming swimming and wondering where the shore went” (50). Never quite finding home in the U.S. and never quite able to leave home behind in Cuba, she was lost at sea, keeping herself afloat in her dreams. Adela began “thinking about changing [her] gender and living as a woman;” her body image was changing, and she wanted to change with it (58).

Hormone injections reshaped her body, giving her breasts and changing her outlook on life (57,60). She had become the third image, a female body that happened to have a dick. As “an exile, a transgender and a sex worker” life was much different, often hard, and sometimes painful (62). She was still an exile without a home, swimming in search of the shore. But now, “I knew. All the in-between places are my home. This beautiful freak body is home. And every day I love it…” (64). In a new body with new daily struggles, Adela embraced her place in the betweenness of the binary systems – gender, nationality, etc. – and accepted her queer body as fitting into the queer space of between (queer because it’s undefined in a binary). Finding a self-love in queerness and adopting this space as home, the next (and final) page shows a single word “Llego” (I arrive) as two feet stand on the shore (65). 

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Identity(s) as (non)Static in Queer Latinidad

“I argue that Proyecto is involved in forging a new type of identity project based on ideas, affiliation, and alignment rather than on static categories of race, gender, culture, or sexuality” (Rodríguez 48).

Like Octaviano in his post “Queer Latinidad and Static Categories (?)”, I found myself challenging the idea found in Juana María Rodríguez’s Queer Latinidad that identity can in any way be static or fixed. As I believe Rodríguez’s argument throughout the book is that identity is fluid and constantly being redefined, and I agree with this sentiment, this raised the question for me: where is this notion of static categories coming from?

The quote above references Proyecto, short for Proyecto ContraSIDA por Vida, a community-based and -oriented project working against AIDS and for life (48). Rather than focus on death and the negative stigma attached to individuals living with HIV/AIDS, prior to its closing in 2005 Proyecto worked to create a Latin@ community “dedicated to living, to fighting the spread of the HIV disease,” and to the creation of a sex-positive environment (50). In its mission statement, Proyecto reaches out to a multiplicity of identities, aiming to embrace a diverse group of people and not shut out anyone who may be in need of the type of community Proyecto offers. Yet Proyecto is funded by the state, an entity that functions by putting people in boxes, classifying and labeling and categorizing until an individual or group is nothing but a series of checked boxes on a page. The state creates a string of labels to be (more or less) permanently attached to an individual or group; with these labels the individual is reduced to a number, constant and unchanging over time, though in reality the labels defined by the state may only have been accurate to the individual in question at the point in time at which they were created, if even then.

Can the state operate in the knowledge that identity is both dynamic and plural? That from moment to moment a person’s identity changes depending on context? I argue otherwise. The policies born of and enacted by the state are grounded in the concept of identity being static and singular for a given individual or group, and as such the state is ill-equipped to deal with the fluidity proposed by Rodríguez and lived by Proyecto and those whom it serves. If the state’s definition and understanding of identity are in sync with that of the “dominant” culture, whatever that term might encompass, then Proyecto takes this definition and reworks it, changing “identity” into a multi-faceted living thing no longer capable of being enclosed by a checked box. “Identity” becomes “identities,” incompatible with the state’s system of categories and boxes, queered to fit a reality that itself defies a single static understanding.

In allowing for and even encouraging individuals to claim a multiplicity of identities, whether the claim be simultaneous or over the course of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, Proyecto is actively queering the dominant concept of identity. This in turn allows for the creation of a community which is dynamic and constantly able to shift, expand, or change its own identity to fit the constantly-changing needs of its members.

I think this is where Rodríguez is coming from, framing Proyecto as a space in which identity is actively queered to suit the community it serves rather than a space catering only to certain of the “static categories” established by the state which funds it. Yet despite this queering embrace of identity multiplicity, Proyecto is still tied to the state and in order to receive funding must therefore participate in some level in the essentialism of its community into a few broad but not necessarily all-encompassing categories, such as LGBTQ or Latin@. These categories are highly politicized, holding different meanings for different people in different parts of the country (and they are therefore dynamic and multiplicitous in their own way), yet they are accepted by the state as legitimate identities to be found somewhere among the boxes to be checked.

Somewhere there is a balance between the queer and the norm, some connection linking the two; however tenuous that connection may be, however ambiguous the space in which that connection exists, Proyecto somehow lives within that balance, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be queer and living in the margins of society while simultaneously working from within the system.