Gonzalez and Identity Performance

Since not everybody got to read all the poems in The Wind Shifts, I thought I would take this blog as an opportunity to share a set of poem that I found really beautiful. My poet was Kevin A. Gonzalez. To give a brief biography, Gonzalez was born in San Juan, attended his undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, and got his MFA from the University of Wisconsin. He now is a professor at Trinity.

I found the way in which Gonzalez performed his narrative to be extremely unique because he rarely invokes the “I” pronoun. In the poem ‘Cultural Stakes; or How to Learn English as a Second Language,” “Cultural Stud” and “Cultural Silence; or How to Survive in the last  American Colony” he speaks almost entirely in the second person, telling the reader that these things are happening to them, putting himself in a voyeuristic role as opposed to a performing role. At first, when I read this style, I was stricken by the immediacy that this form of narrative takes. These are not vague memories that have happened sometime in the distant past, but are happening—right here, right now, over and over again every time the poem is read. In our discussions in this class, we have been very hesitant to use terms of universality. I don’t think that by using the second person, Gonzalez tries to impose a universal experience of what it means to be Puerto Rican, especially because some of the examples he uses are so specific (the waitress’s names, what beer his father ordered, ect.) that they have to be in relation to a single experience. But by using the second person, he is able to tell his narrative in the present—moving it from the realms of distant memory to something far more tangible. I think it is an effective strategy.

Especially interesting to me about the poet, and why I chose to write a blog post on him, was the way in which he performed and shaped his masculinity in the poetry collection. The first time I read through the collection, to be honest, I did not really enjoy them. The version of masculinity they promoted—this clichéd bravado of boxing and beer and strippers—seemed inauthentic to me. However, reading deeper into the poems, it became clear that these events, and the poets participating in these events, was just that—a performance. A major theme through all the poems was the poet’s relationship with his father, and it was through these typically masculine things that the poet tried to connect wth and relate to his father. It’s not to say that the poet didn’t enjoy these activities, but that his motives for being a participant were far more complicated than I had initially gleamed.  In understanding this version of performance as just that, the narrator’s inauthenticity becomes uniquely sincere (if that paradox makes any sense).

In the poem I’ve chosen to post, we see similar theme of masculinity in sport and another interesting way in which Gonzalez choses to perform his identity:


To Roberto Clemente

Like you, Roberto, I went from the town

of giants to the city of steel, where smoke

arcs over antennae & signals drown

in the Ohio, where the same broken

carburetors sleep still in cribs of mud

at the bottom. The people, still in love

with your arm, your bat-speed & speed, your broad

range at Forbes Field, your eternal gold glove.

Do you miss the bridges, their fortified shadows,

the three rivers exhaling their vapor?

There is something to be said for this: how

every morning I open the paper

to the weather forecast page & scan for

Pittsburgh, though we don’t live there anymore.

This was one of the few poems of Gonzalez’s that actually contains the first person, but still it seems to be spoken to and by someone else. It is not a narrative the predicates and revolves around the “I”, but one that is aware of itself in interpellation with its audience. He apostrophizes to both a baseball legend and the fans that loved him, seemingly aware of how the audience is shaping his identity in the poem.

In an interview, Gonzalez said of Clemente “he doesn’t only appeal to me as a sports fan, he appeals to me as a human being, as a model. Not only was he one of the best baseball players that ever lived, he always remained very modest, and was a great humanitarian…I’m from Carolina, the same municipality as Clemente. Then, I went to college in Pittsburgh, which is where he played his entire career. It was incredible to see how much the people of Pittsburgh revere Clemente, even to this day, just like I did growing up in Puerto Rico.”

Roberto Clemente seems to act as a bridge between Gonzalez’s Puerto Rican identity and his identity in Pittsburg. This brought me to another interesting theme: the way in which location affects identity and the performance of identity. A reoccurring image in the poetry collection was that of rusting buildings, cold and dirty rivers and dark cityscapes. Gonzalez  uses these images to contrast to his childhood home. In his poems, he seems to identify closely with both cultures, deriving his identity from both locations. While I would not say that he view his identity as fixed by any means, he does not seem to be using a strategy of compartmentalization by location, but rather has relied on hybridity in order to shape his own understanding of the “I.”

A quote from Gonzalez in an interview addressing his notions of his own ethnic identity is this:

“In general, I’m not sure why the ethnicity or background needs to be connected with the fact that you’re a poet or a writer. If I were an accountant, would I be a Latino accountant? Would the two things go together? Or would I be a Latino and an accountant? I’m not sure what makes literature and art so different from everything else. I don’t think “categories” or “labels” should be used as scapegoats to justify the work: as literature, it should stand alone….This year I had a couple of stories in anthologies that use the “American” category in their title, like Best New American Voices and Best American Nonrequired Reading. So I guess that makes me American. The truth is, I’m a writer, and I just want to get my work out there. I don’t write for a specific audience, but if the fact that I’m from Puerto Rico makes certain people want to pay attention to my work, so be it. Momotombo Press, for instance, would not have published my chapbook had they not considered me to be “Latino.” Do I personally consider myself to be Latino? I’m from Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is part of Latin America. So, I guess so. But I don’t usually (or, ever) refer to myself as Latino. If someone asks me what my background is, I say I’m Puerto Rican. It seems to me that for someone to either resist or desire a specific label, they would have to feel as if something about them (be it their background, race or ethnicity) is being either overlooked or threatened. And I don’t feel either of those things. No one can ever make me doubt my patriotism, or what I feel towards Puerto Rico. It’s something that lies so deep within that no one can ever threaten it or make me question it.

 I found this perspective to be very interesting, so a few questions I leave you on: Why is identity different for artists than it is for different professions? How is identity used as a strategy (as described by Gonzalez)? And how is ethnic identity given to someone? Can it be taken away? 

Queer Identity and Litmus Tests

“The term ‘sexual orientation itself encompasses several aspects of human identity: 1) sexual conduct with partners of a particular gender; 2) enduring psychological attraction to partners of a particular gender; and 3) private identity based on sexual orientation (thinking of one’s self as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or heterosexual.) In addition, one may claim or be assigned a public identity based on sexual orientation and identity with a community based on sexual orientation”- Queer Latinidad by Juana Maria Rodriguez, pg. 90

Before I begin talking about the news item I encountered this week, I wanted to offer up this quote to you all from “The Subject on Trial”. It was a real point of clarity in the text for me about how to understand sexual orientation as identity. Identity, in the way that I have been increasingly coming understand it, is both public and private. It is something that an individual creates, but at the same time is simultaneously inscribed upon them. Often, identity is used to create a community. At the same time, identity is almost entirely individual because no two people experience a communal identity in the same way. Identity (both individual and communal identities) is fluid. It constantly changes based on time, language, class, location, religion ect.

“The Subject on Trial” made clear that based on its fluid nature, it is nearly impossible to understand law on the basis of identity (in the case of the trial they present, the identity being that of an immigrant fearing persecution based on his sexual identity). Legislation does not lend itself to the fluidity of identity, and therefore laws require one to prove or disprove an identity are far more complex that the static state of the law allows.

This is kind of an extreme example I found in while perusing the internet this week. (Links to the story are provided at the end of the post).
In the summer of 2011, Father Andrés García Torres was relieved of his positions at the in the parish of Our Lady of Fatima Fuenlabrada because of rumors that he was in a homosexual relationships with his 28 year old Cuban seminarian student. The only evidence of these relations was this photo:

After the allegations came out, he was asked to leave the Parish by the Bishop of the Diocese of Getafe. He was told that he could return to his position if he would undergo a “psychological cure” and take an HIV test.

As you can imagine, there are lot of ways that my reading of this story have changed based on my changing understanding of identity. What does it say about masculine identities that a mere picture of two shirtless men embracing automatically has people jumping to accuse them of having a sexual relationship? Does their race and age play into this projected identity—as the sexual object is younger, darker-skinned, and Cuban and the accusers older, lighter-skinned, and Spanish? Also, the fact that Torres is asked to undergo an HIV test, when a priest suspected of (or even caught in) a heterosexual relationship would not be submitted to such a thing? Also, how does the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church play into this power relation and how does that change identity?

This thing I would most like to respond to is not the accusation, but on Father Torres response. He publicly said to the Bishops on his firing “Let them measure my anus and see if it is dilated.”

Which brings me back to “The Subject on Trial.”

I’m pretty sure that Father Torres worlds were said glibly, out of anger against the identity that was being projected onto him that had cost him his job—but that also have an implication: that there is a single way to enact a gay identity (specifically that in order for the homosexual identity to be performed there needs to be an act of penetration).

There is no litmus test for sexual identity (or any identity). While the act of sex (as well as the act of desire) certainly plays a role, the actions themselves do not the identities make. While identity is interactive (both projected and prescribed) it is not based on the number of partners that a person has had or who those partners were. It does not even need to involve a partner—voyeurism, exhibitionism, and even the voluntary abstention from sex are all legitimate expressions of sexual identities. And even if two people share the same sexual identity, it is almost certain that they will not perform this identity in the same way (honestly, thinking about it…it would be kind of creepy if we did.)

So, as Father Torres rather indelicately put it, measuring his anus would not be proof that he was not a homosexual. However, I think the greater point should be that it’s not constructive to view sexuality itself as a binary of two identities. There is no way to definitively test someone’s identity, as identity is constantly changing (both for the individual and the world around them).

How this case plays into the greater conversation of religion, sexual identity, race intersecting in the creation of identity is something I would be really curious to continue exploring and hear your insights on.

Here are some links to the story if you’d like to take a look: