About Benji Hart

Benji Hart is an author, artist, and educator living in Chicago. Their writing has been featured at Teen Vogue, The Chicago Reader, Socialist Worker and others. See more of their work at BenjiHart.com

Criminal Queers, Camp and Rasquache: Reimagined Aesthetics for a Reimagined Social Order

In December of 1997, Luis Alfaro’s play Los Vecinos: A Play for Neighbors went up in a Chicano community center in Los Angeles. The piece was staged as a means of bridging the gap between the usual theatergoing audience and the communities upon which so much of Latina theater and performance art are focused. Relying on the resources of the community rather than imposing their own, the directors collaborated with many nonprofessional actors from the Boyle Heights neighborhood in which the play was being staged, and made use of the limited lighting and production tools of the nontraditional space of the community center. When a writer from the Los Angeles Times reviewed the play, she wrote disparagingly that it had “actually looked like a community production.” Its untrained actors, raw staging and brazen themes were read by her as a lack of the polish and canonical markers she expected from a “professional” production. When, however, the production is imagined not as trying to work itself into the cannon of traditional theater but rather as crafting itself within whole other lineages of performance—such as those of camp, DIY, pasterola and punk—we may come to understand that the production was not falling short of professionalism, but, rather, actively challenging the very means through which we evaluate art and understand its duties.

On March 31st, 2011, Chris Vargas and Eric Stanley visited our campus to screen their current project Criminal Queers, a film which follows a group of friends as they organize off the grid to break their comrade—who has been incarcerated for terrorizing homonormative structures of power—out of prison. In the director’s words, the film “visualizes a radical trans/queer struggle against the prison industrial complex and towards a world without walls.” Save a cameo by Angela Davis, all the actors in the film are nonprofessionals, friends and acquaintances of the directors. All cameras and sound equipment are borrowed, as are the sets in which the scenes take place (the directors relied on spaces known to them, and filmed by force in areas in which they were prohibited). The uneven sound quality, washed-out lighting, exaggerated makeup and shoddy costumes could easily be dismissed as a lack of professionalism, resulting in a poorly made or unpolished product. A more nuanced and radical approach, however, might understand this film as functioning within a DIY/punk/camp framework, in which the very elements of production which are failures in the eyes of the cannon come to be seen as a subversion of the cannon itself, a means through which whole other structures of cultural production and their respective sets of values come to be honored. From the film’s description: “Criminal Queers grows our collective liberation by working to abolish the multiple ways in which our hearts, genders, and desires are confined.” The breaking out of traditional film rules—which is, in fact, a form of failure—is simultaneously a breaking out of the oppressive structures from which that tradition was born, reinventing film as an entirely new tool, useful for a new form of radical cultural production.

DIY, like camp and like rasquache, can result in a powerful and original aesthetic, but is not at its root solely aesthetic. It is a way of existing, a means of surviving the structures which want you dead, and of fashioning voice outside of the systems which silence you. Like the examples of Los Vecinos and Criminal Queers, it incorporates and honors the community, rather than essentializing and degrading it through distanced portrayals. And like the pasterolas which precede it, it subverts the genre within which it functions rather than appeasing its conservative lineage. The results of these forms of cultural production are not merely aesthetic, but are a reminder of resistance, a means of expressing and of being which empowers existence outside of dominating structures. It teaches us that life off the grid of the cannon is totally feasible, and there is no shame in putting on a “community production.”


Thoughts on Strategic Essentialism

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?