Tropicalization Inside and Out

To tropicalize as we define it, means to trope, to imbue a particular space, geography, group, or nation with a set of traits, images, and values. These intersecting discourses are distributed among official texts, history, literature, and the media, thus circulating these ideological constructs throughout various level of the receptor society.” (8)

So there I was watching Modern Family, and I kept viewing the character of Gloria through a lens of tropicalization. I have to admit that I do not watch T.V. shows that often, but when I do I generally like to watch comedies. I was intrigued with this show because of its popularity and especially because it includes a bi-racial and many years-apart relationship. I was, and still am, intrigued by Gloria’s character and her performance of Latinidad throughout the show. I am still unsure of whether her accent is truly hers or if it is a product of the show’s producers. These questions bring up some interesting questions for me. If it is a production of the show, then I am concerned with how this tropicalization, how this quest to make the Latina a hypersexualized nena for American voyeuristic pleasure is still perpetuated in the American media. If it is Sofia Vergara’s real accent then is she conscious of how it sounds to the Anglo viewer? She has a background in modeling and other show business; she must know that she is perceived as an attractive Latina and what that means to her specific audience. Is it wrong to benefit from this tropicalization even though it means that Latin@s will be more represented in modern media? In addition, is this tropicalization seen as alright in light of other shows like Ugly Betty in which the Latina protagonist is not tropicalized at all?

I’ve been struggling with this theory of tropicalization and how it can not only seep into the threads of American culture, but also how it can be internalized by Latinos themselves. Before doing this reading I did not know that such a phenomena even had a name. I was well aware that there were tropes and characters often reserved for Latinos in U.S. society, but it was refreshing to read that there are scholars so intrigued with the phenomena that they wrote entire books on the subject.

I know that I have played into the trope of the “latin lover” several times during my life. At first I felt empowered and proud that my ethnic roots were found to be attractive to members of the opposite sex.  I mean, I grew up in a small Oregon town that was majority white, Latinos were few and far between and always considered “different.” I was happy to stick out, to have people notice me for my “difference.”  But now, the older I get and the more education I receive, the more and more I see this trope as binding, a bit exhausting and detrimental. Not all latino men are mini-Casanovas, who write poetry, womanize, and have “traditional values” and not all latinos and Latinas deserve to be hypersexualized. We deserve to be seen as more than just playthings. I deserve to be seen as a man who is not just romantic, but someone with aspirations, a young professional with goals. It is debilitating to be forced into such a rigid performance of identity and to constantly be fighting against these societal beliefs.

All of this swirling around my head leads me to questions surrounding the performance of my race in ways that I had not thought of before. Do I do things I think are “latino” because of my own thoughts and beliefs as to what latinidad is, or is it a performance molded by the surrounding Anglo culture of what being latino should be? I think back to how I learned my performance of latinidad and I think to my mother and my father who guided me in the ways that latinos in the U.S. should act and they obviously had a large influence on my development. However, I can’t help but think that they too, were not immune to some form of tropicalization. This leaves me in a precarious place, in between what I think is my own performance of latinidad and what could be a performance that has been imposed upon me from the outside.

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Queering Latinidad and the Barriers of Repression

“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. It need not subsume the particularities of these other definitions of identity; instead it creates an opportunity to call into question the systems of categorization that have served to define sexuality,” (Rodriguez 24).

I guess what I have been mulling over for quite some time is the definition of queer as discussed by Juana Maria Rodriguez. I can’t help but keeping thinking about the many barriers to “queerness” that are present within the Latino community. Growing up, my father would say “I would almost prefer you to be gay than ever to (insert very detestable thing here). Note the emphasis on the almost. It makes me wonder if it is harder to perform queerness and be Latino? I think there is something extra difficult in queering latino speech, clothing and culture. There are impressive barriers to repression that not only make it harder for men and women to perform what are outside of the established gender norms, sometimes it is outright dangerous. Now I don’t want to generalize an entire group of people. My classmates and I have seen how Latinidad is not a static thing and it means different things to different people in regions all across the U.S. as well as Latin America. However, that being said I think that there are enough factors common among the Latino experience that I can identify repressive barriers to performing queerness within Latino culture.

The largest and most impressive barrier of repression that is present in the life of many Latinos is the Catholic Church. Although religiosity tends to become less important the more generations a family spends in the US, for recent immigrants there are few institutions more important or that wield more influence than the Church. This leads to a precarious play of power that makes it more difficult for queerness to be accepted within the Latino community. The Catholic Church is an impressive machine when it comes to talking about issues of sexuality and has not budged on the importance of the nuclear family and the “natural order” that they believe exists in heterosexual sex. The Church puts barriers, (physical and metaphorical) that push conversations about queer performance and sexuality into the shadows. By relegating certain sexual acts and performances of gender as sins that go against the natural order of the world, the church has been able to regulate and in essence even silence certain kinds of dialogue from even taking place. In addition, by including a sacrament of confession that makes its necessary to confess your sins, this can lead to feelings of guilt. With this repressive machine that stamps out sexual acts outside of what it defines as normal wielding so much influence among Latinos, how does this affect the performance of queer Latinos in the U.S.? Is it more subtle, is it more radical due to the pressures that it must work against?

Closely tied to the Catholic Church and their definitions of what kinds of sex is alright and not alright to engage in, there are also the culturally defined performances of gender that are more broken down in the U.S. but still have a rigid hold on many Latin American communities. But, what most interested me from Queer Latinidad is the fact that not only did these performances of gender exist in the in the real world, but they also existed online in the lesbian chat-rooms. Rodriguez writes that “Aside from homophobic anxiety, it also seemed that seducing una mujer decente, or at least one who performed “hard to get,” posed more of a challenge and was therefore  more desirable, mirroring the values in the outside world.,” ( Rodriguez 139).  Isn’t this an interesting phenomena? I would think that the cultural rules online wouldn’t matter as much, but I guess even though the physical body isn’t being used in a sex act, the mind still is. And in that mind there are still the cultural and societal expectations of how to perform one’s gender. Rodriguez continues to elaborate by saying, “In #espanol, female gender had to conform to a regulated heteronormative performance: Latinas aren’t supposed to advertise for sex, even when they want it,” (Rodriguez 139). A queer Latina can’t even escape the heternormative constructions on the internet in an anonymous chat room?! What does this say about trying to break down these institutions in the physical real world?

I think it is safe to say that queering latinidad is a difficult thing to do. The person who identifies as Latino must work against deep religious and cultural norms that are entrenched within the Latino experience. Queering anything, clothing, gender performance, or sexuality is in and of itself and countercultural act; it is going against the norm, taking what is expected and turning that expectation upside down. However, I argue that queering latinidad is particularly difficult because of the institutions, cultural and religious, that are constantly working to “restore order.”