Caribbean Literature, Visual Art, and Performance as Resistance

Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, Escenas transcaribeñas: Ensayos sobre teatro, performance y cultura (San Juan: Editorial Isla Negra, 2018); 292 pages; ISBN 978-9945608052 (paperback)

• October 2019

Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes opens his collection of essays with the manifesto “Maricones de Río Piedras, uníos!” (“Faggots of Río Piedras, Unite!”), delivered during the 2011 student protest at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras. That Escenas transcaribeñas begins with a protest manifesto says something about the nature of the collection—specifically that theater, performance, and art all form part of a larger body of work that pushes against societal boundaries and restrictions, especially given that a manifesto is included in a collection of essays on performance. In some sense, La Fountain-Stokes’s collection performs this argument. The collection of theater reviews, newspaper articles, blog entries, and other works defies easy categorization. Moreover, since the essays that are collected here are shorter than usual “academic”-style writing, they often invoke a mobile feeling, an incompleteness. Such an incompleteness, though, does not make the works unsuccessful, but rather makes the works an opening. They are not meant to be the definitive collection of essays on Puerto Rican art; instead, they point to other possibilities and other embodiments.

The essays are divided into four parts: “Rearticulating (and Abandoning) Masculinities”; “Theatre and Performance”; “Literary and Visual Scenes”; and lastly “The Open Wound.” The first two parts take up the majority of the book; the two remaining sections, in contrast, make up less than a quarter of the book. Given that this is such a broad collection (more than fifty essays), I will focus my attention on how La Fountain-Stokes’s decision to group particular essays together helps to illustrate the larger argument he is making about the nature of art, which is signaled by his opening manifesto.

Part 1 focuses on the role of literature and visual art in museum exhibits and their ability to rearticulate gender. Here the author is drawn to the places where identities slip, are in motion, or are not quite concretized. An example of this is La Fountain-Stokes’s literary analysis of queer Puerto Ricans and their literature, “Cultura queer y diáspora puertorriqueña” (“Queer Culture and Diasporic Puerto Ricans”), in which he traces movement of “queer Ricans” and their work. He examines the relationship between linguistic choices in their work (Spanish-only, Spanish and English, or English-only) and how this signals their liminality. For example, writer Manuel Ramos Otero’s ambivalence toward his Puerto Ricanness is complicated by his Spanish-majority work. Leaving Puerto Rico for New York because of hostility he faced on the island, Ramos Otero found that New York’s Puerto Rican communities felt too much like home, insofar as they shared antiqueer attitudes similar to Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico. Yet he hangs on to portions of his identity through language. Here La Fountain-Stokes notes that the characters that Ramos Otero develops exist in marginal spaces yet still find ways of constructing their own identities—despite the hardships of migration and queerphobia. Against the backdrop of antiqueer sentiments, Ramos Otero and his characters make a way forward.

In part 2, La Fountain-Stokes turns his attention to theater and live performance pieces. The live performance focus allows the author to consider the bodily and lived realities that literature and visual art might otherwise hide. Often these lived realities are complex, contradictory, and momentary. Carmelita Tropicana’s “Leche de amnesia(“Milk of Amnesia”), which La-Fountain Stokes likens to a multiplicity because of Tropicana’s weaving together of languages, is one such example:

Soy de aquí 
Un pie en New York 

Un pie en la Habana
And when I put my foot into Berlin 
I am called 
Lesbishe Cubanerin . . . 
I don’t esplit 
I am fluid and interconnected” (143–44)

Tropicana’s mixture of Spanish, Espanglish, English, and German performs the fluidity and interconnectedness she describes. Tropicana represents more than a simple amalgamation of the various parts that comprise her. Indeed, as she says, “I am from here.” Contradictory, overlapping, not-quite-reaching, Carmelita Tropicana signifies the various ways caribeñidad is always already a mixture that goes beyond any one label and thus suggests an opening toward difference and repetition.

The third section comprises personal musings on the role of literature and visual arts in Puerto Rico. While the previous sections contain more critical and interpretive essays on the arts, this section displays the way works of art can elicit emotions from the individual and specifically how they moved and affected La Fountain-Stokes. The first essay is a reflection on a poetry reading by Alfredo Villanueva Collado that took place on San Juan’s Tren Urbano (Urban Train), a single-track subway system, and featured Villanueva Collado’s “Amerika,” which La Fountain-Stokes describes as “tan abiertamente atrevida, erótica, y gay” (“so openly audacious, erotic, and gay”; 256–57). During the reading, however, La Fountain-Stokes experienced the simultaneous and conflicting feelings of fear and liberation of public gayness. In another essay on the work of photographer José Luis Cortes, La Fountain-Stokes takes up how art is different from moment to moment and notes how the ephemeral nature of art allows it to invoke these paradoxical feelings. Specifically, Cortes, whose work documents the now-covered-over erotic film industry that once thrived in New York City’s Times Square, exemplifies for La Fountain-Stokes the nebulous and multiple ways art moves.

The concluding section, “Open Wounds,” invokes Gloria Anzaldúa’s description of the relationship between the United States and Mexico and discusses the history of colonialism and its impacts on the island of Puerto Rico. Moving between discussions of statehood or independence and sexuality, the essays in this section continue the themes of Escenas transcaribeñas; however, here the author’s focus is on the relationship between the diaspora, sexuality, and violence. This volatile trinity is never more prescient than in the face of the massacre that occurred on 12 June 2016 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Places like Pulse became a haven for queer people because of the queerphobia they faced in their communities. This was especially true for the many Latinxs present at “Latin Night” at Pulse who had found solace and joy in a nightclub.

The horror of Pulse highlights the compounding problems of colonization and heteronormativity. In his final essay, La Fountain-Stokes asks Puerto Rico’s political Left, those who would claim to struggle for or champion Puerto Rican independence, “Where is your commitment? Is it with the Church or is it with sexual liberation?” (292). The question is meant to provoke introspection on the part of those who say they are committed to a free and independent Puerto Rico but who support the violence, like racism or queerphobia, that coloniality demands. Just as he opens his collection of essays with a manifesto in the wake of austerity, ending with such a provocative question evokes a manifesto-like call to action. As the section’s title suggests (à la Anzaldúa), the contact between the United States and Puerto Rico has produced a wound that has not healed. Here La Fountain-Stokes links together the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico with racism, queerphobia, and violence as connected to, if not resulting from, imperialism and colonization.

As more and more Puerto Ricans leave the island for the US mainland, the face of “Puerto Rico” changes. As cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Orlando (now even more so in the post-María era) become the largest homes for migrant Puerto Rican populations, we must enact new ways of being in the world that are attuned to violence—natural, governmental, and misogynistic. As the island continues to hemorrhage financially, diasporically, and medically, the reality of its colonial status cannot be ignored. Here I can only echo La Fountain-Stokes’s words from his opening essay: “Maricones, uníos!” Faggots, unite! Unite to combat toxic masculinities, to celebrate difference and possibilities, to address the violent queerphobia in our communities.

 

Alejandro Stephano Escalante is a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studies the relationship between race, gender and sexuality, and religion in Puerto Rico’s la fiesta de Santiago Apóstol. His primary research interest is the locas, men who perform drag and go around the streets of Loíza seeking payment for unsolicited work.

 

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