Thursday, December 12, 2013

Alicia Arrizón, "Performing Aztlán: Mestizaje and the Native Body," from "Mythical Performativity: Relocating Aztlán in Chicana Feminist Productions

Aztlán performs the border space. Its dramatic state is an ever-evolving product of the collision, separation, and re-engagement occurring among nations, languages, cultures, and histories. I focus here on the importance of utterances as forms of exhibition underneath the representation of space. Rafael Pérez-Torres suggests that the border, which "represents a construction tied to histories of power and dispossession," determines the evolution of ideological configurations. Thus, "the construction of personal and cultural identity entailed in any multicultural project comes to the fore in Chicana/o cultural production." 15 Pérez-Torres defines Aztlán as an "empty signifier," by which he means that Aztlán reflects "that which is ever absent: nation, unity, liberation." 16 In my view, these "absences" are dynamic--they make themselves present in the in-betweenness of border space and provide strategies for individual and collective identity. Thus, Aztlán is marked performatively by processes of transformation in which time and space intersect to produce tropes of spiritual decolonization. These tropes are consonant with ideologies that intersect and often contradict each other. While Aztlán's ambivalent subjectivity draws attention to the specific value of a politics of cultural production, it also represents relations of domination in the discursive divisions between the First World and Third World, the North and the South, Mexico and the United States, the dominant and the subordinate.

Like Pérez-Torres, Laura Elisa Pérez defines Aztlán's discursive spatiality in terms of power relations. She, however, sees the dialectical forces of "order" and "disorder" (reason and deviation) as counteracting the systematic politics of domination that threaten the validity of Aztlán. She discusses mainly Chicana cultural productions, emphasizing the visual arts, and examines ways in which Chicana feminists have further altered the "logical" order of patriarchy and homogeneity. From this perspective, continuously recovering Aztlán is an act with no borders because, as Pérez explains, "[W]e occupy a nation that does and doesn't exist." 17 This illogical yearning reflects the traumatic contradictions of Chicano/a subjectivity, caught among historic, linguistic, and mythic origins. As the site of creative and political intervention, Aztlán both signals the heterogeneity of the subject and authorizes an alternative way of knowing that may offer a fantastic epistemological system. Aztlán dramatizes and enacts the complexity of power as a mode of differentiation, a hierarchical structure, and a system of defense.

The concept of Aztlán and the legacy of mestizaje are also intertwined. The idea of the mestizo performing body is key to the political imagery of Aztlán: Chicano subjectivity becomes the product of the transcultural processes consciously marked by the acceptance of blended Spanish and indigenous precolonial roots. The idea of transculturation as a form of mestizaje is best exemplified in the art movement that emerged in conjunction with the Chicano movement. In Amado M. Peña's Mestizo (1974), a tripartite head represents the cultural mixture embodied in the Mexican identity as the product of the union of the Spanish and pre-colonial cultures (see fig. 1). The tripartite face situates the Chicano male body in the middle, between the Mexican and US sides. The overlap of the faces defines mestizaje as the intersubjective and collective experience of intercultural negotiation. The dialectic embodied by the tripartite head dramatizes the relations between colonizers and the colonized, emphasizing not detachment, but rather an understanding of the plural subjectivity of mestizaje.

The notion of mestizaje has also been taken as a paradigmatic site of departure for social criticism and artistic imagination. Judith F. Baca addresses these grammars and revisits the tri-headed figure, but in her art the feminization of the subject is key. In La Mestizaje (1991), Baca places the Chicana mestiza between the Indian/Mayan configuration and the figure of the Spaniard (see fig. 2). Both Peña and Baca seek to authorize the cultural hybridities that have emerged as the result of historical transformations. While both artists reinscribe the three distinct cultural legacies (Chicano, indigenous, and European) at once, Baca goes a step further. La Mestizaje transgresses the authorial power of the genders, unseating the masculinist, dominant grammars of El Plan's marked body. As Baca explains, she deliberately chose to alter this monolithic space and draw attention to the spiritual power of the mestiza body:
This legacy has made us the children of the future as we are positioned in a world that is increasingly becoming like us: of mixed origin and international. I have begun to see the necessity of all three in my own nature. Each figure has an important relationship to my own survival as a Chicana in this time. While the figure in my drawing drops off the trap of facades, what is left is the apparition of their place in her life. The Indian has a wisdom that comes not from highly rationalized and deduced information but from the intuitive and a relationship with nature. The Spaniard appears not as a fierce, heartless European, but as the embodiment of the European rational and cool intellect. The Chicana, honed by adversity, is emerging as the dominant character in this image, as possessor of all three natures, and charged with a power of knowledge. She is no longer fierce but certainly formidable in a quiet way, armed with her ancestral mentors at her shoulders. 18
Thus, Baca portrays mestizaje as embodying spiritual demands that displace the "national" body and strive instead for an international and global sense of diversity and community. What she suggests is that we must now place the Chicana body in its national and international contexts. This movement from the local to the global is a central part of Baca's art. Her portable mural, World Wall: A Vision of the Future without Fear (1987), clearly demonstrates this transitory mood. A remarkable piece, World Wall centers on issues dealing with global interdependence, peace, and the end of racism and of gender and sex discrimination. 19 Baca has said that she intended the work to "push the state of the arts in muralism so that the mural creates its own architecture. It makes its own space and can be assembled by any people anywhere." 20 This system of production is highly effective, and helps move Baca's work across different locations. It marks the performative potentiality of painting.

In another of Baca's portable murals, the Uprising of the Mujeres (1979), the indigenous side of La Mestizaje performatively echoes Gloria Anzaldúa's new mestiza consciousness (see fig. 3). As Anzaldúa makes clear in Borderlands/La Frontera, through la conciencia de la mestiza (the new mestiza consciousness), new coalitional global forces combine and relate in the formation of US Third World feminisms and in the discursive configuration "women of color." The need to mark a "third" space in US feminist movements is indicative not only of the neocolonial state of postmodernity, but also of the power relations that intervene in and transform the First World. For Chéla Sandoval, la conciencia de la mestiza "identifies all technologies of power as consensual illusions" that mediate the imperatives of the social body. 21 Sandoval's approach to the mestiza body and Chicana feminism is closely tied to the transnational register of US Third World politics. For Sandoval, Anzaldúa, and Baca, the transnational positioning of the subject emerges determinant but not absolute, the result of hybrid epistemologies, diasporic interventions, and border spaces. Thus, the body and embodiment of the mestiza, situated in the "beyond" of a revisionary time, holds the promise of the future for the Chicana.

For Homi K. Bhabha the "beyond" is the "space of the intervention in the here and now." 22 According to him, the beyond "touches" the past, recapitulating the present and imagining the future of human agency. The beyond marks space and time. The act of going beyond figures the process of subjecthood performatively, disrupting the grammars of nationhood and extending its domain to a broader sense of locality, the transnational. Through its racialized and gendered identity, the mestiza body transcends space and time, enacting the site of difference where the discursive practices of performativity might be imagined. Neither Anglo-American nor indigenous, the mestiza body troubles the borders of feminist practices, nationalism, and colonial discourses. These performative practices, Norma Alarcón explains, "enable both individual and group Chicana positions previously 'empty' of meanings to emerge as one who has to 'make sense' of it all from the bottom through the recodification of the native woman." 23

Alarcón's examination of the native woman not only attempts to trace the genealogy and legitimacy of the term "Chicana" within the nationalist movement, but also places the formation of identity and subjectivity as contested paradigms of multiple signifying practices. Alarcón demarcates, as well, the transnational setting of a new economy that provokes the dramatic state of identity. In her view, the subject's migratory conditions "are continuously transformed into mestizas, Mexicans, émigrés to Anglo-America, Chicanas, Latinas, Hispanics--There are as many names as there are namers." 24 Alarcón defines the native woman as the product of an international economy influenced by the intervention of the US-Mexican border. She speaks of "new women subjects" who, in their roles as workers (domestics, cannery workers, field workers), "find themselves bombarded and subjected to multiple cross-cultural and contradictory ideologies." 25 As I note in Latina Performance, the particular cross-border subjectivity Alarcón alludes to provides an opportunity to examine the US-Mexican border as a cultural and political site through which new kinds of identities are forged. 26

The body of the native woman does not necessarily assert the presence of an authentic self because it challenges cultural "purity." The "native" body's presence in Chicana (and Latina) cultural productions and critical theory becomes a metaphor for the processes of the political unconscious. Theoretically speaking, the "political unconscious," particularly as noted by Fredric Jameson, proposes in every "text" (visual, written, or performed) a level of political fantasy which marks the actual and the potential social relations of "bodies" within a specific political economy. 27 In this context, this knowledge of the "native" body returns to its genealogy, cultural identity, and historical origination, resisting the type of authenticity that performs universal standardization, thus creating a productive way to eradicate and silence racial oppression. Trinh T. Minha-ha presents this argument in Woman Native Other very clearly. In considering authenticity, she rejects the absolutisms of the "real" self, characterized by the epistemology of Western metaphysics. To explain the endless interchange that conveys the typographic conventions of the self, "or that solid mass covered with layers of superficialities," Minha-ha speaks of authenticity poetically, in relation to its indeterminacy and indefinite processes of subjectivity. 28 Rather than an absolute and authentic self, she believes in its logical displacement and fragmentation. Minha-ha believes in authenticity when an "'undisputed origin' is prey to an obsessive fear: that of losing a connection." 29

By separating the "real" from its representation, Minha-ha claims that the performance of origin follows a clear trail in search of the "genuine" layer of the self. In her symbolic logic, the ambivalence of origin remains caught between the "infinite layers" of human diversity and the postcolonial imagination. Thus, the eternal attempt to unify the impossibilities of subjecthood becomes the incentive for shifting oneself out, for blending with space, for becoming space. By rejecting appearance, the "native woman" becomes nothing other than representation because her origin is both mythical and real. The myth requires both legend and a coherent belief in a given reality. For Alarcón, Anzaldúa, Baca, and many other Chicana artists and theorists, the discursive configurations of the native woman alter the space of the authentic body in the process of confronting the simultaneity of marginality and privilege. This confrontation attests to imbalances created by the dislocation of a centered hegemony, influencing the convergence of new cultural topographies in the process of "borderization" and the interruption of the dominant.

These motifs are also exemplified in Laura Aguilar's self-portrait, Three Eagles Flying (1990), in which she expresses rage and confusion (see fig. 4). Aguilar places her body in between the Mexican and US flags, neither here nor there. She is trapped by constructs of the cultural borderization of space. Covered with the Mexican flag, her face embodies the strength of the eagle, which represents a layer of the ethnic self. The US flag covers the lower part of Aguilar's body, subjecting it to force hybridization implicit in the representations of the divided self. In reading the lower part of the body, Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano places Aguilar's majestic figure in connection with her queer sexuality. She has pointed out that while the US flag confines Aguilar's body below the waist, it also represents "a critique of the exclusionary constructions of lesbianism as white." 30 Both her sexuality and her ethnic background intervene in a performance in which the concepts of homogeneity and space are in a profound process of dislocation. In "Portrait from the Latina Lesbian Series," Aguilar suggests that she is more comfortable with the word "Laura" than with the word "lesbian." 31 The act of self-representation, however, displaces both the United States and Mexico, and discloses her queer body as evidence of a more complex sense of identity. Displacement and detachment inspire Aguilar to capture in her art (with her body) the estranging sense of space relocation that is the condition of the cross-border subject. Yarbro-Bejarano suggests that the ways she "performs" her body are closely connected to the estrangement the artist expresses: "where do I/we fit in--seems to be nowhere." 32 In this displacement, the Mexico-US border becomes a site of confusion but each is always dependent on the other, forcing upon the subject a location that is as divided as it is mystifying. The subject's performing identity becomes the result of sensibilities that resonate with an intervening space in constant transformation.

Aguilar is obviously playing with the linguistic constructs of her surname as equivalent to "águila" (eagle)--which in the Mexican culture symbolizes freedom and power. At the same time, her body seems to be subjugated by constraints beyond her own determination (the rope goes around her neck and binds her hands). The US flag, and the imperialism it signifies, marks another layer of the construction of the self: Aguilar's body is part of an occupied and complex space. Thus the lack of an authentic layer of the self forces the artist to posit herself in a performance of cross-cultural representations, separated from the absolute authority of both nations, but marked by the constitutive power of the body itself as it produces knowledge and disobedience. Aguilar's body and the many layers of the self negotiate the powers of hybridity in particular and dramatic ways. The subject's material presence is precisely the site in which the conventions of embodiment may be located. It is where the relation of sameness and difference does not obey any regulations. From this position, the performing body erases borders, allowing both nations to become significantly adjacent. Similarly, Luis Alfaro, a Los Angeles-based poet, playwright, and performance artist expresses this dialectic clearly in his performative pose on the cover of the 15 November 1998 issue of Los Angeles Times Magazine (see fig. 5). Both portraits--Aguilar's half-naked body and Alfaro's sardonic pose--involve a body mediated by two (and perhaps more) different worlds. 33 Both artists' performing identities delineate an unstable space, one that by definition is merged and mixed. The strategic use of the Mexican flag on one side and the US flag on the other dramatizes and enacts the performative hybrids of neocolonial processes as an act of the transcultural body. Such performances demarcate simultaneously the subject position of transgressive bodies, an unstable location, degrees of commodification, and contestation.

These notions of authenticity, when situated in conjunction with these explorations of native bodies and geopolitical spaces, resonate with the mythical performativity of Aztlán. In performance art, the staging of the native woman is especially remarkable in the productions of the sisters Elvira and Hortensia Colorado, the founders of Coatlicue Theatre Company. 34 These dynamic performers draw on the narratives of the precolonial legacy, weaving stories of the indigenous goddesses along with their own personal and familial tales. In addition to alluding directly to the Aztec goddess of the earth Coatlicue in their artistic name, the two women frequently incorporate the Nahautl language into their work. This tactic helps affirm their survival as urban mestizas in contemporary New York City. The Coatlicue Theatre Company's performance repertoire, which includes Open Wounds on Tlalteuctli, Huipil, Coyolxauhqui: Women Without Borders, La Llorona, Walks of Indian Women--Aztlán to Anahauk, and Tlatilco: The Place Where Things are Hidden, blends ancient myths with current social and political issues, including racism and sexual oppression. The affirmation of  pre-Hispanic symbols in their work counteracts a dramatic space embedded in interculturalism itself. The legacy of the native woman is implicated in discursive configurations of the neocolonial, precolonial, and postcolonial subjects. In the following poem the women use language itself to perform the various representational options of the intercultural body. By combining dominant English, Nahautl signifiers, and Spanish grammars, the Coatlicue group configures the intercultural location of the "new" native woman (see fig. 6):
I Cihuacoatl, Snake Woman, Mujer Serpienta,
of the coiled serpents and severed hearts.
I Cihuacoatl, the shape forms in my mouth as
I emerge from the earth and shed the skin and
scales of my dead ancestors. Don't come too
close, I'm dangerous. They covered me with a
white sheet--chalk white--and they bound my
hands behind my back and I spurted blood from
my severed head, my eyes, my mouth.
This is my space. I take these hands, these
eyes and this voice and I rip off the mask
of racism and ignorance. I lick my open
wounds and with my blood and spirit I create
a new universe where there are no borders. 35 
Here, the Coatlicue duo creates the "new" native woman as a rebellious act of cultural translation. Such an act renews the place of origin, innovating and interrupting the present time in which their bodies are performing. They disclose the wounds of their permanent exile, hoping to transcend the abstraction of their colonial and neocolonial subjectivity. By envisioning "a new universe" without borders, the Coatlicue women bear witness to the vitality of space and bodies within and beyond the historical past. The aesthetic motivation and ideological impulses behind their photography expose the theatricality of the mestiza body, at least the way they make sense of it.

The sisters' decision to use the name Coatlicue testifies to the fervor of the cult of the gods as an inheritance from the precolonial period. Coatlicue, like the Virgin Mary in Christianity, is said to have conceived a child without carnal contact. According to an Aztec legend, a divine messenger in the form of a bird dropped a feather into Coatlicue's lap, and thus Huitzilopochtli, the warrior of the south, was born. Another deity born of Coatlicue was Cihuacoatl, the serpent goddess. Cihuacoatl then split into Tonantzin, a goddess similar to the Christian Virgin Mother, when she is referred to as "Our Lady." 36 Later, Tonantzin became embodied as the chaste, protective mother of the mestizo nation, La Virgen de Guadalupe (see fig. 7).

For the Coatlicue duo, Cihuacoatl's rebellious attitude represents more than the origin of the "new" native woman. Cihuacoatl and Tlazolteotl (another deity who sprang from Coatlicue) were disempowered and given evil attributes during the transformation of Coatlicue's good spirit, Tonantzin, into the chaste "dark" mother. After the conquest, Tonantzin/Guadalupe was established as the "good" mother, while Coatlicue and her female deities Cihuacoatl and Tlazolteotl were rendered into defiant beasts. They are the transgressors of marianismo (the cult of the Virgin Mary and her subject position as the mother of God), imposed by an entrenched Christianity. Thus, as an opposing force, Cihuacoatl's legacy helps to explain the whore-virgin dichotomy that has shaped gender relations and sexuality in post-Spanish colonial sites.

Coatlicue Theatre Company performs Cihuacoatl's rebellious origin as a way both to vindicate and problematize the context of colonial history. In their present situation as neocolonial subjects in the United States, performance artists such as Elvira and Hortensia Colorado and many Chicana/Latina artists look at the symbols of the indigenous as a form of resistance and cultural reaffirmation. Consequently, their situation must be marked from the situation of the dominant because they still feel caught in some way within systems of colonial subject-production. The result involves processes in which the body (and knowledge) symbolically seeks the attainment of decolonization. Thus by embodying the rebellious deity of the goddess Cihuacoatl, the Coatlicue women not only transgress tradition but direct attention to the particular formation of subjectivity constructed as counteractions of colonial history.

Similarly, in "Guadalupe the Sex Goddess," author Sandra Cisneros connects her own rebellious attitude to the defiant spirit of Cihuacoatl: 
Coatlicue, Tlazolteotl, Tonantzin, la Virgen de Guadalupe. They are each telescoped one into the other, into who I am. And this is where la Lupe [short for Guadalupe] intrigues me--not the Lupe of 1531 who appeared to Juan Diego, but the one of the 1990s who has shaped who we are as Chicanas/mexicanas today, the one inside each Chicana and mexicana. Perhaps it's the Tlazolteotl-Lupe in me whose malcriada (brat) spirit inspires me to leap into the swimming pool naked or dance on a table with a skirt on my head. Maybe it's my Coatlicue-Lupe attitude that makes it possible for my mother to tell me, No wonder men can't stand you. Who knows? What I do know is this: I am obsessed with becoming a woman comfortable in her skin. 37
The transgressive spirit Cisneros invokes in this embodiment of Cihuacoatl, like the Colorado sisters in their Coatlicue convocation, dislocates the purity and passivity of the Mother of God. This attitude reflects the affliction, rage, and pure desires of cultural decolonization and renovation. The transgression within transgression functions as a way to counteract an oppressive system that has perpetuated the passive role of women in Christian values and colonial sites. Such a critical configuration is one of the clearest examples in evidence of a revisionist interference in contemporary Chicana and Latina feminist cultural productions. While Cihuacoatl transgresses purity, her body, as metaphor for the structure of feminism, functions as a self-conscious act in itself.

In visual art, the transgressive iconography dedicated to the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe presents a startling invocation of Coatlicue's revolutionary deity. The art of Ester Hernandez and Yolanda M. Lopez is radically performative, complicating the "authentic" claim of Guadalupe to reproduce mimetic altered bodies (see figs. 8 and 9). The performative emerges in the manipulation of the surface of the iconographic image and in the surface of the altered body. In Hernandez's La Virgen de Guadalupe defendiendo los derechos de los Xicanos (The Virgin of Guadalupe Fighting for the Rights of Chicanos, 1975), the aggressiveness resides in the body in action, ready for combat. The "new" gesture, costume, and combative expression manipulate the passive eloquence of the traditional mestizaje icon. The essential body is transformed, exposing a fundamental desire to stage an image of the whole nature of the self. This fundamental desire also motivates Lopez in her Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe (1978). As a signifier of the transcultural body, Lopez's act of self-representation accepts the power of divine knowledge (holding the serpent) and also embraces the "American" side of her subjectivity (the coloring and design of the US flag in the cape). Both artists' work expresses the contradictions of the divided self, the fusion of opposites: virtue and evil.

This attitude of resistance is indicative of the political unconscious that transgresses traditional values and symbolizes the embodiment of mythical cognition. For Gloria Anzaldúa, it is these processes of knowing that produce the "Coatlicue state" in her Chicana psyche. The body of Coatlicue--and all its split subjectivities--represents the power that induces Anzaldúa's Chicana self to heal the wounds, to allay the fears of not knowing what she must know. For her, Coatlicue "is the mountain, the Earth Mother who conceived all celestial beings out of her cavernous womb. Goddess of birth and death, Coatlicue gives and takes away life; she is the incarnation of cosmic processes." 38 For Choctaw/Chicana Marsha Gomez, Coatlicue is the Earth Mother who attempts to save the world. Her sculpture Madre del Mundo (1988; see fig. 10) was originally installed on US-occupied Shoshone land, across from the entrance to the missile test site in Mercury, Nevada (fifty miles outside of Las Vegas). The exhibition of the sculpture was part of a Mother's Day peace action opposing the bombing and desecration of land. 39 In response to the atrocities committed against the Shoshone Indian land, the Foundation for a Compassionate Society and Grandmothers for Peace commissioned Gomez to sculpt a piece that would symbolize the nurturing aspects at work opposing the atrocities of land abuse. In creating Madre del Mundo, the artist embodied the demand to "save the land, honor treaty rights, stop nuclear testing on our sacred earth." 40

From the Chicano nationalist art and theatre movements of the 1960s to the emergence of feminist queer bodies and discourses, the racialized configuration of the mestiza is cast in remarkable ways in Chicana (and Latina) cultural productions. The body and embodiment of the mestiza as the specter of the native woman underlies different ideologies, sustains the visibility/invisibility of power relationships, and supports the power of colonial and postcolonial discourses. The contradictions embedded in colonialism have shaped the positioning of the subject caught in the desire for an origin, which is again implicated by the differences of race (racism) and resistance to dominant systems of cultural production.
By relocating their subject position as descendants of the Coatlicue legacy, Chicanas not only detach themselves from the Anglo-American reality of whiteness and "racial purity," but also, by claiming mestizaje, invoke the unconquered spirit of Aztlán. As envisioned in Libertad by Ester Hernandez (1976), this unconquered spirituality represents space as the product of a democratic union where the female body is essentially the creator and instigator of freedom (see fig. 11). The multiplicity of female pre-Hispanic bodies embodied in the Statue of Liberty invokes transculturation and its potentially counterhegemonic function. The deceptive familiarity of the statue is in part disembodied, enacting and transforming the physical space into the complex transactions of the native exchange.

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