Homosexuality and Political Activism in Latin American Culture: An Arena for Popular Culture and Comix
Other Voices, v.1, n.2 (September 1998)
Copyright © 1998 by Jeff Williams, all rights reserved. Translations by Liliana Anglada and Jeff Williams.
Upheavals (both political and social), revolution, neo-colonialism, dependencia theory, and liberatory ideology hallmark Latin America's turbulent history. And even with the end of the Cold War and the democratization of South American countries, oppression and trouble still exist. The "revolution" has not come to fruition and scholars from various academic areas (e.g, Foster 1980 1989 1991, Leiner 1994, Lindstrom 1980, Skidmore/Smith 1984, Steele 1992, Traba 1994) concur with this assessment. The oppression of the gay community and political intolerance in Latin America, as portrayed in Senel Paz's El lobo, el bosque y el homdre nuevo (available only in Spanish) and Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman demonstrates, in part, the continuing struggle for human rights and political liberation in this region of the world.
These works portray socio-political attitudes towards homosexuals from both political extremes, the far left of Castro's Cuba, in Paz's novella, and the far right of Juan and Isabel Peron's Argentina, in Puig's novel. And these depictions illustrate that the process towards sexual and political liberation are one and the same. Any movement that espouses political freedom and does not take into account the sexual rights of individuals cannot, in good faith, dismantle tyranny (Foster 76). Puig and the Brazilian, Darcy Penteado, are committed to this view which supports David William Foster's idea of what characterizes Latin American literature and the nature of homosexuality (76). Foster recognizes the political nature imbedded in sexual preferences and suggests that:
This type of political praxis plays out in the relationships between David/Diego, in the questioning and analysis of communist views on homosexuality, and Valentin/Molina, from the perspective of associating homosexuality with political dissidence in a dictatorship.
David and Diego become close friends and survive the ordeal of betrayal. Diego reveals that he has betrayed David as part of a bet made with German and asks forgiveness (Paz 57-58). David, in essence, betrayed Diego when he agreed to "spy" for some revolutionary students (29-32). Diego is exiled from Cuba by the end of the story, and David promises "que al proximo Diego que se atravesara en mi camino lo defenderia a capa y espada, aunque nadie me comprendiera, y que no me iba a sentir mas lejos de mi Espiritu y de mi Conciencia por eso..." (59) [that the next time a Diego crosses my path, I will defend him with cape and sword, even though no one else understands me, and this will not contradict my spirit and conscience] . His final act to demonstrate his new sensibilities is to return to Coppelia and pay homage to Diego: "lo hice [agradeciendole a Diego] viniendo a Coppelia y pidiendo un helado como este. Porque habia chocolate, pero pedi fresa" (59) [I did it, (paid homage to Diego) returned to Coppelia and ordered ice cream like this one. But, because I could have had chocolate, I ordered strawberry instead]. The reference, here, is to the beginning of the novel where the reader is informed that gays prefer strawberry ice cream (9-10), and David's act proves that he does not care if others associate him with being gay.
The end of the novel portrays David as a new man, not only in the ideological sense promoted by Castro, but in the sense of his new awareness and appreciation of gay sensibilities; he recognizes, in Diego, "a creative energy reflecting a consciousness that is different from the mainstream; a heightened awareness of certain human complications of feeling that spring from the fact of social oppression" (Babuscio 19). Diego, too, has undergone a transformation and become more of a revolutionary. This praxis, however, is not dynamic. These transformations do not necessarily reflect an opening up or acceptance of homosexuality in modern day Cuba.
Soto disclaims El lobo as a document demonstrating socialist acceptance of homosexuals. He states that the acceptance of homosexuality is on the surface only. He rests this claim on the fact that Diego's "voice is mediated, rearticulated, filtered through David's authoritative (revolutionary) discourse" (307). Soto further observes that much of the story is superficial, because, "[i]n the end this romanticized friendship, structured around a simplistic narrative device of sentimentality, does not challenge the revolutionary establishment's paradigm of power, nor does the story challenge the ordinary reader to confront his or her attitudes toward homosexuals outside of the literary space" (307).
Even though the counter-hegemonic content may submit itself to a Gramscian type of passive revolution, Paz, at the very least, offers his readers a seed, or a brief peek into a world that has been ignored for the most part. And in spite of Soto's contention that Paz's work does little to change "attitudes outside of the literary space," it has extended itself "outside of the literary space" onto the stage and screen; the play version sold out to both straight and gay crowds (Leiner 59).
A novel that takes the premise of Paz's El lobo into more subversive territory and displays a more dynamic sense of political praxis is Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman. Puig's novel "envisions a society where relationships are not based on hierarchies, where machismo is no longer a cultural obligation and where oppressive systems of authority are disarmed" (Munoz 343). Valentin and Molina undergo a more dynamic transformation than David and Diego. The similarities between these pairs of protagonists are seen in Valentin/David's initial annoyance and dislike and then gradual acceptance of Molina/Diego. The differences between the two pairs of protagonists are found in the degree to which their radical change takes place.
Valentin takes a more active role and his having sex with Molina is a symbolic conversion toward a homosexual ideology, whereas David's acquisition of gay sensibilities is more intellectual. Molina becomes more revolutionary than Diego. Valentin grows dependent upon Molina to care for him during an illness; he becomes fond of the films that Molina tells, and sad when he learns that Molina is leaving. In the end, Valentin says, "I learned a lot from you, Molina..." (Puig 261), and he has sexual intercourse with Molina, one last time, giving Molina the promised kiss (Puig 261-262). According to Munoz, Valentin becomes "a political activist who attains a deep and transforming understanding of his feminine side and his gay self. Valentin is able to liberate and love Molina, the woman trapped in the recesses of his psyche, the woman whom society, with its surveillance, has managed to repress" (Munoz 343).
Molina, in turn, agrees to meet with Valentin's revolutionaries to relay a message (Puig 263) and promises Valentin that he will not let anyone treat him [Molina] badly, exploit him, or accept any disrespect; when Valentin pleads, "Molina, promise me you won't let anybody push you around," Molina replies, "I promise you" (Puig 261). Molina lives up to his promises, but he falls victim to a politically motivated murder (Puig 274). His transformation ends in his death and possibly the death of the feminine in Valentin, as Valentin's end also demonstrates the strength of the authoritarian system.
Molina's transformation, as well as Valentin's, has greater depth and complexity than Diego and David-- David never has sex with Diego, and Diego does not become revolutionary to Molina's degree. Political praxis is more at work in Puig's novel because the reader sees revolutionary and non-mainstream ideas put into actions, and there is a greater degree of sharing, interaction, and dialectic. These political maneuverings within the two novels lend support to the idea that in Latin America, "cultural texts tend to see homosexual characters as the locus of both social alienation and authoritarian repression" (Foster 1991, 2). There is also the message that some form of gay sensibility is necessary for a successful social revolution.
El lobo and Kiss of the Spider Woman are but two examples of Latin American literature that deal with gay sensibilities, and "[h]omosexuality in these texts is part of a revolutionary agenda in the political, social, sexual. and literary realms" (Manzor-Coats xxx). But are texts with gay sensibilities enough? Lillian Manzor-Coats argues that a "queer facultad" (faculty) is needed (xxxi), because a gay subtext will be glossed over by the majority, since "reading is a process through which what is not familiar to us remains hidden in the text, is not perceived" (xxxi). Another strategy for bringing the gay subtext to the foreground, in addition to "reading between the lines with the queer facultad" (xxxii) would be to bring the kind of dialogue found in these texts into the popular culture through comics or "comix" (referring to alternative or non-mainstream comics).
Comics contain two basic elements: art, or visual text, and a written text. The visual text makes glossing over more difficult, but not impossible. Visual imagery is very important and offers a powerful ideological punch. Marta Traba states that "the artist's capacity for effecting a revolution lies in the substance and effectiveness of his message; ... the revolutionary artist will aid in the liberation process" (Traba 147). Speaking about film (a medium with some close ties to comics), Barbara Hammer, an American film maker, creates films whose radical content is embedded in radical form (70), "I have chosen images rather than words for the act of naming myself an artist and a lesbian because the level of meanings possible for images and image conjunctions seemed richer and held more ramifications" (72). Comics, by blending images and words, could also be considered a radical form, in that imagery is equally important in comics, and their potential for radical content is as great, if not greater, than film. In fact, because reading comics involves the space between images as much as the images themselves, imagery in comics may be more important and hold more levels of meaning than film.
In addition to the power of image and the actual design that make a comic, comics have mass appeal-- they are an important part of Latin American popular culture (Foster 1989, Hinds 1992, Perez 1991), and popular culture is an important ingredient in Latin American literary and artistic endeavors. Popular culture plays a very important role in Puig's works (Kiss of the Spider Woman being one example); Julio Cortazar has written a socio-political comic strip (Perez 382), and Luis Camnitzer discusses popular culture, in the form of kitsch, and its influence on the Cuban art scene in New Art of Cuba. Comics have a staying power, and in Latin America this medium is associated with ideological ramifications:
Obviously, mass media have been exploited for their potential for indoctrination from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum also. The point is that comics are taken very seriously by ideologues, perhaps more so than canonical genres. It is not merely a question of mass appeal, of a different, larger, and more malleable readership; it is also the comics' extraordinary durability. No movie, regardless of how successful, no theatrical work, regardless of record-breaking runs, can match the comics' staying power across generations. (Perez and Perez 345-346)
The popularity of Quino's Mafalda is a good example of both, the staying power and ideological impact, that a comic can have (Foster 1989, 53-63). And Cornelia Butler Flora discusses the debate over imported cultural values via Donald Duck and its American imperialistic ideology (studied by Dorfman) and the attempt to create counter-hegemonic comics with a Latin American perspective (Flora 1984). Some of these alternative comics deal with sex role stereotypes, and there are a few examples of comics dealing with the gay perspective; however, because of the repressive nature of many Latin American countries, the possible existence of small, private presses (an underground for comics), and limited availability and distribution of obscure Spanish/Portuguese language comics in the US, further investigation into this area is strongly encouraged in order to ascertain the fullest extent to which gay comics and comics with gay sensibilities exist in Latin America.
Most of the comics described in the literature on Latin American comics that are related to gender issues do not discuss homosexuality, but rather contain content that subverts the traditional female role. One example is Nuria Pompeia, a "Catalan feminist, [who] has used the cartoon, words and pictures together, as well as the comic-strip format, to enormous effect in denouncing the stultifying socialization of women" (Perez 345). Her syndicated strip is "Palmira," and "in such cartoon books as Mujercitas and Maternasis, Pompeia offers chilling yet hilarious depictions of patriarchal brainwashing of female children and adolescents" (345).
This "stultifying socialization of women" is very common in most Mexican comic books; however, "the fact that popular comics such as El Payo and La familia Burron offer more modern images of the 'good' woman at least suggests that thousands of Mexicans might well be receptive to significant changes in traditional values" (Hinds and Tatum 1984, 161). Mafalda also discusses gender roles in a few strips in terms of distinguishing the "distinction between legitimate women's rights and much sought after class and social advantages that are used to identify a woman's relative position in a consumer-oriented society" (Foster 1980, 504). These examples demonstrate that in terms of gender roles, a paradigm shift is on the horizon. Though a paradigm shift regarding gender roles assists in societal acceptance of gay sensibilities, it is a long way from the realization of gay rights.
In addition to comics that attempt to modernize the view of women, there are comics that deal with sexuality in general. A Peruvian artist, Juan Acevedo, creates Hola Cuy!, a comic-strip that offers its readers a world that counters the world found in Disney comics; "[w]hat is so refreshing in the Peruvian strip is the candor and openness with which sexual and erotic relations are portrayed. This particular facet eloquently deconstructs the repression of sexuality, biological characteristics, and human relations that we find in the impossible fantasy land of Disney's Mickey Mouse" (Foster 1989, 105). Going one step further is the Brazilian comic, Rocky e Hudson, os Caubois Gay by Adao Iturrusgarai. This comic treats homosexuality with a humorous and sexually free atmosphere and relies on extended gags ("The Big Foot" is a short, vaudevillian type gag).
In the case of Rocky e Hudson, os Caubois Gay, the reader must realize that Brazil is more socially liberal than most Latin American countries; many openly gay pop stars and transvestites are common and the whole culture, though dominated by Latin machismo, seems unusually open to gay people and culture (Boyd). Machismo and homosexuality are not as incompatible as the reader may think: "in most societies in Latin America a man who engages in homosexual activity with other men is considered to be queer, maricon, only if and when he does not play his role as macho... . As long as he plays his active role as macho properly, the gender of his sexual partner is inconsequential..." (Manzor-Coats xxi). Just because a society, like Brazil, is open to homosexual activity is not, therefore, an indication of a paradigm shift in gender role designations or an indication of acceptance and openness towards gay sensibilities. More than making jokes and telling funny stories about gays, the acquisition of the queer facultad is necessary, and to obtain this, a comic that educates and demonstrates a certain level of sensitivity is required and two cartoonists approach this queer facultad, Nazario, from Spain, and Rius, from Mexico.
Nazario depicts scenes from the Spanish subculture in Barcelona, using a streetwise, self-styled transvestite and his/her adventures (Nazario, 1994 6-8). His many stories place homosexuality in a common, everyday context, as opposed to humorous gags or out-of-the-ordinary reality, though there is an element of the fantastic in Nazario's style. The fantastic demonstrates itself best in his iconographic drawings that subverts an older catholic iconography. "Lyta en Evilla," and "Santa Ocana..." (Nazario, 1988 59 and 78) portray two excellent examples.
The other such work is Los Supermachos No. 588 by Rius (Eduardo del Rio). Los Supermachos is a series where Rius, a truly revolutionary comix artist both stylistically and ideologically, treats specific themes in each issue; No. 588 is titled "Por Que Hay Homosexuales?" Rius looks at homosexuality in an historical context. His style blends the campish cartoonish style similar to Mafalda and Rocky e Hudson, os Caubois Gay with realistic/expressionistic documentary-type insert. Rius uses this element of ambivalence in language as well: "[o]n the one hand the characters all speak a markedly Mexican Spanish (the bar owner excepted, of course). This linguistic Mexicanism often approaches the grotesque or the distorted when characters begin to make plays on words or double entendres, or when conflicts arise between the Spanish of the bar owner and that of the other characters" (Foster 1989, 91). This approach makes Los Supermachos more accessible and popular than a work like Cortazar's Fantomas Contra Los Vampiros Multinacionales which became too sophisticated for its targeted audience (Perez 384). Rius' treatment of homosexuality is one of the best.
The above examples are few in number because of the limitations mentioned earlier; suffice it to say that comix have a potential for reaching a broader audience and bringing about a change in attitudes towards homosexuals in Latin America. One of the problems mentioned earlier regarding the scant number of comix was distribution. Distribution was one of the reasons for the failure of attempts at comix as discussed by Flora (1984). She also mentioned the value, in general terms, of "home grown" comix in Latin America, as opposed to imports. Popular culture carries powerful ideological messages. It is the language of the people and language is political; "[i]nventing an appropriate , authentic language is a key issue for lesbian and Latin American literature alike" (Kaminsky118). Art is also political, "[a]rtists give direction to our hopes, tear away the veil of our illusions, and communicate our defects. The essence of artistic creation lies in the unveiling of mystery" (Traba 165). There is also an element of camp in comix (Iturrusgarai is a good example), and there is a political element to camp. In its essence camp is the exhibition of a creative expression of gay feelings (Babuscio 36). Foster states:
The political agenda of gay literature, and the fulfillment of the political revolution through its social and cultural counterparts will have a better chance of success if the comix medium is used to its fullest potential.
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