The Perils of Passing as Explored by the Works of Frances Negrón-Muntaner and Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez
In order to explore the intra-action of queerness and Puerto Rican-ness I have chosen to focus on two pivotal queer cultural productions by Puerto Ricans. The first is the 1995 film by Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Brincando el charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican. The second is a poetic excerpt from Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez’ play Side Effects. These texts address many critical questions that intersect both querness and Puerto Rican-ness. Among these, the theme of passing, essential to both texts, particularly necessitates the interaction of queerness and Puerto Rican-ness. Passing is so critical to immigration and queer studies that the editors of the anthology on sexuality and immigration in which critical analyses of both of these texts appear, chose the title Passing Lines. In the introduction they argue that passing “can implicitly question not only the solidity of ethno-racial lines but of sexual lines as well” (Epps 5). I believe the Negrón-Muntaner film and the Sandoval-Sánchez play, as well as their authors' mediations on their respective works, illustrate through passing just how inter- and intra-connected queerness is with Puerto Rican-ness.
Brincando el charco
1. To hop over the pond
-Brincando (verb) is the gerund form of the verb brincar, which means to hop.
-El charco (masculine noun) means the puddle.
2. A colloquial expression that refers to migrating from the Caribbean to the continental United States
4. An album created in Cuba with Cuban, American and Chilean artists that, according to their website, is dedicated to confronting “Racism, Homophobia, Sexism, the US embargo, Inequality, and much, much more”
Negrón-Muntaner’s film presently remains relevant and generative as an essential revisionary text, 16 years after its initial release. Brincando at once revises the existing image of Puerto Rican women in film while simultaneously filling an immense void within Puerto Rican queer cinema. Negrón-Muntaner explains that “when [she] began work on Brincando el charco, no Puerto Rican film had addressed lesbian subjectivity in one hundred years of cinematic production” (Muntaner 521). Not only did this void impact her decision to create the film in the first place, but she also directly sites it for influencing specific decisions within the piece itself. For example, Brincando initially did not explicitly depict or allude to any lesbian sex, but rather had only one on-screen kiss. Ultimately, Negrón-Muntaner added an overtly sexual sequence that she hopes challenges the portrayals of lesbian sex mass-produced in pornography. She chooses to interrupt the explicit scenes with intertitles stating “don’t look” and “¿qué miras?” to highlight the voyeuristic and objectifying glances of the viewers (Muntaner 521).
The film’s title Brincando el charco is not only a reference to a popular Puerto Rican saying to refer to migration to the mainland, but is also reflected in the content of the film. The protagonist, Claudia Marín, situates many of her current experiences with a transnational sentiment towards her birthplace and the island where she grew up, Puerto Rico. We see the protagonist watching footage of the LGBT pride parade in Puerto Rico as well as a flashback to the circumstances leading to her exile. The mise-en-scene of the flashback is full of iconic catholic imagery, including a looming statue of the Virgin Mary, in a living room that otherwise looks like any house from a television set. The images of the statue are interrupted as Claudia’s father, deep voice booming, confronts his daughter of suspected lesbianism and kicks her out of the house. Negrón-Muntaner intended this scene to be a parody of Puerto Rican melodrama, although she quickly found that on a whole audiences did not read the scene as parodic but rather realistic and many viewers expressed feeling a deep connection with the scene (Muntaner 517). Both the parodic and realistic readings of the scene, highlight another revisionary goal of the film. Negrón-Muntaner explains that it was to function as a critique of “the purging of all women from the nationalist phallic imagination over the last 150 years of writing the nation. The nationalist scribes have represented the nation as a family--the sacred Puerto Rican family--steering past obstacles as long as the captain of the ship is a capable, well-to-do, white Puerto Rican male” (Muntaner 516). By questioning the necessity of a patriarchal figure to guide the family, and ultimately, the nation, Negrón-Muntaner problematizes assumptions of race, gender, sexuality and power.
The film explores questions of passing in experiences related to gender, queerness, nationality and language of both Claudia and her girlfriend, Ana Hernández. In an interview Ana does for Claudia she explains how she feels she feels insufficiently white in the United States and insufficiently Puerto Rican on the island, in other words, she is unable to pass in either context. Ana explains that in order to feel more comfortable she rejects attempts to pass in favor of “playing up” her New York identity in the presence of “real” Puerto Ricans and her Puerto Rican identity when in the presence of “gringos” (Brincando). Muntaner addresses this question of being Puerto Rican enough in the context of visibility and identity in terms of Claudia as well. She explains that Claudia, as a light-skinned woman, must always be “mediated” through the bodies of dark-skinned Puerto Ricans, and even other people of color, because within the metropolitan culture they “signify Puerto Rican visibility and colonized identity” (Muntaner 515). She achieves this in the film by intertwining images of African pride parades as well as Claudia’s professional interest in dark-skinned homosexual Puerto Ricans. Many would classify Claudia’s position as “priveledged” because, unlike Ana or darker-skinned Puerto Ricans, Claudia “can escape the daily indignities of being a racialized minority and claim to be “Spanish”” (Muntaner 515). However, Negrón-Muntaner is quick to explain that although Claudia as a blanquita can pass, it is “often to places to which she has no interest in going” (Muntaner 515) or it is at the necessary exclusion and denial of her heritage.
Every time the fictional Claudia interacts with others who do not know her background, she is able to be perceived as something else because of the lightness of her skin. Often an uncontrollable factor like skin color is met with behavioral factors that help facilitate or at times impede passing. In the Introduction to Passing Lines the editors define passing lines as “the performative acts by which a person passes, or strives to pass, as conforming to certain norms of identity and behavior” (Epps 4). Although her skin color is a physical characteristic, her ability to speak unaccented English and her potential choice to do so, for example, could be read as a performative act of passing.
Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez tackles many of his own critical questions of passing in relation to his identity as an out homosexual Puerto Rican man with AIDS. He argues in his article, “Politicizing Abjection: Towards the Articulation of a Latino AIDS Queer Identity,” that abjection is the central characteristic of Latino queer bodies with AIDS. Rather than fighting against this characterization, Sandoval-Sánchez himself has embraced the ability to “materialize and enact abjection as a strategic performance in which identity is always in the making” (Sánchez 318). Rather than try to pass as a “healthy” body in the way that the norm defines it, principally HIV-negative, he hopes that “queer Latino/a cultural performances materialized a discursive site of and for abjection that menaces the homogeneity and stability of official hegemonic culture and identity and its anxieties that keep the queer, the AIDS survivor, the Latino/a migrant, the racial and ethnic other locked in its place” (Sánchez 318). Although never explicitly stated in such terms, Sandoval-Sánchez’s argument is clearly against passing and the homogenic culture he believes it fosters and supports.
Sandoval-Sánchez’s stern unwillingness to attempt to pass as healthy, or happy, or pain free, is clear in the following excerpt from his play Side Effects, which was staged originally 18 years ago at Mount Holyoke College:
Sandoval-Sánchez is steadfast in his dedication to representing his abjection. He even compares it to the umbilical cord “to my migrancy, to my mariconería, and to my Latinidad” (Sánchez 316). In doing so he refuses to reproduce AIDS-related tropes that the audience may be more comfortable with, of a white upper-class male who overcomes his HIV to achieve certain accolades, perhaps. Although I am sure important at the time, I would argue his dedication to representing his abjection and the stark style of the piece is even more important today in contemporary America. From a public health standpoint there has been a shift in the way AIDS is framed from a dire life-threatening illness to a less threatening disease, much like diabetes. This shift ignores important issues of race, class, access to health care and medical literacy that would make a life with AIDS, or diabetes, for that matter, as easy as depicted and it has resulted in decreased funding and attention to domestic AIDS projects and research.
Brincando and the excerpt from Side Effects as two cultural productions from queer Puerto Rican individuals both successfully problematize and fight against passing and its many potentially silencing effects. The texts, and the critical commentary by their authors, demonstrate clearly the concept stated by Linda Schlossberg, an editor of a book on passing, in her quote in the Introduction to Passing Lines. Schlossberg outlines the vast range of possible experiences associated with passing. She argues that “passing can be experienced as a source of radical pleasure or intense danger; it can function as a badge of shame or a source of pride. Passing as practice questions the assumption that visibility is necessarily positive, pleasurable, even desirable” (Epps 5). A critique of passing, like Brincando and Side Effects, not only fights against the assumed desirability of visibility, as suggested by the Schlossberg quote, but also the perils of conformity along lines of race, sexuality, health, etc. I wonder, however, if, given the current political and economic climate, Sandoval-Sánchez’s hope for the rejection of passing and the acceptance of abjection is just a fantasy. If the immigration climate of the United States continues to favor bodies that conform and attempt to pass (with the notable exception of the queer asylum laws), then won’t the intention to pass prevail?
Brincando el charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican. Dir. Frances Negrón-Muntaner. Perf.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner. Independent Television Service, 1995. DVD.
Negrón-Muntaner, Frances. "When I Was a Puerto Rican Lesbian: Meditations on
Brincando el charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican." GLQ 5.4 (1999): 511-26. Web.
"Introduction." Introduction. Passing Lines: Sexuality and Immigration. Ed. Brad
Epps, Keja Valens, and Bill Johnson González. London: Harvard University,
2005. 3-50. Print.
Sandoval-Sánchez, Alberto. “Politicizing Abjection: Towards the Articulation of a Latino
AIDS Queer Identity.” Passing Lines: Sexuality and Immigration. Ed. Brad
Epps, Keja Valens, and Bill Johnson González. London: Harvard University,
2005. 311-320. Print.