Sex, Sexuality, Homosexuality Emerge as Hot Topics for Latinos

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In 26 years of annual meetings, the National Assn. for Chicana and Chicano Studies has taken on a host of scholarly topics, including immigration, bilingual education and the legacy of the Mexican War.

But this year, in a conference that concluded Sunday, the focus of attention was on a much different set of questions: the “Latina rage” personified by Lorena Bobbitt, the secret lives of lesbian women in small Mexican towns and the messages about gender in “Chicano rap” music.

Sexuality, including the study of sexual orientation and sexual “outlaws,” eroticism and machismo, is today at the forefront of Chicano studies, reflecting a trend seen in all disciplines of the social sciences and humanities.


Those applying “gender studies” to the Latino experience have found a wealth of topics in a culture with traditionally rigid ideas about masculinity and femininity. While a vocal minority of pundits and professors has attacked the spread of gender studies, saying it has trivialized the academy, nothing has managed to stop its advance in Chicano studies.

The theme of this year’s conference--attended by about 1,000 scholars at the local campus of the University of Texas--was “Missionary Positions,” a wry comment on sex, imperialism and the submissive position of Latinos in U.S. history.

Professor Deena Gonzalez of Pomona College called her presentation to the conference “Lorena was Latina: Raging Against the Missionary.” Bobbitt, an Ecuadorean immigrant, sliced off her husband’s penis, saying he repeatedly raped her.

“I’m sure there are other cases of women in the U.S. who commit violent acts in response to violence,” Gonzalez said. “But here’s the one Latina we hear about.”

Questions of sexuality are a common motif in Gonzalez’s course on Chicano history, reflecting her own experience as a lesbian and those of a new generation of students who are coming of age when the last constraints on sexual freedom and expression have been removed.

This new generation is 30 years removed from the birth of the “Chicano Movement,” when Mexican-American activists first pushed for the Chicano studies programs that now exist at dozens of universities, including at least 15 in Southern California.


With gender studies displacing Marxism and nationalism as the dominant “paradigm” on college campuses, the new heroes in Chicano studies are feminist writers like Sandra Cisneros and Cherrie Moraga, both of whom read their work to rapturous applause at this year’s conference.

By contrast, the work of the “mostly authoritarian fathers” of Chicano nationalism literature of the 1970s has come under attack by thinkers like Angie Chabram-Dernersesian of UC Davis. Their writing, she argues, has been defined almost exclusively by “a myriad of male identities: el pachuco, el vato loco, el cholo, the Aztec, the militant Chicano, the existential Chicano . . .”

Alicia Gaspar de Alba, a professor at UCLA, says Chicano Studies “has been contested ground that’s finally been won by feminists and people in gender studies. Our issues are no longer being pushed to the back.”

At this year’s meeting at the University of Texas at San Antonio, about a quarter of the 300 academic papers presented dealt with issues of gender and sexuality.

Some Expect a ‘Backlash’

Not everyone sees the changes as positive.

Juan Rodriguez, a professor at Texas Lutheran University, said there is some, mostly private resistance to the new trends. “I believe in a few years there will be a backlash,” said Rodriguez, a member of the Chicano Studies association since 1974. “Academics are no more enlightened than anyone else.”

A few years back, the Chicano studies association established a “Joto Caucus.” Joto, like its English equivalent “queer,” is an old slur that has become a term of gay and lesbian pride to some.


At this year’s conference, Michael Hames-Garcia, an English professor at the State University of New York in Binghamton, is chairing a session on “Joto Scholarship.” Hames-Garcia understands that more than a few Latinos outside academia might be a bit perturbed to hear the word even spoken in a college classroom. Why Joto studies?

“It offers us a fuller picture of the Chicano community,” Hames-Garcia says. “It offers us a more complete view of what it means to be human and American.”

Hames-Garcia has analyzed the work of Michael Nava, the Los Angeles author of a series of mystery novels in which “Henry Rios,” an openly gay lawyer, is the chief protagonist. Another conference panel examined the work of another Los Angeles author, John Rechy, whose 1963 novel “City of Night” has long been considered a classic of American gay literature. Only in recent years, however, have Latino scholars claimed Rechy as one of their own.

Hames-Garcia sees the reluctance to place Rechy in the Chicano canon as a small but significant example of homophobia. “In the Latino community . . . homosexuality can be seen, falsely, as a European characteristic,” he says. “Homophobia is seen as a way to defend a family structure that’s under attack by racism.”

Such attitudes remain widespread in Latino culture, a fact that was driven home at last year’s conference in Mexico City.

Hotel Management Is Not Amused

As the conference wound down, the members of the Joto Caucus decided to host a “Noche de Joteria” party at their downtown hotel. Flyers for the event soon caught the attention of hotel management--they were not amused.


“They said ‘This is a family hotel’ and if anybody showed up for this thing, they would throw them out,” recalled Gaspar de Alba. The Noche de Joteria was called off.

Beyond sexual orientation, much of the new research in Chicano studies is centered on a deeper exploration of the issues first raised by a new generation of Latina scholars in the 1980s. It was then that pioneers like Vicki Ruiz, now at Arizona State University, put Latina women on the map of mainstream American history.

But while the work of Ruiz and others has focused on issues of family and the workplace, a new generation of scholars has delved deeper into the private and personal. In an essay titled “Playing With Fire” UC Santa Cruz professor Pat Zavella explores how two working Latina women learned about sex.

One of Zavella’s subjects recalls a California childhood in which her mother, father, siblings and community repeatedly expressed a single message: Virginity is everything. As a teenager, the young woman was certain that, if she ever lost her “purity,” her mother would uncover the secret.

“My mom says she can tell under the eyes, I guess you get bags under your eyes.”

In the same essay, Zavella talks to a woman who grew up in a provincial Mexican town. As a youth, the word “lesbiana” was completely unknown to her, even when she developed a sexual relationship with another teenage girl. Eventually, nearly everyone at her all-girls school knew about the relationship, Zavella writes. But as long as the couple was discreet, all the girls and women around them respected a code of silence or, “law of ice [la ley del hielo]” about such matters.

Gonzalez read her paper on Lorena Bobbitt to a women-only audience. She found parallels between the Bobbitt media frenzy and the 19th century, when Eastern and European visitors to the American Southwest wrote travelogues that portrayed Mexican women as licentious and violent.


“The message is that you can’t really trust Latinas because you don’t know when they’ll take a knife to you,” she explains.

At the other end of the gender spectrum, UC Santa Cruz student Ricky T. Rodriguez examined the macho posturings of young male artists who founded “Chicano Rap.” Meanwhile, a more traditional Chicano gathering was taking place outside, on the lawn of the campus: a local club had parked their waxed, chrome-laden Chevys and pickup trucks for another conference event--a “Low Rider Roundtable.”