In Italics: Queer Latino Nuances in American Literature
Author: Vanessa Libertad Garcia
September 16, 2010
Nuanced identities are amassed by an amalgam of experiences which include particular terminologies. Specific terms weave together the distinctive fabric of their unique existences.
Applying this summation to our group, the Latino-American Queers of the United States, we note that expressions such as maricon and tortillera, among many others, have poignantly shaped the dynamics of our multidimensional lives, but they require italics in American literature because they haven’t yet been accepted by the dominant White-Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture as being intrinsically “American.”
Many would argue that our Latino-American terms haven’t been adopted because they only reflect a certain minority’s experience and don’t encompass or accurately relate the wide experiential scope of the US’s cultural melting pot; neither, however, do the intricacies that comprise British, Dutch, or German customs, yet American English has adopted much of their verbiage.
Their classifications don’t require italics because American literature assumes that if you’re “American,” you understand what they mean.
“Faggot” and “dyke,” among other derogatory terms for gays and lesbians, form customary part of the American vernacular, as opposed to maricon and tortillera because of the particular LGBT community they reference. Descendants of the more financially and politically powerful North American colonizers, the ruling ethnic class of “White People,” comprise the list of American authors who were traditionally published from the early 1600s onward.
Notable white LGBT writers, such as Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, entered the American literary scene through cautious works in the nineteenth century and were followed by a long list of more direct and outspoken queers like Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein, etc. Their books spoke to a readership that possessed the societal clout and monetary resources necessary to successfully mass-market, mass-produce, and mass-distribute them into bookstores, educational institutions, and curricula across the country.
White people dominated the society in which they lived and considered their positive and negative nuances intrinsic to “American” culture. “Faggot” and “dyke” emerged in early 20th century American literature and language as a response to LGBT members of this powerful and well-documented ethnic community.
Even though Spanish-speaking citizens, primarily Mexican-Americans, have existed on North American soil since the white colonizers arrived and extend from California to Texas, their nuances went either undocumented or inaccurately represented by Anglo-American writers for centuries.
Classic American literature treated the Spanglish & Spanish speaking Latino-American population like an afterthought. The unique terminologies and experiences of Latino-American Queers, like all Latino-Americans before the mid-20th Century, were customarily dismissed.
They were a people pummeled into silence by poverty, lack of education, and racism as they labored on the sidelines of the mainstream America they helped build. Lost in the rubble of their struggle were the unrecorded terminologies unique to their nuanced identities such as maricon and tortillera, which are now surfacing in Latino-American literature.
1960s America brought about massive positive change for expanding the exposure and accurate documentation of minorities in the US, through a string of successful Equality-Movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, and the LGBT Rights movement.
Post-Stonewall US saw an influx of Spanish-speakers emigrate from various South-American and Caribbean countries, from Cuba to Colombia. Many of these immigrants and/or their children turned out to be the Queer Latino Writers, who along with the already present Mexican-Americans, proactively document(ed) our once glossed-over tales. Over the last five decades, authors past and present such as John Rechy, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Carmelita Tropicana, and Nilo Cruz have written about the American experience on behalf of Queer Latino-Americans for all Americans.
Since the 60s, there’s been a notable rise in published Latino-American Queer literature; yet, terms like maricon and tortillera continue employing italics because, although we may consider them commonplace and essential to our American stories, they have yet to be embraced by the Anglo-American ruled literary world as representative of the “central American experience.”
That being said, I don’t think we Queer Latino-American authors, who were born in or immigrated to the US, should reject italicizing our own cultural terms, even while we dislike when Anglo-American writers do it.
We should reclaim the practice of italicization in American literature and change its direction from implying that our experiences are foreign/other than American, toward rarely documented American norms anyone can learn more about—we must consider that we’ve only been presenting the nuances of our American experiences and their accompanying terms for the last 50 years.
We haven’t always existed in American literature like we do now. As Latino-Americans increase in number, so do the queer members of our community and the publication of their voices. When we italicize a word or phrase, we’re referencing a part of us that is often uncharted territory and merits further investigation. Italicized words can direct readers, most of which never read about us through our own eyes, to investigate the multi-dimensionality of our American norms.
The US is a diverse country with immigrants from all over the world—a myriad of ethnicities color our American Identity landscape. We can facilitate learning, deepen understanding, and broaden acceptance about our particular brand of American identity by employing the proper use of italics. If practiced in moderation and abiding by a specific set of guidelines, italicization can serve to homogenize traditionally Queer Latino-American terms (many of them Spanglish and/or Spanish in origin) into American literature.
The guideline could go as follows:
Only italicize a word or phrase which pinpoints a unique factor that differentiates our American cultural experience from others and therefore warrants further investigation—as opposed to the traditional Anglo-American use of italicization, which serves to magnify the proof of our innate otherness a.k.a. separateness from “real” Americans.
One might also want to limit italicizing a particular word or phrase to the first three times it’s mentioned in a book: the first italic carries a footnote, which explains the term’s definition, while the other two italics repeat to reaffirm that this term is vital to the plot of the novel. The rest of the time, the term is used in the book like it’s used in our lives, without any additional attention paid to it. We just accept it as a normal part of our book’s American life and so should the reader.
The idea that any American citizen should consider and reference their American experience and its language as other is a harmful separatist notion that has no basis in reality; my life as a Cuban-American lesbian in the US may not be a common American experience, but it is, nonetheless, fundamentally an American experience.
As a writer, I navigate through my multiple identities, Cuban-American and Lesbian, by employing the use of italics. Even though I regard my multiple identities as intrinsically American, I also embrace the reality that most Americans don’t yet relate to them that way.
The Latino-American experience isn’t just as the “Hispanic” term implies: a non-specific mosh-posh of indistinguishable brown-faced Spanish-speakers—Latino-Americans are a mix of complex cultures with differing Spanish dialects and traditions. Italicizations give American readers the permission not to know how to differentiate one American sub-culture from the other and the opportunity to learn how.
For example, maricon and tortillera are general derogatory Spanish terms used throughout Latin America, but the more culturally specific machua exists in Cuban, not Mexican, vocabulary. Through italics, we can honor the nuances within our Queer Latino-American experience.
Some might argue that by italicizing our generally Spanish terms, we prevent our nuances from infiltrating mainstream American literature because many Anglo-American writers have italicized our phrases to re-enforce our otherness. I believe, however, that by reclaiming italics and employing their appropriate use, we can blend the Queer Latino-American experience and the WASP definition of “American” into a harmonious homogeny.
The contemporary American landscape is one of minority empowerment; in the last 50 years, a different type of Queer American writer has emerged to serious acknowledgement and acclaim. Queer Latino authors are sprouting up around the US and telling American tales in their own words.
If we continue to regard Queer Latino-American Identities as intrinsically “American” in our writings, we won’t always have to italicize maricon and tortillera. Over time, they’ll grow to co-exist with the terms “faggot” and “dyke.” Just as it happened for the Irish, Jews, and African-Americans, eventually many of our culturally specific terms will become commonplace within the mainstream American vernacular.