Intersections of Queerness in Latin America

Ruth Llana Fernandez and Emi Frerichs are both Ph.D. Candidates in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UW-Madison. Their research, much of which they both completed in Argentina, centers on queerness, queer bodies, and queer literature in Latin America. Ruth Llana Fernandez’s research focuses on the work of the Argentine writer, Estela dos Santos, whose novels explore the intersection of themes such as (dis)ability, queerness, humanization of the body. Fernandez investigated dos Santos’ work in order to explore lyric embodiments of affect and disability and to answer the following question: what do we consider a human body and what determines its existence?

Fernandez primary looked at the dos Santos’ novel Gutural, which translates literally to ‘guttural’, like the scream. In the book, dos Santos reflects on her own experience as a queer woman who has experienced immobility in order to create a character that struggles to feel human when many of the traits that embody what it means to be human are not present. These traits include the absence of speech. According to Fernandez, Gutural challenges the able-bodied aesthetic and instead of defining what the body cannot do, it highlights distinct characteristics that make the body unique, to showcase what it can do. The book explores disability aesthetics, and how beauty is defined in more than just a “healthy” body. For example, in Gutural, the absence of the character of speech, which can be seen as another way to dehumanize the disabled body, is presented as a source of empowerment. The guttural shriek that she makes is the way in which she showcases her emotions, in fact, the entire book is the embodiment of the guttural scream.

Fernandez comments that novels like Gutural, are not the only works by queer disabled,  artists that redefines beauty from a disabled perspective. Carol Rama, a queer, Italian painter, works to represent feminine bodies inside of institutions while presenting them as sexual beings. Judith Scott, the American sculptor, is another example of an artist who, through her own disability, questions the definition of beauty.

In her research titled, Understanding Translations of Queerness: Diving Deeper into Queer Transculturation and Alternative Uses of Queer Terminology in Latin America, Emi Fredrichs works to distinguish the vocabulary used to define queerness used in the Western world and question how cultural backgrounds change what vocabulary is appropriate. She states that clearly ‘being queer’ in Latin America is different from the United States due to linguistic and cultural differences. However, this distinction is commonly misunderstood by queer theorists in the Global North. While their work has been important for the Western world, the Western gender-sex binary and its identifiers cannot be placed onto all people.

Instead, says Fredrichs, we should be letting the people inside these communities choose the language they want to be using. One example of this is in the word trasvesti, which according to many definitions, means cross-dresser, or transvestite. This definition of the word is incredibly exclusive and does not include all queer bodies.

However, in her research, Frerichs found examples of queer activists who are ‘taking back’ the word trasvesti, and broadening its definition in order to fit all definitions of queerness. Frerichs research took her to many different queer cultural centers in Buenos Aires. These centers included Casa Trans, the first space for trans people in the city, and Casa Brendan. Frerichs, being a long time queer activist in the US, stated that she expected these centers to be well organized and open to outreach. Indeed she found that she was able to relate easily to  Instead she found the mission of these centers but found that it was difficult to logistically access archives and that the centers did not have the resources to do outreach. While this certainly provided a barrier to her research, Frerichs was able to connect and interview with queer activists who were incredibly formative to her research. By interviewing activists like Naty Menstrual and Maria Belen Coreas, Frerichs was able to “unravel’ her own understanding of the words traditionally used to describe queerness in the Western world. This was somewhat of a challenge for Frerichs because as a queer activist and a researcher studying queer theory, this vocabulary was ingrained into her speech. She concludes her talk by asking her audience to consider that perhaps queerness, as we know it in the Western world, cannot be translated to ‘fit’ those of different cultures in Latin America. Instead, we should let queer folks within the community develop their own alternative uses of queer vocabulary.