Reclaiming Lesbian Spaces in Puerto Rico
If from the not being we come and toward the not being we march,
nothing between nothing and nothing, zero between zero and zero,
and if between nothing and nothing, nothing can exist,
let us toast to the beautiful not being of our bodies.
-“Nada”, Julia de Burgos[i]
From my mother’s home in Venus Gardens to the Art Museum of Puerto Rico (MAPR), innumerable roads bifurcate, rhizomes of a lack of urban planning whose potentialities frequently collapse into segments, tasteless jokes about theorizing in Puerto Rico, but there are two exits that I have always found to be perfect examples of the fact that—to paraphrase García Márquez[ii]—life often imitates bad literature. The first is exit 0B that leads to Centro Minillas[iii], the plazita[iv], the MAPR, and the heart of Santurce. The second is exit 0A that leads to Pavia Hospital, a private institution that belongs to United Medical Corporation, and collaborates with the Congregation of Dominican Missionaries of the Most Holy Rosary to charge and save the sick. In this same area, there was once a place called “Cups”, which for many years was the only lesbian bar in Puerto Rico, and whose campy name always made me laugh with tenderness.
When Cups closed, there was no public announcement, no ritual-celebration like the one held here in Philadelphia for “Sisters”. Amidst all the tuition hikes, tax increases, daily fights, and historically high debts, who cared about one bar on a random street in Santurce? Activists in general had their hands full with transcendental issues and large-scale LGBTQIA reforms, and, anyways, we all know that bars only contribute to the alienation of the proletariat, are spaces that help with quotidian readjustments, produce illusory liberation, and, sin of sins, unleash individualism. Lesbians and their nocturnal allies would simply have to find some other cave where they could watch their half-lit films.
But this is a 0B country,[v] a second-to—like the time Beauvoir won second place in the aggregation exam, after the always-first Sartre or like the time they buried her under the already non-existent father of nothingness—that exists by accident, like a zero placed on the right instead of the left or a zero placed in the Left instead of outside.[vi] It exists because yes; because we-make-it-happen; because of-course-we-can-fix-it; because give-it-here-I-got-it; and, because of this, it is absolutely appropriate that from the silence of the shut-down, hagamos, we do and make the inappropriate, and speak paradoxically of the bad baddest desire, of the dykiest irrelevance.
This zero could be read as the product of colonialism: the credit that produces and consumes on a foundation of nothingness and that eventually collapses; the emptiness left by not knowing when and where you can pay your last bill; the market value of the life of one working-class Boricua; the market value of the life of one queer Boricua; the market value of the life of one trans Boricua…Ah, but the zero is also the place from within the world is built, the nothing that inhabits and goads us. It is a no-place, a zero-place, and a producing and productive nothingness.
Without romanticizing the destruction, the horror, the invisibility, the pain, the suffering, in other words, history as a conquering force, I’d like to propose that we reconsider this zero-place. It is here that we learn on a daily basis to internalize, to survive, to make something out of nothing, and to divide that nothing into pieces (0C, 0B, 0A) that should last us the rest of the week, the month, and the life. This nothing is not an absence of materials; it is an absence of materials with market value. It is an economy of rust, of invention, of survival. When the car doesn’t turn on; when the window is broken and we fix it with plastic bags and Duck Tape[vii]; when we find that school text on the internet; and when we open the cabinet and there are three mismatched things we use to make ourselves something to eat, we are in the zero-place. We don’t experience it as absence-pain: we experience it as absence-need, as absence-push. The nothing is each fight that they never expected and we won, but it is also each struggle that, although we lost, left traces in our collective memory, ghostly vestiges we retake in order to construct a future.
Speaking of silence, Cheryl Glenn compares it to the “zero sum” in mathematics:
Containing everything in itself, silence is meaningful, even if it is invisible. It can mean powerlessness or emptiness—but not always. Because it fills out the space in which it appears, it can be equated with a kind of emptiness, but that is not the same as absence. And silencing, for that matter, is not the same as erasing. Like the zero in mathematics, silence is an absence with a function, and a rhetorical one at that.[viii]
Who knows better than us how to match cables and ribbons in order to create radio stations? Our zero is not just rhetorical (unless we take rhetoric to be a generative force, unless we rewrite sophists as pícaros[ix], inventors, survivors, and creators whose primary material is nothing). Furthermore, within this “us”, there is a group that has had to occupy the within the within of the zero-place: the sáficas-lésbicas-patas-tortilleras-troqueras-marimachas[x], us dykes and superdykes, who do not exist. Let’s take as an example the concept of the tortillera, which like scissoring represents lesbian sex in the phallocentric imagination. What could two women possibly do in bed without a phallus? ¿Cómo se las harían? How would they do/make do?
Thinking of Audre Lorde and Beatriz Preciado, I’d like to answer this question collapsing two arguments. This first, as Lorde suggests in “The Uses of The Erotic”, is that the erotic is not and never will be genital-centric. For Lorde “the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.” Without telos, outside of the hacer, or the doing, the erotic always displaces itself from and toward the other.
The second, as suggested by Preciado, is that the dildo precedes the penis; the dildo-phallus is nothing other than power-masculinity translated as desire. It is the phallus as desiring and desired object-subject, a magical wand that accedes value to absence. In mathematical terms, the dildo-phallus is the number 1. It is for this reason that masculine bodies become palimpsests of accumulated phallic value. They receive the machista blessing and become the bearers and conveyers of the great nature-slogan. They concentrate the dispersed and anarchic energy of a world without direction and they exert. (Two old men on the running track explain that Carmen Yulín doesn’t know how to govern because she is a woman and women are disorganized and make messes.) This is why whenever I buy clothes in the men’s section I repel and attract phalluses: phalluses that feel the right to question me, to discipline me; phalluses that hit on me; phalluses that watch me with fascination; and chalk sticks that performatively demarcate gender boundaries with every encounter. The woman-zero, from curve to curve, causes an epistemological crisis.
An absurdly accurate example of this is the pata-puta or dyke-whore binary, which symbolizes decadence and excess. Following the measure—dogmatized and oversimplified by Catholicism—of the Golden Mean, the phallus is a means of balance and control, like a gymnast’s bar. The pata is the deficient-phallus, she who cannot exist because she should not exist, an incomprehensible sin because it exists outside the control of the patriarchal logos. The pata is thought not to reproduce because she lacks a phallus(es). On the other hand, the puta is an excess-phallus, an overpopulated, rhizomatic, chaotic absence with no fixed center. If the pata falls off the bar, the puta has no discipline. Yet having an excess of phalluses is always preferable to having none! This is a lesson learned by every adolescent girl who has come home with a queer friend: Mejor puta que pata.[xi]
It is at this zero juncture that I would like to let go and romanticize, sublimize and give into that chulería, that sweetest of indulgences: the contradictory, problematic and limited patería of Boricua dykes. I love watching them talk shit while drunk; I love their kitsch; I love their butchisms, femmisms, and I-don’t-know-what-isms; their swaggers; and their gossip. I’d love to see them march not just for LGBTQIA rights or against tuition hikes. We need to talk more about marches in bars and irrelevances at marches. We need to understand that the quotidian should not be treated as secondary or secretive, nor should it be elevated on the pedestal of serious issues, rather we should eliminate the pedestals and eroticize the struggles. I’d like to see, like I saw in the 2010 student strike at the University of Puerto Rico, the pride flag next to the Puerto Rican flag, at every march, and be able to talk about how fucked up the war in Iraq is in every gay bar. Above all, I’d like working class lesbians would stop seeing their own zeros as separate from the rest of their lives.
In a recent visit to Puerto Rico, I went back to nocturnal Santurce and I drove through its streets until I reached the latest addition: a fortress-like Walmart whose walls pushed out expansively. Symbol and gentrifying agent, this building of large numbers promises to quantify our lives. What can we do against its daily assaults? …We can do infinite things without number or name, in every alley we find, in every public plaza we like, in every seat of government we run across on our way to and from that place called zero.
Raquel Salas Rivera has published poetry in anthologies and literary and online journals such as Los rostros de la Hidra, Cachaperismos, La Revista del Instituto de Cultural Puertorriqueña, and CounterPunch. In 2004, she received a scholarship to participate in Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program. In 2010, she won first and second place in the Decimosexto Certamen Literario de la Universidad Politécnica de Puerto Rico, and first place in the Certamen de Poesía del Festival Cultural Queer. Her theoretical work seeks to establish a dialogue with the writings of Samuel Delany, Jack Spicer, Angela María Dávila, and various Puerto Rican writers from the 1950s and 1960s. In 2011, she published Caneca de anhelos turbios, her first poetry book. She has a BA in Comparative Literature from the University of Puerto Rico and is currently completing her doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] Burgos, Julia de. Obra Poética. San Juan, P.R.: Editorial del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 2004: 20. Print. My translation: “Si del no ser venimos y hacia el no ser marchamos,/nada entre nada y nada, cero entre cero y cero,/ y si entre nada y nada no puede existir nada,/ brindemos por el bello no ser de nuestros cuerpos.”
[ii] Márquez, Gabriel García, and Gregory Rabassa. Chronicle of a Death Foretold: A Novel. New York: Vintage International, 2003: 88-89. Print.
[iii] “Centro Minillas” is a large workplace that includes various offices, governmental and otherwise.
[iv] The plazita is the “Plaza de Santurce”, which during the day serves as a marketplace and at night is an open-air hang out spot where large groups of people drink, dance, talk, laugh, and let go.
[v] Here I use country not in the sense of independent nation, but in the sense of colonized space with clearly demarcated borders.
[vi] The expression, “Es un cero a la izquierda” or, ‘She or he is a zero on the left’ can mean that a person has no relevance or that they were treated as such.
[vii] The irony here lies in the fact that the word ‘duck’ translates into pato (m.) or pata (f.), which in Puerto Rico also means fag or dyke.
[viii] Glenn, Cheryl. Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004:4. Print.
[ix] A pícaro was and is a literary figure similar to a Shakespearian fool. He had and has an extraordinary capacity to trick, convince, connive, and survive as the underdog who wins by virtue of his craftiness.
[x] These terms presented various difficulties in translation. Although sáfica y lésbica are easy to translate respectively as ‘Saphic’ and ‘Lesbian’, pata, tortillera, troquera, and marimacha present various difficulties. Pata translates approximately as ‘queer’ or ‘dyke’; troquera refers to the stereotype that woman who like women are into masculine occupations such as fixing cars or driving trucks; tortillera presents the visual image of two tortillas (bio-female bodies) rubbing against each other; and marimacha is a portmanteau which combines the prefix mari-, a derivative of either mariposa (butterfly) or María, with macha, a feminized version of the word macho (a bio-male that hyper-performs masculinity).
[xi] This expression translates as: ‘Better a whore than a dyke’. It is a commonly heard expression that is not exclusive to Puerto Rico, but I have yet to hear in English.