NWSA Journal Volume 21, Number 3, Fall 2009 E-ISSN: 1527-1889 Print ISSN: 1040-0656 DOI: 10.1353/nwsa.0.0110
Reviewed by Camilla Fojas
Chicana Sexuality and Gender: Cultural Refiguring in Literature, Oral History and Art by Debra J. Blake. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008, 296 pp., $84.95 cloth, $23.95.
From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture
by Myra Mendible. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. 336 pp., $65.00 hardcover, $24.95 paper.
by Myra Mendible. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007. 336 pp., $65.00 hardcover, $24.95 paper.
Debra J. Blake's Chicana Sexuality and Gender: Cultural Refiguring in Literature, Oral History, and Art and the collection of essays edited by Myra Mendible, From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, together fill a gap in feminist criticism of Latina iconography across the Americas. Though these texts cover different genres, periods, and disciplines, and address different audiences, they work very well together to offer a critical vantage onto a broad range of Latina representations that are both pan-ethnic and regionally diverse. Debra Blake's work on Chicana writers', oral historians', and artists' consumption of major Mexicana icons pairs nicely with Myra Mendible's edited collection of essays on pan- Latina icons of popular culture and the cultural fascination with the hypersexualized versions of the Latina body. Both works address issues related to the production of the Latina body in popular discourses as well as the experience and representations of Latina sexuality. [End Page 197] Chicana feminists have long been reworking representations of La Malinche, La Llorona, and La Virgen de Guadalupe and other powerful female icons of Mexican culture. Following this tradition, Debra J. Blake's Chicana Sexuality and Gender: Cultural Refiguring in Literature, Oral History, and Art draws on a history of texts about these icons as they are interpreted in cultural productions and in the oral histories of "Mexicanas." In particular, she merges analyses by noted Chicana writers Gloria Anzaldúa, Ana Castillo, Cherríe Moraga, and Alma Villanueva with oral histories from nine Mexicanas from across the United States. Minerva Godoy, Ventura Loya, and Cindy Siqueiros from Muscatine Iowa; Vicky Rivera Reyes, Aurora Harada, and Mary Ozuna from San Antonio, Texas; and Evelyn Gonzales, Virginia Urias, and Irma Vásquez from Tuscon, Arizona. She departs somewhat from earlier critical work of Chicana feminism with the innovative use of the descriptive term "Mexicana" in lieu of the more commonly used and politically infected "Chicana." She does so out of recognition of the often regional basis of Chicana, a term that has tended to be used among Latinas in the Southwest and the West. The term Mexicana is inclusive and aims to capture common heritage and transnational affiliation to Mexico and reach beyond regional differences for Latinas in different parts of the United States. Her approach to the analysis of cultural iconography is equally novel. Chicana Sexuality and Gender seeks out instances of resistance to dominant narrative constructions by weaving together interpretations across various audiences and types of texts. Blake goes beyond a visual or historical text to seek meaning in various interpretive communities of Mexicanas. In fact, this is perhaps the first study to examine oral histories in the context of literary and artistic renderings of major Mexican cultural icons. Blake is attendant to the social and economic class differences among the various constituencies represented in her work in order to seek meaning beyond these differences. She departs from the typical notion of the "organic intellectual," a term she finds imprecise, to foreground the term "professional intellectual" or anyone who is able to make a living on their intellectual labors. This marks a subtle distinction between the organic or nonacademic intellectuals, working-class or semiprofessional women, and professional intellectuals. In her work, Blake has chosen to focus on icons that have shaped the moral, spiritual, and intellectual world of Mexicanas. In dominant discourses, these icons have been used to police and monitor women and guide their proper behavior. La Llorona has served as a cautionary symbol about the proper maternal role, La Malinche represents women's role in colonization and potential betrayal of nationalist projects, while La Virgen de Guadalupe is the ideal to which women must aspire. Blake surveys much of the recent popular and artistic cultural reproductions or transcoding of these icons, including images that link to contemporary issues. For [End Page 198] instance, she documents a recent "got milk?" commercial by students of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena California that features La Llorona as a woman who seeks solace in a carton of milk, but her search is thwarted when she discovers that the carton is empty, cuing the inevitable tag-line of the milk campaign. Though this commercial targets a Latino audience for its market potential, it also functions as an event of popular culture that adds to feminist transfigurations of La Llorona that depicts her sympathetically as a suffering woman and not as a murderer. Chicana Sexuality and Gender is a complex and multifaceted rendering of major Mexican cultural and religious female icons and figures in contemporary cultural productions. These legendary figures cast a long shadow, dating back to the colonial era and prior, on contemporary Mexican identity and cultural practices for women, particularly relating to gender and sexuality. Debra Blake examines how a diverse group of women with heritages that trace back to Mexico, across various social and economic divisions, interpret and consume Mexican iconography.
In a similar vein, From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, examines the "conspicuous consumption" of the mass-mediated "Latina body," which Myra Mendible describes as a "convenient fiction—a historically contingent, mass- produced combination of myth, desire, location, marketing, and political expedience" (1). She and the contributors are concerned with not only how the Latina body is produced but, more specifically, how it is consumed across major texts and icons of popular culture. These two collections are perhaps well-suited as sister texts, each points to interpretive communities and consuming audiences that resist and critically engage normative readings and representations of Latina female sexuality. The latter text, edited by Myra Mendible, features many established and emerging scholars who all turn their attention to the cultural fascination with Latina sexual corporality as embodied by such stars as Jennifer Lopez, Lupe Vélez, Celia Cruz, Salma Hayek, and Shakira. She notes, along with many of the contributors, that there has been an intensification of a cultural fantasy about Latinas that constitutes a symptom of U.S. culture; but it is a symptom that has real consequences in the hemisphere and the world not just for individual female bodies but also for international relations and political communities. This work is truly unique in the manner that Mendible has framed the collection of essays by drawing on cultural theories about embodiment and the construction of gender and race along with analysis of racialized and gendered sexuality in global capitalism. For example, she draws on Judith Butler's work on corporeality and gender performativity to add a critical dimension about the construction of racialized identities in popular culture. She argues that the work of the project builds on "the assumption that ethnic groups are constituted through various classificatory, discursive acts and corporeal exchanges" (3). This work maps the various [End Page 199] ways that the Latina body and its attendant identity has been produced and critically reconstructed from the emergence of U.S. popular culture to the present. Thus, she locates the Latina body within a history of theoretical articulations— from Freud, Simone de Beauvoir, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, and Foucault—that examine how the body comes into being and what it signifies. This anthology does what previous work on the body has yet to do, it puts the Latina body "at the center of its analysis, exploring its constitutive role in the production, contestation, and consumption of Latinidad in the United States" (3). Drawing on Arlene Dávilas work in Latinos Inc., she notes the market significance of the Latina "norm" as it supports and extends the notion of the Latino family with the benevolent and light-skinned maternal figure at its representational core. There have been several analyses of marketing to the Latino market, some that, like Davila's work, note the representation of the Latino family, of which the Latina represents the moral core, as a nonthreatening embodiment of "American" normative values and modern consumerism. She notes that this produces an ambivalent depiction of the Latina as "a desiring subject of consumer goods" and an object or a "carefully crafted product" (14). The contributors all note how Latina audiences negotiate popular cultural visibility along with the hypervisibility of the Latina body as consumer object. These varied readings examine the production of these bodies while they question the myths of identity, particularly in terms of the power of Hollywood film and media culture to inscribe and project identities. For this reason, the collection begins with Clara Rodríguez's case study of the production of audiences of Hollywood film in the neocolony of Puerto Rico during the formation of its independent national identity from 1896–1934. This opening chapter situates the rest of the work in terms of the power of Hollywood to dominate local film-going publics in the Caribbean and Latin America. Lupe Vélez, early film star and original "spitfire" and "hot tamale," is the subject of work by Rosa Linda Fregoso and William Nericcio. Fregoso and Nericcio depart from earlier studies of Vélez, which take her as an abject sign of otherness. Fregoso explores the meaning of this otherness both in Mexico and the United States, finally examining what the vicissitudes of this representation meant for Lupe herself. Nericcio in spectacular prose critically examines a popular cultural genealogy that begins with Lupe Vélez and includes contemporary Latina "bombshells." He locates Vélez as the object of racialized erotic fascination, scandal, and gossip; he notes that this circuit of gossip and erotic fixation continues unabated and circulates around contemporary Latina stars as fetish objects. The fetish is a key object in the constitution of the Latina body, for Frances Negrón Mutaner, Celia Cruz's shoes spark a reflection on the role and function of this iconic singer and star in the Americas as well as the ongoing negotiations of Latina identity. Many of these works locate the Latina body not just in the [End Page 200] United States but in a transnational cultural circuit, a circuit via which many of these stars traveled through the idiom of "cross-over." Salma Hayek and Shakira are examined in terms of their hemispheric cultural pervasiveness and cross-over appeal for U.S. audiences. For Isabel Molina, Hayek signifies various cross-cultural phenomena, particularly the drive to entrepreneurialism, a U.S. cultural value, along with exoticism, part of the circuit of U.S. popular cultural desires. For Cynthia Fuchs, Shakira crosses over with similar savvy, she exploits multiple aspects of her identity to curry favor with U.S. audiences while maintaining a cultural "authenticity" that appeals to Latin/o American audiences. Tara Lockhart examines how Jennifer Lopez crosses various national boundaries and media markets, partly for her ability to transmute her ethnic and racialized body for different constituencies. Karen R. Tochlin engages Michelle Rodriguez of Girlfight to explore a different construction of the Latina body, one that is shaped and defined by masculine discourses. The last section of this collection of essays is about the "sensational bodies" of popular culture, particularly major media events, news stories, television talk show hosts, and the cultural spin around the first Latina Barbie doll. For Charla Ogaz, the Lorena Bobbit story is a sensational narrative about the castrating Latina, but it is a story that conceals a narrative of domestic abuse and rape. Isabel Molina Guzmán examines the Elián González story in terms of his two female caretakers, his mother and first cousin, to critically analyze the symbolic role of the transnational Latino family in mainstream U.S. media. For Ana Patricia Rodríguez, the Cuban American mystery writer, Carolina García- Aguilera, encodes Cuban American political relations into her stories while creating a new sub-genre in detective fiction. The first Latina Barbie is the occasion for Karen Goldman's piece for the critical consumption of the plastic doll across the Americas. The collection of essays ends appropriately with an essay by Viviana Rojas about Latinas "talking back," particularly on the talk shows El Show de Cristina and Laura en América. Like the work of Latina cultural producers in Chicana Sexuality and Gender, this work on talk shows is about the interventions of Latinas into public discourses. In a sense, all of the authors, oral historians, and cultural producers in these two books engage the practices of cultural contestations and critical reinterpretations of dominant discourses about Latina bodies and sexuality. Taken together, these two works address major gaps in the history and politics of gender and sexuality as they relate to Latinas in the Americas. [End Page 201]
Camilla Fojas is associate professor and Director of Latin American and Latino Studies at DePaul University. Her most recent work is Border Bandits: Hollywood on the Southern Frontier (Texas University Press 2008) and Mixed Race Hollywood, co-edited with Mary Beltán (New York University Press 2008). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.