By Professor Cathryn Merla-Watson
My great-grandparents immigrated from northern Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. While my great-grandmother, María Ramírez, crossed from Piedras Negras with documents and parents in tow, my great-grandfather, José Merla, who came from Saltillo, did not have papers. Our family lore maintains that he swam across the river with his brothers with a goat in tow and that he ate the goat upon crossing. My family always laughs at that part of the story, which as a child I never quite understood. What I had once understood to be tangential or even cruel, in my adulthood concretized as a symbol of survival, resilience, and communion.
My grandparents ended up marrying and settling on the Mexican westside of San Antonio. They had eight children. Even since the colonial period, the westside of San Antonio has been quarantined from the rest of San Antonio, its institutions, and resources, including equitable housing, quality education, healthcare, etc. Even though my grandmother and her sibling’s lives were drenched in poverty, there was also an abundance of precious cultural traditions knowledge.
Unfortunately, the memories, histories, and experiences of the people of color and the marginalized are rarely housed in an official archive. This is even more so when it comes to the histories of queer people of color. So many of these stories have been left untold, barely audible in muffled tones or grammars of ghost stories, invisible though palpable. As someone who identifies as queer and bisexual, I have always been interested in better understanding my family’s own queer history. Even though this history is often weighed down, suffocated by collective vergüenza, for me it is also a powerful reminder that my own identity does not exist in a vacuum.
I know of at least one queer tío in my family. He has lived with his partner for decades, though he publically he insists that he remained “single” because his heart was broken by a woman in his youth. I often wonder how he negotiated the complex space of his barrio. Where and when were those moments of possibility, of queer community, and even ecstasy? How did they manifest and transpire?
These questions undergird not just my pursuit to understand and tell my family history but also my own academic research and teaching. In seeking the answers to these questions, I— and I would add a whole generation of critical ethnic studies and gender studies scholars— have been influenced, and transformed by the work of queer Chicana historian Emma Pérez and her concept of the “decolonial imaginary.” Developed in her watershed monograph The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas Into History (1999), the decolonial imaginary conceptualizes and elucidates the way in which history has been authored through a colonial imaginary or perspective which omits the histories of Chicanas, queers, and Chicanxs more generally.
Along with Chicanas like the valley’s own Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, and Chela Sandoval, Pérez’s concept is a major touchstone of Chicana Third Space Feminism. The decolonial imaginary debunks and rejects dualistic thinking, and makes space for the histories and knowledge of the “Other.” Pérez has even gone as far to include queer space in fiction. Forgetting the Alamo, Or, Blood Memory (2010) recollects the journey of protagonist Micaela Campos, a Tejana lesbian cowgirl, after the fall of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto. Although fiction, by recuperating the history of a “Tejana baby butch” this novel shows how fiction and the imaginary can function as powerful archival tool of the decolonial and shows how the writing of history is deeply subjective and shaped by identity.
Generally speaking, Pérez’s scholarship has uncovered and remapped terrain that too long has been invisible, buried in the colonial imaginary. Her scholarship continues to inspire collective and creative efforts to radically rewrite history and expand the decolonial imaginary. Those seeking to do the same with their own family histories or work can benefit from her work and intellectual advancements.
This Friday, April 27, from 5:30 till 7:00 pm Pérez will be giving a public lecture entitled “The Will to Feel: Queering Decolonial Methods” in the UTRGV Ballroom. Her lecture is sponsored by the Gender and Women’s Studies Program and is made possible the program’s National Endowment for the Humanities grant.
Cathryn Merla-Watson is an Assistant Professor in the Literature and Cultural Studies Department at UTRGV and affiliate faculty in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program.