Mascara/Massacre: Salvadoran Queerness Within and Beyond its Borders
Mascara/Massacre brings together two gender non-conforming poets with Salvadoran heritage: Nadie, a thirty-three-year-old from Soyapango, El Salvador and Christopher Soto AKA Loma, a twenty-seven-year-old Boricua-Salvadoran born and raised in Los Angeles, California. This interview is a rare opportunity for conversations between queer Salvadorans within and beyond its borders. It is also an opportunity to discuss the evolution of the poets’ queer identities and politics, queer literature, as well as the importance of queer narratives in (trans)national discourse.
Willy Palomo (WP): How do you identify? What have been some of the most important experiences that led to you understanding your queer identity?
Christopher Soto (CS): For gender and sexuality, I think the term “Queer” feels comfortable to me overall. Sometimes I also like “faggot” and “homosexual” and “gay” to describe my sexuality. Sometimes I also like “non-binary” or “agender” or “gender confused” to describe my gender
Nadie (N): I like to identify myself as “Nadie” (“Nobody” in English). It’s a flexible identity to exist in that includes integral aspects of my personality not solely centered on sexuality. During the first half of my twenties, I thought I was a “gay man,” because the cultural products I consumed (movies, television series, [almost all of which were from Europe or the United States]) instilled in me that it was the dissident identity that best described me; however, in my adulthood, I’ve come to realize that I don’t fit into those conventions. And sometimes, so that others may have the comfort of categorizing me, I describe myself as “gender fluid.” But that is not a question I need to answer very frequently, honestly.
WP: What’s your relationship to Salvadoran-ness?
CS: My family came to the U.S. undocumented before and after the Civil War in El Salvador. I was born in Southern California, with a very big and intimate Salvi family (my mother’s side). Have visited the country, never lived there, immersed in the culture that my family brought to the U.S. for my whole life.
N: I was born, raised, and currently live in El Salvador. On one hand, I feel really proud to be Salvadoran and to be able to experience a culture so rich that sometimes it seems like a secret that few people can appreciate in all its dimensions. On the other hand, I feel as if I have Stockholm syndrome.
WP: Loma, you, in particular, have wrestled with the cishet white gaze in your work. Do you feel like sad girl poems was successful in its negotiation of this gaze? What would you do differently? What worked well?
CS: I’m not sure what success would mean in this instance, as it pertains to literature negotiating the cishet white gaze. I partly want to veer away from the question and say that a lot of my energies right now are being spent internally- trying to understand anxiety and healing from domestic violence (and also healing from the violence of whiteness as it relates to gender, sexuality, etc.) but in this process, it has felt like very small internal movements for me. Im teaching myself how to breathe properly and how to exercise and how to eat and how to leave behind bad energies and people who aren’t invested in my well being. I think this is the type of success that is at the forefront of my mind at the moment, maybe because destroying the cishet white gaze feels so impossible at the moment, under this trump presidency. I believe that literature can bring many inequalities and atrocities and beauties to the forefront of people’s mind. I believe literature is a tool for social change, in the toolbox with public demonstration, voting, rioting, and all other forms of resistance. I’m just not sure how to calibrate success of literature or other protests, in combating such large issues like the cis het white gaze. The impact is there but it was in a chorus with other forms of resistance, and the impact is not always tangible or seen immediately.
WP: I think one of the barometers of success in this instance is whether you are comfortable with the reception of your work and the way it is being read in white audiences. I love the introduction you wrote to sad girl poems because it literally asks people to do more than just devour your pain; it asks them to donate to Black&Pink, to protest. You seemed particularly interested in preventing white liberals from co-opting your work.
CS: Yes, I think this reading is spot on. I still feel passionate about literature interacting with other forms of social protests. I think, at this particular moments, I’m just exhausted about thinking of and centering white liberals in my work.
WP: Javier, how do you challenge the cishet, the white, the North American gaze in your poems?
N: By answering your question in Spanish.
This type of discussion where race is the filter from which we observe reality and where the obvious antagonist is the white gringo is a faraway issue for me. I do not know if it is far from my comfort zone or far because I personally separate myself from the issues: I do not know. I think deducing that issues such as these are relevant or against those who struggle in El Salvador is like deducing that there are Starbucks and McDonald’s (yes, there are, but they are always different): it is always an imported discourse that will find interlocutors wherever it can, as long as it can fit into a movement with more recognition and with a whole support structure that is lacking in these regions. Definitely, these huge issues affect us, but from here, I see those effects as rebounds, like perverted transformations of monsters imitating or adapting aspects from culturally colonizing countries like the United States.
As for cis-heteronormativity, I think that one way to challenge it is to live brazenly in society as someone explicitly and openly not heterosexual, to write without self-censorship or translation. But I do not see it as a conscious stance to write against hegemonic sexuality. I think that my position is more positive and in tandem with my personal healing process: I write this way because I cannot write any other way. If that is perceived as against the personal outlooks of other groups, that is an unplanned consequence of my work.
WP: In sad girl poems, Soto declares “this is such a useless fucking poem.” In “the water – the sound – the air,” Ramirez declares, “Poetry, it is only worth if it limits itself to description.” What political ethic drives your work? Is that related to queerness?
CS: I say it’s a useless poem, as it relates to bringing back a friend who has passed away. The poem is an elegy. I think writing that poem had other uses, though not everything needs to have a use. That feels like such a definitive limit to poetry, where it often feels like poetry is infinite magic-- poetry cant bring back the dead. Can it? What does it mean for the dead to come back? Oh, Rory… I miss you.
WP: One of the reasons I point to that line and that poem in particular is because of the title: “Ars Poetica.” According to the Poetry Foundation, an ars poetica is “a poem that explains the ‘art of poetry,’ or a meditation on poetry using the form and techniques of a poem.” In the past, I have argued this poem (and other parts of sad girl poems) positions you in a similar vein as Black Arts Movement and Generacion Comprometida writers like Dalton that believed writers must go beyond poems and live their word: if poems are useless, then we must do more than merely write. Why did you name this poem “ars poetica”? In what ways did you hope this poem would define your aesthetic?
CS: I named it “Ars Poetics” because it is a contemplation on the art of poetry. The narrator feels limited by poetry and its inability to bring back a lost friend. I appreciate other social actions taken in supplement to poetry but I also don’t want to diminish the truth that poetry in itself is movement making work. One form of protest is not greater than any other. I want to appreciate various people for protesting in the various ways that they can, at whatever particular moment in life they are in. Also, I wasn’t thinking about my aesthetic too much in this chapbook (I don’t think). I feel like I was still such a young writer, trying to find my own voice.
I think the political ethic or social or spiritual or artistic core of the work is always changing for me, though I tend to be interested in the idea of writing project based books. I think my work in Sad Girl Poems was about surviving domestic violence, I think the manuscript Im working on now is about understanding the state structures (prisons, surveillance, punishment) that surround the lives of survivors, I think my next book will be very much about healing and claiming my life for me. In this sense, that the writing is so centralized around my lived experience, then yes the poems are queer. Yes, my survival is political to some.
N: I do not attempt to write or create any type of work from queerness, although I understand why I can be described that way superficially, especially if the gaze that describes me is centered from a “privileged heterosexual” perspective. What has moved me to create are radical class objective: to show that where I come from (a place stigmatized for its gangs, its violence, and thought of as backwater) you can be a full-time artist without compromising your vision, to show that the themes we live in these contexts are just as valid as those from any other creator.
I consider myself above all else an observer, and because of that, the bodies of work I am building gain their definition afterwards or halfway through. It’s once I’m in the process that I realize what I am writing about, what I am drawing, what I am trying to do with an exhibition, etc.
In respect to the closing lines of the poem “the water - the sound - the air,” it is a provocation and a way of existing within the context of the national poetry scene. A few years ago, I found it useful to distance myself as much as possible from metaphor, a figure of speech that dominates the poetry of the writers closest to me. In the face of so much poetry weighted down with cryptic images, I decided, as a comic fake, to stick to the simple description of what I witness with my very dilated eyes. I think that trying to describe that already constitutes a poetic act as vital as when human beings first began to speak intelligibly. What better metaphor is there than “rock” for that thing that other cultures call something else.
WP: In what ways do you strive to subvert language and form in your aesthetics? In particular, I am thinking about some of the more abrasive, vulgar, or harsh imagery sometimes found in your pieces. In sad girl poems, for example, Soto references everything from “pubic hairs / Curled like broken strings // on a harp” to characters with names like “Cum Dumpster.” Likewise, Ramirez’s “I’ve seen on the sidewalk” is an ode to piss. Why emphasize these particular themes in your work? Is it political?
CS: I’m interested in a punk literary aesthetic. I like the grotesque, the odd, the hyper-sexual and perverse, the oxymoronic, the sacreligious. I grew up on punk so it feels like the voice of my community and my truest self. I think my work is political, though that word “political” feels so broad to me so often. I wrote this essay called “What Constitutes as Political Poetry.” I still don’t know how I relate to that word. I’m figuring it out.
N: Years ago, I identified myself completely with the first part of Loma’s response. I suppose a few strands of those interests have remained within me. But now I see that these characteristics are in my work because I find it impossible to leave the conventionally unpleasant out of the image I try to capture. As I mentioned before, my way of writing poetry is always with dilated pupils, in a state where the details others overlook retain their relevance. For me, it is impossible to write about life without writing about shit, blood, and mud; omitting these images would be to pretend life is something is not, it’d be hypocritical. For example, Willy describes my poem as an ode to urine and I do not see it like that: for me, it is a simple description from my subjectivity. I do not lionize, but rather simply describe what it looks like from my perspective. And yes, I find in this attitude a declaration of principles, especially within a community of writers where most of them prettify the complexity of our present reality.
WP: Javier, what is the state of queer literature in El Salvador? Who are the most prominent artists? How do you and other artists you know reckon with El Salvador’s queer legacy?
N: In the past year, in a colloquium about woman visual artists, one of the speakers declared that there was no queer art in El Salvador. I was left wondering why this artist declared such a thing. I supposed it was because the art created by sexual dissidents in El Salvador does not fit (and will not fit) within the scope of images that show up when you search #QueerArt in Google Images or Tumblr (at least before they removed pornographic content.) The most ironic thing in this case is that the colloquium was moderated by Alejandro Córdova, an openly homosexual writer that writes explicitly about being gay, homoeroticism, discrimination, reclamation, etc. Also, it made me think about how homo or bi or pansexual writers in El Salvador are more preoccupied with their work being recognized as “quality literature,” that is, literature that meets the standards of literary community here, rather than on its content. It gives me the impression that writers here are more interested in being writers than in being queer writers, because queerness is something intrinsic to their personalities and manifests itself in what they write.
To name a few of the writers (not only poets) who create from and about sexual dissidentry, consider: Ricardo Lindo, Teresa Andrade, Mauricio Orellana Suárez, Kenny Bolaños, Sylvia Ethel Mathus, Élmer Menjívar, Alejandro Córdova, Ligia María Orellana, Virginia Lemus, René Chacón, Alberto López Serrano, among others whose names escape me at the moment. And it seems a little unjust to me to group these writers together solely for their sexual identities. Those who know the work of these people know that each one writes over such a wide diversity of themes and styles that it would be difficult to anthologize them with any coherence.
WP: Can you describe the importance of articles like the El Faro feature on Juliana Martinez? What are your initial responses and thoughts? Are there any noteworthy limits to projects like the El Faro article?
N: The original article that El Faro refers to is extremely valuable to me in that you can appreciate the very particular universe of that time when it was written. It fills me with emotion to read that Juliana responds that she “belongs to both” when being interrogated about her gender. It is such a beautiful act to me--the most perverse romanticism, considering that she makes this declaration from a prison and is being exhibited as a phenomenon. It draws attention to the fact that sexual diversity has always been part of our reality and that it is only because of the perverse play of the politicians and their laws that these individuals are seen as marginal. I am not saying that Salvadoran society is or has been totally tolerant to those who deviate from hetero-hegemony; however, it is true that the image is not so dark. There are exceptions that are worth exploring to have a more nuanced understanding of how sexual diversity has been treated historically.
WP: I feel your same joy in reading the article about Juliana Martinez. One thing that confuses me a little bit is that the author who introduces the text sometimes seems like he does not have the vocabulary to talk about gender. For example, he says homophobia when he also means to say transphobia or phobia against the LGBTQIA+ community in general. It’s definitely something minor, though.
WP: Loma, In 2018, you published Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color. What has your in-depth reading taught you about the queer experience? How has it shaped your experience?
CS: So many different ways to relate to queerness and to poetry. Publishing this anthology helped me come into myself- to better understand my gender, sexuality, race, lived experiences, poetry.
WP: Is there a particular poet or poem that stands out to you as transforming your understanding of yourself? I know reading your chapbook (as well as the work of Danez Smith and other QPOC poets) has helped me stop hurting myself psychologically, especially in relationship to race, sexuality, and poetry. As a young poet, I internalized the voices of a lot of white mentors who ultimately were uncomfortable with my voice and experience. Part of the reason I appreciate your work is because it helped me find my way out of the violent rules they burdened me with, both on the page and outside it.
CS: Thank you so much for these kinds words. It’s warmed my heart to know that the poems have helped you. The poem “I Dream of Horses Eating Cops” by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza is one of my favorite poems of all times. To think that I was able to first publish this poem online and then republish it in the “Nepantla” anthology feels very special to me. I was born in the Inland Empire, where this poem take place and I feel everything about this poem in my body.
WP: How do you see yourself fitting within Salvadoran literary traditions?
CS: Was reading about Roque Dalton and how he said he could never forgive the people who murdered Lorca. I have no clue what it would mean to forgive the people who murdered Dalton- leftists and revolutionaries he fought for killed him. It breaks every part of me to know that he was killed by his own people. During the Civil War, the guerillas stole from my abuela, a working class woman raising seven children on her own, in order to pay for their guns. My family was leftists, campesinos, workers, revolutionaries. I think I stand in the tradition of feeling the hurt of revolution- hurt from the enemy and even hurt from “my own” people. I hate the word revolution. I hate its bloody reality. Heads severed. Body’s hung. I am afraid to ever know it. I dont think I’m as brave as Dalton or Lorca who have known such political turmoil. I want vast systems change. I want a living wage, healthcare, reparations for black and native people. I don’t want anyone else in my family to see murders, to walk through the desert…. How did I get here… I am thinking now about Claribel Alegria and her relationship with Dalton. I am thinking about the latin american history of political surrealism in both of their work. Maybe their interest in political surrealism, alongside their interest in love and interpersonal relationships too, is what resonates with me most.
WP: I deeply relate to the sentiments you’re bringing up, especially because my tia was kidnapped by guerillas and militares during the war. One small intervention I want to make, however, is to note the fact the UN Truth Commission in El Salvador found that the Salvadoran armed forces were responsible for 85% of civilian deaths during the war and the guerilla was only responsible for 5%. Revisionists narratives sometimes claim both sides were equally responsible for atrocities during the war.
What I hear you saying though is the relationship with Dalton’s work, and perhaps by extension La Generacion Comprometida’s work is really fraught, because as much as we admire the work, the craft, the commitment, the ideals, we question whether or not the war was worthwhile…
CS: Thank you for that intervention. Yes, the military government was responsible for the vast majority of the murders. The revolution was necessary and my family, and others who took to the streets in order to fight for working people, were unbelievably brave. Though, I still think it’s important to name the violences that we have done to one another along the way, to name the hurt that we (my family and even I) still carry from the path to freedom. I definitely DON’T mean to imply that Dalton’s work is fraught! If anything, I am mourning his passing, upset that he was killed by his own. This does not diminish the power of his work or of anyone else’s in that movement. This is to say, the revolution was not easy and we sometimes hurt our own people along the way.
N: This is difficult to answer, considering that my work is still mostly unpublished and in the editing process. For me, it is most easy to identify myself with generations of artists who died before I was born. Literary figures like Salarrué (1899-1975) and Francisco Gavidia (1863-1955) fascinate me because the expansive and limitless vision they display in their creative works; also because I do not need to deal with their bodies and opinions in my life, all I need to do is interact with their already completed works. I struggle to align myself with more recent generations, some of whom are still alive, like the Committed Generation (La Generacion Comprometida) or the Cynical Generation (Generacion de Cinismo), for the simple fact that our closeness demystifies them and gives them more human dimensions: they represent other contemporaries better and you can approach them in various ways, which is a quality that I particularly appreciate.
I distantly identify with the figure of la loca, perhaps best rendered as “queen” in English, who writes cynically on the margin of trends and conventions: the polarizing loca, like the Chilean Pedro Lemebel (1952-2015), and the Spanish Leopoldo María Panero (1948-2014), the Argentinian Néstor Perlongher (1949-1992), to mention a few. Writers who, in addition to delineating a dissident experience (sexual and others), experimented and molded the diverse world of poetic forms to fit their needs.