By Carina Guzmán (Islandia)
Stor(y)ing mi desmadre: On feminized queer nightlife archives and historiography in Latin America
I. Nightlife in the margin of the margins: Feminized communities within sexual dissidence
In late 2005, a small group of friends that I was a part of in my hometown of Mexico City, began to collectively organize lesbian and queer women’s parties. We launched this project because the existing nightlife for lesbians in Mexico City was bleak. We found the options were not only few, but often unattractive, economically inaccessible, and/or misogynist and lesbophobic. At the same time, we could not get enough of it, literally. We were restless and eager to participate in nightlife with other queer women, and available choices were simply unsatisfying.
Even if, historically, lesbian house parties in Mexico City have been central to queer women’s sociality (and always guaranteed fun) we hoped to create something more regular that did not require being in-the-know. Our aim was to have events that combined the warmth and familiarity of a house party with a publicly available invitation open to an audience of machas and their friends. Macha comes from marimacha which is a mainly derogatory way to refer to butch women/lesbians in Mexico. In our world, we appropriated the term and made it intentionally malleable: macha(s) can refer to women in general; butch women and gay men; feminine people including gay men; lesbians in general; feminists, allies of any gender, ourselves, our party guests, friends, lovers, etc. Our touchstone for considering someone a macha is their queer complicity. A macha simply “gets” they are a macha; they participate in our code and relajo.[i] [ii]
The party-organizing endeavour, which we considered a political project of spatial and economic justice, quickly took off and began to spawn other activities like creating a music and poetry stage show, reporting (on a volunteer basis) for local gay press and an internet radio talk show. Moreover, we organized a feminist burlesque workshop (taught by then NYC-based artist Old Ma Femme) from which our cabaret troupe was born. That is, a world emerged around the macha politics of place-making, fun and camp we were embracing.
Although the endeavour was culturally successful, it was, nevertheless, economically unsustainable. And, after a couple of years, organizing began to slow down and eventually ended. Over ten years after the first party, my compañeras and I began to wonder what our legacy had been, and how we felt about it. These discussions led us to search through drawers, nearly defunct blogs, email accounts and old hard drives for all the materials we could collect. We also realized how much things had changed in ten years: our events had happened almost entirely before the ubiquity of smartphones and, therefore, lacked an abundance of the casual photos and video on social media we have become accustomed to. While social media of course existed, it was not yet the organizing and archiving tool it has since become. For instance, we never once used a Facebook Event page or a hashtag.
Then, in 2018, in Buenos Aires, I attended a talk by members of the Archivo de la Memoria Trans. Theirs is a highly structured and professionalized community archival initiative that holds the personal collections of several elders of the transfeminine community. They have a bricks-and-mortar archives, a large digitized repository (which is not publicly accessible), a vibrant social media presence in which they feature a lot of the archival photographs. They also sell archival swag including buttons and tote bags (aka macha purses!). Since then, I have looked at other queer archives based on the personal collections of community members in other Latin American sites such as the Colombia Trans History initiative and other Colombian projects such Archivo Queer and Museo Q; the publishing, archival and historiographic work of Argentinian punk Pat Pietrafesa of the Kumbia Queers,[iii] [iv] [v] and the archival aspect the recently launched website of Operación Queer in Nicaragua, among others.
I have thought about how the materials these initiatives discuss and share are similar to those I had been thinking about with my compañeras in Mexico, including how they reflect improvised self-organizing and the combined centrality of domestic spaces as well as cabaret in the nightlife experience. This has furthermore led me to study the many ways that feminized communities — such as machas (including transfeminine people, lesbians and other queer women) — inhabit the margins of an already marginalized LGBT (meaning gay) nightlife in Latin American cities. On the one hand, transwomen are welcome into gay clubs and bars on peak nights (meaning when the gay crowd is there), if hired as performers. On the other, the macha crowd is often not welcome as patrons on these peak nights, and are channeled in the direction of an otherwise slow weeknight — for instance the popular (yet not therefore beloved) jueves lésbico (Lesbian Thursdays) held in several clubs throughout Mexico City’s Zona Rosa.
Yet, despite the best intentions of many gay bars and clubs (and in cases like Mexico City, the existence of laws aimed at preventing discrimination in commercial establishments), feminized communities within the spectrum of sexual dissidence seldomly feel welcome in gay nightlife spaces. (Disidencia sexual/sexual dissidence is a term often used in Spanish to refer to what in English is often referred to as the queer community or the LGBT community.) The culture of LGBT bars and clubs–reflected in their service, shows, music, prices, etc–can be unwelcoming and even hostile; we know we are not the “target audience.”
So, denied a comfortable experience as a patron/community member, and usually operating with limited material means, machas self-organize nightlife and cabaret under different logics, cultures, and economic dynamics across Latin American cities. This counter-rational work that escapes the logics of capitalism (meaning you cannot make a significant profit even if you want to) generates a great deal of material and digital objects such as contracts, scripts, receipts, photos, videos, ruined stockings, playlists, empty cartons/bottles of beer, chipped press-on nails, gunky eyelashes, gluey facial hair, love letters, hate email, press coverage and all things related to promotion including flyers, stickers, posters, interviews, t-shirts, blogs, calendars, among many others.
What becomes of these objects once the event is over? This is a question that I have been thinking about for years. The short and easy answer is that almost everything is lost. Yet, that does not mean the question is moot; it points to the contradictory status of these objects that are simultaneously trash and historical sources. Whether they are thrown away or conserved depends on whose hands they end up in at the end of the night. This leads to more questions: Who treasures these objects? Where, how and for whom do they keep them?
II. Mi desmadre as records: A historical source
What survives survives because someone valued it enough to make space for it in that corner of their room, suitcase or hard drive where they keep these things. These are the first two of three steps in a process I call “stor(y)ing mi desmadre.” First, a macha keeps a physical or digital object so that one of the few records of a self-organized nightlife event does not disappear into oblivion. Secondly, they integrate it into that mess of ephemera which, over the years, and thanks to their care, becomes a collection.[vi] [vii] [viii] [ix]
The Mexican Spanish phrase mi desmadre is perfect to refer to the collection that results from valuing, appraising and conserving queer nightlife ephemera that is otherwise considered trash. Desmadre is a noun that literally means “de-mother,” and is used to refer to a mess or a messy situation. The phrase mi desmadre, holds together the two (allegedly) antagonistic concepts of structure and chaos. Mi means “my;” if something is mine, it implies that thing (material or abstract) belongs to me or that I created it, and, therefore, it has been structured by my mind, I understand how it works. It is not just a desmadre, it’s mi desmadre. So then, if a desmadre is mine and I understand it, it is only considered a mess of trash because it exists in a world-system that cannot value its contents and cannot know how my feminized, dissident and marginalized experience of nightlife structures it.
In other words, mi desmadre is a space where minoritized materials can be conserved because they are shrouded by a mess created by a macha Latin American experience that values them. The process of stor(y)ing mi desmadre (like the process of organizing macha parties, burlesque or drag shows, and other nightlife events) goes against the logic of order, reason, hygiene and all other requisites for a productive, normal and desirable life from a hegemonic standpoint (meaning masculine, heterosexual, ableist, cisgender, eurocentric, modern-colonial, racist, classist, positivist and capitalist).[x] I propose that stor(y)ing outlines a trajectory of world-making and world-knowing which implies a futurity and utopian dimension that is activated when these objects of nightlife ephemera are given the status of evidence and therefore of records, archivable historical sources to be conserved in mi desmadre.[xi] [xii] [xiii] [xiv]
This leads to the third and final step in the process of stor(y)ing, in which the caregiver of mi desmadre makes it available for consultation and in posterity because they know it is the only source for the history it tells. This can happen in different ways. Sometimes the caregiver of mi desmadre, now a macha archivist, leaves their collection in the care of a compañera or an informal community archive. Sometimes they use an Instagram account, for example, to showcase objects of the collection.[xv] Or, the macha archivist, along with others in their community, and in strategic alliance with public or private institutions (such as universities, bureaucratic archives, libraries, local governments or funding agencies,) creates an archives with information protocols such as a classification system.[xvi]
III. Ethics, heuristics and hermeneutics of mi desmadre
A possible point of friction in these strategic alliances is the expectation (or demand) of institutions that all the archival materials be digitized and available in public-facing platforms (in-person or online). Or, in the case of social media, the point of friction may occur when the platform does not have the appropriate privacy settings the macha archivist requires to share the collection in a way they think is right.
That is, sometimes the material ends-up being available for anyone to access and re-circulate online without restrictions. This is a double-edged sword that can be used to rescue and teach the history of these marginalized communities, as it can be used to attack them. There is an abundance of examples of how historical images and texts are used (and sometimes decontextualized) to ridicule, perpetuate discrimination, exercise misogynist, homophobic, lesbophobic and transphobic violence against communities and/or their individual members. That is, the risk of our very existence as members of feminized communities within the spectrum of sexual dissidence is transferred to the virtual context of the internet.[xvii]
Furthermore, there is the more intimate risk of disrespecting the community and/or its individual members by making these materials available to the public. For instance, when an historic video of a compañera’s show appears on Instagram or can be consulted in a public archives, without consulting them first and obtaining consent. The person who has shared or catalogued the video probably has the best intentions of celebrating and honouring their compañera and community. Nonetheless, they may not know that the protagonist does not want (or would not have wanted) that video to be shown for a number of possible reasons: because it no longer reflects their politics, their artistic or gender identity; because they changed their name; because their ex appears, or because they are embarrassed by the quality of a video which does not do justice to the fabulousness of the live show, and so on …
This provokes a long series of ethical questions about the process of stor(y)ing mi desmadre, such as: How public should a particular collection be? Does the historic value of these community materials outweigh the risk of having them circulate freely in public? Who, and through what mechanisms, determines what materials are too sensitive to be displayed in public-facing online platforms? Is it possible/desirable for macha archivists to develop protocols of community consultation when their collections are made openly available? What measures have macha archivists taken to care for their communities once their historical materials are circulating beyond the world they were created in and for?[xviii] The answers are generated sobre la marcha (in practice) and in accordance with the dynamics and politics of each community, the archivists and the materials.
The process of stor(y)ing mi desmadre, as I have described it above, is an archival and historiographic praxis and intellectual effort by which macha archivists across Latin America make sophisticated epistemological contributions to several fields. On the one hand, it forces a shift in the notion of what counts as evidence, records and archives. This expands the highly structured field of information and records management (gestión documental). Concomitantly, it challenges scholarly and popular notions of what research is, what is possible to research and, therefore, what stories are possible and important to know and tell.[xix] [xx]
On the other hand, the process of stor(y)ing mi desmadre beckons we deal with the transfer of risk implied in the public availability of objects which were created to be solely circulated in nightlife self-organized events.[xxi] As I have pointed out above, this is often at odds with the hegemonic logics built into scholarly models of research, disciplinary models of historical narratives, as well as the ways that online research takes on the logics of social media platforms, which are driven by hyper-visibility and mass re-circulation.
In sum, the process of stor(y)ing mi desmadre allows an otherwise impossible narrative of macha nightlife in the margins of the LGBT nightlife scenes in Latin American cities to be created. The very existence of these collections is already an intervention into the concept of records and evidence on which historiography is based, and implies we confront both scholarly and social media-based practices of research and story-telling. To grant mi desmadre the status of archival source articulates new possibilities of critical historical research, narratives and social media uses. That is, mi desmadre is an archive that also acts as a dissident narrative.
Along with the works I cite below, this text is inspired by and based on my experience in the Meras efímeras and Burlesquimeras collectives, and on conversations with my compañeras. It is also inspired by those who have conserved related ephemera in Mexico such as: Martha Cuevas, Minerva Valenzuela, Tere Chang, Andrea Almaraz, Emilio Rapp, Chichis Glam and Artemisa Téllez, and the photographic work of Óscar Sánchez Gómez and Alejandra Mateos.
[i] See Portilla, Jorge. (1986). Fenomenología del relajo, y otros ensayos. México, Fondo de Cultura Económica.
[ii] See Rault, Jas. (2019, January 13) “‘Ridiculizing’ Power: Relajo and the Affects of Queer Activism in Mexico.” S&F Online.
[iii] See Pietrafesa, Pat. (c. 2012). Resistencia. Registro impreso de la cultura punk subterránea. Buenos Aires, 1984-2001. Buenos Aires, Alcohol y Fotocopias.
[iv] See Pietrafesa, Pat & Makaji, Tomás. (2014). Desacato a la autoridad: Relatos de punks en Argentina. Documentary film.
[v] See Pietrafesa, Pat, Pilar Arrese and Rafael Aladjem. (2016). Homoxidal 500: Fanzines 2001-2003. Buenos Aires, Alcohol y Fotocopias, Inerme Libros.
[vi] See Cowan, T. L. (2012). “ I remember. . . I was wearing leather pants”: Archiving the Repertoire of Feminist Cabaret in Canada. In Linda M. Morra & Jessica Schagerl (Eds.), Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives (pp. 65–86). Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
[vii] See Cvetkovich, Ann. (2003). An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham, Duke University Press.
[viii] See Manalansan, Martin. (2014). The “Stuff ” of Archives. Radical History Review, 120, pp. 94–108.
[ix] See Muñoz, José. (1996). Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts. Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, 2, pp. 5–16.
[x] See Monsiváis, Carlos. (1998). La noche popular: Paseos, riesgos, júbilos, necesidades orgánicas, tensiones, especies antiguas y recientes, descargas anímicas en forma de coreografías. Debate Feminista, 9(18), pp. 55–73; Monsiváis, Carlos. (1998). Los espacios marginales. Debate Feminista, 17(Mayo), pp. 20–38.
[xi] See Aínsa, Fernando. (1984). Tensión utópica e imaginario subversivo en Hispanoamérica. Anales de la Literatura Hispanoamericana, 13, pp. 13–35.
[xii] See Cerutti Guldberg, Horacio. (1989). De Varia Utópica (Ensayos de utopía III). Bogotá, Publicaciones Universidad Central.
[xiii] See Quijano, Aníbal. (1993). Modernity, Identity, and Utopia in Latin America. Boundary 2, 20(3), pp. 140–155.
[xiv] See Greene, Shane. (2016). Punk and Revolution: Seven More Interpretations of Peruvian Reality. Durham: Duke University Press.
[xv] See Noriega, Christina. (2019, Julio 11). This Photo Archive Holds the Untold History of Colombia’s Trans Community. Remezcla.
[xvi] See Correa, María Belén, Cecilia Estalles, Carla Pericles, Ivana Bordei, Magalí Muñíz, Carolina Figueredo (2019). Trans Memory Archive. TSQ, 6 (2), pp. 156–163.
[xvii] See Cowan, T. L. (2020). X-Reception: Remediating Trans, Feminist, and Queer Performance Art. In Kathryn Brown (Ed.), The Routledge Companion to Digital Humanities and Art History (155–166). New York, Routledge.
[xviii] See Cowan, T. L. & Rault, Jas. (2018). Onlining queer acts: Digital research ethics and caring for risky archives. Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, 28(2), pp. 121–142.
[xix] For an example of critical scholarship that does this, see the concept of “critical fabulation” in Hartman, Saidiya. (2008). Venus in Two Acts. Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, 26, 1–14; Hartman, Saidiya. (2019). Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. Nueva York & Londres, W. W. Norton & Company.
[xx] For another example of critical scholarship that does this, see the concept of “cosmohistoria” in Navarrete Linares, Federico. (2018). Historias mexicas. México, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, Turner.
[xxi] See Cowan, T. L. & Rault, Jas. (2018). Cited above.