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National Perspective | EDUCATION

Sex, Sexuality, Homosexuality Emerge as Hot Topics for Latinos

The spread of gender studies in a culture that's traditionally rigid regarding such issues reflects a trend in many disciplines. Not everyone is pleased.

May 04, 1999|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN ANTONIO — In 26 years of annual meetings, the National Assn. for Chicana and Chicano Studies has taken on a host of scholarly topics, including immigration, bilingual education and the legacy of the Mexican War.

But this year, in a conference that concluded Sunday, the focus of attention was on a much different set of questions: the "Latina rage" personified by Lorena Bobbitt, the secret lives of lesbian women in small Mexican towns and the messages about gender in "Chicano rap" music.

Sexuality, including the study of sexual orientation and sexual "outlaws," eroticism and machismo, is today at the forefront of Chicano studies, reflecting a trend seen in all disciplines of the social sciences and humanities.

Those applying "gender studies" to the Latino experience have found a wealth of topics in a culture with traditionally rigid ideas about masculinity and femininity. While a vocal minority of pundits and professors has attacked the spread of gender studies, saying it has trivialized the academy, nothing has managed to stop its advance in Chicano studies.

The theme of this year's conference--attended by about 1,000 scholars at the local campus of the University of Texas--was "Missionary Positions," a wry comment on sex, imperialism and the submissive position of Latinos in U.S. history.

Professor Deena Gonzalez of Pomona College called her presentation to the conference "Lorena was Latina: Raging Against the Missionary." Bobbitt, an Ecuadorean immigrant, sliced off her husband's penis, saying he repeatedly raped her.

"I'm sure there are other cases of women in the U.S. who commit violent acts in response to violence," Gonzalez said. "But here's the one Latina we hear about."

Questions of sexuality are a common motif in Gonzalez's course on Chicano history, reflecting her own experience as a lesbian and those of a new generation of students who are coming of age when the last constraints on sexual freedom and expression have been removed.

This new generation is 30 years removed from the birth of the "Chicano Movement," when Mexican-American activists first pushed for the Chicano studies programs that now exist at dozens of universities, including at least 15 in Southern California.

With gender studies displacing Marxism and nationalism as the dominant "paradigm" on college campuses, the new heroes in Chicano studies are feminist writers like Sandra Cisneros and Cherrie Moraga, both of whom read their work to rapturous applause at this year's conference.

By contrast, the work of the "mostly authoritarian fathers" of Chicano nationalism literature of the 1970s has come under attack by thinkers like Angie Chabram-Dernersesian of UC Davis. Their writing, she argues, has been defined almost exclusively by "a myriad of male identities: el pachuco, el vato loco, el cholo, the Aztec, the militant Chicano, the existential Chicano . . ."

Alicia Gaspar de Alba, a professor at UCLA, says Chicano Studies "has been contested ground that's finally been won by feminists and people in gender studies. Our issues are no longer being pushed to the back."

At this year's meeting at the University of Texas at San Antonio, about a quarter of the 300 academic papers presented dealt with issues of gender and sexuality.

Some Expect a 'Backlash'

Not everyone sees the changes as positive.

Juan Rodriguez, a professor at Texas Lutheran University, said there is some, mostly private resistance to the new trends. "I believe in a few years there will be a backlash," said Rodriguez, a member of the Chicano Studies association since 1974. "Academics are no more enlightened than anyone else."

A few years back, the Chicano studies association established a "Joto Caucus." Joto, like its English equivalent "queer," is an old slur that has become a term of gay and lesbian pride to some.

At this year's conference, Michael Hames-Garcia, an English professor at the State University of New York in Binghamton, is chairing a session on "Joto Scholarship." Hames-Garcia understands that more than a few Latinos outside academia might be a bit perturbed to hear the word even spoken in a college classroom. Why Joto studies?

"It offers us a fuller picture of the Chicano community," Hames-Garcia says. "It offers us a more complete view of what it means to be human and American."

Hames-Garcia has analyzed the work of Michael Nava, the Los Angeles author of a series of mystery novels in which "Henry Rios," an openly gay lawyer, is the chief protagonist. Another conference panel examined the work of another Los Angeles author, John Rechy, whose 1963 novel "City of Night" has long been considered a classic of American gay literature. Only in recent years, however, have Latino scholars claimed Rechy as one of their own.

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