White is the Color of the Rainbow Flag: Pedro Lemebel’s "Loca" Performance
This story is part of a series written by CCSRE's Public Writing Fellows.
In 1986, mounted on high heels, a flaming loca barged into the Mapocho railway station in Santiago, Chile, captivating the gaze of every leftist dissident present that day. They had gathered to denounce the brutality of Augusto Pinochet’s illegitimate military regime, but the dark-skinned hallucination appeared unannounced, and without hesitation began reading the battle-hardened words of her manifesto entitled “I Speak For My Difference.”
I’m not Pasolini asking for explanations
I’m not Ginsberg expelled from Cuba
I’m not a fag disguised as poet
Her name was Pedro Lemebel, a political activist, legendary performance artist, and chronicler who toggled between masculine and feminine pronouns at will. Lemebel identified herself as a loca and fought for racialized and impoverished sexual minorities. Her public appearances, part performance and part political demonstrations, were often protests against the pervasive homophobia that flustered the ranks of leftist political groups that fought for liberty in a dictator-infested Latin America. Twenty-one years after that first appearance in the Mapucho station, albeit with slightly lower shoes, the same loca read her manifesto at an event at Stanford University in front of an audience who had traveled from all over the Bay to hear her speak.
As Chile struggled its way to democracy in the 1990s, Lemebel's performances and literary texts gradually gained international acclaim, drawing the attention of American academic circles. As a major queer literary figure, Lemebel received invitations from universities like Harvard and Stanford that hosted events in his honor, gushing him with praise as he performed before the astonished eyes of a fearfully delighted audience. It was a form of applause that stemmed less from admiration than from an uneasiness triggered by a difference whose opacity no compliments could ever pierce. But the truth is Lemebel never felt at home among academic elites. He was, after all, a loca.
La loca is one of those resistant figures peculiar to themselves in having a cultural meaning into which one must be born to fully grasp. The term is commonly used in the Americas to refer to gay men who are out and proud and it is often translated as sissy or flaming queen. For Lemebel, however, la loca expressed not only gender and sexual deviancy, but rather something more capacious—and more consequential. Being a loca was an experience of multiple marginalization that cut across sexual, ethno-racial, and class differences. Assuming oneself loca was, in his own words, “to take over that place from our sudaca, homosexual, and proletariat condition,” he said in an interview.
There may be no other place where this definition becomes clearer than in Lemebel’s chronicle, written in 1994 after traveling to New York City as a guest at the commemorative celebrations of Stonewall's 25th anniversary. With baroque folkloric verbiage, Lemebel narrates his pilgrimage to the Stonewall bar in Christopher St., a must-see “dark little bar, shrine of the homosexual cause, where the sodomite tourism comes to deposit its floral offerings.” Yet, his devotion turns quickly into disappointment as soon as he arrives at the “gay Lourdes grotto, sacred altar for thousands of visitors who take off their Calvin Klein visors to respectfully pray for a few seconds while parading past the club.” Albeit vivid and cheerful, the scene is alien to him—a stampede of perfectly shaped male bodies on rollerblades that exhibit exuberantly lean, well-tuning muscles wearing shorts so tiny they are almost non-existent, slide hand in hand next to Lemebel, pretending not to see her. “And why would they see you,” Lemebel asks herself, “if you’re beyond ugly, dragging your loca malnourished thirdworldista ass through the world. Why would they give you the time of day with your dropped Chilean jaw in front of this Olympus of strong and well-fed homosexuals who look as though they might throw up when they look at you, as if to say: we did you a favor, little indigene, bringing you to the cathedral of gay pride.” Stonewall is the “gay Mecca” and hyper-masculinity is its religion. Lemebel panics for a moment before such a display of male potency—the grim memories of macho Latino men penetrate his mind, as their violence, regardless of whether it comes from the right or left, is equally brutal.
Among all the visible differences, there is one that stands out from the others: color. The six colors of the rainbow flags displayed in store windows and flags are in fact just one—white. “Because,” la loca reckons, “maybe gay is white. Just go into the Bar Stonewall, where it’s always night, and you’ll see that the patrons are overwhelmingly white, blond, and virile, like from a saloon in a cowboy movie. And if by chance, let’s say, there’s a black man and a flaming Latina, they’re there so no one gets called undemocratic.” Before the predominantly white scene of gay militants marching on the streets, Lemebel becomes bitterly aware of his malnourished and racialized body, alienated from the cosmopolitan gay sensibilities that take pride in a history whose victories are the prerogative of only a few—“an old movie we never saw.”
If being a loca meant an assumed racial and class position in relation to the sexual politics of neoliberalism across the globe, in the context of the neoliberal university, performing la loca also meant a refusal to literary canonization: “Those kinds of comments make me unreachable, and I want to be out there, in the street, on the sidewalk, pirated by clandestine commerce, within arm’s reach where my public can grab me,” said Lemebel. A distrust of the public intellectual explains his conduct during his public appearances. Rumor has it that at Harvard, Lemebel drank heavily during her presentation and mused unabashedly about US intervention in Latin America, among many other unrelated topics that came to mind. Similar stories circulate about her visit to Stanford, which involved a lot of whiskey and drunken quarrels with other participants. Despite the growing interest by people working in U.S. universities in her work, Lemebel never compromised her political views. Her performances at Harvard and Stanford were an expression against what scholar Rodrick Ferguson calls "will to institutionality"— the ongoing process of co-opting minoritarian, mostly racial, ethnic, and sexual differences into discipline-oriented programs and departments as cultural capital. La loca’s participation in institutional events unearths a paradox that interpelates our intellectual practice. While our academic events seek to grant visibility and legitimacy to figures like Lemebel, they do so by neutralizing their political actions, forcing la loca to disappear behind the veil of the cult author.
But it is this invisibility where la loca derives her political agency. A passage in Lemebel’s famous novel My Tender Matador (2001) illustrates this point. The protagonist, a loca living in the slums of Santiago, falls for Carlos, a handsome young man involved in an assassination attempt of the military dictator ruling Chile during the 1980s. Throughout the novel, Carlos exploits the infatuation of la loca and uses her home for clandestine meetings and as a storage facility for weapons and leftist propaganda. Although no one takes her seriously because she is "disgustingly queer, so flagrantly effeminate," la loca eventually plays a decisive role in the revolutionary movement. In a scene near the end of the novel, Carlos needs to deliver a mysterious package to carry out his plan. Given the increasing social unrest on the streets, la loca volunteers to do the job, sparing Carlos from an imminent arrest. “You don’t know what I’m capable of,” la loca tells Carlos who hesitantly trusts her with the package. On the street, a crowd runs away from the tear gas that the police throw at them. Full of terror but unwilling to back down, la loca walks in the opposite direction of the protesters, amid the acrid cloud of repression and towards the line of police, aware of what awaits her if they find out what's inside the package. “‘Are you going to let me through?’ she said to the first uniformed man she encountered. The cop was so surprised by the impertinence of this prissy loca that he hesitated before grabbing his club, before raising his club to bring it down upon that arrogant porcelain head.” But the cop doesn’t beat her up like the others and in the blink of an eye, she’s on the other side “carrying the heavy bag as if it were as light as a feather, [and] she disappeared into the pedestrian traffic of the public walkway.”
La loca succeeds because of the police can’t see her as a real political opponent in the frontlines, which is the same incapacity of those “overwhelmingly white, blond, and virile” gay militant gringas that fail to see her as a desirable body in Christopher Street in New York. Similarly, la loca is invisible as a critical interlocutor to the eyes of a shocked academic audience who fails to feel interpellated by her protest and organize events in her honor. The result is a form of unpalatability expressed in the abundant circulating gossip about Lemebel’s inappropriate behavior during the events, and the rutinary, almost always antiseptic, official laud and honor recorded in scholarly publications. It is this unpalatability that enables la loca to gain real political agency and keeps the curious at bay, alerting them that la loca repels the world with a spectacle of fiery sparks when approached too closely, always dreading a homicidal slap.
In the end, la loca’s question remains unanswered: Why would they see you?
Alberto Quintero is a 2022 CCSRE Public Writing Fellow and a Ph.D. Candidate in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University.