Laura Gutiérrez Wins Modern Language Association Prize

The author received the award for her book about the works of Mexican and Chicana performance artists.
Jan. 11, 2012
The cover of Gutiérrez' award-winning book
The cover of Gutiérrez' award-winning book
Laura G. Gutiérrez
Laura G. Gutiérrez

Associate professor Laura G. Gutiérrez has received a national award for her book "Performing Mexicanidad: Vendidas y Cabareteras on the Transnational Stage," published by the University of Texas Press in 2010.

Gutiérrez accepted the award – the Ninth Annual MLA Prize in United States Latina and Latino and Chicana and Chicano Literary and Cultural Studies – this past weekend at the Modern Language Association Convention in Seattle.

"Theoretically sophisticated and genuinely comparative, Laura Gutiérrez's 'Performing Mexicanidad' explores the works of Mexican and Chicana performance artists in an examination of neoliberalism in the 1990s in the United States and in Mexico," the awards committee noted in its citation. "Gutiérrez engages questions of queer sexuality on a complex terrain that includes performance art, literary criticism, theory and transnational politics. Exemplifying a linguistic, interdisciplinary, and bicultural intimacy that sets a high standard for research in the field, her work insists on a deep knowledge of Mexican culture in order to understand the fresh and continual dialogue of border crossing that characterizes contemporary Chicana and Chicano and Latina and Latino studies."

Gutiérrez teaches in the department of Spanish and Portuguese. She holds affiliate appointments in the Center for Latin American Studies and the department of gender and women's studies and is part of the executive committee in the UA's Institute for LGBT Studies.

She received her doctorate in Spanish from the University of Wisconsin. She has served as co-chairwoman for the sexuality studies section of the Latin American Studies Association and is on the board of advisors of the Tepoztlán Institute for the Transnational History of the Americas. She has served in the MLA's delegate assembly and on the executive committee of its Mexican Literary and Cultural Studies discussion group.

Her articles have appeared in journals such as "Transformations," "Spectator," "Studies in Latin American Popular Culture" and "Feminist Media Studies." Gutiérrez has been the recipient of a César Chávez Postdoctoral Fellowship and the Rockefeller Residency Fellowship in the Humanities.

Below, she answers questions about the ideas and the research behind her book.

"Performing Mexicanidad" discusses the works of many artists including Astrid Hadad, Jesusa Rodríguez, Liliana Felipe and Regina Orozco. Would you focus on a particular artist and talk about her performance work and how it presents a dissident sexuality?

One of the artists that I discuss throughout the book is Jesusa Rodríguez. Rodríguez is part of the generation of political cabaret artists that I discuss in "Performing Mexicanidad." In addition to being an independent performer, director and activist in Mexico since the 1980s, where most theater production is subsidized by the state or commercialized, Jesusa Rodríguez has remained independent in order to be critical of all forms of power – political, economic and religious. Her own subject position, as a queer artist in Mexico, has also shaped her stage presentation of dissident sexualities. But this extends beyond the stage to her own life. For example, before same-sex marriage was available for couples in Mexico City, Jesusa Rodríguez had a televised same-sex mock wedding. She married her longtime companion and creative collaborator Liliana Felipe. Lourdes Portillo, the Chicana filmmaker, was one of the maids of honor. It caused a lot of buzz in Mexico's mass media.

The University of Texas Press' synopsis of "Performing Mexicanidad" reads: "In (unsettling heterosexual national culture), (these artists) are not only challenging heterosexist and nationalist discourses head-on, but are also participating in the construction of a queer world-making project. Treating the notion of discomfort as a productive category in these projects advances feminist and queer theories by offering an insightful critical movement suggesting that queer worlds are simultaneously spaces of desire, fear, and hope." Can you explain "queer world-making projects" and the productivity of discomfort?

I deploy the concept of "unsettling" to be both about what the artists in the book are enacting – unsettling these dominant discourses that are pervasive in different societies, in this case, both Mexico and in the United States – and how the public is receiving their work. That is, I'm not just interested in who or what the artist critique via their work. I'm also interested in the ways that the work of these artists is being read by minoritarian subjects in these societies. The latter, I contend, are important as they help to produce 'worlds,' which, however transitory and ephemeral, are important spaces for queer publics, in Mexico, the United States and beyond. What I propose in "Performing Mexicanidad" is that feelings of uncomfortability in the reception of visual material that critiques rigid gender and sexual systems should be read as productive, because more often than not, these "encounters" produce a series of conversations regarding the same rigid gender and sexual systems that are being critiqued. I believe these conversations to be productive. If artistic and cultural representations do not cause discussion, little change is produced.

What was involved in the research process of this publication?

When I finished my doctoral dissertation (in 2000), I had only just begun to acquaint myself with the work of the artists that I discuss in "Performing Mexicanidad." The book looks dramatically different than the dissertation. In fact, only one of the chapters from the dissertation was revised and carried over into the book. I think that the first five years after my doctoral dissertation were crucial in the research part of this project. I had to travel to different sites to watch the different live performances I examine in the book. Or, in the case of visual art or video production I analyze, in that span of time I became more acquainted with the artists and their work; they were extremely generous with their time and material. I consider myself very fortunate to have developed an intimate relation with the work of the artists if not the artists themselves. Parallel to that process of my research, I also began to develop a series of concepts that I wanted to use to discuss what I saw the artists doing. From this stems my concepts of "unsettling comforts," "transtortilleras," etc. Once I finished writing about these artists and their work, one of the things I discovered was that I missed them. I hope to be able to continue building on this work as I want to not only see how it develops, but also how my intellectual engagement with it transforms.

Can you describe the cover image and all the layers of meaning there?

I was immediately enraptured upon seeing, for the first time, "Anima Sola" by Lucía Maya, which features Astrid Hadad digitally manipulated to appear engulfed in flames and which is now the cover image of "Performing Mexicanidad." Even before the book went into production, I had already decided that "Anima Sola" was to be at the top of my list as a possibility, (as) an image for my book cover. Later on, I sent it to my editor, Theresa May, at the University of Texas Press, and she and her team accepted it. As I said, it features Astrid Hadad, one of the artists with whom I open the book with and to whom I devote extensive time and space. Maya’s image is a re-appropriation of the Catholic image of the same name, Anima Sola, which, in its most traditional representation, depicts a suffering woman in purgatory. Just as Hadad’s stage work, which appropriates naturalized gendered codes and heteronationalist discourses in order to resignify them, Maya’s image reworks the Anima Sola so that we see Hadad performing pleasure as opposed to high reverence. For these reasons, I found it to be an appropriate image for my book on the work of gutsy women who were performing Mexicanidad but inflicting Mexicanness with new meanings.

Have you taught any of these concepts to your students at the UA?

Yes, I have taught the work of these artists in my graduate classes. In particular, I find the concept of "unsettling comforts" important to put into conversation with the concept of "disidentifications" as developed by queer theorist José Muñoz. I hope to be able to teach more of my own research in my future classes, at both graduate and undergraduate levels.