RADICAL NARCISSISM - Part 1 of an essay

No one is told they are a baby man. Or a baby woman. You’re a baby. Then a boy. Or a girl. Then a man or a woman.

            It’s different with butch. With femme. I cling to these two categories the way we cling to a 2-party political system. We know that there are so many other ontological possibilities. I know that queer oedipality has rendered these categories moot. Still, I put so much hope and longing into what they could possibly be and do for us, and then the heartbreak, inevitable. But I return to this one. I inhabit butch. Warts and all.

But let me get down from the ether and come at you con puro butch cuerpazo. This is an essay burning with the cuerpazo de barrio politics and the everyday gender renegade. It begins with an origin narrative.

I had dropped out of college. It was the third quarter and I still couldn’t pass Geography. The experience felt like a waste of my hard-earned coffee shop barista tip money so I opted to stop going to school and figure myself out before college became another humiliating experience for me. What there was to figure out was endemic to my age. I was an average student in high school, Bs and Cs and lots of rashes from the herringbone skirts I wore and overwrought feelings of forlornness for varieties of otherwise uninterested girls I was madly in love with in 1994. Oh yeah, I went to an all-girls Catholic school in Lakewood, California and the dogmatic monotony sucked the marrow of ambition out of my bones. The last straw was the marriage project, assigned the last semester of my senior year. It was a graduation requirement. I asked if there was another project I could do since I told my teacher, Mr. Reardon, that I had no plans to marry.

I applied to two CSU’s and the University of San Francisco. I got into the public schools. I opted to stay in L.A. I knew I wasn’t ready to venture out to the Bay Area at 18. I could barely tell the truth at 18.

My underachieving in the quarter system and I were not getting along. So I quit school and went to work. First at coffee shop in North Hollywood. Eagle’s Coffee Pub and News Stand. It was right across the street from the Television Arts & Sciences building. I would wait on a lot of famous people like Faye Dunaway, Ed Asner, and Michael Damian who played Danny on the Young and the Restless. Well, I surely was. It was at Eagle’s that I became friends with Beth, a Jewish goth who sang in a twee pop band called Aberdeen. She was obsessed with all things Scottish, especially the Jesus and Mary Chain. Beth and her younger boyfriend, John, were from Palm Desert, lived in North Hollywood in a tiny bachelor apartment that she paid $300 a month for by working at this radio tip sheet, a Soundscan competitor that tracked rock songs on different rock music radio stations across the county. I had confided to Beth many of my same-gender crushes. She had become a close friend. Then my big alcoholic lady boss at the coffee shop began to sexually harass me and the money wasn’t that good so Beth got me a job at her office. I worked in the retail department, calling different record stores across the country and asking why they thought Insane Clown Posse was always their top seller week to week. I was really obsessed with punk and hardcore and indie and emo and riot grrrl and going to places like Jabberjaw and the Alligator Lounge to see bands from all over the States perform. To me live music was an opportunity to imagine a world different than the one I was born into and get away from the doldrums of my family life, not getting into a good college and other failures I felt as a child of immigrants. I was supposed to do better than my parents. Their hopes and dreams emblazoned onto my future and I felt like I had let them down by being really good at being a blossoming little homo. I was also good at knowing about bands and ‘zines and about who was having a fight in our little incestuous punk rock scene of the mid-1990s. I was good at gossip and finding my spot sometimes by force in this wretched little community of DiY-ers.

            Beth and I were the only two racially ambiguous young women that presented in almost direct opposition to the normative female and feminine genders in our company. We had dyed black hair, wore band t-shirts, doc Marten boots, black tights and nail polish, sneakers and thrift store scores and flea market finds. Most of the other female bodied people there wore tight jeans, white button down blouses with the top three buttons very unbuttoned and earth tone chunky wedges. And they were blonde. It was rocker lady office casual.

            The men that ran the company had a few things in common—they had NRA stickers on their doors alongside the logos of their favorite sports teams and photos of Sammy Hagar and Van Halen. It was a deeply masculinist space, with the clichés that run rampant in these kinds of workplaces. Jimmy Fast, the president of the company, was a renowned Hockey radio personality. He would flaunt his high paying salary by driving large SUVs before they became common on the road and would also fly in his chicken wings straight from Buffalo, New York. He would also hit on most of the blonde white women in the building.

            I strived for invisibility at this place. I wanted to hide the fact that I was a young woman. I just wanted to get through every day without attracting any unsolicited remarks about my sexual availability. I just wanted the free music Cds and concert tickets that the environment afforded me. I just was not prepared nor willing to pay for it by engaging the older white men in charge about their various gratuitous desires. I got in trouble once for saying something negative about Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad record. This was a group that didn’t care for the word NO.

            At our holiday party on the Sunset strip, I made the mistake of wearing a dress. I wore dresses infrequently. This one that hit the knee but that according to Jimmy Fast’s leering commentary showed my sweet little body. I was 21. I wondered how women did it. How could we put up with this strange and quotidian degradation? I was creeped out and far from having developed the callous of feminine detachment that most of my female-identified friends carry like a badge of valor.

            I couldn’t wear a dress any longer.

            I was nearing the end of my first year with this company. And I had just experienced my first same-gender heartbreak. The work culture’s toxicity along with my break-up was beginning to weigh on me in ways that drove me to engage in unhealthy behaviors. I was young, not in college, working full-time and hitting those Burbank happy hours to decompress.

But I longed for community. I didn’t know that was what I was missing. I needed to talk about loving and losing another woman. And I didn’t know how to do that until I saw an article in the Los Angeles Times about a Latina Lesbian support group that met every Sunday in East Los Angeles. I had never seen those two words together in newsprint. And I had never really stopped to explore those two words in relation to my identity. So I waited for Sunday. And it came. And I was the first to arrive to the Bienestar in East Los Angeles at four o’clock on the dot where a beautiful Chicana with a curly cascade of black hair received me. She wore a kid-sized guayabera shirt unopened revealing her virgin necklace encased in a piece of stunning turquoise. I wanted to ask her, “Are you a Latina lesbian?” She was devoid of any hipster posturing. Unlike me, I was deeply entrenched in with my highwater black pants, Vans sneakers and navy blue golf jacket. My look was very Ian Svenonius, circa 1992. He was the singer from my favorite band Nation of Ulysses. We didn’t call it hipster back then with venomous rage. And gentrification was just a twinkle in capitalism’s eye.

The first meeting of my new Latina lesbian support group held a dynamic set of intelligent Chicana mujeres. Like, seriously. I was in love with them all. We broke each other’s hearts. Now, I don’t want to break anonymity here, but this group of young artists have gone on to create some of the most stunning art, performance, policy, and scholarship. I met my best friends here and enemies that still make my spirit ache.

We met for about six more Sundays when suddenly, the ferociously sharp femme that ran our meetings announced that our dear group had lost its funding from the organization. At the time I hadn’t realized that lesbian programming would always be cut first in the age of translating AIDS and HIV to our barrio communities. I understood that but in my immaturity resented that reality as I pursued any and all opportunity to explore my identity.

It was losing funding for my lesbian support group that put me on my path to art-making. I found a group of women to vent to, to hold space for, to find that I was not alone and neither were they.

EXCERPT From the Trenches - Back at Ron's

“Do you like music, Teodulo?” Ron asked. He pulled out a cassette and pushed play on the stereo system. Silvio Rodriguez’ ‘Dias Y Flores’ began to play. Teodulo was struck that Ron listened to music in Spanish. And Teodulo had never up until that moment registered another soft-voiced man fill the room at a hush with unabashed revolutionary longing.

            “Almost like a lullaby, right?” Ron sighed and smiled an earnestly sweet idiot’s smile that made Teodulo cover his mouth as he chuckled quietly.  Ron seemed so clownish to him.

            This was the second night in Los Angeles. Magda called Ron first thing in the morning to ask him for another housing alternative to the Church. Both she and Teodulo took turns staying up to keep watch over Ana and Panchito, both of whom slept like the dead. The nearly anarchic conditions of the church sanctuary were also home turf for much of the shopping cart-pushing homeless that live in the Skid Row district during the day. Occupying the same space with middle-aged grizzled white men who smelt drunk or talked to themselves proved to be too much for the young family to bear.

            Ron picked the family up around three-thirty and took them out to eat pupusas at the El Salvador Café, one of the first Salvadoran restaurants in Los Angeles located near on the Santee discount shopping alleys on San Julian Avenue. Even the name of the street where the eatery was located conjured a particular Salvadoran-ness that Magda found untrustworthy.

            “It’s really hard not to come here,” Ron said between slurps of chicken soup. “But there aren’t many Salvadoran restaurants in Los Angeles and the food is just too good. They’re not quite Arenistas here, but being apolitical lends itself to that, I think.”

ARENA was the right wing, conservative party in El Salvador. Upon arrival and waiting to be seated Magda had stealthily checked the windows of the café, along with the faces of the workers and clientele trying to discern the political atmosphere. She knew an Alfredo Cristiani supporter when she saw one. But the walls were plastered with old travel posters boasting black beaches, soccer matches, volcanoes and happy indigenous children picking coffee beans. The lack of any consciousness about the war was tiny solace for Magda. The absence of dogma, for once, allowed her to enjoy her pan con pavo, a dish she hadn’t delighted in for almost ten years.

            The late afternoon sunlight had filled the large living room by the time the five compañeros entered Ron’s one-bedroom apartment. He lived in a neighborhood called Los Feliz, except everyone in Los Angeles always stressed the wrong syllable in the word that meant happy in Spanish.

The first 48 hours in Los Angeles had finally caught up to Magda, who was grateful to have a moment alone in Ron’s austere bathroom. She closed the door behind her and leaned against it, closing her eyes and feeling their burning with exhaustion. She clutched the waistline of her pants—she had to make sure to find a safe secret place in Ron’s apartment and without alarming him, too. The bathroom was too sparse a space to have any viable hiding options. She looked at the heating vent above the toilet. She stepped on the commode to see if the metal grate was maneuverable. It wasn’t. She stepped off the rickety toilet seat lid making more noise than she intended. Magda looked at herself in the mirror and furrowed her brow. You are crazy, Magda. She joked to herself that she could have easily smuggled her children in the bags under her eyes. She went to bed as soon as the sun went down even though it was only seven in the evening. Ana and Panchito, both made shy and distressed by Ron’s unfamiliar way of being, laid by their mother’s side on the fold-out sofa bed.

Teodulo, however, was suddenly struck by brazen curiosity. It helped that Magda had fallen asleep, as she would have surely shamed his desire to learn more about Ron’s personal effects. He stood in front of one of the four overloaded bookshelves in the space. The bookcase, crammed with photograph books, records, cassettes, framed photos of Ron standing next to Guatemalan school children and Sandinista-inspired murals in Esteli, Nicaragua. There were biographical tomes and popular education manuals. All of it called to Teodulo. He had not seen the names Freire, Boal, Cienfuegos, Rodriguez, Martí, Milanés, Parra, Jara, Castro, Sosa and Guevara since the young family left their own home in Apopa for the mountains. Of course, Teodulo’s parents kept these materials well hidden inside the wall of their home. Dagoberto and Magda were ardent readers, often holding study groups and other gatherings in their home, throwing out quotes and stanzas back and forth like a game of ping-pong. This was before Ana was born and Teodulo played with the Hot Wheels up and down the steps of the apartment’s staircase. The little cars with racing numbers and flames painted on the side were a birthday gift from his uncle Rogelio, who was, then, still in Virginia and whose monstrosity unknown to the family.

The apartment walls were covered in framed colorful posters depicting the Wobblies united around the world on the same picket line and Uncle Sam as an insatiable hog bathing in a bath filled with U.S. currency. Yet the majority of them contained variations on the Cuban flag, Venceremos, and images of Farabundo Martí, Augusto Sandino and Che Guevara, the holy trinity of Latin American social movements.

There was one poster, however, that when he laid his eyes upon it made Teodulo audibly gasp. He sees the black chalk rendering of a young soldier, his face contorted with righteous anger and his arm blacker and proportionally larger than his body and rifle, struck in a victory salute, his Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity patch up front and visible on his military shirt. The soldier in the poster looked imposing. Impressive. That soldier provoked pride and a deep awareness of his Guatemalan people’s love for him and that made Teodulo ache with rancor. He wrapped his arm around his body, feeling the bruises fade.

“You and your family have done so much for your people, compañero,” Ron was a broken record.

“It was not a choice. They put a gun in my hand when I was eleven,” Teodulo said quickly, not registering the depth of his honesty. Ron let the boy’s words go down gently before he spoke.

“You’re the bravest young man I have ever met from El Salvador,” Ron said quietly, not wanting to wake his travel-weary guests. “But remember these are sacrifices and everyone has made many sacrifices. You can read. You never starved. You have seen the real face of justice because you fought for it. You lived. And here you are.” Ron looks Teodulo squarely in the eye as he purses his lips solemnly.

Teodulo’s face darkened. He felt his stomach fill with resentful acid, similar to what he felt inside the Church’s men’s room. However, it was an emotional acid, not the kind that coated his mouth in semen.

He cleared his throat to chase off the irritation he felt with the funny looking white man with the high-pitched voice. After all, Ron was right—every Salvadoran had made some concession, either willfully or by force, to the war. But Ron was also the adult that had never seen actual combat. He, unlike Teodulo, has never killed another man or seen the images of loved ones obliterated, those memories seared into his heart and mind forever. The old, white guy will never know nor will he ever have parents to put him in that situation. Teodulo makes his own compromise to that frustratingly fucked up fact while smiling politely at his family’s host.

“Listen, I am sure you must be hungry again. I know a growing boy when I see one,” Ron said, noticing Teodulo’s disquieting rumination. “Come with me to the kitchen. Let me fix you a ham sandwich.”

As if on cue, Teodulo’s stomach rumbles loud enough for Ron to hear. The man and the boy laugh nervously.

Teodulo follows Ron into the small, yellow kitchen and sits in the breakfast nook watching the older man fish out a half-eaten loaf of Wonder bread out of his cupboard and jars of mayonnaise, mustard, a tomato, a handful of deli ham and an individual plastic-wrapped slice of cheese. The last item struck Teodulo as particularly American as he had never seen slices of cheese wrapped in plastic before. That is a lot of trouble to go to for cheese, he thought.

Ron hummed a song to himself as he put together Teodulo’s sandwich. He set the plate in front of the hungry boy and sat down across from him. Teodulo looked at the sandwich, then to Ron, then back at the sandwich. Ron proceeded to ask Teodulo a series of questions about his school history and his English profiency. Teodulo answered as he wolfed down the sandwich in four bites.

 “I learn fast,” Teodulo said swallowing the last of his sandwich. “To pass the time in the mountain, I would teach the others that wanted to learn, how to read. They were already grown but I was their teacher. Ana reads really well, I taught her, too.”

Ron was impressed that Teodulo knew who Bertolt Brecht was, that he knew some of Das Kapital in its original German and had a secondary school mastery of world history. 

There are men who struggle for a day and they are good.

 There are men who struggle for a year and they are better.  

There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still.  

But there are those who struggle all their lives:

These are the indispensable ones,” Teodulo recited from memory. “This poem is very, very, very well-known. And it was a lullaby. My parents would play the same Silvio Rodriguez record when I was very small. I never forgot it and was happy to listen to it again today.” It was Teodulo’s turn at solemnity. Ron was so visibly moved by Teodulo’s admission that he pushed his closed fist into his mouth, suppressing his want to cry. Teódulo cocked his head in incredulity. Who is this weird little white man, Teodulo thought and would I let him fuck me? Teódulo kept his composure long enough to smile politely.

“Do you know that that is my favorite poem of all time?” Ron was practically shrieking. “I can’t wait for the other students to know you, compañero. We’re going to work really hard to get raise your English profiency, too. I have someone I would like you to meet at La Señal. She teaches a very good ESL class. Do you know La Señal?”

Teodulo shook his head no even though he knew La Señal was founded by the United Popular Front (UPF), or at least the ones who had evaded the death squads long enough to make it to Los Angeles. Teodulo was reasonably knowledgeable about the architects of the revolution, but felt that playing dumb might serve him better especially now that he was in exile. He knew that the UPF were the ERP’s counterparts in Morazán, in the northeast part of El Salvador that bordered Honduras. Teodulo also knew that Dagoberto and Rogelio resented how the guerrilla groups in Morazán were considered the intellectual vanguard that took up arms, while the guerrillas in Chalatenango had the humbler rag-tag peasant distinction. That was a particularly bitter pill for the commander and his brother to swallow considering their urban pedigrees and intellectual pursuits. Magda, however, in a moment of alienation, told Teodulo that his father and uncle were jealous of Santiago, the Venezuelan expatriate who commandeered the airwaves and was celebrated for being both a revolutionary spirit-lifter as well as notoriously handsome. Two things, she joked, that the people desperately needed.

“You will like La Señal. They are fighters. In Pico-Union. Geneva Cienfuegos-Ferguson is her name. You will like this compañera. She has a good soul. You should start high school by next year. When do you turn 16?”

“October,” Teodulo said plainly.

“October? Wait. We are still in October,” Ron said, momentarily disoriented. “Did you just have a birthday?”

“It was two days ago. When we left El Salvador,” Teodulo said, now feeling the heat of embarrassment.

“Oh, Teodulo! Happy birthday! Do you like tres leches cake?” Ron raised his eyebrows waiting for Teodulo to answer.

Teodulo shrugged his shoulders. And then he nodded in the affirmative.