“What’s Left of Cuba” Colloquium: Queer Cuba

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On Thursday evening CLACS hosted the Queer Cuba Symposium in conjuction with NYU’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and the Department of Performance Studies, a part of the CLACS Research Colloquium series entitled, “What’s Left of Cuba? Culture, Politics, and Civil Society.” José Muñoz, Professor of Performance Studies at NYU Tisch and author of Feeling Brown: Ethnicity, Affect and Performance and Cruising Utopia: The Politics and Performance of Queer Futurity amongst other publications, moderated lectures by José Quiroga and Jafari Allen. The insights of Dr. Muñoz and the two speakers offered a nuanced understanding of queer history in Cuba and exposure to themes of recognition, expression, commitment and agency.

José Quiroga, Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Emory University and author of numerous books including Mapa Callejero and Tropics of Desire: Interventions from Queer Latino America, presented a lecture entitled, “Unpacking My Files: Life as a ‘Brigadista’.” Dr. Quiroga’s files house his personal experiences of returning to Cuba where he was born, but not raised. Through eloquently chosen words and poetic delivery, Dr. Quiroga shared his stories and offered relevant context of a queer Cuba. He informed us that absence characterizes the present time in Cuba, an absence of independent press and a voice in the print media. The current situation does not provide opportunity to talk openly about history and Dr. Quiroga wondered whether one can erase memory. Affirming the importance of history, he established that it must be recognized in order to move forward. Dr.Quiroga emphasized that being queer within the revolution did not necessarily just assume victimization, but also entailed a sense of agency. Referring to the elusiveness of his files on Cuba, which always leave him with more questions than answers, Dr. Quiroga confirmed that he likes them that way, without closure.

The symposium smoothly transitioned to Jafari Allen, Professor at Yale University in the Departments of African American Studies and Anthropology and author of ¡Venceremos?: Sexuality, Gender and Black Self-Making in Cuba. Dr. Allen opened his lecture, “A Black/Queer Cuban: Here & There”, with a proclamation that aligned well with Dr. Quiroga’s lecture; he also argued in favor of agency and against closure. Regarding the queer community in Cuba, Dr. Allen asked, “Under which circumstances should these people ban together in their marginalization?” He referred to the queer status as outside of the political structure, not only because of sexual orientation, but also due to class, race, and often, HIV status. Yet, Dr. Allen wanted to focus on black lesbians in Cuba because he asserted that they continue to be marginalized further than gay men. He informed us that gay men have gained a more accepted status in Cuba while lesbians remain outside of the official narrative. Impacted by the continually repressed situation of black women who identify as lesbians in Cuba, Dr. Allen came to share that this population is “essentially disappeared” and virtually invisible. Through artfully worded stories experienced over years of work on the island, Dr. Allen illustrated the present situation of queer Cuba.

Dr. Muñoz culminated the symposium with the poignant question, “How is Cuba queer?” and employed relevant points from the two talks to answer the question and synthesize the night. He described the ways in which Dr. Allen illustrated flight versus resiliency and wanting things that the revolution cannot provide. Pointing to Dr. Quiroga’s discussion of many Cubans’ desire to flee mixed with that to stay and the phenomenon of return, Dr. Muñoz ended with an appropriate nod to the ongoing “insisting and maneuvering” of queer Cuba.    

This evening we had the pleasure of listening to three talented narrators, who shared their research, insights and stories with us. Not only did we leave having learned a great deal about queer Cuba, but we also shared in the expressive qualities and intimations of the experts.

Anna Hillary is an MA candidate in the International Education program at NYU, and is currently enrolled in the CLACS Interdisciplinary Seminar: “What’s Left of Cuba? Culture, Politics, and Civil Society.”

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