This is a conversation with storyteller, journalist and editor in chief of Subalternas, Mel Herrera. Questions and answers pry into a dubitative idea: how to resist the violence of the hegemonic perfomative? This is a problem that is still with us, as Donna J. Haraway points out. A problem distinct from the problem of lack of imagination that prevents us, at times, from imagining dissident theaters in which it is possible to produce another performative force.
What follows is an exercise in imagination (and not only imagination). Mel Herrera imagines a community of life. Alternative communities for survival.
Mel, a few minutes ago I read your report “What Has Happened So Far in the Case of Brenda Díaz García?” I read it in the digital magazine Subalternas, a magazine you run. Could you explain to me how you understand subalternity?
When I speak of subalternity I am talking about a zone of dispossession, of contempt, of forgetfulness, of discarding, set apart, where the concerns, interests, ways of life, agency, representation, rights, yearnings and the very body of the damned of the earth (nod to Fanon) are housed; that zone of non-being he was talking about, where we have to camouflage our words and assimilate gestures and customs of the master in order to be understood, to be citizens, to be human. Because we are seduced by penetrating the territory of the hegemonic.
In other words, the subaltern for me is that which does not conform to the ideals of cis-hetero patriarchal and euronorcentric whiteness, which is not necessarily synonymous with cisheterosexual white men from Europe or the North. When we talk about whiteness, for example, we are not talking about the skin color of white people specifically. It is an ideological concept to refer to a system that privileges and has made universal, advanced, and desirable the interests, customs, ways of thinking and relating of white people with purchasing power. And that, therefore, has placed them collectively in a privileged position in this modern world system.
Sometimes it is uncomfortable to talk about whiteness, however, we have always heard people say “this is a white people’s thing,” as well as “this was made by a black man” and “this is black music.” In other words, there are social patterns that operate very much in the symbolic and are associated with a certain skin color, although they can be embodied by any subject, being an ideological construction and not a biological essentialism.
Subalterns for me are the people who do not constitute the paradigm of modern-colonial societies, those who are only bridges or workers who build it and sustain it, shoulders for others to continue their ascent to the top of the pyramid of privilege and social positioning. They are not to be confused with people without agency or stripped of the ability to oppress, violate and dominate others.
They are the people without whom these societies would not be able to sustained themselves, those who take care of others, those who work the hardest, the most precarious, the most sexually repressed and, an expression I like to use, the “subalterns of affections” to refer also to the most forgotten, those who are hidden and on whom marriages, families, apparent happy lives are sustained: the ill-loved, the lovers, the others, the ones playing second fiddle.
If the philosopher and decolonial feminist María Lugones speaks of the “invisible and dark side of modernity,” I also think of the dark side of normative sex-affective relationships, because I have been there and every now and then someone appears and puts me there. They bring me back to my zone of subalternity and condemn me to affective-romantic exile and emotional restriction.
Therefore, by subalternity I do not refer to a kind of biological or essential identity, but to a political intentionality, but also to a feeling (feeling of subalternity), inoculated in our subjectivities, which derives from the previous process, closely linked to coloniality as a continuity of invasion, dispossession and subalternization of some forms of life.
I am talking specifically about that feeling that no one is interested in us, that no one loves us, that our contributions and concerns are not taken into account, that they do not capture the immediacy and attention of the dominant agendas in politics and in some activisms.
Subalternas is an independent digital magazine that was launched at the beginning of April. In this sense, “independent” is, above all, a character. Am I right?
I understand “independent” as a commitment to work separately from the state and organizations that can influence our editorial line. We do not follow the interests of anyone from above, nor do we receive funds that could alter our interests.
Could you expand a little more on the idea that Subalternas is an “Afrotransfeminist and decolonial” magazine?
It has always seemed to me that there is no digital platform in Cuba that addresses the trans experience in terms of political struggle and not just as health activism, rights activism or as an annex to meet the quotas of liberal inclusion and intersectionality.
Being trans is a constant political struggle for housing, employment, food, health, less police, fewer borders, more bodily and sexual autonomy. To me there seems an urgent need to counter the narratives against trans people, fiercely pushed by the new reactionary right wing, conspiracy and religious groups, biological essentialism, and to celebrate trans existence while still embracing other life experiences that are also trapped in modern colonial trauma.
I wanted to bring together two perspectives that so far largely satisfy my intellectual concerns and provide me with a situated analysis of my body, as a black trans woman: the theoretical-political contributions of black and Latin American women, specifically black and decolonial feminisms, and those of trans people (transfeminism and trans studies), by no means mutually exclusive. In fact, some trans studies are, unintentionally, decolonizing positions in the field of gender and sexualities. What better irreverence to the colonial construction of gender than the gender transits, migrations, and performativities, which today we call so, but which in stages prior to colonial domination were not problematic or at least not so hostile?
With Europe also came gender authoritarianism. There are the varied perspectives offered by decolonial and African authors and researchers: Rita Segato, María Lugones, the Nigerian Oyèrónké Oyèwùmi, the very rich studies and contributions of indigenous women; of the latter, by the way, here in Cuba we literally do our best to ignore them. We always look to Europe because of the complex, the shame and the colonial trauma, because they taught us the words “progress,” “development,” and “evolution” and told us in which regions we could find them or to which societies we could aspire.
It seems to me that there are several spaces with a feminist perspective where other perspectives are almost always ignored. And sometimes it seems that women have to dissect ourselves. To be a woman here for a while and to be black or a peasant there for another while. That is why one of the sections of the magazine is called “Gender without perspective,” and it is dedicated to host texts that are related to the decolonial critique of white Eurocentric feminism, that which has only been concerned with women for the fact of being women, as if only and separately one were a woman and not black or poor or indigenous or disabled or neurodivergent or lesbian, and that has put at the center of the movement the concerns of a group of privileged, white/or assuming white values cisgender or non-trans, heterosexual, college-educated, urban women who are more mobilized by street harassment and catcalling than by the policies that cause deaths and overburden other women and girls in positions of disadvantage and poverty.
This feminism that only aspires to equality with men but never asks equal to which men. It is true that, in principle, the modern patriarchal system offers advantages and privileges to men, but what equality with men are they talking about when not even all men are on an equal footing in power, the economy, politics, and many of them are also oppressed by the power relations that really exist. It is a feminism that aspires for more women to become ministers, presidents, judges, although none of this dismantles patriarchal relations and the colonial order of nation states.
In Subalternas we accompany and respect the claims of other feminisms and other currents of thought, but we want more than anything to say “hey, this is fine, but look at it from this perspective,” “from this side it feels like this,” “this is how it looks or how we feel,” “it excludes us, it ignores us,” “this borders on the essentialist and biologicist” or “it is racist.” Now, the challenge is to apply all that to the analysis of Cuba, to contribute that subaltern point of view, despised, ignored, problematic for its power to destabilize comfortable essentialisms and fossilized narratives.
We are not even at 60 percent, but we are a very small team, with almost no resources, students, we have other jobs. We also have against us that some of the promoters and main figures of decolonial studies and feminism lack a critical view of the political situation in Cuba. It is always the same story, they can accurately assess and understand the global political dynamics but then, as almost all the left in Latin America does with Cuba, remain mute, incapable of a more contextual criticism; they look the other way lest the state of the last bastion of anti-imperialist resistance in the region falls from its pedestal, even at the cost of a deep economic and political crisis, more than a thousand prisoners for dissent, for exercising their right to protest, for demanding political and structural changes, for the hunger and suffocation in this country.
In Subalternas we also want to do that, to tell them, “we support you and your theoretical contributions up to this point. From this point onward we do not understand each other.” They will almost always respond perversely that in such and such a country it is worse or that the U.S. blockade and interference. We deserve to live in a more dignified way even if in Peru or Bolivia it is the same or worse.
At the end of the recent panel discussion with the decolonial feminist Yuderkys Espinosa here in Havana, she replied to a round of questions, and I wanted to know how one could assume a decolonial position in a repressive, dictatorial and punitive context such as the one we have in Cuban. I mentioned the people jailed for demonstrating on July 11, 2021, their sentences, and I did so in reference to the fact that decolonial feminism is anti-prison.
Yuderkys, very kindly, looked at me with her eyes wide open and said: “Wow, those are some questions!” The dean of the History and Sociology faculty and the moderator of the discussion, also a professor of that faculty, made sour faces and told me the visitor could not answer that. Yuderkys turned to one of them and said in her fabulous Dominican accent, “And who said I don’t have enough knowledge to answer that, if I have a lot to say about it?”
I enjoyed that moment very much, even if I was left wanting to hear her speak about it. The questions asked were complex and demanded from Yuderkys to speak at length and between answers the time ran out. Hopefully at some point she will answer me, not directly, I am not that important, but in another way.
The editorial note with which the publication began emphasizes the fact that Subalternas was born within an editorial and media vacuum and wants to pay attention to “areas where the media focus does not reach.” How do you value the Cuban independent media ecosystem and why do you think Subalternas comes to fill a gap?
I was afraid that we would be misunderstood. The work that Cuban independent media has done and continues to do in an increasingly repressive context is praiseworthy. I did not want it to be understood as a criticism, but as a pointing out something that is a reality, of this moment of worsening crisis of independent journalism. I feel a reluctance, a lack of interest, I see little content in general. It is understandable. Many journalists have been threatened, exiled, and it shows. You review media that for me were very rich in content such as El Toque or Periodismo de Barrio, and you realize that you lack material, but there they are reinventing themselves, doing wonders with the three or four journalists that are left on the island, under threats and summons.
I speak of that crisis, on the one hand. And on the other hand, of a vacuum that already existed, let’s say, since the appearance of the independent media, almost all of them varied in their approach, but very few with a focus on the perspective of race, gender, LGBTIQ+. Then they began to diversify, broadening perspectives, Tremenda Nota, Afrocubanas, Q de Cuir, which are more thematic media, and in which, although they have given great coverage to the racial or trans phenomenon, it has been done from more general or universal visions, as it has been possible. In addition, these issues have always been approached from the perspective of the law, of linear and ascending progress, because it is understood that liberation is further ahead, in the future, and that in the past there is only backwardness. However, in the native communities, they were probably not even debating who could be a woman or not, confirming existences based on genitalia, there were many other conflicts, but without rigid ideas of gender or race. The dominations were for other causes but I don’t think for some kind of superiority based on skin color or some other bodily characteristic that implied the oppression of a broad group of individuals.
Nor do I intend to romanticize the native peoples, but I do believe that in Cuba there has been very little interest in looking at that colonial past, we have denied that past, we have looked the other way, we live from band-aid to band-aid, but the wound is still there, open. The decolonial is not to stay and live in the past. It is a push towards the present, it is to recover ancestral wisdom, to understand a little more the neocolonial and authoritarian relations of today.
We want to talk about our sexual rights, about our unrecognized identity, but also about structural poverty as a collective, which starts from the day we are kicked out of the house and we don’t perform in school and we drop out. I am interested in thinking about the future, but without renouncing the ancestors, whose knowledge and emancipatory strategies have been branded as backward. But you say these things in networks or in an article and it seems that you are speaking gibberish. Sometimes I feel alone in that sense. Even with friends I try to discuss these issues and what they understand is that we are saying that it is better to walk around in loincloths or naked. And now that I think about it, I laugh because it wouldn’t be bad idea.
No, it wouldn’t. Who can publish in Subalternas?
Anyone committed to spreading knowledge, reflections, experiences that make us feel less alone and despicable in this system. We want to publish the stories of people whose experiences have been talked about, theorized, tutored, from other places of enunciation. We make no distinction of gender, race or sexuality. We are interested in publishing and reading other women, the forgotten, the subaltern. We are also interested in what the men of our communities, neighborhoods, our boyfriends, fathers, poor and marginalized, also subalterns of the relations of domination, have to say.
As you flip through the pages of the magazine, you perceive a “community trace,” an energy of collectivity, a force of minorities. In your case, what do you see, what do you hear, what do you imagine, what do you sense?
That is what we are aiming for. It is what we aspire to. I no longer believe that the future is feminist. As we said in our founding text, what good are so many women in politics or a world of women only when there is the racist, the transphobic, the classist, the fascist? It is one thing to understand that structurally and historically all women have been at a disadvantage, albeit in unequal measure, and another that in compensation for that historical debt a world governed by women or of only women is going to be better, ideal. Essentialisms have brought us so many problems.
The ideal would be a struggle that vindicates and restores freedoms to women and all people oppressed for reasons of gender and sexuality and at the same time not to lose the global, communitarian vision, above all the search for alternatives and collective solutions.
The current crises are telling us that, the pandemic told us that: individualism and any movement that, in principle, although we need it, focuses on a specific sector or explains the oppression from a single place, is reinforcing the differentiation, the gap that does not allow us to unite and reconcile the worlds. Black feminist Audre Lorde said it first, and later so many others: we are saved in community. I think that the future has to be communitarian, or it will not be.