A couple in 1971 standing in front of the Hollywood sign, Griffith Park, Los Angeles

This post is the first section of the talk “Diagonal and Self-Possessed: Group-Portrait with Liminal Figures,” which was given as the keynote address at the 2017 Thinking Its Presence conference, hosted by the University of Arizona Poetry Center.


What I seek is permission for a story line, clauses of invention, the chance to find cover in the episodes, a cascading commitment to making shape and being shaped. Here, I understand the power of feeling at home in a form, or in form as such, and it doubles always into foreboding, into impending eviction. So second nature to me are all the conflicts involved in the process of composition—equal parts reverie and self-loathing—as to trust the method of “objective chance” that André Breton claimed makes “a mockery of what would have seemed most probable” (André Breton, Mad Love). I give in to the doubling, to a place punctuated with visual interludes, and what I know as my own story appears largely to subsist over time by means of a lens, small mementos from the past, perishable scraps of history, little evidences of experience, both proper and foreign to myself, composed of drawings, prints, films, and photographs. To find a foothold, I recall the ventriloquizing passage voiced by the fictitious narrator of Chris Marker’s 1983 essay film Sans soleil: 

The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I'll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don't see happiness in the picture, at least they'll see the black. 

A decade earlier, in 1971, Amiri Baraka wrote of desires for, and attitudes about, the engagement in action of a “personality as part of the total world community,” of personhood in the geopolitical racialized imaginary from a largely Euroethnic base of operations. Baraka wrote that “a counterform in the closed field of white definition” marks that place where “Ethics and Aesthetics, as Wittgenstein sd, are one…” by which Baraka meant the projection of experience “hopefully beneficial in some way to the world” (Amiri Baraka, Black Art Notes).

So I begin with a photograph, an Ektachrome slide of an immigrant couple posing for the camera at Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles just before or after Baraka published his “Counterstatement.” The hazy blush of a polluted sky hangs heavy over the decline of the sluggish hills rendering the Hollywood sign a blur at the summit of Mount Lee in the background. The couple comes here with a photographer, likely a relative, too early in the day to watch the sunset, maybe mid-morning, at any rate posing between the 1930s street lamp and, beyond the frame, the sundial and Astronomer’s Monument from whose vantage point the portrait is rendered. With the winter lawn singed beige and brown by weeks of winter drought, the quad that leads to the Planetarium appears devoid of others. Or is it only the illusion of the photograph’s framing? For this couple, a husband and wife in their mid-30s, there’s a visual disagreement in this opportunity for self-presentation. With her puffy hairstyle and red long-sleeve mini-dress, the purse suspended from her left hand obliges a delicate but studied gesture that configures a feminine performance. With cigarette in hand, he wears his hair slicked back, and over the pink shirt and floral necktie, a poncho, or ruana (the name of that item in the Andes region of Colombia). A testimony to immigrant achievement in the prosperity promised by Los Angeles in the Cold War years between 1960 and 1970, when a Latin American diaspora, primarily from Mexico, but also from Central and South America, made its way to this urban refuge.

The husband’s affirmation of his ethnic difference further marks the couple in public space—a defiance. She refuses to comply as well but by other means. Her eyes avoid the camera’s lens, and our gaze as latter-day onlookers, as though she was already skilled in so many narrative displacements about the social divisions in California, and the cultural expectation and racialized meanings applied to her body in the “closed field of white definition.” Once, where she was from, she had committed to habit and memory, accepted as fact, the entitlements of lighter skin. Once, where she was from, hierarchies of color allowed for the over-reporting of class status. Here, any visual haziness in the potent systems of subordination sharpens into the field of perception, made absolute and unambiguous, owing to something here inaudible: a heavily accented English. Every encouragement “to pass” conceals the heavily enforced borderlines of speech acts, even as, time and again she will have endured, with the unruffled dignity or aspirational pride of the petite-bourgeois outsider, allergic to victimhood, the ineluctable nature of US American attitudes of exception and white supremacy.

Where are you from? When asked, she ironizes with imaginative lines of flight. Sometimes the reply is simply “South America,” a term whose perplexing political cloudiness played evasive even as it assumed—rightly—her opponent’s liable ignorance of geography. It preempts embarrassment of the other and a need for explanations—a little act of ingenuity and generosity. Increasingly, and because this is California, the rejoinder is “Mexico”—with the particulars, however, that make a fiction plausible; that enhance a narrative of passing. And so to avoid any association with her native Colombia—that is, in the media grotesque, with narcotics and criminality—she adds “…from Mérida, Yucatán.” Her preference for passing—not quite not white; not quite not a Mexican national—is a vernacular knowledge of her body as a sign of “difference that exceeds the body.” But she also knows, as Samira Kawash in another context observed, “the visible becomes an insufficient guarantee of knowledge. As a result, the possibility of a gap opens up between what the body says and what the body means” (Samira Kawash, Dislocating the Color Line).

Similarly, an accent is a surplus so culturally determined in social space, it can never be understood properly on its own terms but rather only as a measure of other competencies. Poet Rosa Alcalá writes: “An article in Time magazine on voice activation technology discusses the failure of this innovation to recognize female or ‘foreign’ voices with thick accents…. I sometimes worry that the ways in which we define poetry and separate it into exclusionary camps is like creating a technology that recognizes only a few representative voices—or no voice at all—and can only accomplish a limited set of commands” (Rosa Alcalá, The Volta Book of Poets).

My father died in early 2016, and in the time elapsed since his passing the meanings of his loss have become forever entangled in the mess that is the time of the now, what Naomi Klein refers to as the large-scale shocks to society, the opportunistic occasions to advance an agenda auspicious for corporations and the brutal accumulation of wealth; to the conditions that gave way to a return of the repressed, to the preservation of whiteness and toxic masculinity; to the assault on immigrants and indigenous rights, to anti-Black violence and other forms of racial aggression and religious intolerance; to unpredictable levels of cyber-surveillance and the single-minded repeal of all our social safety nets. There is a particular form of immigrant sorrow that is loath to overstate the family narrative even as it finds no place for all the fixed or misremembered scenes of prohibition and shame, all the violence and survival, all the contingencies and chances, the kindnesses and care, as anything but empty if not in a method of kinship with actors in the past and present for whom the odds of time and place have not been favorable.

Although my father was capable of gentleness, and there were moments in my adult life when we came close to being close, he was largely absent, and ever the silent witness of my mother’s aptitude for severity, beholden to aspirational decorum and to those Catholic pieties that serve as a cover story to disavow the precarious flux of sexual and social life. Even as my father and I were sort of strangers to each other, I found a renewed indebtedness to his lifelong commitment to dreaming, despite what was for him—a physician who never practiced in the US, and therefore a subsistence-wage professional, immigrant who abided in the perplexing order of that uncertainty—the uneven playing field and the undeniable consequences of disadvantage. Insomuch as the concept of clear and open communication was alien to my upbringing, the charge to find the words that are true, to acknowledge the task as embodied, however embedded in the undeniable privileges in my possession, became a place of antagonism, of early and belated instructions about how I was to self-present and find mobility in a world, by means of provisional personas liable to render a self—myself—as something legible. It became—as Phillip Roth once remarked, a coup for me of recognition—a task of having likewise, over and over again, “to fight for my fluency, every paragraph, every sentence.” (Claudia Roth Pierpoint, “The Book of Laughter: Phillip Roth and His Friends,” The New Yorker).        

In the hospital, on his deathbed, my father experienced abrupt recollections from his youth, as when he had committed to memory the Spanish Golden Age poet Calderón de la Barca and the well-known soliloquy recited by the imprisoned Segismundo in the 1635 baroque drama La vida es sueño:

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.
What is life? It’s madness.
What is life? An illusion
a shadow    a fiction
and all kindness is nothing:
interlude of a life dreamt
by a dream inside another dream.

 Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681)
—(author’s translation)
Originally Published: June 4th, 2018

An art historian, curator, and editor specializing in Latino and Latin American art, Roberto Tejada was born in Los Angeles. He earned a BA in comparative literature from New York University and a PhD in interdisciplinary media studies from the English Department at the State University of New York at...