The apocalypse never gets old. In the Americas, many of us—albeit on quite different terms—already grapple with catastrophe as past, as ongoing, and as a likely future. We live “in the wake” of settler colonialism, enslavement, the Middle Passage, global imperialisms, and the ecological crises they already wrought.
Given the all-too-frequent elision of catastrophe and apocalypse, what does a recognition that catastrophic transformation has already happened mean for us as we read the apocalypse, whether as texts, concept, and/or event? At the very least, as Oglala Lakota feminist Kali Simmons argues, it “requires an expansion of the scale of time combined with an understanding about how violence is enacted over and through time.”
As a student of religion in the Americas, I understand how apocalypses loom around us as projects of deep time. Apocalyptic frameworks persist across millennia, even if on incredibly varied terrains. In both the past and the present, apocalypses are persistently plural and not easily classified together or assimilable with each other.
Whatever its ancient past, modern apocalypse is, in one iteration, a genre of imperial epistemology told as catastrophic unveiling. Within modern imperial projects, apocalypse is a theory of linear time, a narrative of destined, catastrophic endings, and a framework of knowledge and authority grounded in a rhetoric of unveiled ultimacy.
However, I am not interested solely in how dominant and dominating traditions have used apocalypse in modernity. As Elizabeth Phillips has noted, too often dominant apocalyptic traditions focus on a linear and literal future to the exclusion of ancient apocalyptic’s wider meanings. From the perspective of many of modern apocalypse’s survivors, apocalypse appears not only as a catastrophic end but as always already linked to the disclosure of knowledge in time, a struggle over meaning in the face of catastrophic legacies and ongoing crisis.
For several Latina writers, apocalypse as both revelation and catastrophe appears as an unavoidable framework that echoes across time, a framework whose ultimacy must also be upended. Let me share a couple of examples with you of how Latina writers inscribe apocalyptic legacies while refusing the linear temporality of endings and any sense of singular and ultimate meanings
Cherríe Moraga closed her 1993 collection of prose and poetry, The Last Generation, with an essay, “Codex Xerí,” in which she claims that “the Chicano codex is our book of revelation” (121). In Revelation in Aztlán (2016), I described this essay as evidencing a particular Chicana feminist revision of the scriptural, and it signifies on the notion of revelation itself. “Codex Xerí” also closes a particularly apocalyptic collection of essays, in the sense of catastrophic ends. Her essays offer meditations on the perils and possibilities of the end of the twentieth century.
“Codex Xerí” underscores one of the ways apocalyptic rhetoric can work: appealing to otherworldly authority and the promise of transformation while struggling over the control of meaning in the midst of present crises. Yet this essay also exemplifies another facet of Chicana and Latina literature, the ways that the apocalypse—as a trope of knowledge-making borne of crisis—appears as a sort of temporal fugue, a past context that lingers in the background even as authors name present struggles and evoke future transformations, taking the apocalypse, as revelatory transformation, as a melody that repeats, that cycles, but also changes amid temporal repetition.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given how she attempts to connect and place Chicana concerns in solidarity with Indigenous ones, there are ways that Moraga resonates with Kyle Powys Whyte’s analysis, depicting Chicanos as a people who have already lived through the apocalypse, one brought by Christopher Columbus and then especially emblazoned on Mexican history in the 1521 conquest of Tenochtitlán.
The apocalypse, as in world-ending catastrophe, has already happened. Spanish colonizers brought it and mapped the “new world” with it. We live with the apocalypse as our background; it infuses our landscape. For those who live in California, the Spanish missions are mini-maps of the new Jerusalem and contested memorials to genocide.
Apocalypse appears here not as catastrophe alone but as a broader mythic landscape of meaning making and meaning contestation. The Virgin of Guadalupe, as David A. Sánchez so well showed (From Patmos to the Barrio, 2008), stands cloaked in the apocalypse, adorned with the visions of Revelation 12 and then plastered on walls, flags, bumper stickers. The woman of Revelation 12 pervades daily life and helps ethnic Mexicans claim space. This apocalypse-as-background is offered as a revelation itself.
Moraga’s work is but one example of Chicana signifying on the Book of Revelation. Another one that deals more directly with a pandemic, specifically the AIDS pandemic, is Evelina Fernández’s Dementia (2010). In this play, the catastrophes are in the past in many ways and so apocalypse persists, not as catastrophe, but as a problem of endings, a subtle framework for disclosing truth and contesting the meanings of truth-telling. The main character is on his deathbed. The crises have already happened, but the truths we glean from them are up for debate.
The apocalypse as landscape shapes background layers of the play. Guadalupe appears as Lupe, an evocation of a Cuban singer of the same name, but in Dementia, she is an angelic drag queen who opens the play with song, a song that asks fundamentally about the meaning of life in the face of death. The central character, the only one who can see and communicate with Lupe, is Moe/Moíses (Moses), who is dying on account of AIDS. Here the shining cloak of Revelation 12 drapes the background vocals but also frames the quest for revelatory meaning in the face of current crisis, a crisis of heteropatriarchal violence and disease that is figured as a living death. Lupe reappears throughout the play, to coax Moe onto his death and in order to push Moe to grapple with meaning and with the consequences of truths that have been hidden.
Dementia uses the Book of Revelation as background material but also works within the expansive genre of apocalypse. Moe is a prophetic figure who communicates with the divine, who bridges our world and the other world amid what others view as his dementia brought on by AIDS: “He’s delusional. Half here and half…there” (32).
At the same time, Moe’s niece Tamara cares for him, and she is another stand-in for Guadalupe, an unwed, pregnant teenage girl. Moe prophecies that Tamara will give birth to a salvific daughter: “she’ll be a leader of the Chicano movement and she’ll fight against the oppression of our people” (24). Here is Revelation 12 embodied both in its past formulation with Lupe as angelic guide but also as future transformation, a savior yet-to-be-born who will end oppression.
Yet, Fernández bends Revelation’s persistent prominence. Fernández’s characters seek to reveal truths but also refuse the supposed clarity and finality of truth that is too much of the hallmark of dominant interpreters who seek in R/revelation a definitive truth, a clear-cut separation of good from bad, right from wrong, false worlds from true ones. About a third of the way into Dementia, Moe describes the play he has been working on, a play that is perhaps about Lupe. But Moe cannot complete it because “that moment,” “that holy moment” of “revelation” evades him (29).
The next several pages entail debates about truth and whether and how truths should be revealed to us, all in the context of Moe wanting to have one last party where he can freely express himself as a drag queen. One pale Chicano character lives much of his life trying to pass for non-Chicano white. A couple who are Moe’s close friends fight because the wife revealed a truth the husband didn’t want to hear, but the husband had, for many years, himself hidden the truth that he once slept with Moe.
The hiding of truths, remaining within closets, have caused pain for most of Dementia’s characters, but disclosure is not so neat as we might presume. The title itself couches truth-telling as a side effect of the AIDS crisis, as dementia. In the latter part of the play, Moe’s ex-wife, Raquel, appears because she has heard he is dying, and she wants to reconcile with him before his death, only to learn new truths, specifically that Moe had a secret affair with her brother.
This disclosure disrupts Moe’s final party, and makes it impossible for Raquel and Moe to reconcile. Instead Tamara (physically) and Lupe (spiritually) help Moe to die, after a last monologue to his friends where he says “I’m sorry about the end” (83). The play, like Moe’s life, feels like it ends abruptly and too soon, with no futures guaranteed. The apocalypse remains as a background, but revelations are ongoing, plural, and ambivalent, a perspective that resonates with much contemporary minoritized, feminist, and queer biblical interpretation of Revelation (for instance, consider works by Lynne St. Clair Darden, Lynn R. Huber, Luis Menéndez-Antuña, and Shanell T. Smith). Some truths may be revealed either way, but it isn’t clear whether such revelations are good things. Meaning is left open as a contested terrain uncontrolled by the play’s own narrative.
I have focused on two mestiza Chicana significations on the Book of Revelation, but we could also look to other Latina contexts and trace this ambivalent play on the broader sense of apocalypse as a temporal fugue, a catastrophic revelation of meaning’s uncontrollability, that appears across time but whose melody changes in time. Consider, for instance, AfroPuerto Rican Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez’s (2020) mobilization of the term apocalypso (a musical signification as well, apocalypse + calypso) as a framework for making meaning that can open up a rupture through which “worlds/otherwise” are possible, where we give “attention to 1492: the past before it, the past since, the subterranean roots created by it, and the dead beneath the sea. It can be imagined as looking into the ‘vast and inconsolable’ sea to make visible what was disappeared, and make futurities beyond coloniality perceptible” (179). Apocalypse here is both about the enduring legacies of past apocalypse-as-catastrophe but also the transformative knowledge that comes from actually attending to those legacies, from carrying on the melody on different terms and opening temporal ruptures in the present for worlds/otherwise to come through.
In a longer project, I would tease out some of the distinctions here in the uses of apocalypse across different times, crises, and forms of Latina literature. These texts might help others rethink dominant norms for imagining apocalypse, both in terms of defining it flatly as either catastrophe or as an ancient genre of literature concerned with revelation. In these writings, apocalypse, as a contest over truth in the face of catastrophe, appears as an inescapable past legacy. Apocalypses large and small continue but, as in Dementia, not all truths are disclosed equally and some endings—and the meanings they should yield—are abrupt but never ultimate.
In describing the apocalyptic theology of W.E.B. Du Bois, Amaryah Shaye Armstrong argues that a “black theological sense of apocalyptic… unveils the radical necessity for a totally different vision of the ‘World’ to negate the dominant world and its production of the perception that legitimates its sense of meaning” (5). This sense of apocalyptic, as a fundamental critique of the world as it is, resonates with the Latina critical sensibility I describe above. For these authors, apocalypse is itself part of the dominant world framework that must also be contested.
Apocalypse persists as an inescapable crisis in both experience and meaning where authors seek to disclose and disrupt its iterative power. Part of the world we inherit, apocalyptic narratives must also be challenged, in part because apocalypse as narrative has shaped the catastrophic backdrop of this world. And yet apocalypse is neither neatly past nor future; it consistently returns, a recurring melody that we replay even while we try to disrupt its temporal and semantic finality.