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Body Politics

The Power of Little Cockroaches Insisting on Worlds Otherwise

After a year when too many of us have mourned the tragic and untimely losses of loved ones (and raged at our governments for their roles in exacerbating these crises), I found another perspective on grief and change in Muñoz’s depiction of otherwiseness and a fable about a cockroach.

Sometimes we can sense utopia, just there, on the horizon, and that sensibility makes all the difference. When I was a doctoral student, Erin Runions recommended the work of José Esteban Muñoz. I read the essay “Queerness as Horizon” (2007). It was a significant intellectual turning point for me in researching the dissertation; his book Cruising Utopia (2009) was the most important book published outside of biblical studies/religion/theology for my research.

Where I was examining 1960s and 70s manifestos of the Chicano movement, he examined a manifesto of the Third World Gay Revolution (1971) describing “what we want, what we believe.” Muñoz clarified the utopian force of the manifesto, the way that it refused a pragmatism of the present, crafting an already but also not-yet elsewhere in its words.

Since I was not exposed to much queer-of-color critique in graduate school, Muñoz’s cruising of utopianisms embedded in queer minoritarian texts, performances, art, and histories finally gave me language for so many different personal and professional longings. He helped me understand something about Aztlán, a fraught Chicano/a/x utopian imaginary (referenced in chapter two of Sense of Brown as well), that minoritarian utopian longings are not singular. They are playful across time and space, “straight time” cannot contain them, and they are always under contestation.

Minoritarian utopias both exist and do not exist; they can be tasted, felt, sensed, but they also are always shifting, never final, and thus open to radical remaking. His aligning queerness with the utopian has often been pitted against Lee Edelman’s anti-social and anti-futurist proposals, but I agree with Lynn Huber and Peter Anthony Mena who have argued that Edelman and Muñoz cannot be so neatly dichotomized. Although distinct, they also have a common refusal of the world as it is.

Muñoz’s utopianism always seemed to me akin to Graham Lock’s Blutopia (2000) or to “melancholic hope” as described by Joseph R. Winters in Hope Draped in Black (2016). For Muñoz, minoritarian utopias underscore that this world is simply not enough and should not be reproduced; these are melancholic utopias, refusing to get over that which cannot be moved past. The ecstatic turn at the end of Cruising Utopia was not a call to party and forget, rather, it was about charting the ways we bear melancholia and thus must sense utopias within those ecstatic moments that we taste a world otherwise.

In Sense of Brown, a posthumous collection where each essay still feels unfinished, Muñoz no longer theorizes utopia so much as presumes its necessity, and he posits Latinidades, diverse as they are, as akin to queerness, as marked by affects that dominant and normative cultures deem inappropriate. I could not put the book down. I was filled with both renewed sorrow at Muñoz’s untimely death but also the ecstatic joy of seeing Latinx worlds through his utopian hermeneutics. Throughout the book, a range of Latina/o/x thinkers, performers, and one supreme court justice embody an “otherwiseness that insists on another mode of being and feeling in the world” (Sense of Brown, 114). I found myself drawn to this insistence, operating like the melancholic, a refusal to let go, but also a demand for transformation.

This sense of brown altered the way I related to a classic fable. In chapter eight, Muñoz rethinks “Cubanity” in light of Carmelita Tropicana’s With What Ass Does the Cockroach Sit?/Con Qué Culo Se Sienta la Cucaracha? Tropicana draws her title from an AfroCuban proverb and reinterprets Pérez y Martina, a children’s story that Puerto Rican librarian and writer Pura Belpré published in 1932 (Muñoz, 79). Tropicana’s version underscores the cockroach’s ability to survive, to make do (resolver), and Tropicana refuses “the logic of the human that is predicated on the devaluing of some lives within and outside the realm of the human” (85). Muñoz concludes the essay with the sense that brown becoming can be understood here as an “insistence on not being a foreclosed and often disposed identity, and instead participating in new and potentially emancipatory lines of flight” (85).

Muñoz only briefly glosses Pérez y Martina, a story common not only in Latin America but with kin tales around the world; years ago, Sourena Parham shared with me the Iranian version, “Aunty Cockroach.” Muñoz only summarizes the part of the Puerto Rican story where the little cockroach comes across wealth and opts to marry a Spanish mouse, among all her suitors, and she leaves a pot of food cooking for him while she goes out. The food smells so good the mouse tries to taste it, falls in, and dies.

Muñoz interprets the classic fable as having a clear moral, “be true to one’s nature” (80). I think he sees in the story a sort of constricting of identities which must be rebelled against. He then describes Tropicana as reframing the story as one of survivance and boundary crossing.

Yet Muñoz’s turn to brown as insistence caused me to read the fable itself differently. As someone who was born in Costa Rica, I was drawn to another version, “La cucarachita Mandinga” (the little cockroach Mandinga) that Costa Rican educator and author Carmen Lyra published in her 1920 Cuentos de mi tía Panchita. In this version, the cockroach’s name signals a possible African connection, the mouse is not specifically Spanish, and, in the early twentieth-century, the word Mandinga also carried a sense of “queerness” (see Horan, Subversive Voice of Carmen Lyra, 135). Indeed, Mandinga and Pérez might be read as a queer couple, though their marriage ends tragically. However, the story does not simply end with Pérez’s death.

Almost half the story details how the grief of the little cockroach Mandinga impacts those  who take up her grief. The grief moves from Mandinga to others, and not just other non-human animals, but structures, nature, and human society: a pigeon house sheds its eaves in solidarity with her grief, a king removes his crown, a river runs dry, and an old man kills himself. “La cucarachita Mandinga” here becomes a story about the power of grief to upset an inadequate world, and I find its ending and its morals ambiguous.

Lyra was herself a figure whose efforts helped topple governments, even as her own life ended tragically. A secular schoolteacher who navigated complex gender dynamics, she was a leader in a revolt against a dictatorship in 1919, but, because she was a Communist, a different Costa Rican government forced her into exile in Mexico, where she died in 1949.

After a year when too many of us have mourned the tragic and untimely losses of loved ones (and also raged at the role our governments played in this crisis), I see Lyra and this old children’s story as suffused with Muñoz’s idea of otherwiseness. Reading this Costa Rican fable a century after it was first published, I remember that one little cockroach’s grief carries both destructive and transformative potential. A militant from a country who rejected her, Lyra shared a story about the power of small creatures’ insistence on worlds otherwise.

In Convivencia, a Reflection on The Sense of Brown

This piece features a multimedia reflection on José Esteban Muñoz’s The Sense of Brown, which emphasizes the text’s radical approach to imagining solidarities and social relations beyond the normative paradigms of identity politics and its permutations. Through both textual poetics and sound design, Wadud and Lázaro Moreno riff off Muñoz’s own performance-based approach to storytelling and meaning-making, engaging Sense as an invitation to reconsider the aesthetic and philosophical terms of community-making, centering the power of counterintuitive methods.

The Power of Little Cockroaches Insisting on Worlds Otherwise

After a year when too many of us have mourned the tragic and untimely losses of loved ones (and raged at our governments for their roles in exacerbating these crises), I found another perspective on grief and change in Muñoz’s depiction of otherwiseness and a fable about a cockroach.

On the Work of Mourning in Muñoz

Pointing out and giving space to the melancholy at the heart of Muñoz’s work may help us rethink what queer scholars of religion, race, gender, and sexuality are doing and what we might want to be doing.

How Does It Feel To Be Seen As Needing a Cure

Reading The Sense of Brown has made the work of our collective, What Would an HIV Doula Do? less ineffable to me. While I do not think that brown and HIV are analogous, I do find thinking about the brown commons, and our HIV collective alongside each other instructive.

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