Donning a blond wig and a magnificent red dress, she dances salsa like only the legendary Celia Cruz... "Celia" is the alter ego of Oswaldo Garcia, a gay Venezuelan trans who is the face of the new documentary [email protected]
Directed by acclaimed Venezuelan-Italian filmmaker John Petrizzelli, [email protected]* offers a rare glance into the lives of six aging homosexual "uncles" as they navigate a society that values youth and heteronormativity. The product of three years of research involving over 100 interviews conducted by LGBTQ activist Ricardo Hung, the film will screen in theaters beginning May 15.
The [email protected] at the center of the film include Felix Blanco, a working class Afro-Venezuelan seamstress from Caracas' sprawling barrios who joyfully dedicated his life to sewing and ironing before sadly passing away several months ago prior to the film launch.
Orlando Daza, a retired trans cabaret dancer who goes by the stage name "Madame Margara".
Alfredo Giuliani, a hair stylist driven by his passion for cutting hair, rebelling from contemporary norms of fashion.
Armando Rojas Guardia, a melancholic poet who as a youth left the seminary on account of "an unpaid debt with [his] body".
Edgar Carrasco, a lawyer and long time activist with Venezuela's LGBT rights NGOs, and Ramón Font-Carrera-Felizola, the late uncle of Perizzelli who was ostracized by his aristocratic family for attempting to pursue a career as a ballet dancer on Broadway, suffering chronic depression as a result.
Shot in a variety of locations, the documentary narrates the lives of the six protagonists both in their own voices and through the voices of their nieces, nephews, friends and other family members.
"It's a movie about human relations that explores the patriarchal context of the machista Venezuelan family in its different social classes," the director told Venezuelanalysis.
Visibilizing the Invisible
For Petrizzelli, the goal of the film is to visibilize a population virtually ignored by mainstream society, namely elderly gay people, as captured in the slogan "I have an uncle like that".
"The mediatic image is the homosexual of the Ricky Martin variety, an eternally young pretty boy, which comes from Romantic literature, Dorian Grey, Byron, Keats. Many people didn't know that there are elderly gay people, so for Venezuela it's an issue that is being seen for the first time at the cinematographic level."
The documentary seeks to accomplish this visibilization by exploring the intersection of the overlapping oppressions experienced by the protagonists, which according to LGBTQ activist Ricardo Hung, amounts to the denial of their right to sexuality and livelihood "as homosexuals and as elderly people".
All of the [email protected] interviewed for the film recount their experiences of state repression during the Fourth Republic that preceded Chavez, recalling different instances in which they were arbitrarily arrested by the police under the Law of Vagrants and Criminals designed to "cleanse the city" of "beggars, homosexuals, and the homeless".
"I experienced the repression in my own flesh, they [the police] would take us out of the discos all of the time [and arrest us]," remembers trans dancer Orlando.
Shunned by their own families, many of the protagonists also lament the solitude of growing older without a partner or family to care for them.
Armando in particular writes poetry to assuage his deep melancholy stemming from emotional and physical isolation.
Politics Raging Backstage
Although the documentary is a moving testimonial to these intersecting oppressions, Perizzelli nonetheless insists that its purpose is not "political".
"It's a film more about feelings rather than militant elderly gay rights activism- that's there, it's evidenced that there's a problem- but the objective is to touch people's spines. The idea is that people who have an 'uncle like that' they haven't visited for 20 years remember these elderly adults who suffer much loneliness and lack of love from their families."
In many ways, Petrizzelli is right insofar as the film avoids explicit discussion of contemporary LGBTQ politics.
Despite featuring testimonials of the harsh anti-gay oppression seen under the Fourth Republic, the documentary omits any mention of the current status of LGBTQ rights under the Bolivarian Revolution.
This rather glaring omission is quite likely deliberate, given that the question of LGBTQ rights is currently a topic of heated political debate within the sexual-diverse community and in international human rights bodies.
This past March, a delegation from the LGBTI Network, a Venezuelan LGBTQ rights NGO, testified before the OAS Human Rights Commission, describing the levels of homophobia since 2009 as "alarming" and alleging state complicity.
While denouncing real issues of homophobia, chavista LGBTQ activists have nonetheless slammed LGBTI Network and other NGOs for their external Washington funding and insulation from grassroots sexual-diverse communities, whose diverse social and economic needs go beyond same-sex marriage and other forms of legal recognition.
In prioritizing the fight for legal rights, many NGOs marginalize poor and working class LGBTQ people from the barrios whose demands are radically interlinked with struggles against capitalism and racism.
In particular, mainstream rights groups have consistently ignored the elderly LGBTQ population, especially the HIV positive, says Hung, who is director of the HIV-positive advocacy group Alianza Lambda and coordinator of the International AIDS Film Festival
"This is an issue that other human rights organizations in Venezuela have never cared about, 'Why are you going to give a condom to a grandfather,' they ask [...] Only now coincidentally are they interested."
The Emancipatory Violence of Appearance
While Petrizzelli consigns these tense debates to the background, we might nevertheless read this visibilization of a population largely excluded from the official LGBTQ rights agenda in Venezuela as an implicitly political act.
In fact, nothing is perhaps more political than the image of Celia- the Black, queer proletarian trans whose face now dons posters and flyers throughout Caracas- erupting into the Venezuelan public sphere, disturbing its racial and gender normativity.
For Celia merely to appear in public space constitutes an act of what George Ciccariello-Maher following Franz Fanon terms "symbolic decolonial violence" that enforces the recognition of her humanity in a open threat to the the racist, capitalist, and hetero-patriarchal structures of Venezuelan society that enshrine her ontological disqualification.1
Or, as James Baldwin forcefully puts it, "When you try to stand up and look the world in the face, like you had a right to be here [...] you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world."2
In other words, Celia's simple presence at the film premiere held at the snobbishly bourgeois Teatro Trastnocho located in the wealthy, overwhelmingly White neighborhood of Las Mercedes could not but be seen by Venezuela's europeanized elites as a violent penetration of their privileged spaces where the racialized poor are granted entry as invisibilized servants but never as self-proclaimed equals.
Perhaps for this very reason, conspicuously absent from the film premiere despite receiving an invitation was rightwing LGBTQ leader Tamara Adrian, a White upper class transgender activist and the international face of the Venezuelan LGBTQ community whose various NGOs receive millions in funding from the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID.
That Adrian can claim to speak for the Venezuelan LGBTQ community evidences this homonationalist logic of ontological disqualification at the center of mainstream international LGBTQ politics whereby, following Jasbir Puar, some bodies (mainly Western and White[ned]) are considered worthy subjects of human rights, while others like Celia's are rendered invisible.3
In this way, Celia represents an intolerable challenge to the hegemonic race, class, and age norms governing inclusion in the official LGBTQ community, above all because of her militant commitment to the Bolivarian Revolution, which she understands to be the true vehicle for LGBTQ liberation.
"For us gay revolutionaries, we've had the doors thrown open to us everywhere. Now I can go all over and know one gives me ugly looks, the people welcome me, greet me and say 'good morning', before no," Celia explained to Venezuelanalysis.
"And if you mess with me, I'm a lady, I'll go to the public prosecutor and you'll deal with the consequences. This is what is achieved with Revolution."
These words could not be more anathema to Adrian, who retains close ties to Leopoldo Lopez and the ultra right, dutifully assuming the tokenizing role of pinkwashing Venezuela's violent, anti-democratic opposition.
The Limits of the Symbolic
The ultimate irony of [email protected] is the fact that Celia never once appears on camera, her story told by her nephew, who relates how his "uncle" has impacted his life.
Celia works "Monday to Monday" as a door to door salesperson for the U.S. transnational firm Tupperware Inc., and according to Perizzelli, her boss threatened to fire her if she missed work to participate on the day of the shooting.
This appalling reality of brutal capitalist exploitation tragically confirms Gayatri Spivak's famous conclusion, namely that Celia is so subaltern that her speech is rendered impossible within the coordinates of a hetero-patriarchal, racialized capitalism.
Here we encounter the limits of Fanonian "symbolic decolonial violence": Celia's tumultuous eruption onto the "public" plane of Venezuelan society in radical affirmation of her own humanity will remain stalled at an impasse if it is not followed by revolutionary struggle aimed at battering down the structures that deny her existence.
Otherwise, Celia's subversive image risks being reappropriated and resignified by the Venezuelan Right as another LGBTQ body to be "saved" from an imagined Chavista homophobia with all the usual tokenizing and exotisizing implications.
In this sense, question of "Can the subaltern speak" is intrinsically tied to the other interrogative, "Can the subaltern govern", as John Beverley puts it.4
That is, the challenge for Venezuela's racialized exploited and excluded is to translate their "symbolic decolonial violence" into popular power that puts an end once and for all to this colonizing logic that will never cease to fetishize and commodify them.
Fortunately, this revolutionary process has already begun as the Venezuelan people struggle against oligarchic elites to reclaim local political and economic control within the communal councils and communes, forming the foundations of the "Communal State".
In fact, if not for this process, this film would likely not exist, given that it was produced with state funding, which is itself a testament to the degree that popular power has imposed significant modifications on the bourgeois state in a revolutionary direction.
In short, despite these limitations, there can be no doubt that in the words of Fanon, [email protected]' uncompromising assertion of Black queer humanity in the face of racist and heteropatriarchal disqualification "shakes the world in a very necessary manner".5
*The deliberate use of @ is an attempt to overcome the gendered nouns and adjectives of the Spanish language, where "o"or "tios" is traditionally used for males, i.e "uncles", "a" or "tias" is used for aunts, whilst the male plural "tios" would be used to describe a group of both aunts and uncles. The use of @ is increasingly being used to subvert the predominance of the masculine form in Spanish and, in this case, also serves to denote the fluid gender identities of the main characters.
1 George Ciccariello-Maher. "Jumpstarting the Decolonial Engine: Symbolic Violence from Fanon to Chávez." Theory & Event 13.1 (2010).
2 Ove, Horace. Baldwin's Nigger. West Indian Student Center London, 1969. <http://files.cargocollective.com/551316/transcript-only1.pdf>
3 Puaur, Jasbir. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
4 Beverley, John. Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Critical Theory. Durham Duke University Press, 1999.
5 Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth. trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1963, 45.