Brown Neon: An Interview with Raquel Gutiérrez
Josh T Franco
I was delighted when the email arrived. Subject line: “Gulf Coast Invitation to Interview Raquel Gutiérrez.” I had been hearing about Raquel for a while, mostly from mutual friends in Texas. I had scoped their website. Mira el “.net” and that technicolor drama three-quarter profile shot. That fade: so damn brown and cool. The knowing and inviting glance. It’s just a website homepage, but already you’re in Raquel’s world thanks to the power of portraiture. That’s one of the skills at which Gutiérrez is so adept: portraying.
The invitation to interview them also meant being blessed with an advance copy of BROWN NEON, which is a portrait of the overlapping brown, queer, art-driven worlds traveled by the author. I travel in the same cosmos; So many of the fabulous figures you will read about in the book are acquaintances or friends of mine as well. It felt inevitable that we would meet to trade stories and create knowledge and meaning together. We both hope you find our traversal of themes of territory, ancestry, and artmaking useful. The territory where we perhaps overlap most is Marfa, Texas, and it is primarily our Marfan friends who had been speaking our names to one another in the past few years, laying the ground for our eventual meeting. Place is a central topic in our conversation, which is fitting; What the novelist Rudolfo Anaya did for New Mexico, or what cultural critic Fran Lebowitz does for New York City, Raquel does in BROWN NEON for Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Tucson. Every generation and community should have their master portraitists. Gutiérrez is one of ours.
Raquel Gutiérrez is an arts critic/writer, poet and educator. Born and raised in Los Angeles Gutiérrez calls Tucson home. www.raquelgutierrez.net for more information.
It is a strange experience to have your first actual conversation with someone recorded and intended for publication. Below, y’all will read that conversation. Most of the chismes remain and, I feel affirmed in my initial creeping instinct: When I grow up, I want to be Raquel Gutiérrez.
Recorded January 17, 2022 via Zoom:
JTF: Hi Raquel.
RG: Hey Josh, big fan.
JTF: This is our first conversation IRL! I mean, in real time I guess. “IRT”
RG: Across space, across time zones. I’m coming to you live and direct from Tucson.
JTF: I’m in College Park, Maryland. I made the futon into a bed so I’m really comfy, and it’s dark and cold here.
RG: I feel the occasion warrants that. It’s the Cancer full moon. I know you’re an Aries…
JTF: Wait, so you call out other people’s signs in the book, but did you ever say yours
RG: No…I don’t. It would be on par with uploading photographs of my underwear drawer. I do, however, enjoy this question as a prompt for my students who perk up and happily share their top three astrological signs–sun, moon, and rising. And for the remainder of the quarter or semester I make them guess mine. And because I have been an adjunct lecturer these last two years I’ve had Zoom classrooms of over 60 students so there’s constant guessing happening in the chat space.
JTF: I am looking at notes I made while reading your book. I made this little chart tracking these binaries that emerged in thinking about your experiences compared to mine: First, migration. Your experience and those of most of the figures in the book is that of being an immigrant or the child of immigrants. My family’s history is much more a the border-crossed-us story. Second, syncretic Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. My brown experience is shaped by the latter. And third, the most glaring binary: Tejas and California. I also just want to thank you for resisting the sacredness of Guadalupe in some key moments in the book. It made me productively self-conscious about my unquestioning veneration of her. But yeah, there are these gulfs between our Chicanidades.
RG: There is a certain staticness, you know, around those “gulfs,” or perhaps I can refer to them as lapses. We start at a certain origin story and then we don’t stay on the narrative, right? We don't actually know what happens, unless you're a deeply committed student of Chicano history. There's a certain glossing over, and that’s sort of the premise around language. We gloss until the occasion for precision reveals itself.
Fig. 1. A box of lesbian historical materials sit at the foot of the rock formations in Gamma Gulch, Yucca Valley, California. This was the day we released Jeanne Córdova's ashes into the desert winds. 2016. Raquel Gutiérrez.
JTF: But it's not just language, right? Place matters. Is there translation that occurs, or is needed, between Tejanos and Californians?
RG: The translations occur at improvisational levels to bring context to these cultural tactics, and our executions of them. Whether it’s the way that we style ourselves, or the sort of the rhythms we’re more adjacent to.
JTF: I’m thinking about the moment in the book in that takes place in a San Antonio backyard, the gathering after the ArtPace event. Something about that man asking y'all to be quiet. I thought, “this is the Texas-California friction right here.” I think it has to do with being a guest and how people go about being guests, or recognizing themselves that way. And for a Texan like me, my brownness is not tied to a precarity of place, like it clearly is for so many people who are recent immigrants or their parents were. I’ve never felt a precarity of place like that, so I don’t think I am as sensitive to it when my right to be in a place is questioned. My ancestors are buried under the ground where I walked around growing up, and I can go to them any time and know where they rest. We, my family, visit their graves as a weekend activity. Your book reminded me that not everybody has that, including so many other brown people I know.
RG: So I'm really taken with this idea of knowing where your ancestors permanently reside, and that you could walk over their resting places and know exactly where you're from. I feel like that's a very Texas experience. My partner's family burial plot is in Sonora, Texas and we’ve had several occasions to visit and feel that familial history at such a visceral level.
Fig. 2. upon entering Texas from New Mexico, circa 2017. Raquel Gutiérrez.
JTF: Speaking of ancestors, I love that you have black kyanite as your ancestral amulet. You mention that in the book. I like black kyanite. I have some right here. My amulet stone, though, is a Tibetan black quartz. It’s clear but has like this black heart you can see inside it.
RG: On what occasions do you activate it?
JTF: Well, my dude has one in his car. They’re twin stones. That one’s his, but he doesn't do anything with it. It just sits in the car. When I travel, that's the one I take with me… Raquel, there are so many things I want to talk about from the book. I don’t want to be all list-y, but I want to get to all these things. Like the discussions of the Sun Tunnels and danzantes, and that thread of orientation-of-the-self from Nancy Holt to Sebastian Hernández you made it possible to draw.
RG: Thanks, man.
JTF: I like when I feel like a book is giving my body instructions. In yours, there is a strong suggestion to pay attention to the cardinal directions.
RG: I appreciate that note because I had to do several sort of agonizing rewrites on the adobe-making section. Like, how do you convey the specialness of adobe-making to the reader?
JTF: Did you find your way to the adobe files at the Marfa Public Library? They're part of the Junior Historian Files. “Adobe” is a subfile. They're amazing. One of the reports on adobe is by my cousin, Sammy Cobos. When he was 11, he did a report on adobe-making and uses, and took all these beautiful black and white photographs of the process. You have to check them out.
RG: I would love to and I think that's also the gift that rafa [esparza] facilitates in his practice. I actually got to make adobe in Marfa with rafa.
JTF: That’s a good way to put it. Changing subjects, how did you find your way to María Lugones? You cite her in the book. Lugones was my advisor in graduate school. I worked closely with her for about six years.
RG: Lugones is an important reader of Anzaldúa; she provides the grounding and history of a way of writing. At the end of the day, it’s not what Anzaldúa says, but more about the conditions that were present that made that writing possible or impossible. At face value, that writing “fails” but there’s so much more to the circumstances; Anzaldúa didn’t have the typical conventionally writerly life. She was crisscrossing the country trying to eke out a living.
JTF: Isn’t it sad that that has become the conventional writer’s life?
RG: A particular type of writer right? In the sense that like, even myself, the Latino writers that I know, who have produced work by way of books. We all have a somewhat middle-class existence that lets us produce at longer spells. Anzaldúa didn’t have that. She was saying yes to everything and trying to put something together during those travels that could pass for a manuscript. My partner Sandy Soto is a This Bridge Called My Back expert, and it’s really about the history of these writings. We should pay more attention to the history than the living texts, which are mired in their own shortcomings.
JTF: Oh, wait, also Laura Aguilar… There's so much to say.
RG: Absolutely. And there has already been so much said and written about Laura Aguilar. There will continue to be more to say about so many artists. I think as writers we tend to think that certain artworks belong to the critical space of certain figures. It’s a grad school-y academic impulse to lay claim to certain archives. Like, one might not write about a certain artist because a critic has already written about said artist.
JTF: Is that the vibe around her? Are there writers who are territorial about Aguilar?
RG: I feel like that was something palpable 20 years ago—in grad school, thinking that one couldn’t write about a particular set of cultural productions because it had already been part of someone else’s critical treatment.
JTF: I mean, fuck that. You’ve got to do what you want at the end of the day, right? When grad students ask me a question that starts “How do I navigate…” I’m like navigate what? You don’t fucking navigate. You do what the fuck you want, and don’t be an asshole. Those are the only two rules in life. Often, those are in contradiction to one another; figuring out how to move from that contradiction is everything. Do what you want. Don’t be an asshole.
RG: For sure. And practice good politics of citationality. Every cultural production has 360 degrees, 360 doors, from which to enter said text. For me, writing about Laura Aguilar was also a way in which to think through my own sort of lesbian experiences. My own lesbian abjection.
JTF: Oh, that's interesting. You're saying something that's obvious, but thank you for saying it out loud. You identify with her in that much more direct way than I do.
RG: Yes, and especially in terms of the regionality.
JTF: The first time I encountered her work, I was like, Whoa, who is this person? But then I read that she is from California. Like, oh I get it now, a California Chicana.
RG: Yeah, California Chicana, SGV (San Gabriel Valley) Chicana… but early, early. I don’t know if you remember what you had to learn in fourth grade, but in California, we had to learn about the California Missions. I went to Catholic school. In fourth grade, we had to do our mission projects and I did my 3d model on San Juan Capistrano, right? In like Orange County. But we went on our field trip to San Gabriel Mission, which is the mission in the area where Aguilar and Cherrie Moraga grew up. But we all learned about these missions with the very specific omission that California was Mexico during the time the missions were built. They were built on Camino Real, what’s now highway 101.
JTF: Kill ‘em or convert ‘em… Who are your artistic ancestors?
RG: That’s a beautiful question. It's interesting too, as someone who has a genre promiscuous approach to artmaking. I think the book is my first artistic output as an individual. I’ve always been part of a collaborative project. I was part of an ensemble at the Cornerstone Theater Company. I have been on curatorial teams at places like the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I was part of Butchlalis Panochtitlan, with three other brown butch dykes, making performances. Or collaborating with Rubén Martínez on our variety show. In terms of artistic ancestors, I guess it would have to be in language. I think of Wanda Coleman, my gateway to poetry. I think of people I’ve written about in BROWN NEON: Shizu Salamando, Laura Aguilar, Tomás Ybarra-Frausto and rafa esparza. And, of course, I am indebted to Amalia Mesa-Bains, Roberto Tejada, John Rechy, Fred Moten, and Jeanne Córdova for their language.
JTF: Nice. Thanks so much for speaking with me, Raquel. Wouldn’t it be nice to be hanging out in Marfa tonight, under the stars? I always want a cigarette there.
RG: Well, I always want a cigarette. But yeah, Marfa, with a Shiner Bock and an American Spirit.
Fig. 3. Staring into the many vanishing points near Wendover, Utah, circa 2018. Raquel Gutiérrez.
Josh T Franco is an artist and art historian from West Texas. He is currently based in Hyattsville, MD. www.joshtfranco.com/bio