Dr. Emma Pérez. Photo by: Dr. Ernesto Chávez.
While completing my undergraduate studies at San Francisco State University, I was handed The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History by a professor in Ethnic Studies. He knew I was interested in writing about women, specifically Chicanas and Latinas, but I was finding it difficult to find “traditional” sources. After wrestling with the introduction to the book for several weeks, I gave up. Theory, I reasoned, was not for me. But, I did not give it away. I held on to it for years, believing that one day I might gain the knowledge that would help me uncover the deeper meanings held within—or at the very least assist me through its intro.
In graduate school, I was fortunate to take a class called “Theory and History.” We began with Karl Marx and made our way through the works of some of the most famous thinkers, including Sigmund Freud, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Homi Bhabba, Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, Judith Butler, and Emma Pérez. Through time and space, we traveled the globe and the ages to find thinkers, philosophers, and theorists who had asked questions about the notions of capital, consumption, fetishes, consciousness, sexuality, power, performance, gender, race, and resistance. The Decolonial Imaginary was one of the last books we read in the course. Studying borderlands history, on the U.S.-Mexico border, students tackled Pérez’s book with fervor. What did she mean by “decolonial imaginary”? What is interstitial space? Why were these concepts useful in “writing Chicanas into history”? We turned the book inside out. It was a marvelous discussion that included the use of the dry erase board for visuals.
Many years later, I finally had an opportunity to ask Dr. Emma Pérez herself these questions that had transformed our classroom so many years ago. Currently, Pérez is Research Social Scientist at the Southwest Studies Center at the University of Arizona, and she is also Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies. She received her M.A. and PhD. in history from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1982 and 1988 respectively.
She has written several books including her major historical monograph, The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History (Indiana University Press, 1999), as well as some well received works of fiction. Her book list includes, Gulf Dreams (Third Woman Press in 1996 and mostly recently reprinted by Aunt Lute Books in 2009), her award-winning novel Forgetting the Alamo, OR, Blood Memory (published out of the Chicana Matter series through University of Texas at Austin in 2009. Forgetting the Alamo was awarded the NACCS Regional Book Award. Her most recent novel is Electra’s Complex (Bella Books) in 2015. Dr. Perez has published several noteworthy articles as well, including “Gloria Anzaldua, La Gran Nueva Mestiza Theorist, Writer, Activist Scholar,” in the National Women’s Studies Association Journal 2005; “Queering the Borderlands: The Challenges of Excavating the Invisible and Unheard,” in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies (2003); and an article she co-wrote with Scarlet Brown titled “Women’s Studies on the Border: University of Texas at El Paso,” Women’s Studies Quarterly (2002).
Dr. Pérez was ready for my first question, in fact, she’d been asked it many times before. “Why use postmodern theory, specifically Foucault, when attempting to write Chicanas into history?” I pondered. When she first read Foucault’s History of Sexuality, she said, she was moved by his ability to synthesize historical information, always foregrounding the “bigger picture.” Foucault’s concerns with power—who wields it and why—helped Pérez grapple with larger historiographical questions about Chicana’s visibility in U.S. history overall.
One of Pérez’s greatest insights came in the discussion of silences in Foucault’s theory. As historians, we are taught to read the sources, to examine the evidence, but what if none exists? How do we read the silences? For Pérez documentary omissions and silences have the profound ability to produce erasure, and thus must be excavated. The “voices” of colonized people, of Chicana/Chicanx people, Pérez contends, are in the interstitial spaces. She comes back to the notion of interstices and the interstitial when she talked about her time with Homi Bhabha.
With her students Pérez introduces the method of critique, which Foucault stealthily employed, in order to locate sources of power. Why are certain narratives considered “mainstream,” why are particular stories reified in our everyday lives, while others are not only forgotten, but purposefully excluded from our day-to-day interactions with history? In this manner, Pérez explains, students begin to ponder the way institutions hold power over these histories and control what is considered valuable for examination. We find that power is located at the cross-sections of race, gender, sexuality, and class, and held by those who seek to gain most by keeping marginalized voices at bay.
These lines of inquiry bring students to further critique the reasons why the history of Chicanx and Latinx are obscured in U.S. history, why this history is marginalized in history departments across the country, and why they are generally excluded from historiographies of particular regions—like the Southwest. But, as Pérez asserts, critique is not enough, we must then remediate the damage done.
We returned to a dialogue about interstitial spaces and her connection to Homi Bhabha, a renowned post-colonial theorists, and his own analysis of interstices. Drawing from her own history of engaging the concept, Pérez recalled when she was accepted to the School of Criticism and Theory, during her tenure at University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), in 1993. During this summer institute she took several seminars with Bhabha, who had scholars read about the “interstices”—the “in between” spaces. She remembered talking with him after a class one day, mentioning that his concern for articulating the “interstices” was similar to Gloria Anzaldúa’s deployment of “nepantla” in Anzaldúa’s visionary work Borderlands/La Frontera. Published in 1987, Anzaldúa used “nepantla” a Nahuatl word that signifies, “in the middle” or “in between,” as a concept to describe the production of a hybrid identity for Chicanx in the borderlands. It was important to reference Anzaldúa’s use of this term, since, as Pérez noted, so often others believed they were the first to engage its meaning. It was in this moment, during our interview, that Pérez so beautifully illustrated how to “write Chicanas into history.”
Our interview continued in this manner for nearly an hour and a half as we discussed what it means to “queer” borderlands history, as well as the politics of diversity in academia, her recent move to the University of Arizona, her joy in returning to the borderlands, and the overall fatigue we, as scholars of color, feel in the era of Trump. Despite the fatigue, Pérez reflected, we cannot afford for a moment to be lax.
As we interpret theory, as we reach into the deepest regions of our consciousness for solace, we must constantly confront the material circumstances that deprive us of freedom and peace. She remarked that while identity politics has been stripped of its meanings, we must continue to fight for justice through an intersectional lens. “Race is just not enough,” she responded. We must understand the ways gender, race, sexuality, and class work in concert to oppress and marginalize in our society. Fortunately, Pérez sees positive moves in this direction. The generation of scholars that are coming forth, she says, have her “err on the side of hope.”
Enjoy the full audio of Dr. Emma Pérez’s BHIP here and stay tuned for more from the Borderlands History blog this coming fall. Remember to ‘like’ us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our YouTube channel. Until next time…
Special thanks for audio editing to Marko Morales.