Research on the body and theories of embodiment encompass an emerging field of study that has gained traction in the social sciences and humanities thanks in large part to the contributions of feminist theorists and researchers. These theorists emphasize that knowledge is not produced by disembodied minds, but rather by authors who filter theory and data according to the way they experience gender, social class, sexuality, body ability, and other socially mediated experiences. Thus, the authors are aware that, despite their best efforts, this list is not comprehensive, since limitations exist from the availability of sources to the social location embodied by the authors, as well as space restrictions in this article. The works selected for this article reflect the feminist roots and influence of the field, since most include at least some analysis of the embodiment of gender and sexuality, and many are written by Chicana feminists. This, however, does not mean that all the selected pieces focus exclusively on gender and sexuality or exclude examinations of race, class, migration, men’s lives, etc. In fact, all the studies presented here use the body as a site for theorizing the lived experiences of Latinas and Latinos and expand the understanding of different social forces that affect different walks of life within their US families and communities. To frame these studies, the first part of the article contains Chicana feminist theories that explain the many ways in which centering a body that is shaped by race, gender, class relations, and more can succeed where traditional positivist and disembodied research fails: they account for the contradictions, nuances, fluidity, and incoherence of the social corporealities that Latinas and Latinos experience in everyday life and within larger contexts of social inequality and injustice. Race, sexuality, gender presentation, aging, social class, migration, stereotypes, health, body image, fertility, and more can be studied in relation to each other by paying close attention to how bodies are constructed, represented, and disciplined; experience pleasure; and navigate social structures. Following the Chicana feminist theories, the reader can find sources that provide an overview of various topics that can be studied through the body. The rest of the article then presents some of the most salient topics that use the body and theories of embodiment to understand social issues that affect US Latinas and Latinos. This does not mean that these are the most-important issues (since this article does not advocate for the ranking of oppressions), but rather it is a reflection of areas of study that use theories of the body and embodiment more than others. The reader should pay close attention to the particularities of each study and the unique position of the subjects inspiring these analyses, because the scholarship not so much demonstrates a stable or fixed understanding of Latinas and Latinos in the United States as sheds light on the social structures and cultural forces that affect their lives, including but not limited to gender, race, sexuality, socioeconomic class, immigration and citizenship status, and language. As a final note, scholarship on Latinas and Latinos is constantly evolving, and in the process of writing this article new language emerged. In particular, “Latinx” was a new, emerging concept circulating in socially and politically progressive circles in the United States when the authors prepared this article. Latinx offers a gender-neutral alternative beyond the Latina and Latino binaries, and the authors are aware of the ways this new concept may potentially shape in the near future the reflections offered in this article.
General Theory: Chicana Feminisms
In the 1980s, feminist scholars were developing tools to better study and understand the experiences of women, people of color, the working class, sexual minorities, and other marginalized populations. This was done in an effort to more accurately analyze and humanize the life experiences of people who had traditionally been studied through seemingly disembodied scientific methods, but which were rooted in the experiences of white, class-privileged, heterosexual men. Against traditional methods, anyone who did not embody white, heterosexual, middle-class masculinities would be distorted in academic research. Gloria Anzaldúa’s groundbreaking book Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (Anzaldúa 2012, originally published in 1987) was instrumental in adding a Chicana feminist perspective to academia, calling for more-sophisticated tools to theorize the experiences of people living at the border of many identities: gender, race, sexuality, language/culture, socioeconomic class, geographic area, and more. Her book not only humanized people who would otherwise be pathologized or perceived as “the other,” but contributed to academic scholarship by providing epistemological tools that challenge positivism and essentialism in the social sciences and humanities. In This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (with many other intellectuals) build on the theories of Chicana feminists, Black feminists, and other women of color (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1983). One key way in which all the issues would come together was by theorizing from the body. Moraga called it “theory in the flesh,” and twenty years later, Hurtado 2003 provided an explanation of how centering the marginalized body can offer epistemological tools that illuminate the inadequacy of using mainstream research tools to understand marginalized bodies. Cindy Cruz also reflects about how the “brown body,” particularly its positionality at the margin of various identities, can be inscribed with social injustices, allowing researchers to better understand the social forces that shape bodies (Cruz 2001). While studying the body could be interpreted as essentialist, Sandoval 2000 provides a sophisticated explanation of how this does not have to be the case, since bodies reflect contradictions, fragmentation, and fluidity. A contrasting perspective to the postmodernist approach in Sandoval 2000, Pérez 1994 maintains that the Chicana experience/body should not lose its meaning, and recommends “strategic essentialism” as a way to root bodily experiences in material reality. Finally, Zavella 1991 and Zavella 1993, while unequivocally still Chicana feminism, offer a “reality check” and remind scholars not to essentialize or stop questioning Chicana feminist assumptions (particularly regarding race and “shared identity”).
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 4th ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2012.
A canonical book, first published in 1987, that disrupts the oversimplistic models of gender, sexuality, race, identity, and a sense of “belonging” through theories of mestizaje. It explores the complexities of living in multiple worlds and multiple ways of being (which is how people actually live) and shows how people embody contradictions and represent multiple ways of being and knowing (sometimes in painful ways).
Cruz, Cindy. “Toward an Epistemology of a Brown Body.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 14.5 (2001): 657–669.
Applies the notion of mestizaje, which is living, breathing, and embodying multiple contradictory worlds, but specifies how the body represents those contradictions and those interstitial spaces. While categories tend to be neat and defined, the body shows the opposite: messiness, pain, struggle, and the active process of surviving the embodiment of that which should not go together.
Hurtado, Aída. “Theory in the Flesh: Toward an Endarkened Epistemology.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 16.2 (2003): 215–225.
A theoretical elaboration of Anzaldúa’s mestiza applied to knowledge production. Argues that living through interstitial/marginalized spaces and recognizing these spaces produce knowledge that exposes how the mainstream (white and heteronormative) knowledge is inadequate to understand those who live in the margins.
Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. 2d ed. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color, 1983.
Originally published in 1981. A groundbreaking work in which women of color have a platform to theorize through their embodied experiences of race, gender, sexuality, class, migration, and more. A proclamation to women of color to create a “third space” that breaks binaries and encourages them to voice their stories, which don’t fit in other places. Fourth edition published in 2015 (Albany: State University of New York Press).
Pérez, Emma. “Irigaray’s Female Symbolic in the Making of Chicana Lesbian Sitios y Lenguas (Sites and Discourses).” In The Lesbian Postmodern. Edited by Laura Doan, 104–117. Between Men—between Women. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Invoked often as a historical moment, this is a Chicana response to challenges from Chicanos and white women. Suggests how to strategically talk about Chicana experiences separate from others, not to self-segregate but to have a space from which to dissect and understand particular struggles through the development of a Chicana-specific theory/language.
Sandoval, Chela. Methodology of the Oppressed. Theory Out of Bounds 18. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Uses Chicana feminist thought to examine postmodernism, particularly to understand what white men experience as “crisis” and “fragmentation.” An informative guide to understand postmodernism, why it causes anxiety to people who have enjoyed a “stable” identity, and why marginalized people can thrive in “postmodernism” (and what to learn from their experiences).
Zavella, Patricia. “Reflections on Diversity among Chicanas.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 12.2 (1991): 73–85.
A theoretical intervention to women’s efforts to theorize from experience as a point of departure seeking commonality in women’s oppression. Instead, Zavella argues that a better theoretical framework would start theorizing from the historically specific structural conditions that constrain women’s experience, resulting in diversity of experience and not just categories of women.
Zavella, Patricia. “Feminist Insider Dilemmas: Constructing Ethnic Identity with ‘Chicana’ Informants.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 13.3 (1993): 53–76.
A methodological piece that demonstrates how a researcher needs to take into account the ways in which she embodies gender, race, class, sexuality, and more, and how these have epistemological implications when doing research.
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