December 5, 2023
When Language Broke Open, An Anthology of Queer and Trans Black Writers of Latin American Descent collects the creative offerings of forty-five queer and trans Black writers of Latin American descent who use poetry, prose, and visual art to illustrate Blackness as a geopolitical experience that is always changing. Telling stories of Black Latinidades, this anthology edited by Alan Pelaez Lopez, centers the multifaceted realities of the LGBTQ community.
By exploring themes of memory, care, and futurity, these contributions expand understandings of Blackness in Latin America, the Caribbean, and their U.S.-based diasporas. The volume offers up three central questions: How do queer and/or trans Black writers of Latin American descent address memory? What are the textures of caring, being cared for, and accepting care as Black queer and/or trans people of Latin American descent? And how do queer and trans embodiments help us understand and/or question the past and the present, and construct a Black, queer, and trans future?
What first sparked your interest to bring writers together for this anthology?
In the United States, there is a narrative that Black people from/ in/ with heritage from Latin America do not know that they are Black, or that they reject their Blackness. This is false. Black Latinxs, Black Latin Americans, Black Antilleans, and African writers in Latin America and the Antilles each understand their experience through the unique legal, cultural, and political reality of the regions they currently live in. I first envisioned a volume that demonstrated the nuances, similarities, and radical departures that exist across the Black of Latin American descent diaspora. This collection is one that does not explain Black Latinidades but instead attends to what I think are pillars of Black queer and trans life: memory, care, and futures.
How did living in Mexico City inform the way you edited this volume?
I was sick and in medical treatment while editing When Language Broke Open and questions of trans* and Black futurities kept lingering in my mind, especially as I was actively witnessing the rise of anti-trans feminist organizing in CDMX [Mexico City] alongside constant news reports of Black migrants presenting themselves at the US-Mexico and Mexico-Guatemala borders. Witnessing these material realities helped me form questions for contributors during the editing process that I would not have been able to craft otherwise. While When Language Broke Open primarily includes contributions from writers based in the settler United States, the anthology contributes to migration studies, border studies, and trans* feminist studies in unique and crucial ways.
Mexico City also helped me contextualize why the volume is necessary: In the introduction to When Language Broke Open, I outline being racially profiled in my own country of birth and having to guarantee local police that I am indeed Mexican despite my Blackness. This constant interaction with the nation-state made me realize that Black Latin Americans are often treated as foreigners and/or irregular migrants in our countries of birth, and when we do leave our countries, we become doubly displaced, which is a theme that evolves as readers read about the migratory journeys from contributors with roots in South America, Central America, North America, and the Antilles. The volume does not, however, solely critique our countries of birth for this displacement. Instead, the volume critically analyses settler colonialism, capitalism, ableism, trans* misogyny, and Indigenous and Black erasure as forces that shape our different experiences across the hemisphere.
Why did you include a variety of genres in this anthology?
While putting the call for submissions together, I was interested in narratives that explored queer and trans* Blackness in the everyday, not only through “memorable events” such as coming out of the closet, experiencing racial or gender violence, etc. Expanding the genres felt like the only way to get to the quotidian experiences of–for example–watching a hip-hop YouTube video, washing one’s hair, blowing out a candle, and watching the sunset (all of which can be found in the volume). I am quite moved by the way in which contributors used visual images throughout the collection: some added photographs of themselves, others of family members, and there is one series of paintings and one graphic memoir. When we read across the presented visual images, letters, and the various forms of fragmentation and redaction that appear in When Language Broke Open, readers encounter a complex narrative of how race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and culture inform the radical Black imagination.
The volume repeatedly uses the phrase “queer and trans Black writers of Latin American descent,” can you explain what this means in relation to the word “Afro-Latina/o/x”?
One of the harder editorial decisions I had to grapple with was encountering the refusal within myself to lean on an already existing grammar and allow the contributors to lead me to new theories and frameworks. Many of the contributors were vocal about their racialized Black experience, some rejected the notion of being “Afro-Latinx” due to the ways in which the word has been used to exclude countries like Haiti, Belize, and others; some refuse “Afro-Latinx” so that readers wouldn’t assume “mixed race”; and some refused it in order to speak of African migrants in Latin America and the Antilles who have found kinship amongst Black Latin Americans. “Queer and trans Black writers of Latin American descent” is a framework that understands queer and trans* Black people as existing throughout the hemisphere while embodying different legal, social, cultural, spiritual, and historical experiences of Blackness. “[O]f Latin American descent” points to Latin America as a part of our lives while not landlocking us solely to Latin America. Through this language, we insist on multiple diasporic formations. The language in the volume is akin to collage practice: we cut what we know, reassemble our pieces, and in the fragmentations, make ourselves anew.
What is your next book or creative project?
I am working on a theoretical poetry collection titled trans*imagination that addresses the mechanisms of surveillance and criminalization that the heterosexual-cisgender gaze perpetuates against trans* migrants in the United States and Mexico. The work is informed by 10+ years of community organizing with undocumented trans* migrants who have been held in migrant detention centers and/or federal prisons. In the collection, I examine the prison as a container of the imagination and argue that we (trans* migrants) are targets of the criminal justice system for being hyper-imaginative subjects who transgress settler time and settler laws with our visions of the future and our practices of kinship-making.
Alan Pelaez Lopez is an Afro-Indigenous poet and installation and adornment artist from Oaxaca, Mexico. Their work attends to the realities of undocumented migrants in the United States, the Black condition in Latin America, and the transgender imagination. They are an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis.