Sructural Intersectionality and the Undocumented American
June: This conversation is nuanced and indicative of what it feels like to talk about intersectionality. We talk in circles, attempt to create new definitions, and describe what intersectionality means in the context of our individual lives. Cruz Valdez and Stefa Alarcon talk about their own needs and the needs of their communities, while centering the notion of allowing folks to decide for themselves how they need people to show up for them.
Cruz: Hi, I’m Cruz Valdez. I’m a photographer here in New York City. And I’m originally from Orange County, California. And yeah I’ll be here speaking today.
Stefa: Hi, I’m Stefa, I’m from Queens, New York. I’m a musician, my main instrument is my voice, I’m also and educator. I’m excited to be here with all of you in this lovely space!
June: I’m interested in hearing what, in this moment in the context of your own life, what intersectionality means to you right now.
Cruz: If we’re talking about feminism and intersectionality with that it’s like ok, different people’s experiences, if you’re a woman, if you’re queer, if you’re black or brown or whatever, to me it’s like how do those things inform each other and how people have different combinations of those experiences. Even for me, I’m half Mexican, Latinx, I know there’s been a lot of discussion about that term this weekend, I’ve always kind of contended with those two identities and then also being trans and dealing with issues of gender politics I feel like intersectionality is always something I’m contending with and trying to figure out how it relates to me and the people I work with or interact with and my family. So kind of thinking about all those different things add up for different people, and in my own experiences too.
Stefa: I’m also trying to get a grip on this language that we’re discovering all together in this time. So last night when the questions were sent to me I googled intersectionality I was like, what does intersectionality actually mean? And I realized that I do understand it, even though it is also becoming a buzzword as well. And sometimes like you said the meaning can get lost without context. But thinking of intersectionality for me it’s all these different markers in my life that allow me to identify myself in a certain way. I like to think of it as a lens that I’m wearing and what lens it is that I look through to the world, how I look at the world and what my lens looks like specifically. When I was 18 and going to college, I went to school overseas in London I was in a very conservative place. I was in a very proper English drama school, very traditional. I started to really clock how different my experience was from all of these different people who were in the space. And even then I didn’t have the language to identify what that viewpoint was, but my first partner was a white man and I was like wait, you’re never gonna see the world how I see the world. And that’s such a huge deal to me. So this very specific way that I am viewing and experiencing spaces in my life. First generation immigrant family, brown, queer woman, it’s so many different things that I’m gathering language around right now.
June: Yeah I think seeing intersectionally in theory, I don’t know, is it difficult? I think it just reminds us to view the world through someone else's lens, and therefore, the reason why it’s complicated is because when you start seeing the world through someone else’s lens it complicates your rooted worldview and sometimes it shakes that so deeply that you all of the sudden have to revisit whatever the hell that identity was that you were clinging on to for so long. And I know earlier you were telling me about having a niece here in New York and she’s visiting and the way that you sort of are faced with, even if it’s a little person, that person comes into your life and puts up a mirror into your own projections of self. So yeah I’d be curious to hear a little bit more about that experience this week so that we can contextualize it.
Stefa: For sure. So if you go on my instagram story it’s all been pictures and videos of my niece, because she is gorgeous and amazing, her name is Valentina. Having her with me and just experiencing her as a person, and also this extreme gendering that’s happening right now with her, with them, my mom wants to buy everything a certain color, a certain material, so I’m the auntie who’s buying her the Pink Floyd onesie that’s dark blue, and then at the restaurant they’re like “Oh is that a little boy?” I’m just around that all the time and it’s so extreme with Valentina. And also, who I’m gonna be for her in her life and that’s so huge right now that I’m coming to terms with the fact that this new human is gonna be a part of me for the rest of my life. I didn't grow up around my huge family, my immediate family was in the states so I just grew up with my mother, my father and my sister so it was just us, so now having this new little person who very much looks like us, I’ve been emotional this week, I’m like “Am I gonna be able to see you that often? Am I gonna be able to see you grow up? I don’t make enough money to fuckin visit you? Am I doing enough in my work? Are you gonna connect to that one day? I hope that you do.” It’s been a lot of different complex emotions about them and the work that I’m doing and who I’m trying to become. In a weird way now I have someone to do all that for instead of just myself or my peers. So it’s been a lot and it’s been emotional.
June: Yeah it’s just a reminder of how early we are conditioned with all of those mountains and mountains of projections onto us and how many of us are still working through the blue onesie or the pink onesie, it started from day one. And it leads us to talk about the next question. How can thinking intersectionally help us dismantle gender roles, gender identities?
Cruz: It’s just about embracing the complexities of human experience and identity that already exist and not trying to simplify them. I mean it’s great that there’s so much more discussion and embracing of that, obviously not immensely as a society or world but discussions like this are happening now and there are people people like us that have kids that we can help, not impose, but guide and just be like hey it’s ok to think differently than what you’re perceived to be, that's thrust upon you just because of the way you’re brought up.
June: I know that we’ve talked about taking these conversations back to our families so I’m curious to know how you’ve talked about intersectionality either in verbal or nonverbal ways with your family.
Stefa: In regards to how those things are showing up now within my family structure, it’s interesting because my mother is kind of going through this reawakening of her womanhood and of her own agency and feminism, so we have conversations where we start to piece things together for her. Like “Why did I stay with this person for 30 years when I could have done these things? If only I would have done x, y and z.” And it’s like we’re almost working together for her to take the next steps in her life. She’s 53 and a lot of times women are told you spend a lot of time with this person and that’s it, your life’s done so just work on retiring or something, relaxing. But my mom has a lot of life in her and so at this moment we do have a lot of conversations about how she got to this place and I’m very vocal with her about my opinions and stuff. Sometimes she finds me a little difficult or she laughs it off like “Oh Stefa, you can’t hate all white people!” And I’m like I swear I don’t [laughing] just your boss. That’s kind of how it’s coming into my household right now, being able to have these conversations with my mother that I never even realized I was gonna have before I started getting this vocabulary, this way that we can talk about these things that are so ingrained in us and that she has carried with her and now it’s being passed on to me and will be passed on to Valentina as well. It’s an interesting time right now.
June: Yeah I think that's a great responsibility only because, I know just from personal experience, often times people are spending so much time surviving first that they don’t get the time and the privilege to talk about, theorize their lives. So I think it’s really important to continuously acknowledge that we are coming from a place of privilege where we can talk about these things. A lot of undocumented people just don’t have the luxury of stopping to think about how they’re going to self actualize because they’re just surviving in a place of erasure.
Cruz: I feel like it’s been, over the years, I’ve been an instigator of my family with these kind of conversations but I’m lucky because I feel like my family is pretty open, I mean my immediate family, my mom, my dad, and my twin brother. They’re pretty open. They’re not like experts, but they’re open so I feel privileged in that sense to have parents that are understanding. Even my mom, she’s not the first to get it but she’s super open and has always been encouraging. Things don’t always happen immediately but even when talking about aspects of transition and gender and pronouns, things like that, asserting my Mexican, indigenous identity versus my mom’s side that’s white Irish identity. Like I’m part this but I still wanna assert that identity. Depending in where I am, one can overshadow the other. It’s been good, I kind of just bring it up as it comes along but I feel lucky because they’ve been able to just take it as it comes. We’re at a point now where, not all the discussions have been easy and trying to explain things… they might need gentle reminders but I feel like just taking it as it comes as I grow and come into myself I just bring them up through different experiences.
June: It makes me think about a few things. One, coming from a place of privilege, whatever that means in this moment, what it takes to actively be intersectional, in your actions. And I think one of the things that I have learned that it takes for me is that because I can take risks, I can be vocal about things, perhaps thinking intersectionally takes taking risks if you are in a place of privilege to be able to take those risks. And then I also want to know, how do we talk about intersectionality in an easier way? What other vocabulary, what other words could we use to talk about intersectionality?
Cruz: Yeah cuz I’ll use “Latinx” to describe, but that’s such a kinda ugly word, and it doesn’t really acknowledge any indigenous identity which I know my grandpa was. It just seems like that’s such a colonial term anyway but I’ll use it for the sake of that even though it’s gross. I guess again, talking about it like a process. I don’t know if you’ve experienced something similar, or maybe just your thoughts about language. But for me sometimes I’ll admittedly give in to the convenience of established language but it’s contextual too.
June: Yeah especially if they make it sexy right? Like it’s “sexy” to be Latinx
Stefa: I feel like it’s not easy and like you’re saying, being able to find this bit word that’s all encompassing of a group of people that Latino is and this whole wave of using the word Latinx, I don’t know if you’ve touched upon it in other conversations this weekend but I was kind of embracing the word I was like “Yeah Latinx!” and getting the pin and people are like young, Latin and proud, and all these ways to take back the power. But then just knowing the root of that word and these kind of ways that government wanted to group different kinds of people. And that's why at this moment I’m kind of shying away from that word and I’m like, I don’t know if I identify as that today, or this week. I kind of just always identify as brown or Colombian or New Yorker. But specifically that word Latinx is annoying me right now and right now we are having to do the really hard work of dismantling all this fucking language and these categories that they’ve put out for us to fit us into these little boxes so that they can track us. And I feel like it’s not easy so whenever I’m having that conversation with my mom and with my partner or my closest friends, it’s not an easy time and I don’t think we should strive for it to be an easier time if we’re gonna be doing the hard work, it’s with these people in this room who showed up today, or the people who are gonna listen to this recording, and I’m down to do the hard work. I’m down to just get a little dirty with it because that’s why they’re like “Check this box if you’re Hispanic, check this box if you’re this.” And I’m like I’m not gonna check any of these fucking boxes, like other, not answering, fuck you. I’m not gonna make it easy for you because it’s not fucking fair. I’m so over that easy way out.
Cruz: Yeah it’s such a complex identity so it’s hard to find a word or language to speak about it. Cuz yeah I’m part indigenous but I’m also white so I’m not really brown enough cuz depending on where I am, someone could think I’m white. But if I’m back home people come speak to me in like a play Mexican accent if I’m somewhere where it’s all white. It’s like really hard to then negotiate what word I feel like is even appropriate. And sometimes yeah it can be simplified in these ways that embrace the complexities of it.
June: Yeah, the quest for self discovery and identity is endless when you’ve been erased and you’re not allowed autonomy in any way. So first and foremost, identity, the self, in knowing a little bit of that you can then reevaluate the way that you practice autonomy and the way that you share that autonomy with others. But then knowing that in a few months you’ll probably be stumped in a conversation or event that forces you to evaluate that identity again and then switch up the way that you practice autonomy then and the way that you share that autonomy with others. I’m curious to know how you practice that in your work.
Stefa: What is that?
June: Intersectionality and then sharing autonomy.
Stefa: So right now I’m making a lot of vocal compositions and I’m also trying to support that with visual representations like video and I collaborate with people and introducing costumes and developing a character as well that I kind of speak through. And I’m very much being inspired by my grandmother’s story, who was indigenous from Colombia. I was, again this one identity marker which is I speak Spanish, I’m bilingual, and my family is Colombian and it’s like oh we speak Spanish so that’s how we connect and it kind of roots you to a deeper place of who you are and who you come from. And once I started thinking of who my actual colonizers were and it being English and Spanish I’m like damn, I’m just those motherfuckers and there’s that whole conversation of “Are they Latino enough if they don’t speak Spanish?” but I’m like, that wasn’t even my language for a really long time when I think about how far my blood goes. So I really wanted to investigate the language that was used before Spanish. So I did research, and I’m still doing it constantly about what language was spoken in this tribe the [???] in Colombia. So I’d just look up things on like, a recording from the 70s where they had archived music, certain groups were singing in Brazil and Colombia. I had a friend who’s an archivist who went in and found different tribe singing and chants. And then documentaries on youtube, I was like let me just look around and here what these songs sound like because I may have grown up listening to cumbia or listening to [???] or listening to salsa which is very much a part of me and my growing up, but I was like where are all these songs that were lost somewhere along the way? And I sing every single day, everything I say becomes a song like any line I say so I was like how can this also be in my practice and how do these sounds and words live in my mouth? So I would start to imitate certain sounds and make melodies out of things that I was hearing. And it was very powerful to introduce these words into my body and how it changed where I placed them in my head and my throat and the voice for me is the most vulnerable place in your body, you can know so much about where someone holds their voice in their body, in the back of their head, at the front of their teeth, through their nose like New Yorkers, it says so much about where you’re from and what you’ve been through, its so fascinating to me. So when I started really taking on these words and these sounds, so much was happening to me emotionally as well and it was really incredible. It’s been 2 years that I’ve just been like, I’m just gonna fucking go for it and sing what I wanna sing and make music not for everyone else but really for myself and what these experiences have been for women in my history and I wanna keep going, I don’t wanna stop, it’s been a really great personal thing that I’ve been doing.
June: What about you? How do you practice intersectionality with photography? I know that we’ve talked about this.
Cruz: Yeah well I work in fashion, the worst industry in the world. And I feel like the easiest way that is is with casting. I feel like I’m a total fashion nerd from such a young age and I feel really conservative in terms of even just doing that, dealing with the same themes that existed in the canon of fashion imagery for whatever X amount of time it’s existed. But for me, so much of that has been dominated by whiteness or very simplified versions of identity and there are definitely things I wanna see changed. For me it’s bringing in more complicated identities or people. But I haven’t really tacked it on like oh fashion about intersectionality shoot, it would never be like that. Just having it be something that feels natural, because it is a part of human experience and it shouldn’t be a trend or a punchline or clickbait. It’s something I think about a lot, I think it’s important, for photographers to be reflexive. I feel a certain responsibility in the images I make to reflect certain ideas or people in ways I would like to see.
June: I think it’s really important to talk autonomy at the center of this conversation just so that we de-center whiteness and all of these things that create barriers around even the language that we’re using to talk about this today. So I’m curious to know just from a practical standpoint so we can begin to tie this together, how do you practice autonomy in general? Where have you found the power to practice autonomy and make decisions for yourself based on your needs and your experiences and the things that have gone missing in your life as well?
Stefa: Definitely throughout my music and the fact that I decided a few years ago to stop waiting for people and to start doing things on my own, to tell myself just trust yourself, you like what you hear so maybe other people will like it. So putting things out there and not second guessing myself, cuz we’re so used to comparing ourselves to other people and what we see and what we hear and that really can stop you from doing things. And I was in the acting world, then the music industry, those things are really changing a lot right now. We’re dismantling both of those things which is really exciting to see, these structures fall apart. But autonomy in my music, autonomy in my voice, and also in my relationships, speaking to my partner, I feel like all those things really do start in a one to one relationship, holding each other accountable, me holding them accountable for shit that they say that maybe I think is problematic because you’re in this very very personal space where I will no longer let things go. I might have done that in my years but now I feel like I don’t have time anymore, no energy to waste on letting things pass that I feel are not ok to say to me or say to another person or say about another woman or say about this person that you don’t understand their experience. And that's not only my romantic relationships it's also my friendships and my relationships at work. What’s the worst that can happen if I tell this person “Mm, I don’t know about what you just said. Can you tell me what you meant? I don’t think I agree, explain to to me a little more.” And sometimes it takes people aback, but in a way we don’t have any more time to waste with this, with letting things slip, because we’ve let things slip. There’s no time, and I’m over it. So I feel like it really does begin with the person who you might be having a conversation with that day. If you lose a friend or something it’s like well, that’s your journey, you have to figure things out for yourself.
June: What about you?
Cruz: The thing that first comes to mind in terms of expressing my gender identity I guess part of that, you have to have a pretty active relationship with the people in your life about language, facts and discourse. There's that kind of corny expression that goes back to trans and queer communities, that chosen family thing, just finding the people to surround myself with that help me understand myself and in turn we help understand each other by providing a context for us to exist. I love my family but, it’s nice to have a group of people that I can have an active relationship with and we’re dealing with similar issues. And yeah it’s complicated because I’m in the midst of a transition, and I can’t wear a dress and high heels and perform femininity in this way to be understood but I dan do certain things that are comfortable and feel safe because I don’t live in a bubble or fly on a magic carpet everywhere I go, I can’t wear a beautiful dress and have long hair and makeup or even have access to the medical types of things. So it’s just seeking out people and spaces that allow me to be affirmed in who I am and the way I wanna live and structure my life, not to sit separate from the world at large, but to be grounded in a space or community where I have that groundedness so when I have to go out and do whatever, jobs, and work out in the world that makes it easier just to deal with that because I’ve created a space and community for myself at a core.