Cultivating Queer Conocimiento: An Anzaldúan Meditation on Queer Theory
Contribute a queer conocimiento, a perspective on life that is different from that of other people.
Gloria Anzaldúa, “Writing Notes I”
“Queer” as Gloria Anzaldúa used the word (and make no mistake: she used it a lot, from the 1970s until her death in 2004) connects with but isn’t limited to same-sex desire. “Queer,” for Anzaldúa, was not just an adjective describing identity, actions, and/or desires; it also includes ethics–radical ways of living and moving through the world. “Queer,” for Anzaldúa, represents the innovation and transformation that occur when we’re willing to be visible in our differences, when we follow spirit’s guidance. Being queer requires acknowledgment, acceptance, and enactment of our profound differences from the status quo. It requires faith in these differences (as divine). Being queer requires that we have the courage to take the risks that these differences demand and that we nurtureour differences, approaching them as honored, powerful (and very demanding) teachers. When we do so, we create ripple effects that impact both outer and inner dimensions. To again quote Anzaldúa:
Living with queerness is a choice: Living in a queer way contributes to community, nation, planet. It has the power to change the world. Queer life is political, it is spiritual, it is an intensely conscious way of living. (Writing Notes I)
Although Anzaldúa didn’t flesh out her theory of queer conocimiento, I believe that it merits excavation and further development.
I have several reasons for this belief. First, it addresses one of Anzaldúa’s over-arching concerns: the fact that she was so rarely acknowledged as a founding figure in queer theory. I recall numerous conversations with her about this erasure at her home in Santa Cruz, California; it was one of the few academic slights that deeply troubled her. Building on Anzaldúa’s theory enables me to underscore her foundational contributions to queer theory. Second, the phrase “queer conocimiento” has intrigued me since 2004, when I first encountered it as I organized Anzaldúa’s manuscripts after her untimely death; since that day, queer conocimiento has called out to me, inviting me to explore and enact it. And third, queer conocimiento has its roots partially in Anzaldúa’s pre-Borderlandswork on “divine warriors,” “people of the purple ray,” and clairvoyant “facultades”–making it as foundational to spiritual activism as it is to queer theory. As Anzaldúa explains in her 1982? conversation with Christine Weiland:
I call us “divine warriors” because we have to fight. But it’s not a physical fighting. It’s fighting with the spirit. To be healthy, you must awaken a sense of who you are and keep it strong and assert that you’re okay, that you’re not sick, that society–religion, political systems, morality, the movies, the media, the newspapers–that they’re all wrong and that you’re right. It takes tremendous energy, courage, and perseverance to keep that awareness awake. So you start tapping into your strength, your source of power. (Interviews/Entrevistas)
In what follows, I draw on Anzaldúa’s own life and writings to offer a preliminary definition and enactment of queer conocimiento. I interweave her views with mine, creating una teoría mestizaje.
Queer Conocimiento: Defined, Enacted
I define queer conocimiento as a fully embodied approach to living–to knowledge production and social change–that exposes, challenges, and transforms our status-quo stories about the world. Queer conocimiento emerges when difference meets resilience, occurs in dialogue with spirit, is situated in a completely ensouled world, includes psychic and other ‘nonordinary’ powers, and can be nurtured through specific strategies. Anzaldúa’s first use of the term illustrates many of these traits:
A queer conocimiento and a queer facultad are other ways of perceiving “normal” reality as well as other world realities . . . . I believe in the practice power and ability to communicate with spirits, that organic and inorganic life has an aware consciousness (“Spiritual Mestisaje”)
Anzaldúa anchors queer conocimiento in our everyday material reality while, simultaneously, challenging conventional perceptions of this reality by replacing Cartesian metaphysics with a mystical worldview.
We activate queer conocimiento by defying restrictive social scripts and nurturing our difference(s)–regardless of the rejection we might experience. As Anzaldúa asserts in “Queers of Color,” a 1999 lecture given at the University of California, Santa Cruz:
we have to turn away from: security, fitting in, [and] the orthodox way of doing things. We’re not just one of the guys, different only in who we have sex with.Knowing your difference will cost you. The consequences of living a queer life. Living with queerness is a choice. Living in a queer way contributes to community, nation, planet. Such a way of life has the power to change the world. Living queerly is political, it is spiritual, it is an immensely conscious way of life.
Queer conocimiento does not mindlessly celebrate being different/being queer but occurs knowingly, aware of the great costs involved. While Anzaldúa views our queer differencs as sacred gifts, she knows form her own experience that honoring and unfolding these gifts can be incredibly painful–on multiple levels. Yet for those of us queer folk who aspire to change the world, “[l]iving queerly” by heeding these differences is extremely worthwhile.
Queer conocimiento is embodied and accessed through the physical which can open us to the psychic. Thus in her 2001 manuscript, “Queer Conocimiento,” Anzaldúa associates it with “staying in your skin”–remaining present to our physical-material surroundings. She suggests that meditation “improves and increases body awareness” which, in turn, facilitates our recognition of the world’s ensouled nature, or what she describes as “the soul in everything.” And much earlier, in her 1981 unpublished manuscript, Esperando la serpiente con plumas/Waitng for the Feathered Serpent, Anzaldúa writes that the divine warrior develops this “new faculty of listening to the body” as a form of resistance to the overlapping forms of oppression she experiences “because she’s colored [sic], because she’s female and because she queer [sic]–all those multiple oppressions have put her thru [sic] hell’s fireand [sic] dark nights.”
Queer conocimiento is dialogic in multiple ways and on multiple levels. As we enact queer conocimiento, we move through an ensouled world, in conversation with our surroundings–open and attentive to possible messages: When something calls out to us, we answer its call and trust the messages generated through our encounters. We do so because we know that reality is composed of multiple overlapping dimensions all created by and infused with spirit (energy/consciousness/force/the divine–call it what you will).
When we perceive the world with queer conocimiento, the boundaries between worlds become porous. Anzaldúa explores this boundary blurring in many short stories, like “El paisano is a bird of good omen.” This 1982 short story beautifully illustrates queer conocimiento in both content and form. Set in south Texas, “El paisano” focuses on Andrea de la Cruz, a queer woman on the eve of her marriage to another queer, Zenobio. Andrea is queer in many ways: She defies conventional gender roles by speaking her mind and following her will, expressing her attraction to another woman, and doing a “man’s work” better than men; she has wild hennaed hair and a serpent companion, Víbora, who sleeps next to her. More importantly for my argument, Andrea has nonordinary, psychic powers (or what we could call magic); she can “tam[e] wild bulls and mad dogs,” choke a person simply by looking directly at their throat and causing them to gag; make thunder and lightning; communicate with reptiles and other nonhuman people; bilocate; merge with the trees, blur boundaries between herself and the land. Andrea’s magic keeps her safe from her neighbors’ suspicion and fears and gives her self-confidence.
Although Andrea is a semi-fictional character, her powers are not. From its earliest pre-conceptualization, Anzaldúa associates queer conocimiento with clairvoyance and other psychic skills. Look for instance at Esperando la serpiente con plumas/Waiting for the Feathered Serpent, where Anzaldúa associates queers of color with (r)evolutionary development. In order to survive, she explains, marginally oppressed people sometimes develop additional skills that give us psychic powers, enabling us to read our surroundings more effectively:
We need to learn to read the meaning and significance of every event in our lives. We must see the hidden meaning or signature of every occurrence [sic]. Our survival is at stake. . . . What I’m talking about is political and personal CLAIRVOYANCE: the capacity to see in surface events, the meaning of deeper realities. (Dane Rudhyar, Cap. 29) We have developed an extra faculty, a sense that spots danger and ill winds in our streets and in our bedrooms. We need to cultivate this “faculty.”
Queer conocimiento invites us to cultivate this nonordinary faculty and assures us that doing so awakens new knowledges and skills with which we can change the world.
An increasing number of queer folx are involved in this work: We access and activate queer conocimiento by embracing our differences (as divine messengers) and nurturing their wisdom.
A longer version of this piece was presented at the Anzaldúa Colloque in Paris, May 2019.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. “Esperando la Serpiente con Plumas (Waiting for the Feathered Serpent),” 1981-82. Box 78, Folder 9. Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers. Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas, Austin.
—. Interviews/Entrevistas, edited by AnaLouise Keating, Routledge, 2000.
—. “El paisano is a bird of good omen.” 1983. The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, edited by AnaLouise Keating, Duke University Press, 2009.
—. “Queers of Color,” 1999. Box 112, Folder 26. Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers. Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas, Austin.
—. “Spiritual Mestisaje, An Other Way,” 1996, Box 64, Folder 27. Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers. Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas, Austin.
—. “Writing Notes I,” 1999. Box 102, Folder 3. Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers. Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas, Austin.
Rudhyar, Dane. An Astrological Mandala: The Cycle of Transformations and its 360 Symbolic Phases, Vintage Books, 1973.
AnaLouise Keating is a bi qpoc womanist spiritual activist, yin yoga instructor, and professor and Ph.D. program director of multicultural women’s & gender studies at Texas Woman’s University. She worked extensively with Gloria Anzaldúa during her life and has edited several of Anzaldúa’s books, most recently, Light in the Dark/Luz en lo oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality.AnaLouise’s most recent book is Transformation Now! Toward a Post-Oppositional Politics of Change. Her lifework focuses on radical transformation, women-of-color theories, and transformational pedagogies. She can be reached at: email@example.com