There Are as Many Americas as There Are Pedros
Marcos Gonsalez on aspirational whiteness and mourning the queer nightclubs for people of color
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
“The world will come between you,” writes Marcos Gonsalez in the prologue of his memoir Pedro’s Theory: Reimagining the Promised Land. The you here refers to both the author and his father, an immigrant from Mexico, captured in a photograph from the author’s childhood. “Hundreds of years of history, conquest, migration, and survival coming together to form a point of convergence in a small town in New Jersey. One photograph can tell so much,” he writes.
Gonsalez is most interested in what we can learn from snapshots, the physical and those of memory, such as the conversations had between classmates or a parent and their child, and when they occur in relation to history. He leads readers into his childhood school, down small-town streets, life in academia, New York City queer clubs, and everywhere in between. Filled with lush prose, the resulting memoir is a layered, scathing excavation of how the seeds of white supremacy have bloomed into damages on the everyday lives of immigrants, queer people of color, and others existing on the margins in the United States.
I spoke with Gonsalez about whiteness in educational spaces, queer clubbing in 2010s New York City, specificity against the flattening effect of Latindad, and holding space for our past and present lives.
Christopher Gonzalez: Your memoir is a thorough indictment of whiteness and white supremacy in small towns, big cities, and academic spaces. What have you learned and observed as a student, as a scholar, as an educator, about how whiteness operates in academic spaces, specifically?
Marcos Gonsalez: I was trying to work out the ways in which white supremacy in the United States is a means of violence and violation through a kind of nurturing. We’re not meant to question our educational system, beginning from kindergarten on to higher education. These systems are not apolitical, they’re not neutral. The ways in which we learn language, are taught to write, to speak, are deeply political things. I wanted to really change how we think about whiteness, how we think about how it operates in the United States, because I think we’re only taught to understand white supremacy or racism as these open assaults against people, like racial slurs or outward, physical violence. And those are important. Those are things that happen. But I wanted to touch upon the everyday, mundane instances of the ways in which we are taught to believe in white supremacy and hold it to be true, because the educational system upholds it.
CG: Something that I started to think about while reading your book is how whiteness is very situational. It’s always in flux. You write about life in your hometown of New Egypt, New Jersey, and how you chose to identify more with your Puerto Rican heritage, because it afforded you a closer proximity to whiteness. Then, jumping ahead to your time in New York City, your desire is one more focused on upward class mobility and not whiteness alone. That’s the trick of whiteness for people of color, right? It’s always aspirational and never obtainable.
MG: In New Egypt, I couldn’t pass as white. I was still always racialized and marked in that way. But I’d seen a lot of my Puerto Rican family idolize whiteness or try to aspire to it, because of the benefits. Whereas my Mexican family, they couldn’t do that. They were much darker skinned, and that was always an impossible mission. I had seen very early on how physical skin color, how movement could be weaponized or could not be weaponized in different ways for the privileges to be proximate to whiteness. New York was a different game, a different kind of navigating. There was still an ethnic-ness that I had to hold up and couldn’t necessarily get rid of. For the first few years in New York I was trying to totally erase where I come from, who I belong to, because I wanted to be as close to whiteness as I could get. There also was the whiteness that was about queerness. I associated being queer with white. Going to clubs, they were very white spaces. The music was always Britney Spears or other white women artists. This switch happened where, if I wanted to be queer, if I wanted to be a part of this community, I again needed to idealize and idolize the whiteness of culture, of the body, of experience. And so, New York transformed what that was. Even if you were amongst queer people of color, we still always wanted to be proximate to whiteness. And I had to break free from that at some point. I’m glad I did.
CG: Leaving home for college, your acess to a queer community is through these predominately white spaces and white disireability politics. Could you talk more about that? And where did you ultimately find community?
MG: By this point, in the 2010s, in the last ten years, queer clubs for people of color had been shuttered. One of them was Escuelita. Black and Latinx people were welcomed there. There was hip hop and music in Spanish. And so, I’d go there a lot. That was where I realized that it didn’t always have to be these Hell’s Kitchen or Chelsea spaces filled with thin or overly muscular bodies that were overly white, prototypically masculine. There were places where you would see the play that would happen with gender and body size. I would go to places in Washington Heights, in Harlem, where they were only folks of color, queer people of color, too. And you would start to see how these possibilities would happen.
But, I also needed to be able to create space in white-dominated places. It’s about the people you are around, whether they’re white or not white. How do you create a mobile community so that wherever you go, you’re in good company? We have to create these wherever we can. That’s ultimately the lesson I learned with writing this book. No matter where you’re at, whether you are in a small town in New Jersey, or you are in New York City, or you are traveling to Mexico, wherever you’re going, you have to try to create community. You have to try to create a world that can work for you, because otherwise the world will try to take it away from you. The world is extremely racist, extremely queerphobic, fatphobic, all these kinds of things. And we have to carve out spaces wherever we go, because if not, life becomes unsustainable.
CG: I see how that plays into the main conceit of the book, the idea of Pedro’s Theory. The Pedros in your book refer to you as well as other Mexicans and Central Americans, usually field workers and service workers, some of whom may be queer, and some maybe not. I don’t want to say you’re trying to identify exactly with them, but is it accurate to say you’re seeing within this group of people who are so often violently ignored and erased in society a potential for community?
MG: That is what was really important for me to grasp onto—how to be in community with them, with all kinds of different people, who are like me and who are not like me, in a way that isn’t about identifying with them, but to be in communication, to be in solidarity, to be in a politics of care. Some of them probably wish I did not exist for being queer. Or they probably wouldn’t agree with the kind of life I live. But I still want their well being, I still want them to be free of harm and violence. That was the idea behind the theory. How are we in alignment with one another, with our similarities and with our differences? And to be able to hold onto those differences rather than quickly try to erase them or overlook them. Oftentimes we try to overlook differences for the sake of solidarity and, especially, I think, for the sake of Latinidad. For Latinx people, too, there’s this drive to just be the same or critically look for the same. The driving interest for me was how do we mobilize around our differences, how do we work within our differences and value those differences in a way that doesn’t erase or flatten who we are and who we are in relation to one another.
CG: You mentioned Latinidad, which was hanging over my head as I approached this interview. To speak to that flattening that happens, over the last year, and the last two election cycles in particular, we’ve been met with a lot of Hispandering, the idea of a “Latino vote,” or even how much of our identity is linked to Goya beans. On the one hand, Latinx people are not a monolith, but on the other Latinidad is a racist, colonial framework. So I’m curious, what are your thoughts about the potential for Latinidad, if we even need it at all?
MG: That question of Latinidad has to start with what makes us different rather than what unites us. When I was really young and little, particularly from my Puerto Rican family, there was this mentality of “we’re all the same.” We’re all Hispanic, we’re all Latinos. I have two parents who have different skin colors, who have very vastly different histories. One comes from an island, the other comes from across the border. These aren’t the same. I think I had that question in the back of my head for a very long time, but I didn’t have the tools in which to explore it until recently. I came from two different kinds of ethnic cultures and saw how there was always friction, and even when my family tried to collapse those differences, they still manifested. I think any kind of Latinidad has to begin with an acknowledgement of the way race plays out in different places in Latin America, across the literal hemisphere. But I think people don’t necessarily want to engage with that because it’s a lot of work to learn about all of these different contexts and how these different histories have been mapped out. But if we don’t want to learn to do the work, then there can’t be a Latinidad, because it just erases or flattens people’s histories and lived experiences.
CG: To build off that, your book is a shift toward specificity. Specificity within your mother’s Puerto Rican and Caribbean background, within your father’s Mexican Indigenous background, and within yourself. How did you avoid overgeneralizing either of your parent’s backgrounds? Was it something you worried about at all?
MG: It’s so easy to fall into stereotypes. I think publishing, popular publishing, or popular culture in general, wants stereotypes. They demand them. Oftentimes we’re held to that standard and, if we don’t deliver, we won’t get acknowledged for the work that we do. I didn’t want to play into that game. From the beginning, I was trying to think about how I could capture the conditions of our lives, the conditions of my life, the condition of my parents, the condition of those who came before me, in a way that wasn’t about stereotypes or icons. I looked at what structured our lives, the conditions of the Puerto Rican migrations of my family, of my dad’s migration, and thought through what pushed us into this point where the story begins in New Jersey. That was always the guiding concern of mine. Even in random parts of the book that are perhaps not as narrative based, like where I’m talking about this wrestling match between my father and the cousin. It was a moment where I was able to see how masculinity operated in this town with Mexican American people, and how they had to show their masculinity in particular ways or not show it in particular ways. This was about Mexican American experience, but it wasn’t speaking to any kind of stereotype. For me, it was about how to show these scenes and portraits of our lives. No matter how boring, mundane, or everyday they are. These really boring moments of our lives show who we are, how we got here, and what might come next for us.
CG: I want to talk about one of those everyday moments from your book. The first time your father ever writes his own last name is when he has to sign your birth certificate. It results in the Gonsalez spelling of your name, which some might view as incorrect, but you don’t view it as a mistake. And it’s not. It’s so much more than that. You write, “The impossibility of pronouncing our names is our possibility. Call it our American dream.” Can you expand on that?
MG: Like you said, it’s a very everyday thing of just signing a paper, but the signing of the paper wasn’t just the signing of the paper. It was still speaking to this history that has shaped us, that we can’t seem to break free from. And I think often that’s the question for me. I want to break free from these things, but I also want them to be contextualized. So quickly we try to be, like, yeah, that was a mistake, it should be this way. But all of it was a mistake. The colonization of the Americas was the big thing that should not have happened. I was trying to capture in the signing of the name this very long and dense history that still to this day shapes who and what we are and even how we relate to each other. For so many of us who come from colonized locations, who are colonized peoples and colonized histories, so much of our everyday life has a context to it, has a history that is literally about the way we connect to our fathers or the way we connect to our children, the way in which we love partners and our friends. It shapes everything.