Demystifying Latina Sexualities


As an undergrad and graduate student at the University of Maryland (UM) there were often talks about creating a Latino Studies program. It was not until I left UM in 2006 that such conversations were leading to action. Today there is an undergraduate Latino Studies program at UM thanks to the activism of key faculty and students. Last year graduate students working in Latino Studies created Semana de la Latina (Week of the Latina or Latina Week) at the end of March. This year, I was asked to be a part of Semana de la Latina and return to my alma mater and present on Latina sexualities.

I was incredibly honored, excited and anxious to accept such an invitation. It has been a very long time since I was back on campus and my leaving wasn’t under the greatest circumstances. However, knowing that students were leading and creating the events for the week and they reached out to me made me all the more sure I had to do it and do it well!

We had two hours to discuss Latina sexualities, and although that may not sound like a lot of time, I like to think we got a lot covered! I’ve included my powerpoint presentation below for folks to check out as I won’t be providing a slide by slide discussion of what I presented; instead I’ll touch upon key themes and conversations we had during the presentation.

The first slide I provided gave a definition of sexuality to introduce my presentation. I shared what many of us sexuality educator’s use and were trained to understand the complexity of sexuality: the circles of sexuality. I shared what each component means as many of us in the field understand them: sensuality, intimacy, identity, health and reproduction, and sexualization. I then shared with the 20+ people present that as I was learning these things about sexuality education, I wondered where race, class, ethnicity, ability, and citizenship status fit in. I asked those present where they would put each of these identities in these circles of sexuality. My decision a decade ago was that each of these identities fit into each of the circles of sexuality, so why don’t we ever talk about them when creating curriculums for youth and adults? Are we really doing “comprehensive” sexuality education when we omit these parts of our identities?

And that is where I began my presentation.

The main topics/themes I focused on included discussing and deconstructing the virgin/whore dichotomy; Latinas, abortion and contraceptive access; the Welfare Queen; criminalization of Latina sexualities; Trans Latinas how they are erased and/or attempts at inclusion; and media making and mentorship. For each of these topics I included artwork, films, data, and historical analysis for many of the topics presented in attempts to make this a multi-media, engaging, and interdisciplinary conversation.

The conversations we had about the virgin/whore dichotomy are not too far from what I have shared before about deconstructing ideas of Marianismo. An additional component to ideas of sex-positivity connected to Latinas in the US was how these ideologies come from an assimilationist space/framework. Recognizing that sex-positivity may exist in multiple experiences is important and often I’ve found that when discussing sex-positivity among Latinas and women of Color, folks argue that the more assimilated we become to US society the more sex-positive we become as well. I find this troubling (and plan to write more in depth about it soon) for multiple reasons, mainly because it ignores how ethnocentric and elitist such ideas are while ignoring lived experiences of people abroad. It creates a “us versus them” space where the “us” is the US and thus better and more liberating. “Them” continues to be seen as “other” and ideas of being “traditional” (which is code for so many things) becomes undesirable and a sign of oppression when it comes to sexuality.

Using the artwork of two unknown artists and Isis Rodriguez, I explored the idea of the Virgin and the Whore from Latina artists. The first two images are of La Vigen, one called “The Liberation of Mary” where she is showing her vulva to the viewer and the other an image of a fat Virgin Mary. I spoke about how body shape and size is important to deconstruct in these images, that often we imagine and see images of a slender Virgin Mary whereas she was a pregnant woman but we don’t see her in such a way. Also, why do we think the body parts of the woman who some believed to have birth a prophet off limits to discuss? What does this do to our ideas of our bodies?

A film I used to discuss our ideas of young Latinas (and some older ones) connected to the virgin/whore dichotomy was Raising Victor Vargas (yes I do use this film often when I can because there is so much to connect to various topics). You may find the clip to this film on YouTube. We discussed how Judy is present in the film and her decision to remain a virgin is one that challenges our ideas of what young women are expected to do/act/say upon making that choice. One participate noted that Judy is not naïve as is assumed of young women or women who are virgins, that instead she is astute, smart, remains desirable, and negotiates her own safety without giving up any power.

To finish the conversation on virgin/whore dichotomy I presented Isis Rodriguez’s artwork No More!, which I’ve connected to in many ways, and Dr. Juana María Rodríguez’s ideas of “cyber-slut.” This led into the second them of Latinas, abortion and contraception. I shared my own experiences of attempting to obtain an IUD, responses to my sharing of choosing to use the withdrawal method, and sharing my perspective on the birth control pill’s 50th anniversary (and responses to it). Then I included a discussion of sterilization, the history of it in the US among Latinas and differently able people, and how it remains one of the main contraceptive options for many Latinas in the US. I referenced Dr. Iris Ofelia Lopez’s longitudinal study she shared in her text Matters of Choice, which followed three generations of Puerto Rican women who have been sterilized (the first generation being ones who were forcibly sterilized and how that history impacted the choices of the women in their family: daughters and granddaughters). Dr. López’s idea of “agency within constraints” is one that is very useful to discussing and working with Latina populations.

A conversation about Latinas choosing abortion and what the rates are, as well as a focus on Rosie Jimenez was provided. It’s not often that I get choked up during presentations, but this time I teared up and my voice cracked as I talked about Rosie Jimenez, what her death represents still today, what her daughter has lost, and what we do when we easily for get the legacy she has given us. Discussing Rosie Jimenez’s inability to obtain and afford a legal abortion was a good transition to discussions of the Welfare Queen.

Prior to discussing ideas about the Welfare Queen as it is applied to Latinas, I shared a common belief that the people in the US who are seen to be socially acceptable recipients of Medicaid are veterans and people with visible disabilities. A good friend of mine, KB, shared this research with me, especially how it applied to veterans of Color. We explored how ideas of “invisible disabilities” especially mental illness have been applied to Latinas. For example, I’ve heard many people say to me and around me that Latinas are “crazy,” “unpredictable” and these are usually connected to ideas of mental illness, yet in such situations Latinas are seen as desirable, fetishized because of their “unpredicatablity” connected to disability. Thus, how are Latinas with different abilities seen as asexual while others are fetishized and what connections can we make to Isis Rodriguez’s artwork No More!?

As part of our conversation around the Welfare Queen, I shared artist, author and media maker Erika Lopez’s ideas of the Welfare Queen. She’s created a one-woman show discussing her experiences attempting to get books published, obtain Medicare and find health care. Part of her presentation is that when she was at the “welfare line” she did not see people with several children from multiple men, nor did she see people who did not take pride in their appearance. Instead, she saw beautiful and strong people who were experiencing hard times. They took pride in themselves and remained sexual people without shame or fear even if they found themselves in a space where their privacy was eliminated. Her two images of the Welfare Queen represent these ideas. The color image was her first and original image and the black and white one was a more recent representation that has aged the Welfare Queen, because older people also experience hard times.

The criminalization of Latina sexuality is one that I’ve thought about for several years. I’ve had the great fortune to examine this theme in multiple ways and the topics included were sex work, immigration and detention, violence, and gender identity and expression. Again, I used images from Isis Rodriguez and her series “My Life As A Comic Stripper” to highlight and discuss sex work in the US. As a group we discussed what we saw in her images and what messages she may be providing and sharing with viewers.

Conversations about violence I connected to reggeaton artist Ivy Queen, one of the only, if not THE only, woman in the male-dominated genre (who has been around for over two decades). One of her songs I used to discuss violence is “La Abusadora.” The song is in Spanish and I asked folks who do not understand or speak Spanish to listen to the production of the song, what they heard besides lyrics. The Spanish-speaking folks in the audience shared some of the terms they heard her mention in her lyrics. We had an important conversation around what it means when a Latina claims a certain level of violence. How is power connected to that violence, and what does it mean when that is the only form of power and agency some Latinas feel they possess?

I tied into this conversation to Lorena Gallo (formally Lorena Bobbitt), an Ecuadorian who still lives in Virginia (and for those of you familiar with the MD/VA/DC area you know how close those three areas are to one another.  Gallo made national headlines when she cut part of her partner’s penis off after years of experiencing spousal rape (which he was not found guilty of but remains with a history of violence). Gallo was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental health facility. Again the idea of mental illness and connections to Latina sexualities, disability, and violence intersect. I completed this section by discussing the Texas rape case and how the virgin/whore dichotomy becomes something we don’t discuss in such situations. Who are we to call a 11 year-old girl whose experiences of rape and abuse mean she is a “whore”? How is virginity and promiscuity connected to choice?

As part of the conversation around gender expression and identity and the connections to criminalization, I discussed the ways Latinas who represent/embrace/identify/perform masculinity are targeted. Again, the ideas of assimilation were present in that Latinas whose gender expression may be what some may consider masculine, this is seen as an outcome of living in the US, something either celebrated as liberating or seen as problematic because they are foreign. I have to thank Dr. Ziegler for pushing me towards including this topic in more depth for this presentation.

Using singer, author, and model Rita Indiana as an example, we discussed how gender expression is tied into this conversation. Rita Indiana and Los Misterios released an album last year that was very well received in the US and abroad. Indiana identifies as a Dominican lesbian and in the interview shares how folks are embracing her and sharing that they are happy she is true to herself and not hiding. Other interviews with Indiana demonstrate how much her gender expression, which many may see as masculine, is a topic of conversation when she does interviews. She has spoken of her androgynous appearance and her height of over 6 foot 2 inches has been a focus for many Latino interviewers.

The next theme discussed was how trans people are included, excluded and erased in conversations about Latina sexualities. I shared data from the UK organization Transgender Europe, which shared data on the murders of Trans people all over the world. Transgender Europe released data in the summer of 2010 that showed Central and South America as one of the most unsafe places for a trans person to live. Reports of murders for the first 6 months of 2010 were already exceeding the number of reported murders from 2009, and those only include the reported murders. Making it clear to participants that these murders are INTRAcultural and INTRAracial was important for me because often we assume “other” people are murdering members of our communities instead of holding our own communities responsible.

I encouraged Latino activists present to not ignore the Transgender Day of Remembrance, to remember this data, and that if we do nothing and are complacent with our community being murdered we are supporting the murders and allowing for them to continue in our communities. Also included in this section was the erasure of Latinas who identify as trans, how we have a rich history and legacy of activism that we choose to ignore which is an injustice for us all.

The final part of the presentation with a shameless plug for mentoring and media making by highlighting Sofia Quintero’s HomeGirl.TV. This is a project that author, activist, and media maker Sofia Quintero created and implemented as a social network and space for people to provide guidance, support, and advice on various topics many of us encounter. The first webisode of the first season answers the question: Should I put my boyfriend of 3 months of my cell phone plan? Part of this being a shameless plug is that I am one of the HomeGirls Sofia reached out to and included in the webisodes. HomeGirl.TV launched March 31, and if you’d like to see all of the webisodes, new ones are uploaded every Thursday, please join HomeGirl.TV. It is not just for people who identify as women, it is for everyone. Sofia wishes to begin a dialogue and is looking for HomeGirls for season 2! 

I ended the presentation with an advertisement that embodied many if not all of the themes and conversations we had that day: And Then There Was Salsa.

Many thanks to the Latino Studies program, Ana, Maria and Pamela did an amazing job, and coordinated two more events: an art exhibit and a film screening which received media attention. Thank you to the participants and to my two mentors who were present to support me: Dr. Ana Patricia Rodriguez and Anne Anderson-Sawyer. 

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Follow Bianca I. Laureano on twitter: @latinosexuality