by Juana María Rodríguez, University of California, Berkeley
José was a ghost even before he ever left us. He refused “the burden of liveness” demanded of a young genius, delivering instead a performance haunted by party boy, theorist, punk, hipster, mentor, nerd, sissy, and chusma par excellence (Disidentifications, 189). (Chusma: loud, bitchy, hysterical, snarky, demanding and unapologetically colored, a hot, messy “occasion to speak queer and beyond” .) Into the hallowed spaces of erudite scholarship, he dragged the remains of his working-class immigrant upbringing like the gaudy train of a second-hand wedding dress ready to take over the room, sullied and storied. These were the unruly ghosts he conjured and enlisted to do the dirty work of making institutions accountable to those they had excluded. Muñoz translated class shame into the high theory spectacle of chusmería to refuse the beige decorum of whiteness and middle-class respectability and revel in the colored excesses of feminized drama and gossip, crying, a moco tendido, into a sea of left-over Latino feeling.
The future queerness of José’s intellectual imagination has always been peopled with the still beating hearts of the ghosts of his chusma past, those far away from the limelight of the academic stages he graced so ungracefully. Carrying the memory of dreams deferred, and the promise of raucous outrage, he demanded a new formulation of time that could encompass both. Refusing the burden of liveness is about rejecting the restrictive temporality of minoritarian subjects to dwell in the contained chambers of our singular relevance, to call out the ways we precede and exceed the stages of our signification. To name the haunts of our hurts is to envision the pressures and potentialities of being social subjects capable of envisioning future worlds together.
Refusing liveness, and forever animated, the performance of Muñozity that erupted whenever José arrived (late of course) was always a happening that he had helped to create and defile before his entrance. Like a street kid, passing out flyers to the latest club opening, Muñoz invited everyone to the party, ready to crowd the dance floor of his utopian world-making. The air would change with the rumor of his presence; it became perfumed with the sticky possibility that there might be enough breathing room for others who were never imagined as belonging, let alone worth inhaling. But once on the dance floor, José made you work for your place in the soul train line. Like the oracle that he was, he had the ability to read all the possibilities of your intended academic attire, and pluck out the precise theoretical accessories that would turn your shit out. A ghost that could send you back to start, armed with a new shade of fabulous to make your own. The dark emotions of José’s open windows were also there in the teary blue light of city mornings stumbling home alone to contemplate a lifetime of losses.
I like to imagine José as a queer child in his Hialeah home, the imprint of clear hard plastic still pressed onto the tender flesh of his moist thighs, pondering the performance of the color green, theorizing the scent of his tias’ heavy bosoms, and feeling brown. It is these twists of queer time that float through his work—the ghosts of other horizons. Chusmería is about honoring the imprint of plastic, of La Lupe whining to Heidegger, of stepping out of and into the ecstasy that exists in another temporal register where José is about to walk into the room (or was that him who just left?). Even and especially in the stillness of death, he asks us to refuse the burden of liveness, insisting instead that we make the most of chusma gestures of ephemera, the trace in the text, the question in the quote, the promise in the queerness yet to come. Having joined the ghosts in the wings throwing shade and brilliance, he invites us—even now—to come out and make a queer production of our broken hearts.
Visit the full José Esteban Muñoz gallery here.