The Sense of José


sense post

by Licia Fiol-Matta, Lehman College and the Graduate Center, CUNY


(En Orihuela, su pueblo y el mío, se me ha
muerto como del rayo Ramón Sijé,
con quien tanto quería.)

I turned to the Miguel Hernández poem, “Elegía,” as soon as I received the terrible news of José’s departure. Its words could easily be transposed to December 4th, 2013: “In New York, his city, and mine, out of the blue, José Muñoz has died on me, he with whom I loved so much.” Con quien tanto quería. We loved together queer theory, US latinidad, queer of color artists and, in pride of place, Cuba, José’s beloved homeland and one of my research areas since my undergraduate years.

I have felt terribly sad at the thought that José is not to go back to the land where he was born and with which he held such an intricate and loving relationship. As a scholar, José unfolded and performed his Cubanity by creating an “impersonal self” which animates his writing (Disidentifications, 178).1 Through eye-opening explorations of Cuban artists—many “private loves,” others “public heroes” (179)—he went beyond simple recovery to theorizing their conceptual interventions. In the process, he reconceptualized Cuban America’s status as an ethnic “success story” of the United States, from queerness. Cubanity sequentially appeared as a “disidentity,” a “feeling brown,” part of a “brown undercommons” and finally as an artistic manifestation of the “sense of brown.” One of José’s final essays, on Ana Mendieta, outlines the stakes of a negative vitalism that, to my mind, he also practiced: a relationship to a land that was no less present because it was evanescent, existing as both intimate and public “connotation” (177) to be read beyond the appropriations of experts and the cognoscenti, in a principled “being singular plural” that includes personal experience without the traps of simplistic biographism.2

Some of my favorite passages in José’s work concern the Cuban artist Félix González-Torres. An artist of evanescence, González-Torres was familiar to me as a Cuban figure who attended high school and university in my hometown, San Juan, Puerto Rico. José’s writings on González-Torres exhibit an exemplary distance from identification. It is obvious that González-Torres’s exilic estrangement from Cuba informed all of his work, but José takes an oblique approach to this all-important event—much like he took an oblique approach to representing his personal, familial situation while infusing his entire scholarly oeuvre with his own identity markers. Exilic loss and the devastation wrought by AIDS, and Gonzalez-Torres’s own death from AIDS in 1996, compounded the mercantilistic reception of his artworks as a gay male, ethnic artist who should respond to mainstream art’s coordinates. José demolished this coercive reading in an elegant, graceful weaving together of González-Torres’ billboards, installations, and portraits in jigsaw puzzles and plastic bags, a dazzling interpretation I experienced as a sort of critical sublime precisely because of its emotional austerity.

José did not need to go to Cuba to “complete” himself as a scholar, although, on a personal level, I can only imagine it was important to him. However, “completion” was anathema to his thought. Throughout his works, he crafted an original vision of cubanía inflected by the beautiful suppleness of his radical latinidad. José gave us a road map or toolkit to point us in the direction of the gap, wound, or hole of displacement as a necessary condition for interpretation to take place, a critical move he and I shared. He refused to assimilate into normative channels of ethnic citizenship, particularly available to exiled Cubans in the United States. Instead, he made palpable, reachable, a queer ethnic space of negativity and futurity, taking Félix González-Torres as an early guide to his thinking on “disidentity,” following his own road map to arrive at Ana Mendieta as a Cuban artist-thinker of the “sense of brown.”

José and I came of age together in the academic profession. He was working on Disidentifications while I was researching A Queer Mother for the Nation. We were both thrust into Anglo and heteronormative worlds that made our academic existences difficult as Latin@ queers. We were equally invested in the political aspects of our work and how we could bring our academic research into institutions. Thus we worked on the initial Crossing Borders conference in 1996, which focused on Latin America and Latino queer sexualities, and were Board Members of CUNY’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies around the same time. And José recruited me into Social Text in 1997. Beyond our personal itineraries, we shared a methodological approach that concentrated on figures and figurations. While he found hope in the strategies his objects of study enacted in the face of a homicidal society bent on their annihilation, I studied how one such figure did part of the state’s work in reproducing normativity. Disidentifications doesn’t shy away from celebrating these queer artists; Queer Mother sounded a cautionary note against seeing queer artists as resistive. In both our works, melancholy and loss become hermeneutical tools to grasp at, in an “almost articulate” way, “a possibility of freedom” (177, 179).

I never met González-Torres, but as an artist he inspires in me the cariño I feel for José as a scholar-creator of worlds. Returning to González-Torres’ artworks, I’m often visited by a sense of grief at his untimely passing. José writes: “González-Torres refused to limit his grief to a privatized self” (179). I, for one, will follow José’s instruction not to let my grief be limited to a privatized self and continue the work of José Muñoz’s visionary presentness, one he discerned so generously for us in González-Torres’s and Mendieta’s mournful yet hopeful art of counterpoint and fugue, one he embodied in his own “impersonal” writing of his Cuban self, of his Cubanity “lived as brownness.”3


Visit the full José Esteban Muñoz gallery here.


1. José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
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2. Jean Luc-Nancy, Being Singular Plural (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).
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3. José Esteban Muñoz, “Vitalism’s After-Burn: The Sense of Ana Mendieta.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 21:2 (2011), 192.
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