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“Brown Neon” Is a Tribute to the Power of Art and Community in the American Southwest

The shapes and trajectories of our lives are dictated by borders: the borders between nations, the borders between genders and sexualities, between races and ethnicities, between classes, between bodies and identities. Some of us — because of power and privilege — are able to build comfortable lives on and within these borders, while others struggle to survive simply because their identities challenge and transgress them. What happens to the people whose identities transcend the structures of these borders and risk being completely obliterated by them? What can they do to ensure their survival and keep themselves, and their communities, from complete destruction?

Raquel Gutiérrez grapples with these questions in the essay collection Brown Neon and attempts to “creat[e] a relational map — to make, see, and share the worlds we could actually belong to if we could sustain the intimacy,” to “walk the wounded back to themselves,” and to “be and stay in the room with the pain of others and trigger the wherewithal to mark [their] own way back through the underworld of [them]self.” In ten loosely connected essays, Gutiérrez examines the complexities of their own identity as a queer, butch, Latinx person as well as the various complexities that bring us together and keep us apart through ruminations on art, the difficult terrains of the American desert states, queer and Latinx culture in the Southwestern U.S., faith and cosmology, class distinctions, ethnic identity, and queer friendship.

The book is separated into three sections — Llorando Por Tu Amor, Difficult Terrains, and La Mano Obra — each providing a different perspective on the interconnectedness of ourselves to the land we live on and the people we encounter throughout the course of our lives. The essays in Llorando Por Tu Amor illustrate the difficult and imperative work of community building and community sustaining, while also delving into the author’s struggles with grief and loss. Difficult Terrains navigates the impact colonization has had on the people of the Southwest and Mexico and their families and how these wounds are incessantly reopened through art and public policy. La Mano Obra is a celebration of the work of several Latinx artists and of queer, Latinx culture in general, as well as an exploration of the ecstatic joys and deep pains of the queer, creative life.

With wit, curiosity, and compassion, Gutiérrez analyzes the real, material dangers caused by these made-up borders between us while also scrutinizing their existence. In “On Making Butch Family: An Intertextual Dialogue,” the author details their intergenerational friendship with Jeanne “Big Poppa” Córdova, a famous lesbian activist who fought for butch visibility and acceptance, and questions the importance of the binary of butch-femme identities within the everchanging landscape of queer culture. Where many of the older butch lesbians she knows are becoming irrationally anxious about the loss of butch masculine identity to other expressions of gender, Gutiérrez proclaims:

“I was tired of pitting butch dykes against trans men in some imaginary gladiator arena that haunted the dreams of butch elders. Big Poppa fought for the right to wear her custom-tailored suits in a time that marked the butch as a patsy for patriarchy. Now her queer grandchildren were fighting for the right to transition genders or to do away with the binary altogether. And I was going to hold open the portal that allowed for the old-school butch lesbian camaraderie and the new school in gender self-determination to coexist and cross-pollinate.”

Instead of simply giving into the influence of the older butches the author had come to respect and trust so much, Gutiérrez’s proclamation is a reminder that it’s possible to break down the borders (and binaries) that are attempting to destroy our relationships to each other.

Dissecting the ways in which our connections to one another are threatened by those who want to impose these borders and binaries on our lives is central to the work Gutiérrez is doing in the book. The essay “Do Migrants Dream of Blue Barrels?” chronicles the author’s time working with Humane Borders/Fronteras Compasivas to provide clean water, food, and first aid to Central and South American migrants traveling the route that will take them across the U.S.-Mexico border into the U.S. Throughout the essay, the author reflects on their upbringing as the child of migrants who left their home countries to escape violence and to take hold of the promise of a better life while also masterfully relaying how crucial it is for us — yes, all of us — to fight against the injustice of the border itself. Gutiérrez demands of us that in the face of oppression and the repressive forces of a made-up boundary, we must be willing to do whatever it takes to break them down: “If there was anything to do with your privilege, it was to risk it.”

Each essay provides more and more clarity in regards to the “relational map” Gutiérrez is trying to create. Each one builds off the next to show how profoundly and inescapably connected we are through our expressions of love and desire, history and memory, art and art consumption, grief and rage, and identity and the performance of that identity. Through this connection building and map making, Gutiérrez doesn’t answer all of the questions they pose in the text, but they do provide us with a poignant reminder of how the destruction of the borders between us can help us keep each other alive and help us create the conditions necessary for living in complete opposition to the culture that threatens to keep our freedom elusive and transient.

In one of the final essays of the collection, “Vessel Among Vessels: Laura Aguilar’s Body
in Landscape,” Gutiérrez writes,

“I am attesting as someone who has, too, lived in the prison of wounding—a wounding unto my own body and a wounding onto my most beloved others and their desires to love my wounded body—to know that letting my own body splay over the soft rocks of Hidden Valley, Split Rock Loop Trail, Arch Rock, and Indian Cove Boy Scout Trail is an act of setting myself free.”

This admission connects Gutiérrez to the queer, Latinx geneology of artists who came before them and the ones who will come after, and makes the work of this text even clearer. Over the course of these ten essays, Gutiérrez skillfully maps the realities, struggles, and joys of queer, Latinx, artistic life in the Southwest U.S. while also calling all readers to deconstruct the borders and boundaries that plague their own communities.

Brown Neon by Raquel Gutiérrez is out now.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 81 articles for us.

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