An Amasamiento: Reflecting on Peter Mena’s Place and Identity
in the Lives of Antony, Paul, and Mary of Egypt: Desert as Borderland
Jacqueline M. Hidalgo
I offer my gratitude to the Hispanic Theological Initiative for all the hard work that went into organizing the panel in honor of this wonderful book so that we could have an hour of joy during these difficult times, and I am grateful to the team at Perspectivas for working to bring our oral remarks into written form. I am so pleased to be among those reflecting on this year’s HTI Book Prize winning text, and it is an even greater pleasure to honor the work of someone who is not only a brilliant scholar but who is also a generous colleague and wonderful human being.
In his first published monograph, Dr. Peter Anthony Mena invites us into rich and contested textual spaces, not empty deserts but diversely populous terrains. Mena forges a conversation between the work of iconic lesbian Chicana scholar and poet, Gloria Anzaldúa, and three hagiographies of the late ancient Mediterranean, Athanasius of Alexandria’s Life of Antony, Jerome’s Life of Paul the Hermit, and the Life of Mary of Egypt. Mena’s work is at once about the ways textual spaces and imaginaries construct and get constructed in relationships between people and places, but Mena too has fashioned a textual space, one in which the US borderlands, mestizaje, queerness, and nepantla are enmeshed, in an amasamiento with late ancient deserts, ascetics, demons, animals, and conflicting possibilities. It is a polyglot space, where English, Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Tejano Espanglish meet.
A thorough discussion of the many exciting facets of Mena’s book would require more than the brief space allotted here. My remarks will focus on this conjunction of place, identity, and the possibilities of textual choques, of those textual spaces of collision where seemingly disparate worlds connect, conflict, and enable other possibilities in how we think and how we inhabit the multiple worlds we move between.
On the one hand, Mena’s work follows a shift in the study of the ancient Mediterranean, one that is more open to the interdisciplinary bridging of contemporary theory and the ancient world, to a recognition that no human identities have ever been neatly fashioned in uncontested isolation. As Mena asserts in his introduction and conclusion, he is not interested in questions about the “realness” of the deserts depicted in late ancient hagiographies. Instead, these textual deserts can offer us windows into the interrelated ways that identities and places are constructed and remade interrelationally. Mena is less interested in whether authors intended to give us a graspable ascetic identity. Rather, Mena shows how
these authors conceived of a desert space that functioned as a place of possibility, open to fluidity and malleability and instead produced a Christian ascetic who resists identity. … Ultimately, we are left with spaces of possibility in which queer renderings of Christian saintliness are perceived saintliness that is mixed, ambivalent, and always in progress. The description of desert space demonstrates the tension between our desire as readers to identify and the text’s refusal to allow identification.
Mena offers an inventive way of understanding the interconnection of human subjectivity and the places humans inhabit and imagine. Mena is not afraid to examine the messy, and at times violent, ways in which identities get made, contested, and refashioned. He revisits Anzaldúa’s work on a variety of topics, especially la frontera, mestizaje, nepantla, queerness, the virgin/whore dichotomy, excess, and homelands so as to open up a different perspective on the “new humanity” that late ancient hagiographies made of desert ascetics.
Choque #1: Frontier/Frontera
Mena transformed my thinking about the role of the desert in these texts. I realized I had too often taken for granted a frontier construction of the late ancient desert instead of seeing it as a frontera. The interconnection of space and identity is, in one way, a norm of classical American Studies as epitomized in Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 description of the foreclosed frontier as the space of US settler colonial self-fashioning. For Turner, the frontier is the frontline of Americanization where “wilderness” would remake European men (his descriptions were not very inclusive of women or non-binary people) into a new humanity. In the back of my mind, Turner’s imaginary “frontiersmen” echoed the imaginary late ancient desert ascetics, figures who marched to the boundaries of human empire in a fictively empty space and remade themselves with no regard for others.
Of course, that view of the US frontier is false and completely elides the Indigenous and Mexican peoples whose homelands the US invaded, and even Turner could not help but remark on Native American presence even as he wrote in ignorance of Indigenous agency. European men did not simply go and remake the frontier. Mena also helped me to see how that false imagination of the US West had made me misread these hagiographies. Antony, Paul, and Mary broke with their families in pursuit of a new homeland in the desert and new ways of being human, to be sure. But they did not find this homeland in an empty frontier. Instead, as Mena shows, the frontera is a space of excess that cannot be constrained, a space of identity making that refuses identification, a violent choque, a collision, a shock that took place between many inhabitants, human, non-human animal, plant, land, and time, and new ways of being human may have indeed emerged.
Choque #2: mestizaje/hybridity
Mena articulates these new humanities found in the late ancient desert through a turn to mestizaje, which he describes as a “multi-dimensional approach to understanding the mixedness of identity.” I was especially drawn to his use of mestizaje in discussing Jerome’s Life of Paul. Mena describes a saint whose mestizaje is fashioned in relationship to other non-human animals, in sometimes shocking ways, and Mena points to the power dynamics that are inscribed in mestizaje, hindering a naive and romantic viewing of it. He describes how “In the frontier zone of the desert, as Jerome depicts it, the lines drawn so strongly between truth and falsehood, man and monster, human and beast, begin to blur. In the process, a potent new source of authority emerges—the mestiza, the desert ascetic…Jerome places himself at the center of this newfound authority.” In depicting the new mestizx Paul, Jerome also locates himself as an authority, not in spite of, but because of his capacity to blur boundaries. Here mestizaje and the nepantlero who crosses borders is not a derided identity but a source of authorizing power.
I would be interested to know more about the challenges to Anzaldúa’s conceptualization of mestizaje that Mena discusses in his second chapter. As described within the work of a previous recipient of the HTI book prize, Néstor Medina’s Mestizaje, contemporary Latinx studies has critiqued mestizaje from a variety of perspectives, not the least of which is the historical tendency of some mestizx Latinx writers and activists to romanticize mestizaje, a mixing of Spanish and Indigenous peoples in ways that erase AfroLatinx and Asian Latinx histories, even as they appropriate Indigenous Latinx forms while eliding living Indigenous communities. Moreover, historically mestizaje, as articulated by figures like José Vasconcelos, relied on a fantasy of heteronormative love amid white cis-male patriarchal colonizing and enslaving domination and sexual violence. Mestizaje has, at times, relied on a romanticization of the power of some people to cross and blur boundaries that others cannot. Structuring power dynamics serve to determine who is allowed to cross boundaries, who should remain stuck in place, and who should be criminalized for transgressing boundaries that dominant powers have inscribed.
Unlike Vasconcelos, Anzaldúa’s reactivation of mestizaje roots itself in queer Tejana displacement, and like Mena, she turns to mestizaje and fashions something other than its worst histories. As Richard T. Rodríguez has illuminated, so many queer Chicana, Chicano, and Chicanxs have queered the words and worlds we have inherited. In a time of “neo-essentialist politics,” we must reckon with histories of mixture as messy, complicated, and enmeshed in violent systems. Akin to Mena, Puerto Rican critic Yomaira C. Figueroa-Vásquez has argued that Anzaldúa’s understanding of la frontera can help us to see how “sanguinary ruptures across modernity and coloniality contain the makings of new worldviews, or worlds/otherwise, with the potential to reimagine the human and humanity.” Thusly, by employing mestizaje rather than just hybridity, Mena refuses to ignore the violence that often undergirds the making of identities, even as he depicts the frontera as a space that opens up other human possibilities, and I would love to hear more from him on how critiques of mestizaje impacted his book.
Choque #3: Latinx Studies/Study of Late Antiquity
In writing this book, Mena has likewise created a space of collisions, some of them quite fraught, that open up new possibilities. Too often, when scholars of the ancient world turn to contemporary theorists, they simply poach from them in order to offer a seemingly innovative exegesis of ancient texts. Now that Dr. Mena has this marvelous book behind him, I wonder what he would propose for a fuller interdisciplinary engagement, what would it look like to do more work that meaningfully bridges Latinx Studies with the study of late ancient Mediterranean religions? What might he propose that the study of late ancient Mediterranean religions could offer those of us who study Anzaldúa?