What do you say once a book is out there and part of the world, once it is no longer this monstrous idea brewing ever inside your own head? What do you say especially when you believe authorial intent cannot fix the meaning of a text, even a text you wrote? How am I also a reader now in relationship to this text that I helped produce?
Reading from My Place
The panelists who responded to my work—Lynn Huber, Roberto Mata, and Jean-Pierre Ruiz (as well as Carmen Nanko-Fernández and David A. Sánchez)—have been important inspirations and conversation partners over the years because they have modeled ways of being truly wide-ranging and interdisciplinary intellectuals. All these scholars show how interdisciplinary work can be deep and resonant; to work between fields is not to know them less well but to signify on those fields differently because you can see how their borders have been constructed.
Revelation in Aztlán has many flaws, many things I would do differently if I could write it over again. My book concludes by attending to the places from which people dream utopia, and I think it is relevant to note my scholarly place. When I wrote Revelation in Aztlán, I was trying to balance different fields and different questions. I work as an interdisciplinary scholar teaching in both Latina/o Studies and Religion at a small New England liberal arts college but trained in critical comparative scriptures with a focus on the New Testament at a school in California. Ruiz’s remarks reflect the context of my training, the import of the Plan de Vincent Wimbush in shaping the questions I ask; but Ruiz also notes the far-reaching impact of the Plan de Fernando Segovia. I follow Wimbush’s reorientation of biblical studies, trying to move away from enslaving textual practices, games of “mastery” in relationship to a “master text.” At the same time, I also hoped that, by attending to Chicanx activists and their legacies, I would cultivate some of what Segovia has called for, a recognition that a critic cannot separate her task from the critical times that surround her.
Of course, I also wrote this book for tenure. In that regard, I was struggling with my own sense of place, where did I belong as an academic? With whom was my work conversing? For whom was I writing? Having an appointment in Latina/o Studies, made me feel the need to be more rigorously versed in Latinx Studies scholars and scholarship. At the same time, I was negotiating future evaluation from biblical scholars who expect me to engage Revelation in ways I can find constraining. Yet I still wanted to be the sort of oblique scriptural critic I was trained to be. Lynn Huber’s remarks recognize this balancing act quite well when she notes that I balance biblical studies with the study of Chicanx activists and their texts. As she rightfully observes, this book was not about “reception history,” but rather I hope my book “addresses how individuals and communities employ and create scripture.” Ruiz also reads the book as “a complex and nuanced broadening of the category ‘scriptures’ in its analysis of Chicanx processes of scripturalization.” I see my book as not focusing on Revelation or the Chicano movement, but I use both sets of texts to study humans who scripturalize by excavating specific peoples and specific textual examples such as John’s Apocalypse and El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán. As Huber states, I hoped to write “a book about revelation and Revelation.”
I had hoped my arguments about scriptures might provide a space from which we could see other scriptures and see other models for relating to scriptures that do not follow the hegemonic models employed in most of the Society of Biblical Literature. Revelation in Aztlán examines how people can use texts to make a kind of home when a home in the world has been refused them; by focusing on Chicanxs as well as those who identified as Jews under Roman rule, I am not looking at people who have my same cushy academic experience of exile. Yet I read from my own exilic space as a diasporic Latina subject living in the U.S.A. I hoped to engage how place shapes scriptures and how scriptures shape place. Place is far too slippery to be neatly pinned to any location on a map. How and why scriptures were a kind of place, a site people related to, a place they made, a place they challenged?
Here, of course, one might hear echoes of Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert’s edited volumes from the 1990s, Reading from This Place. I took place, the places of readers and the places of texts seriously in Revelation in Aztlán. I am indebted to Segovia’s sense of “two places and no place,” the multilayered and textured worlds some Latinxs negotiate precisely because they know more than one cultural home. Following the work of Dolores Hayden, to use the word “place” rather than “space” is to register sociality.
Place, however, is multiple and has multiplicitous meanings, and thanks to Segovia’s inspirational work as well as that of the late queer performance critic José Esteban Muñoz, I came to focus my attention to place onto that existentially ambivalent space of utopia, the place that is both good place and no place. In his remarks for the November 2017 panel about Revelation in Aztlán, David Sánchez found my book to be place constrained, and he argued that conspiring and life in-between are the most important spots for utopian dreaming in Chicanx practice. However, I would not circumscribe utopia to only those spaces, in part because, as Ruiz observes, I resist apologetics including apologetics for the Chicanx movement. As a scholar, I cannot focus only on the utopianisms I like or relate to best. Chicanxs are a racially, religiously, ability, class, and geographically diverse people of multiple genders and sexual orientations; as such, there is not one Chicanx way to dream utopia. I hope my book showed that even in the narrow realm of Aztlán, which is one limited utopian vision, there are still many different ways to dream utopia.
Latinx/a/o, Feminist, and Queer Biblical Studies and Utopian Orientations
To talk about utopian places is to attend to people, to attend to social imaginations, social dreams, and indeed some Chicanx readings of Aztlán are specifically about utopia among and between people rather than in a literal place. Yet, place in all its messiness matters because we are deeply shaped by the places we can and cannot inhabit. To segregate people from place is to participate in a mind/body dualism that ignores how much our embodied worlds matter. Utopia is not an either/or binary. Utopia is both people and place; utopia is both realized and reserved.
I define utopia by its existential ambivalence, its simultaneous existence and non-existence, its capacity to refuse to be either/or. So drawing on different ideas found in Muñoz, Wimbush, Segovia, and Sánchez, let me say that I see the utopian as a kind of place that not only mattered for Chicano/as in the 1960s and 1970s but that also shapes us as interpreters, particularly this set of interpreters, writing for this roundtable. Drawing on Sara Ahmed’s work, I think of utopia as both an ambivalent place we interpreters read from and an orientation we read toward; in these times we desperately need a better, other world. I wish to situate the rest of my remarks there, where I perceive scholarly work as focused on shifting glimpses of malleable but necessary utopian horizons.
Utopia here is not a fixed or static ideal and perfect place. That approach to utopia has been mobilized specifically to sanction violence, and there are Chicanxs (Chicanos in particular) who mobilize Aztlán in this way. However, feminist and queer critics have focused on another tradition of utopian dreaming, the tradition taken up by those whose state and social power faces significant constraints. Feminist biblical scholar Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre reads utopia as a method. She reminds us that utopia generally registers a critique, an alienation from and dissatisfaction with the world, but utopia is a response born of and entangled with the world.
According to Muñoz, queer utopias always exist on the horizon, never to be found in a specific place. His utopias are paradoxical and open systems that can be critiqued and transformed because utopias are both realized and reserved, at the same time. Utopias do not exist per se but are felt and experienced in certain moments. Muñoz sees utopian “hope as a critical methodology [that] can be best described as a backward glance that enacts a future vision.” So I extend Johnson-DeBaufre’s observations by seeing utopia as method, but I also see utopia as an orientation. Utopian yearning structures how we read; utopia is also the place we read towards, the place we squint at as we read. Biblical scholars in particular take a backward glance at the past in the hopes of bringing to life a future vision of a better, other world.
Ruiz offers us a critical utopian orientation in his response. He takes us to a certain kind of no place that exists, an island whose inhabitants are gone but whose cave registers an interaction between indigenous and Spanish scriptural systems. This place offers us a fleeting taste of another world, but it is also a distinctly critical place we visit in that Ruiz’s reading of the cave challenges the present we have inherited. Ruiz takes us on a backward glance that captures a world that might otherwise have been, and I want to know more about the particular Taíno glyphs on view in these caves and how we can dwell better with the conflicting inscriptions and significations in cave 18, how we can refuse fitting this cave into any one reading. In my sixth chapter, I wrote about how the Spanish responded to indigenous Mesoamerican traditions by burning Aztec and Mayan texts as idolatrous. By looking at this cave, Ruiz broadens our sense of how the Spanish grappled diversely with the world that was new to them. Ruiz provides a haunting reminder of the moment when Europeans were not masters or at the center of hemispherically American histories; he offers up a sense that a practice other than mastery in relationship to master texts was possible, even for the colonizers. Ruiz’s backward glance enacts a future vision by providing access to a lost utopian horizon from which we might craft a better future in our own scriptural practices.
I likewise place Mata’s study of the new Jerusalem’s border patrol as a utopian critique. Reading from our present moment with daily news of deportation, detention, and immigration bans, Mata compellingly illuminates the coercive violence of the new Jerusalem’s city walls. Mata asks us to read Revelation with the voices of historical atravesados, with those members of early Christian (and Jewish-identified) communities who John cast out of the new Jerusalem, at least those he cast out rhetorically. Mata reads Revelation in search of those “Christians” whose words were excised from our biblical canon but whose memory remains. We can challenge any neat assumption that John’s visions of conquest and walled cities are utopian, and thereby we can refuse to sacralize the present we have inherited, a present so informed by this walled new Jerusalem (as I discuss in the coda of my book). Reading with historical atravesados is a backward glance that challenges our “toxic” present (again, borrowing from Muñoz) by opening up space for the diversity of possibilities that were once silenced.
Mata’s reading reminds me of his doctoral advisor, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and her efforts to read “against the grain” of early Christian literature. Mata also reminds me of Joseph A. Marchal’s work on Paul’s letters. I share with Mata, Schüssler Fiorenza, and Marchal a hope for a biblical studies space where I imagine we might bring different minoritized, feminist, queer, and cultural studies biblical critics together under a hermeneutics of “contingency,” as Marchal describes it, drawing on the work of Carolyn Dinshaw. Our interpretations are always “contingent” in that they are limited and limiting, temporary, and particular. Yet, we also read with another utopian orientation; we hope to build a transtemporal and transcultural contingent, as a noun, as a community of allies, however temporary. Reading from our disturbed present, I can sense Mata reading Revelation for just such a contingent.
Particularly since he is interested in looking for the voices marginalized in Revelation as ancient text, Mata focuses on my approach to the new Jerusalem in chapter three. In that chapter I sought to frame how the new Jerusalem becomes a utopian artifact, one mobilized for the sake of empire and conquest in future centuries. I would not want readers to take that chapter as my final perspective on Revelation’s new Jerusalem. For my part, particularly in chapter five, I also seek a utopian contingency amid the voices of more contemporary flesh-and-blood atravesadx/as, feminist and queer critics who are peripheralized as antagonists to normative Christianity in the present. I look to how they struggled with the particularly gendered and heteropatriarchally enforced borders of the new Jerusalem as a walled city but as also as a bedecked bride. Like Mata, I wish to recuperate voices that our own hegemonic Christian traditions have covered over, but we may also see that the atravesada/xs were never truly cast outside the borders. Instead, they continued to struggle over the walled city; they riff on scriptural borders. The failures of a utopian dream, such as Aztlán or the new Jerusalem, may still be fuel for alternative, less bounded and more pliable utopian visions, such as those articulated by Cherríe L. Moraga in her visions of queer familia and queer Aztlán. These critics offer up another relationship to scriptures.
Here I also sense a consonance between Huber and Mata’s critique of my work in that they both wonder about whether people are ever just marginalized. My use of “minoritized” and “marginalized” are part of my own ongoing struggle with the English language, which debilitates my quest for complexity, to escape binaries. Sometimes I sacrificed clarity for complexity in my writing; sometimes I managed neither clarity nor complexity. As with Mata, I see Huber as reading toward utopia in the ways she wishes to complicate the rhetorical location of Revelation’s writing and earliest communities of readers. Indeed, she reminds us that Revelation’s earliest communities were not simply dominated by the Roman empire; they also participated in it. Revelation may register anxiety over exactly that ambivalent participation, and we may squint at our own utopian horizons by retrieving that historical memory of ambivalence.
Huber distinctly registers how the past must be a font of utopian critique. I agree with her that there are things we know not to be true about the past. As scholars and teachers, we must remind present readers that Revelation did not respond to an actual persecution, that it instead mobilized a rhetoric of persecution in order to shape its readers. We care about correcting this history though because of the violence Christians have done while claiming this memory of persecution. I see that Huber’s concern for history is also rooted in a utopian orientation, one that registers a dissatisfaction with the present and glances backwards so as to challenge the relationship some present readers have with Revelation’s past.
I am a proponent of complexity; there is never one cause or one meaning to be traced and explicated. Thus I share Wimbush’s concern that too much of biblical studies’ “fetishization” of an imagined past has enforced an uncritical maintenance of the present. I do not class Huber’s work among those sorts of biblical critics, because she is clear about her orientations and she has studied how readers have engaged Revelation over the course of millennia. However, Muñoz’s glance is both my method and orientation. My orientation in glimpsing that past is openly utopian and critical, but it is also a glance, an admission that I could never fully gaze on the past.
I have never needed a utopian alternative more than I do now. I find Moraga’s words, “without the dream of a free world, a free world will never be realized,” to be saturated with even more meaning now than when I wrote about them for this book. People’s engagement with scriptures can be a source for understanding some of the worst things we have done to each other as a species, the ways that we have maligned and marginalized each other. Yet our scriptures (broadly construed) also record our strivings to live together and work together, to make meaning out of and give meaning to daily struggles.
I have, however, been struggling since writing this book to better articulate something I was trying to spatially represent in the coda of the book. There I compared the Ronald Wilson Reagan presidential library and museum with Alfredo Acosta Figueroa’s notions of Aztlán in Blythe, California. They both signify on scriptures and the new Jerusalem in my estimation, but they do so from two radically different places. Are there flaws and failings in both significations? Of course there are, but I think the place from which they seek utopia and the orientations with which they pursue utopia differentiates them. Going back to Mata’s critique of the new Jerusalem, I wonder, might there sometimes be reasons to exclude? Johnson-DeBaufre has suggested sometimes utopias may need to have borders; they just have to be balanced with permeability and an ability to change.
I am not advocating for Revelation’s new Jerusalem with its strong rhetorics of domination and dehumanization with regard to those cast outside its gates (Rev 22:15); I think those rhetorical descriptions of others can only ever perpetuate violence. Yet, the place from which and toward which we do something matters; minoritized critics may take up practices that dominantized groups cannot because of differences in power. Although I agree that a dominantized group can never exclude with good reason, but, when we read with lxs atravesado/a/xs, do we sometimes find that they exclude people from certain spaces for good reason? What would such exclusions look like and entail? I do not have a final answer to that question, and given the complexity of my own social location, I am wary of answering it. I do not seek universal codes of ethics that can encapsulate all of human experience, and I have never been bothered by the need to universalize. When discussing the need for utopia I think instead we must also attend to utopian contingency: who dreams utopia, from where do they dream it, how do they dream it, and with whom do they dream it?
I do not think any one of us should ever dream utopia alone. Our utopian ideals and methods must constantly change and shift; they must remain contingent because they must always be worked out contingently. I am indebted to the work of each of you that have engaged me in this roundtable and in previous conversations. I thank you all so much for reading Revelation in Aztlán and reading between its lines. I hope to continue to dream utopia beyond the borders of this first book, and I am so pleased and honored that I get to both dream and frustrate utopia together, with you.