Rita Indiana, “El Castigador,” 2017
The following is part of a cluster on the Futurities of Latinx Speculative Fictions. To read the editor’s introduction to the series, click here.
After taking a break from music for almost a decade, Dominican novelist and performance artist Rita Indiana returned in 2017 with a single and video for “El Castigador” [The Punisher]. In the eerie video, which is characterized by swinging doll heads and an unnerving séance scene, Indiana sings of corruption in the Dominican Republic. Of her decision to return to music to produce this stinging critique of Dominican politicians, Indiana has said: “Regreso, como dijo un trovador, para incomodar al que vive en el confort y para reconfortar al que vive en la incomodidad” [I have returned, as a troubadour once said, to make uncomfortable those that live in comfort and to comfort those that live in discomfort].1 Indiana’s pronouncement points toward one of the ways she uses speculative genres. In her music—which we might characterize as speculative merengue or speculative electro-rock, in that it combines futuristic themes with electronic sounds—as well as in her novels, Indiana manages to posit a theoretical future that, to use her wording, incomoda [bothers]. Indiana’s view of the future is at once utopian and a little uncomfortable.
I here examine Indiana’s use of incomodando as an affective strategy that guides her artistic production as a Dominican-born queer artist. I explore how Indiana’s primary orientation as an artist is to incomodar and consider what political implications a project whose aim is to bother may have. In doing so, I seek to highlight the continuum between the act of bothering—often understood as a nuisance, but perhaps not a radical force—and revolution. In truth, much revolution starts as bothering, and when people get bothered enough they will sometimes stage a revolution. I specifically point toward the fact that Indiana’s stated purpose is to “incomodar al que vive en el confort” [make uncomfortable those that live in comfort] to underscore a distinguishing feature of her art—the ability to produce narratives that irritate, make one’s skin crawl, make one uneasy. The fact that Indiana deploys incomodando in the service of an anti-racist, gender queer utopia is noteworthy because bothering is a slow process that can eventually incite a rupture. Incomodando is a way of holding power accountable. It is the itch that won’t go away until it incites a revolt—or, to cite more recent Caribbean history, until it culminates in the overthrow of a corrupt governor in Puerto Rico.2 By positing incomodando as an affective strategy in her speculative works, Indiana resists offering a static utopian future, to instead present a model for how we might continually arrive at justice.
My thinking on incomodando is informed by what Deborah Vargas has theorized as “lo sucio” [that which is dirty, nasty, or filthy].3 As an analytic, lo sucio understands queerness as racialized and classed, and thus disruptive to hegemonic power structures—something that Indiana achieves just by being an openly queer Dominican artist. For those that find this sort of thing unsavory, the smells and sights of lo sucio are a real bother. Yet, lo sucio doesn’t necessarily incomodar by nature. If you’re ok with messiness and unruliness, then it’s really not a problem. Lo sucio is only a bother to that which is not only clean, but ordered, rule-abiding, normative. As such the incorporation of lo sucio into an art piece will read differently to different audiences. La version sucia [the dirty version] of a song is the one with the curse words, but it’s also the one that rejects respectability politics. For some it is offensive, for others a sign that they are welcome. The fact that lo sucio incomoda [filth bothers] helps us account for why certain speculative texts might posit a future that seems, to some, bothersome.
To explore Indiana’s use of incomodando, I will turn toward her newest video, “El Castigador” (2017) as well as her newest novel, La mucama de Omicunlé (2015). Elsewhere I have argued that Indiana’s use of what Richard Pérez terms “negative aesthetics” in her videos and novels is a gesture toward a particularly Dominican tradition of pessimism that focuses on negativity as a way to gesture toward utopianism.4 Here I will build off of that argument to suggest that in addition to Indiana’s use of negative aesthetics, the artist also works toward a political and activist mission by deliberately and unhurriedly incomodando.5
We can see this first in Indiana’s song and music video (directed by Noelia Quintero), “El Castigador,” which makes use of images that might be coded as disturbing. The song begins with a menacing drum beat that slowly punctuates Indiana’s rhythmic moans. This is communicated in the video with close up shots of water shaking in a glass, dolls swaying by themselves, and a scared child sitting next to a river of blood. Indiana’s own aesthetic matches these first scenes—bleached blond hair, a yellowish skin tone, and dramatic eye shadow. The camera closely frames Indiana’s expression to suggest a dystopian setting.
Indiana’s lyrics clarify the social critique that this sense of uneasiness is meant to elucidate. She sings of “to’ los corruptos” [all the corrupt ones]”:
Se regordean en lujos [they fatten themselves with luxuries]
Que paga el miserable [for which the miserable pay]
Mientras en El Capotillo [meanwhile in El Capotillo (a poor neighborhood of Santo Domingo)]El hambre tiene hambre [the hunger feels hunger]6
Indiana’s poignant metaphor—“the hunger feels hunger”—is meant to incomodar the listener who might imagine a “corrupto” having a full meal while a starving onlooker sits beside. Indiana highlights the juxtaposition between rich and poor when she sings:
Son 500 años devorando esqueleticos [It’s been 500 years of devouring skeletons]
Comida pal perro mientras estos cochinos [dog food while these pigs]
Andan en los Yates [travel on their yachts]
Cual Ramfis Trujillo [like Ramfis Trujillo]
Al viejo, A la Haitiana le suben los vidrios [They roll up their windows to the old man, to the Haitian woman]
Indiana’s lyrics are aware of how much the corruptos try to resist being bothered, as she notes that when confronted by an old man or a Haitian woman “le suben los vidrios” [they roll up their windows]. 7 As Indiana explains, the desire to keep that which bothers out is manifested in the daily violence of rolling up ones car windows at a stop light, just as much as it is the cruelty of dictator Rafael Trujillo’s playboy son Ramfis Trujillo.
Indiana’s lyrics suggest, however, that it may no longer be possible for those in power to try to avoid that which causes them discomfort. We see this in the camera angles of the music video, with Indiana staring uncomfortably straight into the camera as it frames her tightly. The music shifts as the background instrumentation drops out, indicating that Indiana will deliver one of her signature breakdowns. Her voice drops into a lower register, as she tells the story of those who feel: “La tristeza de que le faltan los cheles /Pa´ educar sus hijos” [sadness because they don’t have the money/ to educate their children], punctuating it with a somber—”eso duele” [that hurts]. Indiana’s declaration of pain is inescapable within the frame of the shot.
To complicate the presumed-dystopia that the song text has been creating, however, Indiana introduces a utopian image that is unsettling. The “espiritu guerrero” [warrior spirit] appears, to which the people plea “endereza el camino” [straighten the path]. In this moment the “espiritu guerrero” represents a counterbalance to the corruption, a figure here to incomodar. The spirit is notably represented by an Indigenous man walking barefoot through the woods. The equation of Indigeneity with a futurity pushes against the displacement of indigeneity to the past that most often characterizes Caribbean cultural production.8 Yet, this same figure simultaneously traffics in tropes of Indigenous people as both wise (he is the savior) and pre-modern (he is barefoot). Quintero’s video, in this moment, uses Indigeneity speculatively and reminds us of racist reductionist discourses that limit Indigeneity to metaphor. In each of these ways the use of an Indian figure is notable for how it incomoda. In a Dominican national imaginary characterized by embracing Indigeneity only in opposition to blackness, and placing it only in a historical past, the presence of a Native body in a speculative text is shocking.9 At the same time, these tropes will be unsettling for some viewers, pushing us to consider what role Indigeneity can or should play in a utopian future.
Indiana’s newest novel, 2015’s La mucama de Omicunlé does similar work as it uses disquieting images to blur the line between utopia and dystopia. The novel tells the story of Acilde, a working-class trans Dominican man charged with saving the planet. The novel is set in a speculative world in which characters exist in multiple timelines “appearing one on top of the other, like stacked negatives” (60).10 In the present, marked as the year 2037, the Dominican Republic is on the verge of ecological destruction as nuclear weapons have been dumped into the sea. Only Acilde can go back into the past and prevent the greed that has led to what he calls the “shitty present” (123).
As is characteristic of her music, Indiana is guided by the urge to incomodar in this novel. Perhaps most bothersome is the fact that, although the novel can be characterized as speculative fiction, the ecological destruction that begins the novel also ends it. Acilde is unsuccessful in fulfilling his life’s purpose, thus allowing the oceans to remain “a dark and putrid stew” (83). The novel’s ending offers no improved conditions for Haitians, the novel’s Indigenous characters who are invested in the oceans, and of course the oceans themselves.
However, in an indication of how one person’s dystopia can be another’s utopia, the novel offers a happy ending for Acilde who chooses not to change the outcome of history. In doing so he is able to live out his life in a prior timeline in which he is a cisgender man married to a woman. Acilde chooses his own happiness, even though it means largescale ecological destruction. In effect, he becomes the corrupto rolling up their car window. The novel ends with the following sentence: “In a little while, he’ll forget about Acilde, about Roque, even about what lives in a hole down there in the reef” (32).
Of course, the reader cannot forget about “what lives down there in the reef,” and as such even Acilde’s utopian ending incomoda. It is not so much that Indiana’s text explicitly critiques Acilde’s decision, but that it deploys images that are utopian and, simultaneously, eat away at us. For instance, in the present Acilde is miraculously able to have a gender confirmation surgery though a street drug called Rainbow Brite “an injection making the rounds in alternative science circles that promised a complete sex change without surgery” (15). The process is described in disturbing terms:
At midnight her small breasts began to fill with smoky bubbles as her mammary glands consumed themselves, leaving a wrinkled web that looked like gum around her nipple, which Eric removed with pincers so it wouldn’t get infected. Underneath grew a masculine skin. […] It was daybreak when the body, confronted with the total annihilation of the female reproductive system, convulsed again. (49)
The extended description of Acilde’s experiences with Rainbow Brite is quite disturbing—for instance the image of someone having their nipples removed with pincers. Indiana does not stay away from upsetting images, an indication that even in a speculative future one cannot escape the unsettling aspects of life. Still, after this excruciating night, Acilde physically has a cisgender male body, including its reproductive system. This procedure also appears to free Acilde from the transphobia and homophobia that he had experienced before since he passes as a cisgender man which is, according to Acilde, his “only goal” (16).
Although Acilde may be living his utopian ending, readers may be bothered by the fact that this is possible only for people who choose to live within the gender binary and those that can afford the expensive drug, proving that violence and disdain for non-binary and queer characters permeates life in every timeline. We see this in the example of a drag queen called “El Asco” [The Repulsive One or, perhaps we should say, The One Who Bothers], whose “Crisol oil injections had completely deformed her, creating strange bubbles in all the wrong places” (86). El Asco’s treatment in the novel, as well as her painful descriptions, rely on “repulsion” to incomodar the reader that might otherwise be happy for Acilde.11 If El Asco’s body is bothersome to the reader, it reminds us that we should be uncomfortable with Acilde’s comfort.
Unlike that which is scary or life-threatening, that which incomoda is at best an inconvenience. In taking up incomodando as a speculative mode, however, Indiana suggests that the slow process of bothering is key to social action taken in the service of utopian thought. In the “critical utopias” that she creates, to quote José Esteban Muñoz, Indiana complicates the notion of what the future might look like for those deemed non-normative. By inserting Native folks, People of Color, and trans characters into complicated futures, she reminds us that creating and feeling discomfort is central to justice. Additionally, by articulating these characters as Dominicans, she unsettles the boundaries of Latinx speculative fiction to include a cultural perspective that has not historically been centered.12
- “Rita Indiana regresa a la música con audiovisual social llamado ‘El Castigador,’” Somos Pueblo, March 30, 2017, https://somospueblo.com/rita-indiana-regresa-a-la-musica-con-audiovisual-social-llamado-el-castigador/
- I am referring, of course, to the ousting of Ricardo Rosselló from power in July 2019. Indiana has actively supported the protests that led to his overthrow on her Twitter feed.
- For Vargas the Latinx queer is seen as sucio not only because he engages in gay sex—which has been painted as dirty historically—but also because his suciedad [filth] reminds dominant society of his brownness and working-classness. While Rita Indiana is speaking from a Dominican context, rather than the U.S. Latinx context that Vargas gestures toward, the attribution of suciedad to queer, Black, and poor bodies is as true in the Dominican Republic as it is in the US. For more see Deborah R. Vargas, “Rumination on Lo Sucio as a Latino Queer Analytic,” American Quarterly 66 no. 3 (2014).
- See Kristie Soares, “Dominican Futurism: The Speculative Use of Negative Aesthetics in the Work of Rita Indiana,” Forthcoming in Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism (Fall 2020).
- I have also argued elsewhere that centering the Dominican trans body in Mucama is central to the novel’s activist potential. See Kristie Soares, “A Future that Rests with the Fate of the Oppressed: A Review of Rita Indiana’s Tentacle,” Los Angeles Review of Books, February 1, 2019, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-future-that-rests-with-the-fate-of-the-oppressed-on-rita-indianas-tentacle/
- Rita Indiana, “El Castigador,” YouTube, March 29, 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-J_n1H2qT4 All lyric translations are mine.
- As the lyrics of the song suggest, now is a particularly critical time to do the work of incomodando the power structures in the Dominican Republic, as anti-Black prejudice rises up again in the form of anti-Haitian legislation. See Jonathan M. Katz, “What Happened When a Nation Erased Birthright Citizenship,” The Atlantic, November 12, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/11/dominican-republic-erased-birthright-citizenship/575527/
- Maximilian C. Forte has argued that the trope of Indigenous extinction was created by colonialist historiographers. Unfortunately, it is still a common discourse in the Spanish Caribbean today. For more see “Extinction: The Historical Trope of Anti-Indigeneity in the Caribbean,” Issues in Caribbean Amerindian Studies 6 no. 4.
- The category of “Indio” is a salient racial category in the Dominican Republic, but many have written about how it functions as a way for mixed-race Dominicans to distance themselves from their Blackness. Popular discourses of the “Indio” have little to do with present-day Native cultures, preferring instead to focus on ancestry. For more see Ginetta Candelario, Black Behind the Ears: Dominican Racial Identity from Museums to Beauty Shops. Durham: Duke, 2007.
- Because of space constraints, all quotes from La mucama de Omicunlé come from the English translation. Rita Indiana, Tentacle, translated by Achy Obejas, London: Sheffield, 2018.
- For more on the use of negative affects like disgust in Latinx art, see Leticia Alvarado, Abject Performances: Aesthetic Strategies in Latino Cultural Production, Durham: Duke, 2018.
- Conversations around Latinx speculative fiction have historically overlooked Caribbean, and particularly Dominican, speculative texts—with the rare exception of Junot Díaz’s work. For more on this see Robb Hernández, “Mundos Alternos: A Skylab for Speculative Curation,” Altermundos: Latin@ Speculative Literature, Film and Popular Culture, edited by Cathryn Josefina Merla-Watson and B. V. Olguín, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.