Originally published on Latinx Talk on March 23, 2022
In this essay, I argue for a decolonial approach to ecocriticism and environmentalism in the form of “Queer Trans Latinx Environmentalisms.” This approach would require paying serious attention to factors of sexuality and gender identification that impact, for example, climate refugees. Sexual orientation and gender expression were not taken into account in the status of refugees per the definition of “a refugee person” established by The United Nations 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. Similarly, sexual orientation and gender expression have often been ignored or downplayed in relation to conceptualizing environmentally vulnerable populations more generally, whether (im)migrants or not, living within and between the violent hierarchies and exclusions of settler colonial societies.
Queer, trans, and Latinx taken together offer a significant yet overlooked, undervalued, and delegitimized intersection (X) to consider from the perspective of environmentalisms, including environmental justice efforts. Scholars and activists centering this intersection of queer, trans, and Latinx must practice the continued decolonization of environmentalisms, of the environmental humanities, social sciences, and sciences, and also of environmental activism, whether inside the academy or beyond it. The decolonization of environmentalisms entails analyzing climate change, agricultural crises, and water and food insecurity in terms of colonial and neocolonial dispossession and migration and vice versa—understanding that a vast number of migrants are climate refugees fleeing untenable living and working conditions produced by human-induced climate change and environmental degradation. Many of these climate refugees, whether within the United States or coming from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, South America and/or other places, are also trans and queer or queer trans persons. Engaging with their situations and struggles from the perspective of “Queer Trans Latinx Environmentalisms” entails taking into account not only sexual and gender identities in terms of “situatedness in motion: embodiment and spatiality” (5), as Juana María Rodríguez reminds us in her 2003 book Queer Latinidad: Identity Practices, Discursive Spaces, but also queer trans practices of migration, survival, and/or resilience in and between regimes of containment and detention opposed to these migrations, mobilizations, and crossings of both geo-political and categorical territories.
I conceive of the phrase “Queer Trans Latinx Environmentalisms” as follows. “Queer” introduces a transversal movement defying normative x/y coordinates in terms of gender, sexuality, ontologies, and epistemologies. “Trans” foregrounds, as Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes has argued in his 2011 Translocas article, transformation, “change, the power or ability to mold, reorganize, reconstruct, construct,” verb-based modalities that emphasize dynamic, performative (inter)actions in relation to temporalities, diasporic geographies, locations, spaces, genders, and sexualities. Moreover, “trans” understood in this way acknowledges the continually-morphing animate-ness of living things and posits mutually-transformative dynamics—more on this topic later on—among humans as well as between humans and more-than-human life forms and/or matter (with matter understood as that which occupies space and has mass but is also in flux). “Latinx,” of course, keeps our focus on the largest (multi-ethnic) minority in the United States and on the historical and contemporary contexts for strong “environmental” preoccupations among this highly diverse population. “Environmental” preoccupations I term “Environmentalisms,” plural, to encourage the consideration of many kinds of environments besides “wilderness” or what is designated as “the environment” by more culturally hegemonic environmental approaches.
What happens when we center “Queer Trans Latinx Environmentalisms” in academia and beyond it? To begin with, this centering must be cognizant of and respond to the ways in which environmental and eco-critical scholarship frequently cited by Latinx Studies scholars (and by those in many other fields) has not adequately reflected the varied plenitude of Latinx environmentalisms. Within this environmental and eco-critical scholarship, Latinx populations as a “whole”—queer trans Latinx communities included—have long been overlooked and/or under-represented as producers and/or agents of environmental thought and action. For example, even Rob Nixon’s monumental 2011 book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, blurbed by Mary Louise-Pratt as “a foundational text of ‘an environmental humanities’” and by Byron Caminero-Santangelo as a model of “postcolonial ecocriticism,” only makes relatively brief mention of one US Latinx person, “gay minority” [Nixon’s phrase] Mexican American writer and journalist Richard Rodriguez (26, 239, and 241), one Venezuelan, late anthropologist and historian, who studied the politics of petroleum, Fernando Coronil (81), the Uruguayan writer, journalist, and public intellectual Eduardo Galeano, and Chico Mendes, the Brazilian rubber tapper, trade union leader, and environmentalist who sought to preserve the Amazon rainforest and advocated for the human rights of Brazilian peasants and indigenous populations (28). Nixon’s book is a must-read, with one of its most relevant lines being, “No homeland can be secure if we convert the earth into a biological weapon that threatens biology itself” (232). However, its lack of coverage of Latinx environmentalisms and the long history of Latinx contributions, including Latinx queer trans contributions, to environmental and climate justice extends pre-existing widespread conceptual biases and voids (on these voids, see DeGuzmán, “LatinX Botanical Epistemologies”).
Nevertheless, scholars from disciplines traversing other disciplines, most notably from Latina/o/x Studies, have been paying attention to Latinx environmentalisms across a spectrum of identities, identifications, temporalities, locations, spaces, and issues. Take, for example, the 1999 volume of essays Chicana/o Studies and Ecology: Subversive Kin, edited by Devon G. Peña and, twenty years later, the milestone 2019 collection of essays Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial, edited by Sarah D. Wald, David J. Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray. These volumes examine “environmentalisms” through lenses that attend to the imbrication of social and environmental (in)justice. They explore long histories and many practitioners of environmentalism and struggles for environmental justice among a broad array of Latinx cultural producers and activists. In addition to these volumes, other scholarship in this vein has attempted to foreground Latinx environmental and climate justice concerns, struggles, and ongoing contributions. Consider, for instance, Laura Pulido’s 1996 book Environmentalism and Economic Justice, Devon G. Peña’s 2003 article “The Scope of Latino/a Environmental Studies,” Grisel Y. Acosta’s chapter “Environmentalism” in the 2013 The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature, Macarena Gómez-Barris’s 2017 book The Extractive Zone, Michael Méndez’s 2020 book Climate Change from the Streets, and Carlos Alonso Nugent’s 2020 article “Latinx Literature in the Anthropocene.” These scholarly books and articles have sought to overcome the pervasive, inaccurate, and pernicious notion that Latinx populations are indifferent to environmental matters. In fact, quite the opposite is the case and has been for centuries. LatinX populations encompass many different national origins, ethno-racial heritages, gender and sexual orientation identifications, and class positionalities, among other factors. Here I deliberately use the capital “X” per Claudia Milian’s 2019 critique of the insufficiency of nationality or a hypostatized identity for the conceptualization of the itinerant heterogeneity of “Latinx.” LatinX populations have long histories of vulnerability as well as resistance to colonial, imperial, and capitalist neocolonial/neoliberal environmental dispossession, extraction, dumping, degradation, and injustice.
Scholarship such as the aforementioned books and articles and polls by leading environmental organizations such as Earthjustice demonstrate that Latinx communities (plural) strongly care about water, air and land, ecologies, and environmental justice. Many of these communities are marked by the structural violence and deprivation of being confined and/or pushed to environmentally hazardous barrios and lands treated as toxic dumps, neglected in terms of vital maintenance, or precarious due to a host of largely human-induced environmental factors (see Lopez-Wagner). According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, Latinx populations live in at least four kinds of basic environments: rural, suburban, small metropolitan, and large metropolitan—with urban, small metro, and suburban counties in the United States seeing the largest increase of Latinx people. In addition to these four basic environments, scholars have begun to consider more specific kinds of “lugares” or places as spaces within these four basic environments, including jails, prisons, and for-profit detention centers often built on coal ash dump sites. These, too, are “environments,” toxic ones in multiple, intersecting ways and ones with which queer trans Latinx may be more familiar and in which they may fare far worse than their cisgender counterparts. A queer trans Latinx environmentalist approach that foregrounds the daily challenges facing queer trans Latinx people in these toxic spaces is imperative to an eco-socio-politically grounded decolonial Latinx Studies and to all such Latinx Studies-informed social justice projects.
It comes as no surprise that a focus on the environmental justice contributions of people and projects at the intersection of queer, trans, and Latinx is much harder to find within scholarship, cultural production, and social institutions that have not or have only partially decolonized their agendas and foci. But, the good news is that this intersection is of growing interest to a decolonizing Latinx Studies, to current queer and trans scholarship, to environmental humanities and social sciences, and also to grassroots environmental justice efforts. With regard to Latinx queer trans scholarship, take, for example, the recent 2021 edited collection Transmovimientos: Latinx Queer Migrations, Bodies, and Spaces edited by Ellie D. Hernández, Eddy Francisco Alvarez Jr., and Magda García. With its central concern being “the subject of [the confluence of] immigration and LGBTQ identities” (xv), it purveys the notion of “transmovimientos” as “the creative force or social mechanism people utilize to change their location and calibrate their consciousness” (xv). It includes several essays on “Twenty-First-Century Student Movements for Social Justice,” social justice that involves creating more just, respectful, safe, supportive, and, therefore, live-able environments for queer, transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming Latinx and other populations. In this collection, “spaces” include many different kinds of environments—borderlands, the Río Grande, urban landscapes, barrios, city streets, bars, prisons, and privatized detention and deportation centers. The emphasis is on environments (plural), not on “the environment” understood as wilderness or as “pure nature” un-restructured by human and especially by colonial and neocolonial neoliberal extractivism. While neither the editors nor the essay writers of Transmovimientos explicitly engage with the problematic conflation of “nature” with whatever is deemed “natural,” an underlying premise of the book is that the different “environments” under discussion are all spaces that have been manipulated and structured by the ongoing dynamics of human activity, in particular, by settler colonialism with its violently-imposed hierarchies, its oppressive binary gender system, and its exploitative capitalist economic system.
Indeed, global capitalism [what could be and has been understood as settler colonial capitalism spread across planet Earth], or what Andreas Malm, Jason Moore, Raj Patel, and other scholars have called the “Capitalocene,” has restructured societies and biological nature to serve its over-production, over-accumulation ends for the sake of the enrichment of some at the impoverishment and disposability of the many (see Anthropocene or Capitalocene?). This Capitalocene, which many scholars see as derived from and epitomized by the colonial plantation and plantation logics (hence, according to Donna Haraway, the Plantationocene), continues to sow devastatingly disruptive ecological destruction of species habitats (including those of segments of the human species), environmental degradation, adverse climate change, the concomitant curtailment of civil rights and the stripping of human rights (via racialized voter suppression; sex-sexuality-and-gender-based oppressions; for-profit jails and detention centers, etc.) and the denial of “more-than-human” / animals rights in conjunction with the reduction of whole “classes” of persons to beasts of burden to be exploited to death.
An anthology such as Transmovimientos: Latinx Queer Migrations, Bodies, and Spaces features “trans bodies and queer bodies moving into the future, critically and unapologetically,” resisting systematic degradation, and seeking to bring about “transformative rupture toward collectivity” (xvii). This “transformative rupture toward collectivity” is of utmost significance to the theory, practice, and sustainability of “Queer Trans Latinx Environmentalisms.” This transformative rupture toward collectivity is a necessary response to the magnitude and extension of interlocking oppressions, from the genocidal legacies of settler colonialism to the latest bills passing through state legislatures designed to thwart the very existence of queer, trans, and/or Latinx (with an emphasis on that “x” whether lowercase or uppercase). Thus, among the variety of “transmovimientos” discussed in the anthology is the activism not only of individual trans Latinx leaders—such as Bamby Salcedo to produce sustainable environments for trans people with programs such as Angels of Change and the creation of the Center for Violence Prevention and Transgender Wellness in Los Angeles—but, furthermore, of the collective action caravans of LGBTQ people from Central America attempting to survive eco-socially destructive political violence and the dispossessing ravages of neocolonial neoliberal policies on their habitats and livelihoods. Some of the essays also engage with the collectivist “transmovimientos” of undocumented and DACAmented immigration activists to bring about an immigration system accountable to the dispossessing, impoverishing, and displacing violence of colonialism and imperialism upon the societies of the Americas and their “environments” conceptualized through an intersectional analysis.
As for environmental justice efforts at the grassroots level, all over the United States, and beyond it as well, queer trans Latinx community activists are deeply involved in these efforts. One Latinx group that directly takes on the entwined issues of land dispossession and food insecurity is the queer and trans Latinx and indigenous non-hierarchical gardening collective Mariposas Rebeldes. The collective is composed of Israel Tordoya, Edric Figueroa, Wotko Tristán, and Jesse Pratt López, the latter also a photographer who has been documenting their efforts in a manner that cleverly hybridizes different kinds of photographic practice: that of gardening, fashion, portraiture, and activism. Located in Atlanta, Georgia, Mariposas Rebeldes are working to “empower people to take food systems into their own hands” and “reverse [the epidemic of] food insecurity” which has been greatly exacerbated during the COVID19 pandemic (Reign, Vogue, 8 March 2021). The collective, the two co-founders of which met each other while working for Food Not Bombs, is invested in recuperating indigenous epistemologies and applying them to the current food insecurity crisis by teaching people specific precolonial indigenous Mesoamerican agricultural techniques of cultivation and sustainability. Among the practical skills disseminated are learning to grow one’s own vegetables, foraging for herbs and edible flowers, and engaging in a “Mexican cambalache” (the phrase is actually Argentine slang for “junkshop”) exchange/trade system, presented as an alternative to capitalism in order to obtain food and other basic necessities (Reign, Vogue).
These are a few illustrative examples of queer trans Latinx environmentalisms. To return to the question “What happens when we center queer, trans, and Latinx perspectives?,” we can recognize that “queer,” “trans,” and “Latinx” involve analyses and praxes beyond being more inclusive and equitable, crucial as those goals are both for academic equity and social justice. These are not just encompassing identity labels. In her book Queer Latinidad, Juana María Rodríguez observes that “Queer is not simply an umbrella term that encompasses” LGBTQ; “it is a challenge to constructions of heteronormativity” (24) and, I would add, to other forms of hegemonic sociopolitical and cultural normativity. Similar claims can be and have been made about “trans,” and also about “Latinx.” Although each of these terms has its own significations, connotations, and cultural work that it performs, all three terms potentially signal other ways of thinking, doing, being, becoming, and practicing socio-ecologies. Both “queer” and “trans” call us to rescue “nature” from the essentialism of “natural law,” from heteronormative, anthropocentric, species-hierarchical traditional humanism, and from (neo)colonial, patriarchal, heteronormative capitalist notions of reproduction, production, worth, and value. Furthermore, as theorized by Eva Hayward and Jami Weinstein, “trans” as prefix or “trans-“ (meaning across, into, and through and, moreover, implying a “suffixial space of attachment”  when written as “trans*” with a tentacular starfish asterisk) challenges us to perceive and conceive multiple forms of kinship and “becoming with” between humans and between humans and other life forms (along lines suggested by Donna Haraway, Stacy Alaimo, Timothy Morton, Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, and other scholars); to think in terms of emerging assemblages and trans-corporeal interdependencies, in flux and in process whether migrating or seemingly more rooted; and to actively contemplate, respect, and cultivate the diversity of diversity as part of salvaging what remains to us of biodiversity, the variety of life, in this time of human-induced global and planetary crisis.
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María DeGuzmán is Eugene H. Falk Distinguished Professor of English & Comparative Literature and Founding Director of the UNC Latina/o Studies Program at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (www.lsp.unc.edu). She is also a conceptual photographer, creative writer, and music composer / sound designer.