This essay represents a long-term engagement “on the side” with colonial Latin American historiography in my work, which primarily focuses on contemporary ethnographic contexts. In my second project, I’ve engaged in a collaborative process with transgender Latinas (translatinas) in San Francisco’s Mission District to create space for translatina social justice work.[2] This has led me to questions about citizenship, power, and social justice based in this work, which has become the basis of a book I am writing about “Translatina Citizenship.” However, in this work, I have often been astounded and heartbroken by the violence and social exclusion the participants of El/La Para Translatinas describe in our work together.

I’ve found that in order to account for the multiple and overlapping forms of power that shape translatina lives, I need to engage with the concept of the “coloniality of power” articulated by Aníbal Quijano (2000) and expanded by María Lugones (2007) to center gender in the process of modernity. The depth of reaction that translatinas and transgender women in Latin America receive to their very presence cannot be accounted for with an arithmetic notion of power—one that understands power as accumulating on one side or the other, adding up to oppression. No—simple arithmetic does not make sense when we look at the forms of rejection and exclusion, the overkill that visits the bodies of translatinas. I, following Evelyn Hammonds, have had to seek a “different geometry.” Hammonds, in her landmark essay “Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality,” proposes that a different set of methods are necessary to explore the contours of Black women’s sexuality in the historical context of the silences that have marked it (1994: 139). She proposes an alternate “geometry” as a metaphor to articulate the grounds on which a discussion of Black female sexuality can be had. In this, she challenges us to question the conceptual basis for our own notions of visibility and resistance, both of course metaphors of physical processes.

Too often we use the metaphors of science in uninformed or uncritical ways. The clearest example of this for me is our use of the term “resistance” to describe responses to oppressive regimes of power. In our imaginary of power, it is easy to reduce this to the resistance of mechanics—the actions of one physical body on another, as in the idea of a boulder crushing a body and that body offering up some physical resistance to the mass of the boulder. This is a monolithic view of resistance, to be sure, but it’s also a notion of resistance that is not fully informed by the physical concept of resistance. Alternatively, we could model our understanding of resistance on the electrical sense of the term: materials either conduct or resist the electricity that runs through them. Some materials are destroyed when a current runs through them, others perform differently—they absorb, insulate, store, illuminate, or any number of other things. In this sense, our imaginary of resistance can then include ways of diverting energy, insulating one’s self so as to not get burned, connecting and disconnecting with the current in ways that interrupt it. Same metaphor, different imaginary.

So although the concept of intersectionality has been incredibly productive for feminist, critical race, and queer theory because of its ability to describe systems of power and how they interconnect with each other, it has also suffered from a metaphorical reductionism that imagines discrete vectors of power intersecting at a particular point in space.[3] In some uses, the term becomes cumulative—clearly not what Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) had in mind when she proposed it—we compound race, gender, class, ability, sexuality, etc. into a single point weighed down, as it were, by these multiply intersecting vectors. The power of Crenshaw’s intervention was of course to make it impossible to consider this point without considering all the vectors that have produced it. And yet this creates a linear notion of power and a vectorial imaginary of interaction. What if instead of lines, we think of power as force fields whose ripples might interact (or intra-act, as Karen Barad puts it) in non-linear ways? Barad discusses the notion of diffraction patterns at length in Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007)—waves that interrupt each other and create troughs and peaks of energy in complex patterns. What other models might we come up with if we were to more rigorously interrogate the scientific and mathematical concepts that inform our conventional metaphors for understanding power?

Evelyn Hammonds encourages us to engage more critically with these metaphors, and proposes the black hole, inspired by Michelle Wallace, as one metaphor for understanding the silence that surrounds the possibilities of engaging in an inquiry about Black female sexuality. Though she doesn’t fully engage the physics of black holes, her provocations have been deeply informative to my thinking about working through silent and deadly systems of power in which we are all embedded. Hammonds challenges us to move beyond a focus on the “politics of silence” into a “politics of articulation”:

… visibility in and of itself does not erase a history of silence nor does it challenge the structure of power and domination, symbolic and material, that determines what can and cannot be seen. The goal should be to develop a “politics of articulation.” This politics would build on the interrogation of what makes it possible for black women to speak and act. (1994:141)

Inspired by Hammonds to think genealogically about the conditions of possibility for our current situation, in this essay, I am trying to articulate the continuities between contemporary queer/trans life worlds in Caracas and other parts of Latin America and colonial forms of governmentality that reverberate in the extended present. This requires an understanding of the particular morphologies of the contemporary forms of governmentality affecting the lives of translatinas. To do this, I found myself looking at descriptions of sexual alterity in early contact manuscripts of Spanish empire building from 1516-1601[4] and trying to figure out a way to connect what I found there with collaborative artistic and ethnographic work in Caracas and San Francisco. It begins in a hueco negro, a black hole.

La Pilarica

I find myself staring dazed into fluorescents on the corner of Avenida Baralt and Lecuna, in the Center of Caracas. I have escaped the prissy gay bar where my friends had taken me. From the subterranean parking structure of a very fancy mall in Los Mercedes, on the East side of Caracas, I have hopped in a cab with show flier in hand. ¿Está cierta? Yes. We zoom onto the highway, past the part of Caracas that mediates the well-to-do East side from a center represented by middle-class caraqueños at the time as a space of impossibility, where one shouldn’t venture after dark.

I don’t really know this yet, because I only have the location, no sense of its context. I was told there was a good drag show.

The cab pulls up and I see the bristling cold blue of too many fluorescent tubes packed into one place, humming and flickering onto a gleaming yet still grungy tile floor and scattering off the food service fixtures. “Are you sure this is the place?” I ask the taxista. La Pilarica. Avenida Baralt con Lecuna. It’s here. I check the flyer again, ask: ¿Is this La Pilarica? Of course. Claro.

A pilarica is the wooden implement you use to beat corn into arepa flour. Well, now you use premade flour, or if you really want to be old school about it, a shiny steel meat grinder. This is what they have at La Pilarica, which serves delicious arepas, corn cakes toasted and stuffed with a number of ingredients. Open all night.

Over by the meat grinder, someone in the back notices me looking bewildered to find arepas where I was expecting a gay bar and waves me over. He’s on a stool in front of a heavy black curtain I hadn’t noticed until then. It’s back here, he says. Es por aquí, atrás. The curtain closes behind me and my eyes go dark from the bristling lights’ absence. I see there’s another curtain before the light completely leaves this space I find myself in, but not the person tucked in the corner waiting to take my money. Eyes adjusting, I pay the admission and pass through the second curtain, where an entire two-level drag bar spreads out in front of me. A catwalk runs up the wall over the bar and along the length of the room; a tiny stage is tucked on the side wall. It is in this bar where I see my first drag show in Venezuela, complete with Tina Turner, and Whoopi Goldberg in a Sister Act supported by two very lecherous nuns.

This is the bar of my friends who were dark-skinned—they weren’t allowed through the doors of the prissy bar on the East side. And here, in this bar, on this night, I realize: if you are a Black effeminate Venezuelan assigned male sex at birth, who yearns to be recognized as a woman, what better way to make yourself legible than Tina? Whitney? Beyoncé? Even Whoopi. African American femininity leverages visibility in a Venezuela that pretends to see no race and yet maintains its racial hierarchies through informal apartheid and a beauty culture that absolutely rejects blackness. This was the hangout of Rummie Quintero, the Venezuelan transgender activist who invited me to the show.

The East side friends were horrified when they found out where I’d wandered. Not so much distaste for the bar as a concern for my safety and a genuine lack of knowledge that La Pilarica even existed. ¡Uuuy! ¡Ese es un hueco negro! They exclaimed. I had entered a black hole in the bourgeois Caraqueño gay social world. But this is precisely the kind of place I was looking for.

I am trying to unify two quite distinct and temporally remote moments and places—the contemporary queer and trans[5] life-world of early 21st century Caracas and the forms of radical alterity on which sixteenth-century Europeans based their notions of conquest. Both exist in a region formation I’m calling Tierra Firme. This is what the Europeans called this land, what we now know as the Caribbean coasts of Panamá, Colombia, and Venezuela, sometimes also Guayana, Suriname and the very north of Brazil. Before they claimed to know it, it was Tierra Firme, solid ground. Unknown continent.

This is a move toward a kind of queer regionalism, following Gayatri Gopinath (2005).[6] A queer regionalism that follows the genealogy of regions as they have been constituted geopolitically and historically. Similar work has been done, of course, in the context of decolonial theory in the Americas, including the work of Walter Mignolo (1995) and María Lugones. While Mignolo and Lugones propose Andean and Nahua regional categories such as Tawantinsuyu, Anahuac, Pachamama, and the Abya Yala of the isthmus we now call Panama and Colombia as ways to reframe the region, I am working with a colonial category of unknowing: Tierra Firme. In another moment, I might choose the early-nineteenth-century nation building utopia/dystopia known as La Gran Colombia to talk about this place.

My move to reappropriate a regional category that fell out of use nearly half a millennium ago is invested not in recuperating the colonial project of defining and owning Tierra Firme, but rather in marking the moment before the colonizers could claim to know the land, the unknowability and unintelligibility of this land and its people. For this discussion, I choose this term rather than indigenous region formations such as Abya Yala and Pachamama precisely to index the ways the black hole of European knowledge production in the Americas has overdetermined my own ways of knowing and (un)knowing this land. I want to stay in the hueco negro for a while, honoring the acculturation, deculturation and transculturation that has occurred over centuries in this place.

Tunneling into the Black Hole

The European systems of knowledge production that defined Tierra Firme as a vast unknown continue to delimit that which cannot be explained rationally into regions of unknowability or invisibility. However, as with the lands dubbed Tierra Firme in what later became the Americas, these zones of unintelligibility to European ways of knowing are quite alive with their own forms of meaning and life. The huecos negros of Caracas were a similar system as I encountered them in the course of my fieldwork. This essay attempts to honor the life within these spaces while accounting for the incredible forms of violence and diminished life chances[7] that continue to affect life in the hueco negro.

Black holes have posed important epistemological questions to astronomers and physicists, and have become a fruitful metaphor for scholars asking questions about Blackness, sexuality, and radical forms of alterity.[8] Hammonds herself cautions that the metaphor might have its limits—the black hole is, after all, a system that annihilates the terms on which it can be understood and observed. Its existence can be inferred from its effects on surrounding entities, but not directly observed. What would it mean to consider the limits of Western intelligibility through the possibilities that exist in those things which cannot be understood and mapped in a Western way of knowing? I ask this question not because I think these possibilities are completely redemptive, or even somehow untainted by the grid of intelligibility in which we might encounter them, but because these are the messy processes through which we find the terms for our worldmaking, our continued survival, our perverse existences. To try to find an “outside” of Western epistemology to which we can look for “other” ways of knowing overlooks the ways we are constantly failing to be modern and eroding the terms of “the coloniality of gender” (Lugones 2007) while simultaneously reinscribing them. I am struggling with the black hole of modernity in the Americas, which constantly pulls in everything within its dense gravitational sphere only to rip it apart and absorb it. I want us to account for the un-knowing, the erasing and consuming of lives, history, memory, landscapes. The continued pull of this force as we find ourselves at the event horizon, being stretched out infinitely while the matter that constitutes us slowly redshifts into absorption, appearing strangely frozen in time from outside the black hole.[9]

Sometimes it seems the philosophical black hole of “resistance” replicates the difficulties of theorizing a black hole, and we are left looking for signs of Hawking Radiation[10] —those infinitesimal traces of positive radiation caused by the absorption of negative particles into the other side of the event horizon, a side effect of the tunneling phenomenon. Does resistance even work as a metaphor to understand the ways we negotiate our lives in the deadly process of late modernity? I’m unsatisfied with this metaphor, with the idea that we can only ever resist and then look for the traces of that resistance. And in the end, maybe resistance is futile. If we resist modernity are we, as Lugones proposes, “non-modern”? Do we abandon our icons of resistance—the indigenous, the gender non-conforming—when they begin to show signs of modernity? Are we/they then co-opted by modernity and unredeemable? Maybe the answer is not to resist, but rather to find a way to tunnel through, or to harness the energy of the black hole to slingshot ourselves through time and space in unpredictable and non-linear ways.

This essay is my attempt to account for the gravitational pull of modernity and the violence it exacts on the bodies of people who don’t fit its “categorical, dichotomous, hierarchical logic” (Lugones 2010). In particular, I am trying to account for the excess violence that is visited on the bodies of transgender women in Latin America informed by the work I’ve done with transformistas in Venezuela and the Mexican and Central American immigrants to San Francisco who participate in El/La Para TransLatinas. In this work, I’ve seen the kinds of “overkill” that visit these women’s bodies—daily kinds of violence and exclusion as well as violent spectacles of assault or murder. And while we all make our lives inside this murderous black hole of modernity, I have found myself at a loss as to how to understand the ways societies in the Americas treat them—the deep forms of social exclusion that these women negotiate, often creatively and successfully, sometimes not. Though much of my work focuses on transformista and transgender Latina survival, glamour, and style, I have chosen to address the violence that these women must negotiate in this essay as a way to work out what it is we’re dealing with.

To tunnel into the black hole of modernity and the coloniality of gender, I engage in what Elizabeth Freeman calls “erotohistoriography,”[11] a chronopolitics that works against the developmental logic of modernity to inhabit and embody queer forms of pleasure, though I will attach these to the quotidian violence lived by transformistas in Caracas in the early 21st century rather than to a queer existence. Though Freeman doesn’t use erotohistoriography to examine historical materials, here I will engage several chronicles and catalogs of early European contact with the people of what is now called the Americas and consider the visceral implications of European (un)knowing and colonization these represent. I will propose time travel as a historical methodology to travel between these early contact texts and the contemporary life world of Yhajaira, a transformista from Caracas, as detailed in a collaboration with the artist Argelia Bravo entitled Arte Evidencia. We will, as we’ve done already, jump from one hueco negro[12] to another, finding ourselves in different places and different times.

So to tierra firme it is then.

Massacre in Tierra Firme

As Vasco Núñez de Balboa and his party penetrated the land they knew as Tierra Firme in September of 1513, they left many bodies in their wake. Balboa had been seeking passage to a great sea of the South along the northern coast of South America and into the Darién and had made contact with caciques on the Caribbean coast of what we know as the isthmus of Panamá today. The assembled party traveled from Careca inland into the territory of Quarequa, where the cacique of the same name, according to Peter Martyr d’Anghiera’s 1516 account of the incident in De Orbe Novo or Decades, received them in a “haughty and hostile” manner.[13] A battle ensued and Martyr reported that 600 people, including the cacique, were “slain like brute beasts” (1912 [1516]:284). Martyr’s account details the ways Balboa’s party dismembered and killed the occupants of Quarequa. In the wake of this massacre, he relates that Balboa discovers “nefanda infecta venere” (Martyr 1533 [1516]:44) in the village of Quarequa and takes measures to deal with it.

Jonathan Goldberg opens his article “Sodomy in the New World: Anthropologies Old and New” with an account of this incident, which he calls an “originary moment in the history of the making of America” (1991:46). Though I agree that this moment is significant, I see it as an early example of the production of masculine governmentality that continues in the form of impunity, or impunidad throughout the Americas. Goldberg is not alone in his assessment of this incident, in which Balboa sets his dogs (aperrear is the word used in Spanish to describe this act) on forty to fifty people of Quarequa described as being “dressed as women” (Martyr 1912 [1516]:285), or having committed the nefarious sin (pecado nefando) only a few days before he reaches the summit of the mountains from which he first sees the Great Ocean of the South. Eduardo Galeano writes a chilling account of this moment in Genesis, the first book of his Memory of Fire trilogy:

1513: Cuareca


Their muscles almost burst through the skin. Their yellow eyes never stop flashing. They pant. They snap their jaws and bite holes in the air. No chain can hold them when they get the command to attack.

Tonight, by order of Captain Balboa, the dogs will sink their teeth into the naked flesh of fifty Indians of Panama. They will disembowel and devour fifty who were guilty of the abominable sin of sodomy, who only lacked tits and wombs to be women. The spectacle will take place in this mountain clearing, among the trees that the storm uprooted a few days ago. By torchlight the soldiers quarrel and jockey for the best places.

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa chairs the ceremony. His dog Leoncico heads up God's avengers. Leoncico, son of Becerrillo, has a body crisscrossed with scars. He is a past master of capturings and quarterings. He gets a sublieutenant's pay and a share of each gold or slave booty.

In two days' time Balboa will discover the Pacific Ocean.

(Galeano 1998:58-9)

In 1594, Theodor deBry published an emblematic image of this moment in Americae Pars Qvarta, with text by Hieronymo Benzoni, as part of deBry’s Grand Voyages series. The image depicts the fierce dogs attacking and devouring several nearly naked and apparently male-bodied indigenous people in the lower field while Balboa and his conquistadors, elaborately decorated and posed, look on from above.[14] 

Image of the fierce dogs attacking and devouring several nearly naked and apparently male-bodied indigenous people in the lower field while Balboa and his conquistadors, elaborately decorated and posed, look on from above

The dogs, led by Leoncico, son of Becerrillo, were imposing animals that along with horses were important tools of conquest for the Spaniards. Francisco López de Gómara identifies the dogs as alanos, a muscular breed of hunting dog now known as a Spanish Bulldog or Alano Español.[15] In his brief mention of this incident, Gómara notes: “Balboa set his dogs on fifty putos[16] he found there and then burned them, first knowing of their abominable and filthy sin” (1991 [1553]:93),[17] naming both the new way of dealing with sodomites (the dogs) and the old (burning). It’s important to note that dogs were used as a tool of war, but not, as far as I can tell, as a tool or punishment in the Inquisition, which had been the primary way to deal with pecado nefando and sodomy on Spanish soil.[18]

It might be enough to invoke this incident and draw parallels to the contemporary violence that transgender women live with in Latin America, but before I assume the facility of this connection I want to establish the ways that this incident becomes communicable, as Charles Briggs (2005) puts it. Communicability is a way to bring linguistic and medical anthropology together to analyze the productive power of representation. Communicability refers to the ability of a particular form of representation to be taken up in the circulation of discourse—this is as much about how an event takes form as a message that can be transmitted through media (such as print and televisual news) as it is about the availability of specific representations to circulation—the “viral” quality of the representation. In Briggs’ argument, representations of indigenous Venezuelans are taken up in a civilization and barbarity discourse that reinscribes the social exclusion of indigenous people. Though Briggs is concerned with public health discourses in contemporary Latin America, his framework of communicability provides a helpful approach to understand the repercussions of the Quarequa incident: there is a process by which this iconic act of violence, among so many others, comes to have ideological force in our understanding of gender, sexuality, and coloniality in the Americas, reverberating far beyond its happening and even a historical consciousness of its occurrence. The communicability of the Quarequa incident becomes apparent in the multiple accounts about it, spread across space and time, and the uses to which the incident is put. Beyond that, the incident then reverberates, unmoored from its originary moment, in the conditions of perception for gender variance throughout the Americas. In other words, I am arguing that through acts like what Balboa did in Quarequa, a particularly violent way of responding to gender variance and non-Western gender systems has governed the logics of the state and of masculinity to produce some bodies as available for spectacular forms of violence and marginalization. In order to transform these logics, we have to address the communicability of the acts that inform them. There are wildly divergent stakes in the representation of the incident at Quarequa. I will start with the representations I invoked to introduce you to the events, and carefully trace their genealogies to more fully articulate what is at stake in these representations. We will start with the accounts of Galeano, deBry, and Goldberg.

Both Galeano and deBry use their representations of this incident to invoke the brutality and horror of Spanish conquest in the Americas, but in very different contexts. Our reading of the image as part of the horrible inscription of the coloniality of gender in the early colonial Americas depends on our sympathy for the inhabitants of Quarequa. DeBry’s image fits into the convention of depicting the landscape, flora, fauna, and indigenous practices of Tierra Firme as strange and new. While deBry did have a stake in depicting the “Black Legend” of Spanish empire as other European writers and artists worked to open the imaginary of the Americas to their own projects of colonization, it’s unclear whether or not the “sodomites,” as he depicts them, are represented as part of these strange and new things, or if deBry and Benzoni are emphasizing the excessive violence of Balboa’s decision to feed these people alive to his dogs.[19] I would propose that both of these forms of signification are operating in this image, and that the depiction of Spanish colonial excess is part of a shift in the imaginary of northern European settler colonialism more than an emerging humanism or compassion for the people of Quarequa.

Galeano is clearly decrying the violence being done to indigenous meaning systems by an extractive colonial process, as is evident in the organization of Genesis, the first book of his Memory of Fire trilogy into a pre-European contact cosmology and a post-contact chronology. His portrayal of the violence doesn’t focus on the gender system misread by Balboa as pecado nefando; rather, it communicates the brutality and banality of Balboa’s treatment of the people of Quarequa. Galeano’s critique of both crown and church in the colonization of the Americas emerges in the hundreds of short vignettes that characterize the trilogy. His investment in exposing the brutality of colonization is clear in Memory of Fire, and he uses examples of physical, sexual, and genocidal violence such as this to make his argument through race, gender, and labor in particular. I originally learned of this incident through Galeano’s representation, and traced my way back through his sources for a more complete understanding of the incident and its repercussions.[20]

While Galeano and deBry focus on Balboa’s project of colonial expansion and the casualties it produces, Jonathan Goldberg is most concerned with the second part of the massacre—the dog mauling. Understandably, the mauling has become an iconic representation of conquistador cruelty and tyranny. For Goldberg, this incident represents the root of the persecution of sodomy in the New World; that persecution that at the time of his writing makes itself most clear in the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision that upheld sodomy laws in the United States. Sodomy, Goldberg argues, is a powerful legal category “precisely because it is incapable of exact definition” (1991:46). He uses colonial representations of sodomy in Tierra Firme and Perú to support his argument, and is careful to connect different forms of the legal category of sodomy in the Americas in order to make the point that:

these events cannot be thought of solely as episodes in Spanish-American history; I have no interest in perpetuating the black legend that seeks to exculpate northern Europeans from the atrocities of the Spanish, and which is fuelled with proto-nationalist and racist energies. (46)

Through the category of sodomy law, he creates a genealogy that connects Balboa to Bowers v. Hardwick, despite the fact that at the time of the Quarequa massacre the persecution of sodomites occurred through the Inquisition, and Balboa’s appropriation of the ecclesiastical authority to persecute sodomites was only a thinly-veiled repurposing of his absolute impunity in the colonial project when it came to the bodies of indigenous people.[21] We need to understand the context in which the dog mauling signifies in order to understand how it illustrates the terms of colonial violence that reverberate to this day in the Americas. In other words, I am concerned with the ways this incident becomes communicable in the early contact period and its various permutations over the centuries as the story is told, written, deployed, and transformed. For Goldberg, the signifying power of this incident reverberates through a governmentality that takes the sodomite as exception, translating into a contemporary category of law, sodomy.[22]

From the perspective of contemporary gender variance in this part of the world, the connection is more a function of the governmentality of Euroamerican and masculine impunity than strictly speaking the category of law. For Goldberg, the sodomite signifies as sodomite, though he is very clear this language is not a part of Peter Martyr’s account. The sodomite is part of, but stands apart from indigenous people, a double body:

the body of the sodomite takes on an originary status, as the cause for what was done to the Indians in the first place, but its originary status is troubled not merely by being presented as an after-effect but also because, cross-dressed, it is a double body and the only truth it testifies to is the preposterous nature of colonial accounts. (49)

In her critique of queer theory, Andrea Smith argues that what she calls queer theory’s “subjectless critique” disappears settler colonialism and ongoing genocide. She asserts that “[t]he analysis that comes from queer theory (even queer of color critique), then, rests on the presumption of the U.S. settler colonial state” (2010:45). Goldberg enacts this presumption by connecting Quarequa to Bowers v. Hardwick, shifting from what is arguably not a settler colonial project at the time and a religious form of governmentality to a fully entrenched settler colonial society under a juridical kind of governmentality. Understanding the Quarequans as “sodomites” or “cross-dressers” and connecting the massacre to the legal category of sodomy enacted in Bowers requires a few complex rhetorical moves given that pecado nefando is not, strictly speaking, a legal category in 1513. Power at this time does not work as much through law in the sense of the Supreme Court of the United States, as through the kinds of masculine impunity we see illustrated in the Quarequa incident. Power, fortune, and colonialist possibility are created outside the law.[23] Balboa himself functioned outside the law by appropriating both state and ecclesiastical power to such an extent that he was beheaded a few years later for his ruthlessness.

Upside-down and Inside-out: Where is the Sodomy?

Goldberg cites Peter Martyr’s 1516 account of the incident in Decades, from a 1555 English translation by Richard Eden that is quite embellished. Michael Horswell cites this translation in Decolonizing the Sodomite as well:

[Balboa] founde the house of this kynge infected with most abhominable and unnaturall lechery. For he found the kynges brother and many other younge men in women’s apparell, smooth & effeminately decked, which by the report of such as dwelte abowte hym, he abused with preposterous venus. Of these abowte the number of fortie, he commanded bee given for a pray to his dogges”

(Horswell 2005:71)

Frances McNutt’s 1912 translation of the Decades recounts the event somewhat differently:

Vasco discovered that the village of Quarequa was stained by the foulest vice. The king’s brother and a number of other courtiers were dressed as women, and according to the accounts of the neighbours shared the same passion. Vasco ordered forty of them to be torn to pieces by the dogs.

(1912 [1516]:276)

Interestingly, these English translations do not name sodomites or sodomy specifically, (neither does the Latin version of the Decades I was able to consult, published in 1533). Goldberg argues that the description is one of sodomy through a turn of phrase in the Eden translation that replaces the “shared the same passion” above with “he abused with preposterous venus,” a phrase which stays with Goldberg throughout the entire essay. I want to contest Goldberg’s notion of sodomy on a few counts and propose an understanding of sodomy as viscerally implicated with cannibalism in the logic of the conquistadors in this particular moment.

First, it is important to note that the terms sodomy, sodomite, sodomita, or sodomía aren’t operative in Peter Martyr’s description. Instead, the notion of pollution is employed: the original Latin uses the construction nefanda infecta uenere. Goldberg recognizes this, but suggests that “preposterous venus” (from the translation, remember?) indicates the “confusion” that the Europeans see in these practices.[24] Peter Martyr’s contemporaries, royal historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1535) and the less official historian/cleric Francisco López de Gómara (1552), do employ the category of sodomy, and Gómara the term puto, in the accounts they publish decades later. Balboa’s own letter to the King of Spain of January 20, 1513, upon surveying the terrain and noting rivers of gold, good and bad Indians, mentions cannibals but not sodomites (this is, of course, before the events in Quarequa in September of that year). I want to suggest that a different logic than European “confusion” is operating in the attention paid by Europeans to the categories of sodomy and cannibalism. I want to mark this moment of deadly “confusion” as a kind of “gut feeling” of colonialism[25]—the revulsion experienced by the conquistadores as they encounter radical alterity. I call this revolcado—a kind of existential upset that accompanies the threat of penetration and pollution.

Second, and this is an issue of translation, the genealogy of sodomy is different in the Spanish and Anglo systems. Whereas the 1533 Eden translation of Decades into English focuses on vice and the unnatural lechery and briefly mentions the cross-dressing practices on which it appears this evaluation is made, Spanish accounts more directly concern themselves with the question of category crisis—cross-dressing and gender embodiment. Gómara notes, regarding the cacique’s brother: “no solamente en el traje pero en todo.. salvo en parir, era hébra.”[26] Here Gómara actually uses the animal form of female, hembra, where in other parts of the chronicle he employs muger. The key issue is the attention Gómara pays to the status of the transgressive body, occupying a gender category unrecognizable to the Spaniards. Goldberg’s attention to the formulation “preposterous venus” in Eden’s translation articulates this as a logic of “backwardness.” This move erases the Spanish misapprehension of an indigenous gender system as a foundational site for this violence, focusing instead on the backside.

Finally, Goldberg’s argument separates the European evaluation of sodomy from its evaluation of cannibalism. I suggest these two elements need to be understood together. Michael Horswell (2005) does an excellent job of connecting the two discourses, but doesn’t address the construction of cannibals with the level of detail he devotes to the sodomite. He points us to the work of Peter Hulme, Rolena Adorno, and Charles Pautz. Both Goldberg and Richard Trexler (1996) point out the complicity of Indigenous nobles with European systems of value in, essentially, trafficking in sodomites. Goldberg’s approach to this is to ask why the cacique of Quarequa decides to hand over his brother and the other sodomites to Balboa. And in this move I find a kind of exceptionalism about sodomy that works against Goldberg’s own critique of the search for “a transhistorical locus for the affirmation of alternative sexual practices” (51). While Goldberg rightly points out the problems with that quest in anthropology and history, by separating the categories of sodomy and cannibalism, he splinters the possibility of thinking race and sex together, and reifies sodomy even as he critiques its reification. Similarly, Mignolo focuses his decolonial project on a politics of knowledge in constructing “Americanity” (2005) but ignores the embodied forms of knowledge and practice that exist in contemporary gender and sexuality formations. The challenge here is to find continuities where there are huecos negros: a task Michael Horswell takes on by addressing the textual archive, but one which leaves a gap between the forms of Andean third gender spaces he describes and the attentions of the “amorous transvestite” he reports encountering during his first experience in Cuzco, as he relates in the preface to his book. Can we cross the wide gulf of unknowing produced by colonial history to talk to her? Dare we try? I’d like to suggest we consider a logic of turning inside-out, a lógica revolcada to think about both sodomy and cannibalism in order to more viscerally connect these colonial acts to contemporary trans life in the Americas.

Terror in Tierra Firme

Several scholars of gender and sexuality in the Americas, myself included, have focused on this moment as one profoundly illustrative of the various connections among coloniality, sexuality, gender and violence.[27] In the various descriptions of this incident that has signified well beyond its moment, we find many things: the existence of genders or sexual practices not normalized in Western meaning systems, a foundational act of violence, a rescue narrative, a transgender past, gay history, homosexuality, sodomy. I was pulled by the gravity of this incident because it seemed so continuous with the banal brutality that visits the lives of transformistas and other transgender women in the Americas—the excess signification of the space of terror (Taussig 1986) as an everyday fact of life. I am caught in the force of this moment, which has come through so many filters and different mediations and yet still seems so relevant and familiar. But as I examine it, I realize that how I come to understand it is terribly contingent on the accounts I choose to follow. What I’m looking for is a way to triangulate the accounts and the things that will never be known about what happened there, in Tierra Firme, so that we can address the repercussions of these events. I say this remembering vividly a story told by a participant of El/La Para Translatinas who received asylum in San Francisco of two “homosexuals” in his hometown who were assassinated by being buried up to their necks in an ant hill, or the experience of Yhajaira Falcon and many other transformistas in Caracas. The resonances between the colonial violence of 1513 and these contemporary instances of terror in the coloniality of gender seem very alive; as M. Jacqui Alexander (2005) argues, this moment is constitutive of these relations. As such I understand it as part of an extended present.

Alexander argues that “there is a great deal that is being inaugurated in this narrative economy” (197), including: 1) “that heterosexuality animates militarism”; 2) “militarism requires such staunch adherence to heterosexual masculinity that it resorts to violence in excess even of its own norms of killing”; 3) “imperial intent hinges on the establishment of heterosexual relations of rule”; 4) European heterosexual supremacy (198); 5) “indigenous heterosexual interests needed to be rescued from themselves” (198). While these are helpful observations that can certainly be traced through many forms of heteropatriarchal masculinity in the Americas, Alexander’s jump from the spectacular violence of this act to the 1993 hearings that resulted in the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy seems to efface the continuing existence of the spectacular violence of the coloniality of gender. These two forms of violence (genocide and social exclusion) are quite different, and have very different effects on the bodies they interact with.

How do we bridge the temporal divide here? Is it possible to think of 1513 and 2016 in the same moment? I am trying to propose time travel as a historical method, but have not yet invented a machine to allow me to do this. Physicists who have helped me think about this[28] have pointed out the difficulty in proposing time travel at all. There are three primary methods by which time travel might be possible according to physics:

1) using the black hole itself as a wormhole to access other points in spacetime; 2) using the gravity of a black hole to create the velocity necessary to exceed the speed of light and thus travel at a different rate; and 3) quantum tunneling, in which an subatomic particle appears instantaneously in another location without having expended the energy to arrive there. This essay has been organized along these three methods, first tunneling into the black hole itself, then using the gravitational pull of the incident at Quarequa. Now I move to the third method, quantum tunneling, by examining a strikingly similar occurrence to the Quarequa incident. We arrive using a star map.

Star Map

The first thing you notice appears to be a lunar landscape stretching across a grid of white lines on a black background, with several details inset as well as a legend: we are looking at a map. Across the top, the map is titled: Ubicación in Situ et at Corpus.[29] Several aerial photographs in the details lead you to believe that the map is of a larger area where a specific site is marked in increasing detail. In detail 4, we find the X that marks the spot: “Lugar del suceso”—Site of event, in Parque Los Caobos. As you decode the details, the landscape becomes clearer: an aerial view of the metropolitan area, a murky map crisscrossed with points and lines, an anatomical drawing with a red circle on the right upper arm pointing you to the larger landscape. It is a scar map, a blown-up detail of the scars on the upper arm of Yhajaira Falcon[30] resulting from dog bites and rubber bullet wounds she received in an attack from a K-9 unit of the Metropolitan Police in Caracas while she walked through Parque Los Caobos, a well known gay cruising spot. This is our star map, Arte Evidencia 3. Cartografía de una historia interminable.[31]

What looks like a lunar landscape at first is resolved as the pockmarked and scarred upper arm, where arrows point to canine dental marks and rubber bullet wounds, according to the legend. It is a white-on-black print made by reversing the image which resulted from the Venezuelan feminist artist Argelia Bravo’s fingerprinting of Yhajaira’s entire body to catalog her scars in a collaboration entitled Arte Evidencia, created from 2004 to 2009 in Caracas (Hernández 2009). The 11x17 inkjet print, as well as the entire exhibition which showed in Caracas and Buenos Aires, is part of a longstanding collaboration between Argelia and Yhajaira that stemmed from Argelia’s involvement in HIV prevention outreach on Avenida Libertador, a zone where transgender women (transformistas) in Caracas do sex work. Argelia and I worked together to found and support TransVenus de Venezuela, an organization focused on human rights for trans women, while I was in Caracas doing the fieldwork for my first book. Yhajaira, a transformista who had experienced a great deal of violence in the street and from police, became an outspoken trans activist in Venezuela, decrying the impunity that subjected her to so much violence. She, like many transformistas in Venezuela, bears the marks of this violence and impunity on her body.

In the 5-year collaboration, Argelia and Yhajaira produced dermocopias—ink transfers from Yhajaira’s skin onto paper, glass, and fiber—to create an inventory of Yhajaira’s body. They documented the process of making dermocopias in video to produce an installation, and they performed archaeological site surveys of places where violence had occurred in Yhajaira’s life and the lives of trans women she knew. Gabriela Baldomá, an art conservator and the director of the Centro de Investigación, Conservación y Restauración de Arte Moderno y Contemporáneo de Argentina accessioned Yhajaira’s scars into the collection of the Center in a piece called Arte Evidencia 2. La humanidad objetivada.[32] Arte Evidencia included an evidence collection kit for denouncing human rights violations, and was part of a project Argelia Bravo branded “arte social por las trochas—hecho a palo patá y kunfú”[33]—a form of activist art in marginalized spaces, “made with (beating) sticks, kicks and kung fu.” Through this work, Argelia and Yhajaira used the reified space of the art gallery to draw attention to human rights violations and to leverage the ways these spaces privilege the bodies inside them to provide some safety and visibility for Yhajaira, who at the time was facing death threats from police she had denounced. After enduring this violence and death threats Yhajaira sought and was granted asylum in Buenos Aires and continues to live in Argentina and advocate for the lives of trans sex workers.

It is Yhajaira and Argelia’s star map/scar map that connects contemporary forms of gendered violence to the events at Quarequa in 1513. The black holes of the tooth marks in Yhajaira’s scar map reveal the “history without end” that Yhajaria and other trans women in Latin America are living. Indeed, the 1594 deBry engraving forms part of the visual archive of this project, and is incorporated in another piece that is part of the installation. To link the events in Quarequa with Yhajaira’s own canine attack directly might serve as an argument for the historical continuity of violence against gender-variant individuals over the long course of European colonization in the Americas, but we don’t need a direct line of similar acts to make this case. A non-linear and unpredictable system is more capable of accounting for the multiple manifestations of these forms of colonial violence in the everyday. This is why we have to use time travel as a historical method. Colonial violence functions through a quantum logic, bewildering a Newtonian physics of force with its dazzling displays of excess on sites and bodies—a toxic combination of the distribution of life chances and the space of death. Yhajaira bears these black holes as marks in her negotiation of these forces; she and hers, relegated to los huecos negros of Venezuelan society, find ways to tunnel through, reach escape velocity, appear and disappear unpredictably. To fully account for this life is necessarily to travel unpredictably through this extended present, a history without end.

This brings me to the failure of modernity. I discuss this concept a great deal in my work on Venezuela—modernity as a project at which Latin Americans are constantly failing, which constantly reinscribes itself on our bodies and landscapes. The anxiety of failing to be modern, and the perverse delight that can often accompany this failure. If we think, anthropologically, of cannibalism as a system of consumption of human bodies, we cannot overlook the European-descended practices of consumption of human bodies during the 16th century that created the forms of policing and control that we are subject to now.[34] We cannot overlook the ritual forms of cannibalism inherent in Western traditions such as Communion, or the consumption of bodies through labor, enslavement, forced relocation (such as deportation), feminicide, policing, incarceration, the death penalty. This is the true cannibalism—the consumption of human bodies to create the terms of modernity on which we all live our lives.

Transgender women throughout the Americas are living with these techniques on a daily basis here and now—I believe that is what has produced the murderous present, one in which over 40 trans women of color were murdered in the U.S. during 2015 alone, and many more throughout the hemisphere. Trans women are not alone in this: the past two years have brought a heightened visibility to the police killings of Black people, leading to the development of the Black Lives Matter movement; DREAMers have infiltrated ICE detention centers to reveal the deplorable conditions in which we lock up undocumented immigrants; trans women of color in the U.S. and transgender Latin American women have begun to finally be heard in protest. In my moments of hope, I think, maybe we are at the beginning of the failure of modernity, where this cannibalistic system is no longer viable and we have to find another way to live. I strive for the failure of modernity.

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[1] Thanks to the wonderful audiences who have helped shaped this paper at University of Southern California, University of Colorado–Boulder, and University of Texas at Austin. The Tepoztlán Institute was a key forum for critiquing and expanding these ideas; thank you to Lisbeth Haas, Laura Gutierrez, Nicole Guidotti Hernández, Juan José Colomino-Almiñana, Julie Avril Minich, Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, Alexandra Rodríguez de Ruíz and the many other colleagues of Tepoz who sat with, interrogated and frolicked in Los Huecos Negros.

[2] See the interview I co-published with Alexandra Rodríguez de Ruíz (Rodríguez de Ruíz and Ochoa 2016) for a discussion of the emergence of El/La Para Translatinas and the term translatina. Further uses of this term will not be italicized.

[3] For an extensive critique of the concept of intersectionality, see Puar (2007). Puar expands her critique and develops her methodological proposition of queer assemblages in a 2011 online essay.

[4] A great deal of work has been done on gender and sexuality in the early contact period in the Americas—too numerous to detail here. Essential reading includes Lavrin (1989); Sigal (2003, 2011); Horswell (2005); Gutiérrez (1991); Garza-Carvajal (2003) and Tortorici (2007, 2012, 2016). This is of course a very incomplete list, but a good place to start.

[5] I use “queer” and “trans” here as a way to signify and connect a set of life worlds inhabited by gender variant and sexually diverse people in this social context with others across time and space. I discuss the need to honor local categories in Ochoa 2012 and Ochoa 2014, so these terms should not be taken as definitive or even significant to the people in these huecos negros.

[6] See the Queering the Middle special issue of GLQ for another example of queer regionalism (Manalansan IV et. al. 2014).

[7] For an excellent discussion of the use of “the distribution of life chances” in trans politics, see Spade 2011.

[8] In addition to the work of Evelyn Hammonds, see also Nash (2014a, 2014b), and Scott (2010). Barrett, et. al. (2014) provides an elegant articulation of the relationship between Blackness and modernity.

[9] For a delightfully speculative account of what would happen if one were to enter a black hole, see Tyson (2007).

[10] Thanks to Karen Barad for suggesting I look into this notion, which Stephen Hawking articulated in a 1975 paper.

[11] Freeman (2005, 2010).

[12] Note that the correct translation for “black hole” in Spanish is agujero negro. I use the vulgar hueco negro as it is the term through which I first embarked on this line of inquiry.

[13] The cacique is identified as Torrecha in another account.

[14] This image is available digitally through the University of Houston Libraries. See deBry 1594. Michael Horswell provides an excellent reading of this image in Decolonizing the Sodomite (2005), though he attributes its publication to Peter Martyr’s Decades, which was originally published in 1513, well before the deBry engravings. I have seen this image incorporated into a few other reprints, though my survey of representations of this incident is preliminary. Most notably it is reprinted and recaptioned in Spanish in a 1728 edition of Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas’s 1601 Historia General de las Indias Occidentales published in Belgium. This 18th century reproduction demonstrates that by the time of its publication, the condemnation of deBry’s work as working against Spanish authority and building the imaginary of the Black Legend had subsided enough for the image to be reproduced in a history authored by a Spanish royal historian.

[15] See Carla Freccero’s 2011 essay “Carnivorous Virility” for a chilling reminder of how colonial processes have shaped humans and companion species.

[16]To loosely translate puto as faggot is to miss the nuanced ways this term was used in the early modern period to denote sexuality that exceeded the bounds of proper colonial masculinity. For a detailed discussion, see Tortorici (2007, 2012) and Garza Carvajal (2003).

[17]Aperreó Balboa cincuenta putos que hallo ahí, y luego quemólos, informado primero de su abomiable y sucio pecado.” Translation mine.

[18] See Garza Carvajal (2003) for a detailed account of Iberian and Ibero-American methods for prosecuting pecado nefando and sodomites. Given the descriptions of dog maulings in other parts of the Decades, the use of dogs is more consistent with the terror of conquest than it is with imposing a gendered and sexual order through ecclesiastical power, although of course in the Quarequa case it has both effects. See also Trexler (1996) for an extended discussion of techniques of war and captive exchange in the Americas. At the time of the Quarequa incident, the tribunals of the Inquisition had not yet been established in the Americas, nor had protections against the persecution of indigenous people through the Santo Oficio at the end of the 16th century or even the work of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in 1516 as ecclesiastical “protector” of indigenous communities in the Americas (see Cunill 2012). See also Traslosheros (2010) for a discussion of this chronology.

[19] Bucher (1981) provides more context for deBry’s images.

[20] In his fictionalization of the scene, Galeano provides the sources he used to describe the event, drawing from the narratives of Gómara’s Historia General de las Indias (1553) and Oviedo’s Historia General y Natural de las Indias (1535). These two accounts are quite different, given Gómara’s position as the secretary of Hernán Cortéz and Oviedo’s itinerant participation in the emerging colonial bureaucracy.[20] Gómara’s account was constructed through reports and correspondence in Valladolid; he never traveled to New Spain. Oviedo, who traveled to the Darién the year after the incident in 1514, published his critique of infighting among the Spaniards well before Gómara. Oviedo doesn’t mention the massacre of 600 people, nor does he indicate the presence of pecado nefando, but he does take time to describe the dogs, especially Leoncico. It’s from Oviedo’s account that Galeano gets the source of his vivid description of the dogs’ physicality, and the salary and slaves it commanded for its service to the crown. From Gómara, Galeano gets the details of the incident, and the description of the people of Quarequa who Gómara described as putos. The earliest account of this incident from what I’ve found is in Peter Martyr’s 1516 manuscript, which was written from his position as advisor and chronicler to the Castillian court. It is from this account and subsequent translations from the original Latin that many Anglophone scholars engage with the Quarequa incident.

[21] Balboa’s impunity is not absolute; he is beheaded in 1519 for plotting against Pedrarias Davila, the governor at the time.

[22] Goldberg refines and expands his argument in his book, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (1993), in particular in chapter 6. He includes several other early contact texts in his fascinating analysis.

[23] I explore this relationship between masculinity and impunity in the Americas (or “Yndias” as it was called at the time) in Ochoa 2007.

[24] See Tortorici (2012) on pecado nefando as a category of the Inquisition.

[25] See On the Visceral, a 2-volume special issue of GLQ (20.4 and 21.1) I co-edited with Kyla Wazana Tompkins and Sharon Holland, for a deeper exploration of this concept.

[26] “Not only in the clothing, but in everything.. except in giving birth, was female” (1552:77, translation mine).

[27] In addition to Goldberg (1991), we see descriptions of this incident in M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing (2005), Feinberg (1996), Williams (1986), who cites Guerra (1971), Trexler (1996) and Horswell (2005).

[28] Thanks to Karen Barad and Juan José Colomina Almiñana for their engagements with my outrageous propositions.

[29] “Location at site and on body,” a hybrid phrase in Spanish and Latin. Translations mine.

[30] This is Yhajaira’s current name. At the time of the exhibit Yhajaira was using the last name Marcano Bravo as part of Argelia’s family.

[31] Translation: “Art-Evidence 3: Cartography of a history that never ends.”

[32] Art-Evidence 2: Humanity objectified.

[33] “Social art from the ditches: made with (beating) sticks, kicks and kung-fu” (translation mine).

[34] See Whitehead (2005) for an extended meditation on the anthropological approach to cannibalism.


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