Anahi Russo Garrido
Rutgers University Press, 2020
Reviewed by Robin Valenzuela
Drawing primarily on ethnographic research conducted in Mexico City from 2009-2010, Anahi Russo Garrido’s Tortilleras Negotiating Intimacy explores the emergent discourses, practices, and relationship modalities surrounding intimacy in Mexico City. In particular, she focuses on the queer Mexican cis and trans women, or tortilleras, who participate in el ambiente—the “circuit of sexual, symbolic, or material exchanges” that constitute a “queer environment or mileu” (21). Though tied to both visible and spontaneous spaces where queer relationalities and intimacies are forged, Russo Garrido’s ambiente is not reducible to place. Rather, el ambiente exists as a collective lived experience, always already shaped by broader sociocultural, economic, and historical contexts. By tracing these shifting contexts across three generations, Tortilleras considers how everyday negotiations of intimacy have “reinvent[ed] love, eroticism, friendship, and ultimately the social organization of Latin American societies” (3).
Russo Garrido organizes her book according to various facets of intimacy that characterize el ambiente: polyamory, friendship, eroticism, and cognitive counter-mapping. Rather than highlight processes of queer identity formation or self-making, she examines the subject relations that have underscored queer politics in Mexico City since the early 2000s. In so doing, Tortilleras contributes to a growing body of scholarship in feminist and queer theory that moves intimacy beyond the personal and connects it to larger social, political, and cultural contexts (4). More importantly, it investigates taken-for-granted sites of intimacy, such as friendship, that have been overlooked by earlier ethnographic texts.
The first chapter considers the new discourses on polyamory that circulated among lesbian circles in el ambiente in response to key policy initiatives in Mexico in the 2000s and 2010s. As legislators and activists worked to expand the types of intimate relationships legitimized by the Mexican state, new ideals of homonationalism emerged. Media and legislative spaces idealized the monogamous homosexual couple—a figure that signaled Mexico’s progressiveness while simultaneously reifying nuclear family formation as the most respectable expression of intimacy. And yet, among lesbian circles in Mexico City, a counter-discourse developed, one which not only challenged hegemonic conceptions of desire and intimacy mobilized through monogamous coupling but also articulated the diverse practices of amory that characterized queer life in el ambiente. For Russo Garrido, such discourses encapsulate a continuum of practices and subject positions that tether themselves to sex, love, friendship, and political activism in different ways. As discourses of nonmonogamy proliferate across Mexico City and North America writ large, they open up new possibilities for rethinking traditional family formation and female sexuality.
In her second chapter, Russo Garrido turns toward lesbian friendship (friendship between lesbian women), a relationship modality that produces profound (albeit platonic) intimacy outside of reproduction and the traditional family. Elaborating on Gayle Rubin’s “hierarchical valuation of sex acts,” Russo Garrido investigates the taxonomies of friendship her interlocutors imagine, negotiate, and differentially value. Here, she pays particular attention to the influence of gender norms in both the terminology her interlocutors employed to describe their friendships, and in the arrangement of those friendships within a “hierarchical valuation of intimate relationships” (61). For example, while a comadre traditionally refers to a close female friend and confidante, Russo Garrido’s participants rarely utilized this term to reference their lesbian friends. Instead, they preferred the masculinized term, compadre, which traditionally references friendship among men. Unlike its feminized counterpart, compadrazgo implies a lifelong loyalty that neither disrupts nor is disrupted by one’s familial obligations. In this sense, feminized relationship constructs rank lower on the “valuation of intimate relationships” at work in Mexico City, even among queer women. However, by forming intimate, trusting, and long-lasting relationships with other women, lesbians in el ambiente defy cultural stereotypes that diminish the value and potential of female relationships. Accordingly, lesbian friendship may be thought of as transgressive and revolutionary, capable of unsettling traditional gender norms.
The third chapter problematizes traditional conceptions of homoeroticism that reduce same-sex intimacy to acts of penetration. Here, Russo Garrido explores the diverse and expansive visions of eroticism expressed by her participants—visions that move beyond sexual acts to incorporate the mental, the physical, and the spiritual. Of particular interest here is how active/passive binaries circulate among lesbian women in el ambiente and inform their sexual practices. This exploration illuminates the distinctions lesbian women make between the sexual practices intended to fulfill one’s physiological needs and those bound up with more meaningful and profound forms of intimacy.
In her final chapter, Russo Garrido delineates the geographical, temporal, and social spaces that constitute queer life in el ambiente. To do so, she engages in cognitive counter-mapping, a “bottom-up” mapping method produced by those living on or outside of the margins (118). Such a method not only accounts for significant locations within el ambiente, but it also reveals the relationships, networks, and memories that drive it. Most importantly, cognitive counter-maps present an alternative understanding of queer life in Mexico City than those offered through the “commodified queerness” that has emerged in response to Mexico’s burgeoning queer tourism industry. As Russo Garrido explains, locations such as the Calle Amberes have gained international notoriety for their gay entertainment venues, bars, and restaurants—locales that are heavily classed and gendered, as only cisgender individuals with sufficient capital can enjoy them. And yet, as Russo Garrido argues, the growing presence of women and teenagers congregating, partying, and circulating within such spaces actively challenges traditional stereotypes that anchor women’s morality to the private sphere.
The book ends with Russo Garrido’s return to Mexico City two years after the conclusion of her fieldwork. She provides updates on her participants’ lives, including the health issues, broken relationships, and reproductive choices they have made. Here, she problematizes the “progress narratives” that frequently characterize queer life in Latin America. As one of her interlocutor’s aptly points out, “Changes of the past are not forever” (5).
Altogether, Tortilleras makes important contributions to queer theory, feminist anthropology, transgressive relationships, and transnationalism. Both accessible and theoretically rich, Tortilleras would be an appropriate read for both undergraduate and graduate-level courses in gender studies or anthropology.
Robin Valenzuela is a Visiting Professor in the International Language and Culture Studies Department at Purdue-Fort Wayne. Her research explores the experiences of Mexican parents undergoing transnational family separation and reunification cases between Mexico and the United States. She is interested in the connections between parenting, citizenship, migration, and child welfare.