Kristie Soares on Joy in Latinx Media

Sep 7, 2023

In episode 154 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews performance artist and gender studies scholar Kristie Soares about the political power of pleasure, laughter, and joy in Latinx media.

Kristie’s new book Playful Protest: The Political Work of Joy in Latin Media has chapters about gozando in salsa music, precise joy among the New Young Lords Party, choteo in the comedy ¿Qué Pasa U.S.A.?, azúcar in the life and death of Celia Cruz, dale as Pitbull’s signature affect, and silliness in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s interventions into political violence.

In the episode, Kristie shares her journey into studying what joy can do for social and political movements as well as the pleasure-filled genealogies of feminist, queer, and trans of color artists and cultural producers that shaped her approach to political joy.

She also gives us a behind-the-scenes look into some almost-book moments, or what didn’t end up in this book but that opened onto a new project about queer excess.

Cathy and Kristie close out the conversation with Kristie’s project of building a world where QTPOC joy is not policed and pleasure is embraced as an integral part of social, economic, and political life.

Cite this episode: Hannabach, Cathy (host). “Kristie Soares on Joy in Latinx Media.” Imagine Otherwise. September 7, 2023. Produced by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire. Podcast. 16:12.

In this episode

  • The political power of joy and pleasure for social movements
  • Latinx joy in salsa, social media, sit coms, and hip hop
  • The queer excess of disco
  • Building a world around QTPOC joy and pleasure

About Kristie Soares

Kristie Soares is an assistant professor of women and gender studies and a performance artist. Both her performance work and her research explore queerness in Caribbean and Latinx communities.

Kristie is the author of Playful Protest: The Political Work of Joy in Latinx Media (University of Illinois Press, 2023), whichinvestigates how Latinx creators compose versions of joy central to social and political struggle and at odds with colonialist and imperialist narratives. Chapters delve into gozando in salsa music, precise joy among the New Young Lords Party, choteo in the comedy ¿Qué Pasa U.S.A.?azúcar in the life and death of Celia Cruz, dale as Pitbull’s signature affect, and silliness in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s interventions into political violence.

She is also currently working on an oral history project that explores the role of Latinx disc jockeys in the development of disco and dance music in 1970s New York.

Kristie’s work has been published in Signs, Feminist Studies, Meridians, Frontiers, Letras Femeninas, Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, Remezcla, LatinxSpaces, Latino Rebels, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Teaching and learning resources

Transcript

[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about bridging art, activism, and academia to build more just futures.

[00:00:12] I’m Cathy Hannabach, and today I’m talking with performance artist and gender studies scholar Kristie Soares about the political power of pleasure, laughter, and joy.

[00:00:23] Kristie’s new book Playful Protest: The Political Work of Joy in Latinx Media has chapters about gozando in salsa music, precise joy among the New Young Lords Party, choteo in the comedy ¿Qué Pasa U.S.A.?, azúcar in the life and death of Celia Cruz, dale as Pitbull’s signature affect, and silliness in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s interventions into political violence.

[00:00:50] In our conversation, Kristie shares her journey into studying what joy can do for social and political movements, as well as the pleasure-filled genealogies of feminist, queer, and trans of color artists and cultural producers that shaped her approach to political joy.

[00:01:06] She also gives us a behind-the-scenes look into some almost-book moments, or what didn’t end up in this book but that opened on to a new project about queer excess and disco.

[00:01:17] We close out our conversation with Kristie’s project of building a world where QTPOC joy is not policed, and pleasure is embraced as an integral part of social, economic, and political life.

[00:01:30] Thank you so much for being with us today, Kristie.

[00:01:33] Kristie Soares: Thanks for having me.

[00:01:35] Cathy Hannabach: So, in your new book you argue that joy is a particularly politicized form of pleasure that can intervene in all kinds of norms of gender, sexuality, race, and class, as well as the coloniality of affect.

[00:01:49] What makes joy such a powerful tool for resistance and social change in the Latinx media that you analyze?

[00:01:56] Kristie Soares: So, the thing about joy is that no one sees it coming. We can see from the historical record, and my book does this work in the introduction, that joy has been largely depoliticized and overlooked by power structures.

[00:02:13] So, we can think about the way that colonial power structures have used joy as an excuse for colonization. An example, this is what Saidiya Hartman theorizes as contented subjection in the context of US chattel slavery, the idea that the happy, quote unquote, happy slave must be okay being enslaved, right? His happiness is evidence of the fact that he agrees with the project of slavery.

[00:02:43] So there are ways that joy has been misread, dismissed, depoliticized historically and even in the present day as an activist and political tool.

[00:02:52] So I think what makes joy so powerful is that folks really don’t see it coming as a political tool, even though we also know that it’s always been part of the political.

[00:03:04] Cathy Hannabach: Your archive for this book includes a huge range of media genres from television sitcoms, photography, and salsa music to activist events, hip-hop, and social media.

[00:03:17] What are some of your favorite examples of how Latinx media makers use these genres to articulate the political power of joy and pleasure?

[00:03:26] Kristie Soares: I like to look at the book as book-ended by the two examples that start and end it. The book moves chronologically from the 1960s to more or less the present and it starts with the example of the salsa artist Ray Barretto, a Puerto Rican salsa artist in New York.

[00:03:43] Ray Barretto became politicized in the 1960s. He was in the US Army and upon coming back from being deployed, he becomes involved in Puerto Rican nationalist movements in New York. And he’s doing things like supporting, for example, the New York-based Young Lords Party in the late 1960s, early 1970s, releasing music for them, hosting fundraisers for them where he plays music, all of this.

[00:04:09] And the thing about Ray Barretto is that when we talk about political salsa music, very few people think of him first. More often people will think of someone like Eddie Palmieri or Rubén Blades. Both of them are excellent, very overtly political salsa artists.

[00:04:24] But I think one of the reasons that Ray Barreto hasn’t been thought of as much in this vein is the fact that he comes across as really joyful.

[00:04:32] In the first chapter of the book, I look at, for example, some of his album covers, where he’s often, he seems sort of goofy. He’s laughing, he’s smiling, he’s doing the opposite of this kind of cool, heterosexual, ultra-masculine, salsa masculinity of the late 1960s and 1970s that we are more familiar with.

[00:04:53] And so, the interesting thing about Ray Barretto is that he’s doing explicitly political work, and he’s doing it all through this lens of joy. And if we go back, and the book does, and look back at not just his lyrics but also his drumming, because he’s a drummer, and his public media output, we see actually that he’s doing both of these things at the same time.

[00:05:14] And if we kind of fast forward to the contemporary moment, the book ends by looking at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And of course, we know that she is doing very explicitly political work.

[00:05:27] She’s of course working in Congress. But the interesting thing about her is that while her work is so explicitly political and so explicitly radical, in her case, she is also doing it through a lens of joy.

[00:05:39] And the book ends by looking at her Instagram, and I coded her Instagram between 2018 and 2019 in particular, and what we see is this overt use of joy to talk about political things.

[00:05:51] So I think the example that probably most people think of is when there was this video that was released or leaked, I guess, of her dancing when she was in college on a rooftop and the far Right made a huge deal about this and sort of argued that this was an indication of the fact that she’s unfit for office.

[00:06:11] Of course that’s a ridiculous statement, but part of what they were arguing is that someone inhabiting joy in that way makes them unfit for office. And it would have been, I think, not unreasonable for her to take the opposite affect or emotional context when answering that, being very serious.

[00:06:29] But instead, what we see is her releasing more dancing videos. Right on her Instagram, she has a photo or a video of her dancing on Capitol Hill.

[00:06:39] And this is very interesting because she’s always pairing this with really explicit activism in terms of what legislation she supports, what are the kinds of radical change she supports. So again, for her, we’re seeing these things coexisting, and I think this is kind of like a sort of a shorthand for how the past 60 or so years in Latinx cultural production have consistently been appealing to joy as a form of political activism. We just haven’t necessarily looked at it always through that lens.

[00:07:14] Cathy Hannabach: You open up this book with a childhood story, and I think it works so well to frame the interventions that you’re making across the text.

[00:07:23] And for folks who haven’t read the book yet, it’s a story about you dancing with your family to Bebo Valdés and kind of experiencing that really crucial moment of diasporic joy. And that lifelong interest in this topic certainly comes through in all of the chapters of this book.

[00:07:42] I’m curious about what was your journey into studying the politics of joy and pleasure? I mean, obviously you root it in this particular story, but I’m sure there’s some stuff in between there too. What got you into this topic?

[00:07:56] Kristie Soares: Yeah. You know, when I went to graduate school, I went to graduate school right as the 2007 financial crisis was starting. In that story that opens the book, it’s the story of my family and I and the people we love dancing in the living room because my parents have just succeeded in saving our house from foreclosure in Miami where I grew up.

[00:08:19] So it’s a story of trauma, of people just truly having gone through something terrible and having survived it and marking that survival with a joyful dancing.

[00:08:33] And this was happening for me at the same time that I was in graduate school. In graduate school, I studied critical theory, I studied continental philosophy, real sort of highbrow intellectual thought, quote unquote highbrow intellectual thought, written, of course, primarily by white male authors.

[00:08:50] And I was sort of trying to figure out what these two things had in common, us dancing in our living room, trying to save our lives, and what seemed at the time like theory that just didn’t have anything to do with my everyday life.

[00:09:05] And I did find some links. In the book I write about Roland Barthes who writes about the punctum. The punctum is this moment that’s sort of outside of time, if you will. And to me, that moment in our living room dancing was a punctum, actually. It was a break in linearity.

[00:09:21] Georges Bataille writes about ecstasy as this state that can transcend the everyday. ANd again, this is the story of ecstasy.

[00:09:29] So, I was trying to find where this linked, and I think in this book what I’ve tried to do is sort of link those worlds through folks like women of color feminists like Audre Lorde, for example, who writes on the erotic, which is of course linked to this kind of, sort of flow that one can get into when entering a joyful state.

[00:09:49] So, that’s sort of how I got here, and I think that actually there are many ways that critical theory and philosophy have theorized this experience. When we bring it together with women of color feminists who are bringing in this critique of racial capital, of patriarchy, of homophobia, when we bring these things together, we can see the way that joy is doing really important, critical work.

[00:10:18] So that’s where I eventually got to.

[00:10:21] Cathy Hannabach: I’m always interested in what doesn’t make it into the books we write, or those kind of almost-book moments, if you will, that for one reason or another get left for another project or another time.

[00:10:33] What are some of your favorite stories or maybe media examples that you came across in your research that, for whatever reason, just didn’t make it into the final version, if you’d be willing to share some of the behind-the-scenes stuff?

[00:10:46] Kristie Soares: Sure. Well, I think the number one thing is that a lot of the book, maybe a third of the book, maybe even half, is about the 1970s. And when I was studying the 1970s, I was studying disco, I was studying the Young Lords Party, or rather, I was studying salsa, I was studying the Young Lords Party, and the thing that I didn’t write about was disco, and that’s actually what my next book project is about.

[00:11:07] I wanted to understand joy in the context of disco, and when I say disco, not just disco music but also disco as a sort of an aesthetic and as a lifestyle. At the time and now, disco is oftentimes remembered as hedonistic, self-absorbed, materialistic, and excessively capitalist. And I was really interested in seeing what joy did in that scenario, because in some ways, as a Latinx studies scholar and a queer theorist, it’s much more comfortable for me to study joy in contexts that are explicitly political.

[00:11:44] There’s no doubt that what the Young Lords Party was doing was political. Toward the end of the book, I take up the example of Pitbull, the rapper and pop star, Cuban American rapper and pop star from Miami, and he’s complicated. He’s, you know, he’s a millionaire, he doesn’t always have what I would think of as the most radical politics, he has really complicated sort of dealings with sexism and gender. And so, I was trying to figure out how Pitbull’s doing something political with joy, I argue, but he’s also sort of not within this framework of the radical Left that I prefer to stay within.

[00:12:28] So that kind of led me, if we look at Pitbull and if we think what came before someone like Pitbull, I think that is disco and it is the disco era. So, in my next book, I hope to look at the disco era and see how the disco era shaped Latinx gender and sexuality, and also how Latinx gender and sexuality in some ways was, I think, the model for disco, for the way that we think about disco.

[00:12:52] So I’m really looking forward to sort of figuring out the kinds of what I would think of as queer excess that are centered within a music culture that is largely remembered as uncritical of capitalism.

[00:13:08] Cathy Hannabach: So, this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask folks, which really gets at the heart of why you do the kind of work that you do. So, in the spirit of imagining otherwise, the spirit of the theme of this podcast, what is that world that you’re working toward?

[00:13:23] When you look for these moments of queer excess in disco, when you go through the archive and you go through these women of color feminist theorists, and try to think about the politics of joy, what kind of world are you trying to bring into being?

[00:13:39] Kristie Soares: I think the world that I’m working toward and that I think my colleagues and my students are also working toward is a world where joy is not policed. And I mean that in every sense of the word.

[00:13:52] I mean that joy is not literally policed, as in that someone can go, to use a very well-known example, that someone can go birdwatching, a man of color can go birdwatching, and not be policed for being in joy.

[00:14:09] And also that joy is not policed on a sort of a social level. There’s this way that particularly marginalized folks, particularly queer and trans people of color, are consistently policed for experiencing joy as though it is not our birthright.

[00:14:28] And I think that if we can find a world in which joy is not policed, we will have done so much work to get us there.

[00:14:38] This is a world where access to pleasure is not denied. And to allow someone to experience pleasure, we also have to, of course, make sure that they have the basic conditions for living a sustainable life, that they’re not experiencing systemic poverty, that they’re not experiencing systemic racism, etc., etc.

[00:15:02] So I think if we can find a world where expressions of joy truly aren’t policed, that’ll mean that we did it right.

[00:15:09] Cathy Hannabach: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing all of these amazing ways that you imagine otherwise.

[00:15:15] Kristie Soares: Thank you so much, Cathy. I appreciate you having me on.

[00:15:23] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for joining me for this episode of Imagine Otherwise. A big thanks to Kristie as well for sharing her work.

[00:15:29] You can learn more about Kristie’s book, Playful Protest, and her other projects in the show notes on our website at ideasonfire.net.

[00:15:37] The show notes include a transcript and teaching guide for this episode, as well as related books, episodes, and resources.

[00:15:44] This episode of Imagine Otherwise was produced and edited by me, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:15:49] Want to support the show? We would love it if you would share this episode with a friend or consider teaching it in your classroom. You can also subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts.

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