Making Alternative Worlds: Journeys into Third Space

In many of the anarchist and feminist spaces of which I have been a part, narratives of the rise of women of colour feminisms were uncritically adopted from mainstream feminist history. Because of this, the work of feminists of colour was often articulated as “anti-racist feminism.” As I studied feminism in more depth, I began to think about what it would look like to take seriously the admonition, made by feminists like Norma Alarcón, Chela Sandoval, and Ella Shohat, that women of colour feminisms offer much more than either a description of the lives of women of colour or their responses to the racism of a largely white women’s movement and the sexism of race-based movements.1 I became interested in the question of how white anti-racist feminists could engage women of colour feminisms in ways that didn’t appropriate the content by disengaging it from the experiences of women of colour while simultaneously resisting tokenization.

This review of Adela C. Licona’s Zines in Third Space: Radical Cooperation and Borderlands Rhetoric is my attempt at realizing this endeavour. By discussing the text in tandem with Emma Pérez’s Forgetting the Alamo, or, Blood Memory – one text is an in-depth look at zines by feminists and queers of colour, and the other is a novel about a Tejana2 lesbian woman in the late 19th century – I aim to reflect not only on the ways in which these texts demonstrate that contemporary work by Chicana feminists extends beyond the category of “anti-racist feminisms” but also on how this extension can provide those on the radical left with tools and strategies for understanding the reproduction of structures of domination within our own spaces.

Zines in Third Space explores the ways in which feminist, queer, and zines written in the late 20th century actualize the “borderlands rhetorics” imagined by Gloria Alzaldúa as a useful methodology for understanding the necessary navigation, adoption, and articulation of multiple worlds and, often, conflicting histories. Drawing on Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, Licona describes borderlands rhetorics as practices that emerge from “third space sites”: those that exist beyond traditional binaries such as black/white, homosexual/heterosexual, and male/female (11). As she describes it, borderlands implies “a still-spatialized though not necessarily geographic context where two or more things come together and, in doing so, create a third space of sorts” (4). Because “borders have historically been spaces of colonization where powerful forces have imposed, represented, and misinterpreted historical truths,” Licona argues that borderlands rhetorics “have the potential to reconstruct stories, identities, places, histories, and experiences in such a way as to not only expose misrepresentations but also to uncover or produce… new knowledges” (5-6).

Licona relates Anzaldúa’s work on the reification of the US/Mexico border and the impact on people whose land and culture were suddenly divided to the treatment of women and queer people of colour within broader understandings of zine subculture, particularly those forwarded in Stephen Duncombe’s work on the possibilities and limitations of zines in the age of corporate-owned media. In Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, Duncombe argues, “in an era marked by the rapid centralization of corporate media, zines are independent and localized, coming out of cities, suburbs and small towns across the US, assembled on kitchen tables.”3 Licona’s engagement with zines parallels Duncombe’s in that both subscribe to the idea that zines offer “a novel form of communication and creation that burst with an angry idealism; a medium that spoke for a marginal, yet vibrant culture, that along with others, might invest the tired script of progressive politics with meaning and excitement for a new generation.”4

Licona’s challenge to Duncombe’s analysis pivots on the question of who exactly produces zines. Drawing upon the rich history of zines written by feminists and queer people of colour, Licona calls into question Duncombe’s characterization of zinesters as “young and the children of professionals, culturally if not financially middle-class. White and raised in a relatively privileged position within the dominant culture”.5 Licona’s analysis of the work of veteran zinesters like Mimi Nguyen and Celia Pérez demonstrates that there is “greater evidence of a more diverse authorship” for zines if we approach them, as she does, by “conceptualizing zines on a spectrum or spectrums of practices” (20).

This isn’t merely an issue of altering our understanding of zine authorship. Rather, by focusing on third space zines, Licona is also arguing for an understanding of the uses of personal narrative in developing radical social and political change that differs from Duncombe’s understanding. For instance, Duncombe argues that, for all the political radicalism present in the zines he explores, “zines and underground culture didn’t seem to be any sort of threat to [the] above-ground world.”6 Licona views this observation as stemming from what she describes as Duncombe’s focus “on the inevitable inertia of middle-class angst” in zines that proliferate largely in punk subcultures focusing on punk music and style. While she agrees that the zines discussed by Duncombe “are relatively less interested in forging action-oriented alliances across differences and are instead self-reflective spaces of radical individuality,” she demonstrates that by amending the canon of zines to include those written by people who “speak from a non-dominant location and/or… have roots in working-class and of-color communities” what emerges is a third-space of resistance “where coalitional consciousness is explicit, activism is engaged and promoted, and community building, knowledge generating, grassroots literacies, and informating sharing are the articulated foci” (21-22).

Licona’s study highlights the importance of experiential knowledge and relationship building for radical subcultures: “Relationships influence how we understand ourselves and others as well as how we see the world and, so, how we read, write, and relate in the world” (66). Against Duncombe’s claims, Licona seeks to demonstrate that personal narrative is more than an inward-looking relationship to subculture; the zinesters she profiles are “corporeal and relational beings who value embodied knowledges not based on objective ways of knowing but rather based on lived experiences” (96).
The focus on genealogies of some of these coalitions moves Licona’s book beyond an argument only for the inclusion of a group of absented zinesters. In doing so, she demonstrates how such an inclusion can change our understanding of the purpose and possibilities of zines and zine culture altogether. For instance, the author goes beyond a strict content analysis of zines like i’m so fucking beautiful, Housewife Turned Assassin! Numero #1, Slander, HOW TO STAGE A COUP, Evolution, and Borderlands: Tales from Disputed Territories Between Races and Cultures in order to explore the networks that developed as a result of their production. She traces the letters and communications embedded within the zines themselves in order to highlight the complex array of connections that were developed between women and queer people of colour across the punk community. Many people used these zines as ways to locate and develop relationships with each other, to confront feelings of isolation within an oftentimes homogenous subculture. In this, Licona demonstrates the important role that zines played in connecting both emotional and political aspects of radical work within punk subcultures.

Licona’s focus on zines as important sites for the expression of experiential knowledge is one of the important intersections between her book and Emma Pérez’s 2009 novel, Forgetting the Alamo, or, Blood Memory. Licona uses Pérez’s monograph, The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas Into History as one of the bases for her argument that third-space subjects can “dismantle limiting binaries and rhetorical structures that have produced norms and sustained the dominance of dichotomous and subordinating representations of knowledge and subjectivity” (16). In The Decolonial Imaginary, Pérez argues for a “third space feminism” that confronts colonial methods of historicizing by examining “the gaps, the interstitial moments of history” which “reappear to be seen or heard as … third space.”6

This project differs from unearthing histories that have been concealed because it decolonizes the very process of creating an historical record. The last words of Pérez’s The Decolonial Imaginary set the stage for Forgetting the Alamo by noting that “it is in the manoeuvring through time to retool and remake subjectivities neglected and ignored that third space feminism claims new histories, Chicana feminist histories that may one day – finally – ‘forget the Alamo.’”7

Forgetting the Alamo is the story of Micaela Campos, a “Chicana lesbian cowgirl” who navigates the various racial, gendered, familial, and political spaces of the Gulf in the aftermath of the Battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto. Her experiences traveling, surviving, fighting, grieving, and loving are the means through which Pérez reimagines a history of the Gulf Coast, decentring the fall of the Alamo as the definitive historical moment and, instead, positing a history of Chicana experience that highlights Micaela’s navigation of shifting gendered, racial, and geographical boundaries. As Micaela attempts to save her family’s land and livelihood after the deaths of her father and uncle at the Battle of San Jacinto, she is also forced not only to explore her own shifting sexual, gender, and racial identities but also to recognize how these are connected to the shifting borders of her homeland.

In an interview, Pérez notes that Forgetting the Alamo came out of the same research she had done for The Decolonial Imaginary in “searching for Mexicana/Tejana/lesbian histories.”8 Because the archives did not provide the “love letters between Tejanas in the early 19th century” that she was seeking, Pérez “grew frustrated and decided [to] write a novel that [reflected] the lives of Tejanas who are for the most part omitted or erased from ‘Texas’ history.”9 Pérez challenges the notion that history is what exists in archives and invokes storytelling as the method through which lost histories can be re-imagined: Forgetting the Alamo is a history of the Gulf Coast told in the context of how the constant shifting of state borders effects the lives of Tejana people living in contested territory, rather than in the context of the acquisition of territory and the building of a contemporary nation.

Through Micaela’s story, Pérez not only tells an alternative history but points to “history” as a product of imagination. According to her, this imagination “still determines many of our efforts to write history in the United States.”10 For instance, it is quite a different thing to tell the history of the Gulf Coast as one of territorial expansion that was predicated on white settlement of Indigenous lands than to tell it as “a love-story between two women of color in mid-nineteenth-century Texas.”11 While both operate from a perspective that confronts the colonial narrative of manifest destiny, the first still centres the Battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto as climactic components of a history of the area. In writing Forgetting the Alamo, Pérez attempts to write a history that avoids the influence of the colonial imaginary in order to realize a decolonizing project.

This project is similar to that of many of Licona’s zinesters, many of who view “expert and authorized knowledges … as unaffordable and otherwise inaccessible” (38). Thus, both texts highlight the fact that for many, radical resistance is grounded in experiential knowledge, and such knowledge is both expressed and maintained through storytelling. Licona’s observation that “Zines offer spaces for exploration as to how third-space subjects are writing and self-representing and reinterpreting his/stories” (20) is amplified by Micaela’s distillation of her own tumultuous experience: “That another war is coming doesn’t dishearten me as much as before because so long as men like Walker and the Colonel occupy our land, there will be more wars. Maybe the only justice we’ll ever know is surviving to tell our own side of things. Maybe that’s enough for now. Telling our own stories so we won’t be forgotten.”12

Taken together, these texts exemplify the political work being done by contemporary Chicana scholars who are committed to visions of decolonization and social justice. In both texts, storytelling is at the core of these radical commitments. In Zines in the Third Space, Licona highlights the significance that zinesters placed on being able to tell their own stories, defying their own representation by popular media and mainstream discourses of American life.13 By her account, zinesters tell their own stories as a way of subverting the notion that only trained academics have the skills to explain social/political structures and also the idea that women and queer people of colour need radical theories and spaces populated mostly by white men to tell them how to get free. She suggests that feminist, queer, and of-colour zines offer multiple examples of the ways in which concepts like “borderlands theory” and “third space feminism” have been rendered as social praxis and, in doing so, demonstrates the radical potential of storytelling to develop strategies of movement.

It is precisely these strategies of movement – Licona’s “borderlands rhetorics” and Pérez’s “decolonial imaginary” – that are overlooked by an articulation of women of colour feminisms solely as “anti-racist feminisms.” The borderlands rhetorics employed by zinesters “work to consciously reimagine and reconfigure community and community agendas that are attentive to difference, consciously resisting the conflation of differences for political expediency while also recognizing how difference itself is not a static category” (132). This same process is at work in Pérez’s novel as we watch Micaela struggle with this reimagination and reconfiguration of her own community while invading settlers attempt to establish their authority.

Recognizing these practices as important contributions of Chicana feminists has helped me to understand the numerous ways in which the varied and multitudinous field of women of colour feminisms can contribute to contemporary radical Left movements beyond confronting racism within feminist movements. In this way, the feminisms imagined by Licona and Pérez can provide us with a third space beyond “racism” and “anti-racism.” That is, both offer models for dealing with difference and contradiction productively, viewing both as a necessity of, rather than an obstacle to, successful collective work.

In the broadest sense, it seems that this work can help us to better confront the ways in which structures of domination (such as settler colonialism, racism, and sexism) become embedded in radical communities. Rather than viewing this as a result of individual deviance from expected political and social commitments, we can use the tools provided by Licona and Pérez in order to explore how certain organizing tactics, rhetoric, and practices are indebted to processes of domination. In doing so, we may also begin to build structures of resistance that subvert these processes by disavowing the stories and logics upon which they depend.

1. See Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed, Ella Shohat’s introduction to Talking Visions, and Norma Alarcón’s, “The Theoretical Subject(s) of This Bridge Called My Back and Anglo-American Feminism” in Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture and Ideology.
2. The term “Tejana” has historically been used to refer to a wide variety of people who inhabit what is now the US state of Texas. In this usage, I am referring to a person who is an original inhabitant of this land.
3. Steven Duncombe, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture (Bloomington, IN: Microcosm Publishing, 2008), 3.
4. Duncombe, Notes from the Underground, 8.
5. Emma Pérez, The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas Into History. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), xvii.
6. Pérez, The Decolonial Imaginary, 27.
7. Paige Schilt. “Interview with Emma Peréz,” The Bilerico Project (April 10, 2010), 1.
8. Schilt, “Interview,” 1.
9. Pérez, The Decolonial Imaginary, 5.
10. Emma Pérez, Forgetting the Alamo, or, Blood Memory. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009), backmatter.
11. Pérez, Forgetting the Alamo, 206.
12. “Personal narrative is a valuable tool for this zinester as she makes sense of the racist spaces of her upbringing and the racism practiced there” (85).

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