Academic journal article MELUS

Disabling la Frontera: Disability, Border Subjectivity, and Masculinity in "Big Jesse, Little Jesse" by Oscar Casares

Academic journal article MELUS

Disabling la Frontera: Disability, Border Subjectivity, and Masculinity in "Big Jesse, Little Jesse" by Oscar Casares

Article excerpt

More than a century after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Chicano public intellectual Americo Paredes described the violent 1848 redrawing of the US-Mexico borderline in the following terms: "The river, which had been a focal point, became a dividing line. Men were expected to consider their relatives and closest neighbors, the people just across the river, as foreigners in a foreign land" (15). Paredes's description emphasizes how the imposition of a new border not only reassigned the national identities of people living on the border but also forced them to redelineate the boundaries of their own families. This transformation of the river into a dividing line, turning family into foreigners, has ongoing repercussions in the lives of people living on the border today, as Oscar Casares's debut short story collection Brownsville (2003) powerfully reveals. Brownsville deals with the connection between the geopolitical borders drawn around the nation-state and emotional borders drawn within families. It presents the US-Mexico border as a site of intense psychological violence, elucidating how social conflicts produced by a political boundary affect the most intimate of personal relationships. These issues coalesce around the representation of disability in "Big Jesse, Little Jesse," a pivotal narrative in the book. Disability is central to the story's critical representation of the border and to its depiction of how the existence of the border informs the construction of family life and racialized masculinity. Furthermore, the story suggests that attention to disability identity can provide a critical perspective from which to contest the exclusionary conceptualization of national belonging that the border produces and supports.

"Big Jesse, Little Jesse" tells the story of Jesse, a young Chicano father who has recently separated from his wife and struggles to maintain a relationship with his physically disabled son. Disability informs the division between Jesse and his family, suggesting that his ability to navigate the physical and emotional barriers that separate him from his former partner and his child depends on his willingness to understand the social meaning of disability. This understanding, as disability theorist Tobin Siebers observes, "requires both the ability to abstract general rules on the basis of one's experience and to recognize that one's experience differs from that of others" (104). In other words, Jesse needs to comprehend how his experiences of race and class oppression can help him interpret his son's experiences. He must also recognize how his able-bodied (and racialized) masculinity differs from his son's disabled (and racialized) masculinity. Arriving at this awareness benefits not only his son but also Jesse himself because, as Siebers notes, disability identities "serve as critical frameworks for identifying and questioning the complicated ideologies on which social injustice and oppression depend" (105). Jesse needs access to these critical frameworks not only to have a closer relationship with his son, but also to gain awareness of how exclusionary constructions of national identity in both the US and Mexico have limited his own chances in life. As a result, "Big Jesse, Little Jesse" illustrates a key insight from the work of Paula M. L. Moya, who argues that "people who have been oppressed in a particular way ... have experiences--experiences that people who are not oppressed in that same way usually lack--that can provide them with information we all need to understand how hierarchies of race, class, gender, and sexuality operate to uphold existing regimes of power in our society" (38). By paying closer attention to his son's experience, Jesse has the potential to gain knowledge that can help him navigate the ideologies of race, class, and gender that structure his own life on the US-Mexico border.

By engaging the representation of anti-normative bodies in order to critique the psychic violence life on the border entails for Jesse, Casares's writing resonates in surprising ways with that of Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldua, whose work is predicated on the rejection of nationalist claims and ideologies of body normativity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.