Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2002. xxix + 269 pp. 0-8166-3963-9; 0-8166-3964-7 (paper)
All mothers are queer, or seeming makes it so. A Queer Mother reminds us that queemess is always on display, that the spectator need never come face to face with the perceived object, and that massification of the visual image ensures that the encounter will still be staged. Constructing the "scavenger methodology" to read Gabriela Mistral's figure queerly, the author profitably draws from the swirl of anecdote that surrounds Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, a.k.a. Gabriela Mistral, "one of the chief architects of Latin American nationalism" (xiii). Such insights proposed and then related to twentieth century intellectual history constitute a primary contribution, along with this text's exploration of racial stereotypes.
The "queer" assertions of this text have been wildly misunderstood in the Chilean national press, where interviewees have predictably ignored the assertion that "there are no hard documents of Gabriela Mistral's heterosexuality." Fiol-Matta works credibly in the very difficult task of writing about unspoken, unprinted, omnipresent innuendo. She links sexuality with attention to race and thus to nation in assertions that are most convincing when most specific, following Freud's observation that love involves "greatly confusing the difference between one woman and another" and Benedict Anderson's that nationalism involves "irremediable specifics."
The approach is to interweave materials and topics. An early chapter draws from pieces of correspondence and a reference in an essay to assert that Mistral celebrates the indigenous at the expense of the African. A second chapter then proposes a Foucauldian geneaology for mestizaje (and mulataje) in Latin America, while indicating the ambiguous role of the schoolteacher and of Gabriela Mistral as a celebrity whose private life (if she had one) seems entirely hidden. A very good chapter on "intimate" and "narcissistic" nationalism examines racial marking within the queer family. A likewise good chapter on photographic poses shows a sexually indeterminate subject whose indeterminacy provides a source of power. Final chapters show the state machinery involved in the analysis of the subject's relation to Puerto Rico's 1948 student strike.
The text avoids a central pitfall of recovery projects. Rather than bemoan hypothetical letters destroyed by "pious hands," we should look to the rather substantial body of materials that we do have. Thus listing the several women who assisted Mistral throughout her public career, Fiol-Matta cogently asks, "were these women more than simply secretaries?" The answer appears in the materials assembled, for there's nothing simple in the business and machinery of image production. "Gabriela Mistral" was (and is) an immutable mobile (to borrow a phrase from Latour). She involved others in a regime of constant, grueling travel, endless relocations, multiple meetings, and processing vast quantities of written materials that she ceaselessly revised. This frenzied activity required assistance at every turn, for instance to edit volumes of poetry and to handle the hundreds of essays that paid the subject's wages and those of her consular staff. One reason for why so little correspondence exists between Gabriela Mistral and her four women companions is that Mistral was busy writing to those who weren't present: we don't ordinarily write long letters to the people with whom we live. …