A Vessel Among Vessels: For Laura Aguilar

Memories of a dyke bar in East LA conjure and are conjured by the work of Laura Aguilar

Laura Aguilar, “Grounded #108,” 2006
An audio version of this essay is available to subscribers, provided by curio.io.

Laura Aguilar, the photographer and chronicler of brown life who centered lesbians and her own corpulent body, passed away in April in Southern California. Her death from complications from diabetes was untimely, beset with tragedy. Diabetes, while possible though not easy to reverse, reminds us of a U.S. healthcare system that brings into relief the depths of precarity Chicana artists, intellectuals and cultural producers endure and succumb to. Aguilar died from the same conditions that took Gloria Anzaldúa, the philosopher poet from the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas whose feminist theories of the borderlands envisaged a new “mestiza consciousness” that emerges in response to the psychic wounds of colonial encounters and occupation. Anzaldúa’s philosophies of Chicana consciousness centers on simultaneous awareness of and resistance to oppression, what literary theorist María Lugones describes “as the possibility of resistance revealed in the perceiving of the self in the process of being oppressed as another face of the self in the process of resisting oppression.” That conceptual ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail, can be seen metabolized in Aguilar’s Nature series, where the photographer centers her own body in the desert. Her images are a quiet insurrection against policing engines that power the landscape, along with histories of violence against the indigenous and Mexican people and otherwise marginalized bodies.

In “Nature Self-Portrait #14″ (1996), Aguilar’s body lays in side view within a bantam-sized landscape with her hand on the reflective surface of a natural spring of water, enacting both Echo and Narcissus in her gaze. Aguilar as both subject and observer, sets ablaze the Anzaldúan concept of “Nepantla:” a “space in-between, the locus and sign of transition” that exists in the creative act as the “place/space where realities interact and imaginative shifts happen.”

In 1992 Aguilar, herself a Chicana lesbian, experienced an imaginative shift in her practice. She was so taken with the Plush Pony, a bar in East L.A. that catered predominantly to working-class Chicana lesbians, that she set up her camera and offered to take portraits of the locals as a way to socially lubricate what was an otherwise difficult scene for Aguilar, a shy self-identified introvert, to navigate. A very butch/femme joint, Plush Pony was a space where Aguilar found some sense of kin with its barflies—enough to immortalize them in her now infamous Plush Pony series. Perhaps rougher than the usual ilk that frequented bars like the Palms or the Normandie Room in the West Hollywood of the 80s and 90s, the Plush Pony differed from the normative spectatorship that Aguilar had grown weary of appealing to. The lawyers, activists, artists, and academics she had previously photographed in her Latina Lesbians series were an echelon ready for its respectability close-up. In the portrait series encapsulating the years 1985 to 1991, we meet the subjects by name and accompanied by a lyrical caption summarizing their aspirations come to fruition. Carla, for example, in a sexy black motorcycle jacket, her voluminously coiffed bangs brushing the corner of her forehead like a Chicano Fonz, looks into the camera emphasizing her tenacity, corroborated by the text: my mother encouraged me to be a court reporter…I became a lawyer. (Carla, 1986 ).

The Plush Pony dykes, however, always remained anonymous. Nameless, also, were the ways they overcame being underestimated. The intimacy in the portraits of butch lesbians in white A-shirts and baseball caps offers some entry into what their nightlives might have been like—that the Plush, as it was known to El Sereno locals, was where that gender non-conformity could be acknowledged and desired—but there’s not a sense of articulated interiority nor a conversation between narrator and subject made as legible as the one in Latina Lesbians.

When I came to The Plush Pony, the bar signaled what it meant to be a brown gender non-conforming queer from East Los Angeles—it was a time and space when one could traffic in the promiscuity between the aspirational lesbian and the rough queer. My queer adolescence took place at the convergence between the higher educational options that gave the subjects in Latina Lesbians language and empowerment and the roughness of barrio nightlife captured in the deep creases in the faces of the subjects in Plush Pony.

In 2001 I joined a softball team called Las Traviesas which translates to “The Naughties.” Bueno, bonito, y barato was our mantra. We were assembled by a mulleted East Los butch named Norma who had recently broken up with the co-coach for the Redz, the last  of the old-school lesbian haunts in Boyle Heights, and thus lost her coaching position.

I don’t know who met Norma first but our team was composed mostly of the Chicana lesbians I knew from the Thursday night weekly lesbian support group at one of the HIV prevention health service organizations near Beverly and Atlantic where East Los turned into Montebello, where scrap met aspiration. We, too, were already losers. We lost our posts as daughters in our families, lost jobs threatened by our legible queerness, and the barrio’s respect for the choices we made regarding desire. We were las tiradas, the castaways, before we were Las Traviesas.

We talked sex, art, and policy, and ate vegetarian gorditas after lighting candles at the Virgin of Guadalupe altar in the parking lot at El Mercadito on Sundays, like good Chicana lesbians. For me, it was at best an experiment in elusive authenticity and connecting with the likes of Norma and the posse she brought over with her from Redz, especially as I sought to imagine different models of female masculinity. Much like the contextual specificities of each butch lesbian centered in the Plush Pony portraits, these representations were difficult to arrive at. My nascent Chicana lesbian spectatorship sought out visual registers to help name a difficult subjectivity within, one that wasn’t ubiquitous in the early 2000s when Google could bring queer worlds closer with just a few search terms. Back then we had heard of Laura Aguilar because we were activists, but had never seen her work in the flesh. We had missed the few showings at the LGBT Center in West Hollywood or other presentations made possible by VIVA, a Latinx gay and lesbian advocacy group bringing awareness to the HIV/AIDS pandemic affecting Latinxs in Los Angeles County. VIVA was one of the few platforms for lesbian and gay Latinx artists to perform and show art where celebration and grief could co-exist. We never saw Aguilar’s work on the wall but we had seen snapshots of her work in someone’s photo album or on a flyer.

Even the most anonymous of Aguilar’s subjects were more than phantom sightings at the dyke bar at the end of a block in a predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood. They could have been Norma’s friends in their early 40s and equally enmeshed in the East Los lesbian bar scene. Vero, the catcher for Las Traviesas, was short, stocky and had a carrot-colored bleach mop of hair styled after Norma’s own mullet. She was so even-keeled and always managed to calm Norma’s bluster whenever the Redz team came up while they planned strategy. Man, Norma really had it out for the Redz.

The whole league seemed to have it out for Las Traviesas, a team untethered to a lesbian bar. A team composed of too many different kinds of Chicanas with different gradations of lesbian. A team with some of us in transit towards what we imagined to be queerer ports, queerer than what East Los Angeles was at that time capable of making available to us.

Our debut at Hazard Park was highly anticipated and the Redz was the first team we played. The innings flew past us. We were no batting match for the Redz’ powerful pitcher, a copper-skinned badass with a ferocious windmill. Dalila—a talented shortstop whose comet-like throws never made contact with the butch on first base who couldn’t catch for shit—was our only hope. The errors were stomach-turning for Norma. But they were fodder for the other teams. The Plush Pony old-timers were laughing at us, holding paper plates heavy with ceviche tostadas in one hand and gesturing wildly at the diamond with the other.

Halfway through the season, we were already in last place and I learned the other teams hated us and called us stuck-up. The dykes from other bars and teams thought we were too good for them because most of Las Traviesas had gone to college. They also thought most of us were attractive and cat-called some of our players by jersey numbers during games. None of us made any indication that we would date anyone from other teams mostly because we were all partnered up. But also—we were stuck up. We were stuck up the way institutions train you to be as you dust yourself off from barrio life and powder yourself in newer, better, aspirations.

The season ended and Las Traviesas never made it out of last place. But it was a tithe to the community to allow us our proximity to las duras—to learn how to inhabit our skins and to heed caution when skin became a liability. Laura Aguilar never came to our games nor was she privy to this particular tension play out between the lesbians with names and the ones that went without. But East Los Angeles bar league lesbian softball allowed for a nuanced inhabiting of an experience that was alongside what Aguilar did representationally. In her own words from a 1988 artistic statement, Aguilar wanted “to provide a better understanding of what it’s like to be a Latina and a Lesbian by showing images which allow us the opportunity to share ourselves openly, and to provide role models that break negative stereotypes and help develop a better bridge of understanding.”

Aguilar’s artistic corpus is only now circulating in institutional ways. The Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell retrospective traveled to Miami and opened at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum six weeks before Aguilar’s death. Aguilar’s 1993 photograph ‘Will Work For,’ a self-portrait centering Aguilar holding a cardboard sign that reads “Artist Will Work For Axcess,” in front of a building with the word GALLERY prominently displayed reminds us twenty-five years later of the cultural precariat’s means towards eking out a life. Aguilar endured as much danger alive as the opportunities her oeuvre will have in her death. Aguilar’s prescient images brought to life the crumbling edges brown artists are compelled to navigate, the terrain she moved through as her name came to national and international platforms.

Aguilar’s work has been continuously haunted by her own self-image as “ugly” and “fat,” policing categories that demand those named to exist in lack. Yet those of us who have lived in the prisons of wounding designations can attest that her work, especially the Grounded series of color photographs depicting Aguilar’s body contracted and splayed in gestures that mirror the earthen spheroid formations in Joshua Tree National Park, is both respite and revolution in its wild hinterland of quiet intensity. At the zenith of her career Aguilar was able to break open and into a joy for her own brown abundance; an unabashed exploration that steers her outlaw body, a vessel among other vessels towards generative and seditious destinations.