Who Does José Torres-Tama Think He Is?

By Rosana Cruz Dec 19, 2019

José Torres-Tama is a journalist, scholar, educator, and a visual and performance artist. We met within a network of Latinx activists and artists in the pre- and post-Katrina landscapes of New Orleans. Locally, he is one of those public figures you can’t miss in his signature red suit, matching hat, glitter makeup and self-produced “No Guacamole for Immigrant Haters” t-shirt. His book “New Orleans Free People of Color & Their Legacy" won him the 2008 Joan Mitchell Foundation award. He is currently touring his show “Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers”—“a sci-fi Latino noir genre-bending performance” that challenges anti-immigrant hysteria. Here is who José Torres-Tama thinks he is.  

Who are you?

My full name is José Eduardo Torres Tama Alfaro. [Reclaiming all my names] allowed me to address this obsession with abbreviated names here. I’m the great, great, great grandson of Eloy Alfaro, one of the presidents of the Republic of Ecuador and a fierce radical leader. He made sure there was public education, civil liberties and freedom of the press. He allowed civil marriages and divorces. He was a really radical individual, like the Simón Bolivar of Ecuador.

That’s my heritage, shared with me by my abuelita Italia, my great grandmother who lived with us in Jersey City. When she shared this story with me, she said to me, “Mi’jito, nosotros venimos de gente. Nosotros tenemos historia.” [“Son, we come from people. We have history.”] I found myself in a culture where the expansive nature of Latin people was reduced. So, when my great grandmother shared that, it offered me pride.

How do you identify racially?

I identify as Latino, Latin American and Latinx. I’m not a big fan of the word “Hispanic.” Hispanic is a construct of the Nixon administration, and most commonly “’spics” was used in the Northeast, based off of Hispanics. I use “Latin American” because it’s open and not gendered. [At times] I also use Hemispheric Americans.

Have you ever filled out the Census? And if you have, how did you answer the question about race?

I remember getting Census papers here. But you know, I didn’t pay very much attention to them as a permanent resident alien, because that’s what I was for the longest time.

Are there other times or places that you’ve answered the question of “What is your race” differently?

Emigrating from Ecuador to New Jersey and then moving to New Orleans changed my identity. Our people are an epic people. [The dominant culture doesn’t] understand the hybridization of our people. There’s such a lack of understanding here in Gringoland, and it allows them to dehumanize and criminalize our people.

I say, “You want to build that wall? Build it from 1848.” Google the Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 and you will discover those territories belong to northern Mexico. Because Latinos, we love to Google. Google is actually a Latin term, an old Aztec term from the Goddess Googlquetzcoatl, which means “Look shit up, ese.” [laughs] Know that your history in the United States of Amnesia seduces you to embrace forgetting. It does so really strategically. 

That’s why my great grandma said, “We come from people.” We’re not a lost people, not a refugee people. The people escaping economic despair right now are because of what Juan González called “the harvest of empire.” This country’s been built on blood, Native blood and the enslavement of Africans. The Ecuadorian consulate refers to people like myself as hybrids of Spanish and colonial descent. I consider myself more mestizo. We are born of the rape of Indigenous women. For me as an artist and renegade scholar, it’s important to speak to people’s truth.

How will you answer the question on the 2020 Census?

I believe in the importance of the numbers. I’ll put “mestizo” in there, and an asterisk explaining what it means. I’m sure it’s irrelevant to them, but it’s important for us demographically here in New Orleans. We are part of a demographic shift that’s been here and, at the same time, we’re invisible in this culture.

What is your definition of Latino/Latina/Latinx?

I heard someone say, “We actually have the possibility of a realizing Simón Bolivar’s dream.” We have to let go of like, Cubans against Puerto Ricans and Hondurans against Mexicans. We have to let go of our Spanish colonial past. Let go of those border consequences and that border blood that we’ve been spilling for the centuries when we were part of Spanish colonial properties. We Latin Americans here can really evolve to a greater revolutionary cohort. Not that it’s going to be simple. That’s why there’s so much cultural cleansing and attacks on our people now, because we are a growing demographic power.

How do you think the multiple—and maybe contested—definitions of Latino, Latina and Latinx impact efforts toward racial justice?

The impact is always going to be shifting and continuously fluid. We are not a monolith. I don’t think we’re ever going to arrive at the definition. We’re going to be redefining it all. The White supremacist power structure wants to codify down to the minutiae.

What is the particular impact of Latinx racial identity on your work?

The system, especially now, is looking to kill us. I become race explicit to [be] a voice against those systematic powers and structures of oppression. Let’s make sure we address our own psychic ruptures that are part of our Latinidad, part of our Spanish colonial heritage. “Mestizaje” means that you really have to understand the rape of Indigenous and African women by colonial Spaniards.

My objective is speaking truth to the perverse abuse of power and dealing with my personal trauma in a system that just wants my labor, like a bracero, and doesn’t want anything to do with who I am as a human being.

Rosana Cruz is a writer, parent, social justice movement leader and intersectional feminist. They have lived in New Orleans for over 20 years and in that time, worked closely with numerous organizations in the struggle for racial justice, LGBTQIA+ liberation and immigrant rights. They currently serve as a senior fellow at Race Forward, the national racial justice organization that publishes Colorlines. Essays by Cruz have been published in hipMama, Bridge the Gulf Project, Colorlines and the anthology Mamaphonic. Cruz is a 2017 VONA Voices Fellow. Short fiction by Cruz is forthcoming in the Spring 2020 issue of Black Warrior Review.