«When a Yuma Meets Mama: Commodified Kin and the Affective Economies of Queer Tourism in Cuba Noelle Stout, New York University In this article, I ...»
When a Yuma Meets Mama:
Commodified Kin and the
Affective Economies of
Queer Tourism in Cuba
Noelle Stout, New York University
In this article, I explore the kinship imaginaries that emerged between gay
male tourists from North America and Europe and Cuban male sex workers
and their families within the context of Havana’s queer-erotic economies.
Whereas male sex workers throughout Latin America and the Caribbean tend to conceal their male clients from their families, Cuban sexual laborers in this study incorporated queer foreigners into kinship imaginaries. Such bonds often conferred the rights and obligations of kin, while “blood” kinship was increasingly described in and subject to financial terms. Motivated by money rather than “blood” or “choice,” kinship ties fostered between foreign gay men and younger male sex workers prompt a rethinking of non-normative kin ties as an alternative to dominant systems of kinship and suggest the political and economic roots of familial bonds more broadly. [Keywords: Kinship, tourism, gender and sexuality, sex work, Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuba] Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 88, No. 3, p. 665–692, ISSN 0003-5491. © 2015 by the Institute for Ethnographic Research (IFER) a part of the George Washington University. All rights reserved.
When a Yuma Meets Mama: Commodified Kin and the Affective Economies of Queer Tourism in Cuba I n the widely circulated documentary Habana Muda (Brach 2012), viewers witness the creation of a transnational queer family through the relationship between Chino, a deaf Cuban farmer who is married with children, and José, a gay Mexican tourist who has fallen in love with him. During their year-long affair, José provides Chino with cash, toys for his young children, clothing and toiletries, household items, and manicure equipment for Chino’s wife to establish a home business. As time passes, José finds a boyfriend in Mexico. Not wanting to abandon his obligation to Chino and his family, José continues to send money and arranges for Chino’s emigration. The night before Chino is scheduled to leave the island, he and his family gather with José and José’s new boyfriend around a candlelit table.
“We are all family now,” Chino’s wife says, pointing at each of the Mexican visitors. Emotional at the thought of losing her husband, she continues, “We are family, so you cannot abandon us; do not forget about us.” The film meditates on the ambiguity at the heart of the men’s intimacy: is Chino sincere in his affection for José or merely using him to gain access to cash and the possibility of emigration? Perhaps trying to prevent spectators from drawing reductive conclusions, French director Eric Brach excludes the fact that the men’s relationship would be typical within Havana’s thriving homoerotic sex trade, which parallels that of other contexts such as the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Brazil (Cabezas 2009; Padilla 2007a, 2007b; Parker 1999; Prieur 1998).
What is unique to the Cuban story is how, as the film’s denouement suggests, kinship terms and practices that were familiar both to tourists and to Cubans offered a common frame through which gay foreigners and Cuban sexual laborers could solicit ongoing types of affection, obligation, and care. For some Cuban men facing a bleak post-communist economic landscape beginning in the 1990s, sexual labor, economic survival, and familial ties had become isomorphic. By offering Cubans excluded from global economies a lifeline to various forms of mobility and capital, kinship imaginaries allowed them to inspire long-term financial patronage that kept their families financially afloat.
In this article, I analyze social situations such as those found in Habana Muda that I encountered during seven years of research trips to Havana to study queer sex tourism.1 The Cuban case presents a distinctive contribution that builds on known scholarship on the homoerotic transnational sex trade in the Caribbean and Latin America (e.g., Cabezas 2009; de Moya and Garcia 1998; Kulick 1998; Padilla 2007a, 2007b; Parker 1999;
NoELLE SToUT Prieur 1998). In the Dominican Republic, for instance, Mark Padilla (2007a, 2007b) has shown how queer tourists similarly establish long-term relationships with male sex workers, many of whom perform heterosexual identities in their everyday lives, and send remittances for extended periods of time (see also Cabezas 2009). Whereas Dominican sex workers go to great lengths to conceal their work from their families, particularly from older generations such as parents and grandparents (Padilla 2007b), in Cuba it is typical for male sex workers to introduce foreign clients to their families, who in turn incorporate tourists into kin imaginaries. In other tourist settings in the Caribbean and Latin America, kinship provides a boundary marker between foreigners and locals (see Frohlick 2013), but the transnational homoerotic bonds that I documented in Havana encompassed myriad intimacies among tourists and sex workers and their parents, wives, and children. These transnational kin systems appealed to gay tourists who came to accommodate sentiments of love and affection alongside the knowledge that financial incentives had motivated kin ties.
By analyzing tourists’ capacity to embrace both intimacy and instrumentality within affective kin economies in a post-communist milieu, I join with anthropologists and feminist scholars who have sought to illuminate the ersatz cultural distinctions between the economic realm and the arena of familial bonds (e.g., Collier 1997, Collier and Yanagisako 1987, Constable 2003, Freeman 2007, Friedman 2005, Hirsch and Wardlow 2006, Lipset 2004, Rebhun 1999). Through an analysis of the experiences I documented in qualitative interviews and participant observation with 30 gay male visitors from Europe, the US, and Canada who developed relationships with Cuban sex workers and their families, I show how forms of obligation and reciprocity were embedded within transnational declarations of queer familia. I argue that personhood and capital were generated through the creation of these bonds and lost through their dissolution.
In our conversations, gay tourists often upheld traditional cultural distinctions between market and intimate domains, maintaining that money could not buy love, for instance. Yet tourists’ experiences and narrative accounts of those domains suggest that the boundaries between affection and instrumentality were difficult to discern in ways that resonate with the longstanding ambiguity of the ties among kinship, commoditization, and political life more generally.
While heterosexual sex tourism continues to gain attention as an example of the role of affect and kinship in reproducing contemporary When a Yuma Meets Mama: Commodified Kin and the Affective Economies of Queer Tourism in Cuba global capitalism, only a handful of scholars have explored the links between gay pleasure tourism and late-capitalist affective economies (e.g., Binnie 2004; Cantú 2002; Padilla 2007a, 2007b; Parker 1999; Puar 2002). Scholars have largely emphasized how heterosexual sex tourism, at times described as “romance” tourism, in the Caribbean and elsewhere can evolve into “non-commodified” forms of marriage, partnership, and parenting (e.g., Bernstein 2007; Brennan 2004, 2007; Cabezas 2004; Cheng 2007; Constable 2009; Frohlick 2013). Because some foreign tourists never pay directly for sexual services and spend extended lengths of time with sex workers, sex tourist encounters tend to blur the lines between transactional sex and less overtly commodified forms of intimacy (Cohen 1986, 1993; odzer 1994; Pruitt and LaFont 1995).2 The absence of queer transnational kin practices from this scholarship can partially be attributed to the fact that marriage has served as a primary mode through which sex tourist encounters transform into kinship. Until recently, matrimony has not been a widely available means of solidifying ongoing ties between gay tourists and local sex workers. Yet, given the increasing prevalence of federally recognized same-sex marriage in Europe, Canada, and the US, extending these analyses to the transnational queer kin imaginaries fostered by homoerotic encounters in Cuba becomes all the more important.3 Attending to the bonds between gay tourists and the families of sexual laborers, I therefore seek to revise longstanding anthropological notions that gay kinship offers an alternative to dominant systems of inequality (Carrington 1999, Weston 1991). In particular, Kath Weston’s iconic studies of gay kinship in the 1990s in San Francisco indicated that the formation of gay families empowered those marginalized by society and their “blood” kin to create lasting support networks. Since then, anthropologists have explored gay domestic reproduction by focusing on gay and lesbian childrearing (Carrington 1999, Lewin 1993, Sullivan 2004) and the rise of same-sex marriage (Hull 2006) in the US.4 A driving question of such scholarship has been whether gay family-making could potentially unravel the power hierarchies of gender and sex embedded in normative hetero-kin relations. My analysis of kinship discourse and practices within Havana’s homoerotic post-communist economies reaches outside of the US to add another layer to this discussion: I show how queer kinship practices, while subverting dominant notions of biological kin, can be inextricably tied to forms of market capitalism.
NoELLE SToUT Studies of Cuban sex tourism have typically focused on heterosexual, middle-aged, single white men who travel to take advantage of bargain prices for sexual services—relationships that serve as an embodiment of the neocolonial and heterosexist underpinnings of the tourist trade (Alcázar Campos 2009, Cabezas 1998, Fusco 1998, Marrero 2003, Roland 2011). When queer tourists are studied, as Puar (2002) observes, they are often conceptualized either as activists invested in political travel or as pleasure tourists seeking sun, sand, and sex. This analytical binary makes it easier for depictions of gay foreigners to border on stereotype and obscures how queer transnational encounters complexly affect everyday local life. Whereas Cuban male sexual laborers have been widely studied (e.g., Allen 2007, 2011; Fosado 2005; Hodge 2001, 2005;
Sierra Madero 2012), their gay foreign clients remain largely absent from these accounts. This article uses such accounts to provide a more accurate view of how tourists blend notions of love and financial support to forge ongoing ties with Cubans and their families. In doing so, I show how performances of kinship are as central to the functioning of homoerotic sexual labor as are performances of masculinity and sexuality.
Understanding this significance helps to uncover what these relationships might mean in the broader framework of contemporary political economies of love in the Caribbean (cf. Padilla et al. 2007).
Hence, I frame these relationships, and the discourses and practices that they inspired, as kinship imaginaries in order to analyze how Cubans and foreigners used familial terms to generate a variety of new financial and affective outcomes. The model of a kinship imaginary emphasizes the forms of creativity at play in shaping kinship, as new forms of sociality generate novel family formations (cf. Rapp and Ginsburg 2011:383).5 In doing so, I aim to stress the heterogeneity and provisional nature of kinship arrangements rather than to imply that a unified social imaginary or singular “Cuban” or “tourist” kinship systems exist. Instead, Cubans and tourists co-created and participated in multiple kin imaginaries that often operated at cross-purposes and dissolved over time.
My analysis draws on nearly two years of research in Havana between 2001 and 2007, during which I spent time with gay male tourists in their hotels, at restaurants, city tours, and nightclubs, on dates with their Cuban partners, and during visits to the families of these Cuban sex workers.
I also conducted follow-up interviews with gay tourists from the US in Miami and New York City in 2011 and 2013.6 I met the majority of my When a Yuma Meets Mama: Commodified Kin and the Affective Economies of Queer Tourism in Cuba respondents in Havana’s informal queer nightlife, on the Malecón seawall or in nearby parks, or through the Cuban sex workers whom I had befriended. They were predominately white, with a smaller number of black, Latino, and Jewish respondents, and were between 35 and 66 years old.
The Cuban sexual laborers they hired spanned the color spectrum, as white foreigners tended to pursue light-skinned Cubans, and black and Latino tourists tended to prefer Cubans who were darker skinned. The majority of the tourists considered themselves middle to upper-middle class in their home countries, with a few “starving artists” in the group, although all were wealthy by Cuban standards. Most were repeat visitors and had been traveling to Cuba for more than two years in a row. While the tourists were all interpellated through kinship ties, they interpreted the rights and responsibilities of kin in distinct ways that reflected their class, ethnic, national, and generational differences.
Although my tourist interlocutors understood that I was a researcher, they often treated me as a fellow traveler, relying on my language skills and personal connections to enhance their vacation experiences and including me in their activities and personal networks while in Cuba. As an anthropologist, I was a type of long-term queer tourist myself, and I was able to understand the complexities of these bonds through my participation in transnational queer families, including through forms of financial obligation that I maintain today. I first became aware of the prevalence of kinship discourse within tourist–Cuban relationships when a male Cuban sex worker began telling his friends and acquaintances that I was his halfsister por parte de padre. My first instinct was to dismiss this as his playful effort to explain why we were together so much but not sexually involved, but I soon realized that these somewhat ambiguous yet generative kinship terms were directed at a foreign as well as a Cuban audience. Although my relationships with sex workers were platonic and based on my research, I began to understand the potency of these kinship sentiments to foster intimacy and incorporate tourists into ongoing systems of reciprocity.