One afternoon, several years into my tenure at Wayne State University, I got a phone call during my office hours from a journalism student who wanted to meet with me. When I asked her what it was about, she explained that one of my colleagues from the English department had given her my name because she thought it could be interesting to interview me, as “a woman of color,” about my experience at Wayne. When I heard that, I thought, A woman of color? Is she talking about me, or has she confused me with someone else? Of course, according to the US classification of people (White, African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, other), there probably was no confusion at all. I, as a Hispanic, must be a woman of color. It was a technical fact that became a tag.
The realization of being seen as a woman of color shocked me deeply. I, who used to introduce myself to my university students and everyone else who showed curiosity about my origins as a second-generation Argentinean with paternal grandparents from Italy and maternal grandparents from Spain? The statement was usually accompanied by the pun “The Mexicans descended from the Aztecs, the Peruvians descended from the Incas, and the Argentines descended from boats,” meaning descending from the ships on which our ancestors arrived from Europe. Give me a break! I was not, and I could not be, a woman of color.
It is important to mention that this experience had been comfortably hidden from my memory until recently. More precisely, until the appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic—an unexpected nightmare reinforced by the “I can’t breathe” uttered by George Floyd. This, in appearance, was just another case of a Black man killed by a white police officer but powerful enough to trigger—in the middle of the pandemic—an explosion of anti-racist manifestations not only all over the United States but around the world. Still… why was I able to remember that interpellation just at this precise moment? The self-awareness of being a foreigner with an accent and with different cultural parameters has always been there and yet… An answer could be that, in the middle of such a political and sociocultural turmoil, my perception of being considered “other” suddenly coalesced by putting together fragmented and dispersed parts into a whole. Everything came to the surface, accompanied now by the conviction that my feelings of segregation were not an illusion. They were true but, more important than true or false, there was the emergence of a new feeling: I was not alone anymore. I felt validated, with no shame but a new sense of belonging.
“Hidden in plain sight,” like Poe’s purloined letter? Or, better, something that has been forgotten (or repressed) coming now to light, according to the Freudian definition of “the Uncanny”? Probably both, as with everything that has to do with remembering/forgetting events from our own life. What is likely new is the total uncertainty in which we are now living, the pressing curiosity about the future, and the unescapable need to revise our past. And that is exactly what I started to do—triggered by the expression “a woman of color.”
Hidden in plain sight… because of that, my most successful literature classes at the university have always been those about Latin American writers in exile or, a more recent seminar on exile, migration, and psychoanalysis. It took me quite some time to realize that teaching those courses was my professional tool (should I call it my mask?) to analyze and try to understand my own condition as “other.” For that reason, they sounded persuasive and attractive, not only to foreigners like me but for everybody else. Those were the most successful courses during my whole academic career.
Early on, during my first migration living in Medellín (Colombia) and teaching at the University of Antioquia, I discovered Julia Kristeva’s text about being a foreigner and León and Rebeca Grinberg’s on the psychoanalysis of migration and exile; since then they accompanied me along the road. Moreover, Julia Kristeva (who presents herself as a “European citizen of French nationality, Bulgarian by birth and American by adoption”) became my intellectual guide, my model, and my idol. She was a linguist and a literary critic, a philosopher, a psychoanalyst, and a fiction writer who became famous not only in her adoptive country, France, but all over the world; I could not have chosen a better model to imitate.
Hidden in plain sight. Because of that, I started my career as a literary critic by writing a book about narratives dealing with the military rule in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. That was my way of understanding what happened in my country after the arrival of the military government in 1976 that forced me and my family to leave. Also, because of that I have been “pregnant,” for more than nine years now, with a book manuscript in which I analyze authors from Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay who were forced by Southern Cone authoritarian political regimes to migrate and become foreigners—sort of intellectual pariahs traveling around the world, looking for a home to replace the home country that expelled them. All these authors found their home, as I do now, by writing. Most of them write autobiographies or, rather, “auto-fiction”: sort of fictionalized post-analysis autobiographies, while doing analysis as a way of understanding, mourning, and (hopefully) healing the trauma of migration. In those cases, writing and psychoanalysis go hand in hand because the experience of narrating one’s own story in the presence of the other (the analyst) serves as preparation for writing it.
“Something that has been forgotten/repressed is coming now to light.” To talk about these topics is very painful. Because of that, instead of writing about myself, I chose to do literary criticism (a total of six books and more than one hundred articles) in which I dealt with other people’s writing, hiding and, at the same time, indirectly exposing myself through their words—feeling safe by vicariously analyzing their experiences.
I started this piece by talking about an episode in which I became a woman of color—a subspecies of the “other,” and how it has been, until recently, deeply buried in my memory. Although, as I discovered after George Floyd’s death and its intersection with the pandemic, it was always hidden in plain sight, either in the courses I taught or in the literary criticism I wrote. Migration, foreignness, exile: topics I carefully handled from the safe zone of teaching/writing about others while I was exploring my own life. But there was a place in which all of that came out and came back repeatedly, mostly unmasked, in a long process marked by a lot of pain and defensive energy. That place was, of course, one of my analytic sessions in which I saw myself through the eyes of my analyst, focused on the conflictive interaction with my family, mainly with my mother and sister… All of that is true and constitutes the core of my whole identity, and yet… What I resented then and can see more clearly now is that during my analysis, my quest was never really placed in a sociocultural and political context. Valid as the psychoanalytic frame of self-knowledge is, it did not totally acknowledge my personal reality of having left Argentina with my husband and two young sons because of an authoritarian regime, living for eight years in Medellín, ruled by the rhythm of guerrilla fighters and narco-dealers, dealing with the responsibilities of making a living and bringing up two sons as a single mother (after their father fell ill and returned to Argentina), then moving to the United States, where I struggled to adapt to another culture, another language, and different values and attitudes.
Here are only a few examples of my struggles to adapt to US culture. Every time I was stopped by the police while driving, I always got a ticket—regardless of how much I tried to explain my situation and whether I was at fault. My impression was that my accent put me in a disadvantaged position. And my use of language—English, so different from Spanish, French, or Italian, which I quite master. I have studied English—British English—since I was very young, but it did not help me with the American colloquialisms, nor with the accent. That accent that moved people politely—or not—to ask me where my accent came from and demanded with some irritation that I say it again. Or when I would get physically closer to people to help them understand my English, they would immediately move far away. The notion of privacy, so important in American culture! Once, just after my arrival at Wayne State University, trying to inform myself about practical matters, I asked a colleague about his salary. His answer was startling: “In this country we don’t ask about other people’s salaries.” “In this country” is a phrase I heard often.
“Hidden in plain sight” and “Something that has been forgotten/repressed is coming now to light.” The ritornello of those two statements provides not only some rhythm to this piece but, mainly, hits the heart of my experience. Now, coming back to them, it is easier for me to understand how much the pandemic and the anti-racist movements stirred up repressed memories of humiliation and pain, circling the original feeling of not belonging and rejection. As conflicting and ambivalent as these feelings still are, I have started to reconcile with the tag put on me, with the way I am seen in the United States. After George Floyd’s cry for breath, those feelings resurged to reassure me that—as a woman of color—I am not alone anymore, although there is still a long way to go, personally and socially.
- Jorgelina Corbatta was born in Argentina. She has a licenciatura in Philosophy and Letters from the Universidad Nacional del Sur, Bahia Blanca, Argentina; a master’s and a PhD in Hispanic Literatures from the University of Pittsburgh; and graduated as an academic analyst from Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute. She is now professor emerita of Latin American Literature and Culture at Wayne State University, where she was previously the director of Women’s Studies. She is also academic associate faculty at the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute. She has taught courses on contemporary narrative and film, Latin American literature and culture, women’s studies, literature and psychoanalysis at universities in Argentina, Colombia, Chile, the United States, Sweden, France, Belgium, Austria, and Spain. In 2004 she received a Research/Teaching Fulbright Award from Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia. She has six books published and more than one hundred articles in peer-reviewed journals. She is currently writing a book on “fiction/auto-fiction and intertextuality” (in Spanish) and working on an autobiographical piece. In 2017 she received the IPA/IPSO International Psychoanalytic Award for her paper “The Quest for, and the Denial of, Intimacy in Luisa Valenzuela’s Dark Desires and the Others (IPA/Buenos Aires, July 2017). In addition, she has received several awards for teaching, directing graduate students, and conducting research.
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