“Birds of a Feather: Pollos and the Nineteenth-Century Prehistory of Mexican Homosexuality” by Christopher Conway

“Birds of a Feather: Pollos and the Nineteenth-Century Prehistory of Mexican Homosexuality” by Christopher Conway, from Building Nineteenth-Century Latin American: Re-Rooted Cultures, Identities, and Nations, edited by William Acree and Juan Carlos González Espitia (Vanderbilt University Press, 2009). You can order the book here. The article is illustrated.

ABSTRACT

Carlos Monsivais has attributed the invention of homosexuality to a 1901 police raid on a Mexico City ball in which forty-one men, many of whom were dressed as women, were arrested for indecency. The sensational press that these arrests provoked, including broadsides by the popular engraver and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada, publicly disclosed and disseminated the concept of the abject, effeminate invert. The Forty-One represented a break with the past because Mexican print culture had never before disclosed, acknowledged, or disseminated such transparent images of sexually deviant, effeminate men. Instead, the nineteenth-century print media circulated several ambiguous yet non-sexual stereotypes of effeminate masculinity that were continuous with centuries-old, etymological geneaologies of male effeminacy in Spanish and European culture. In Mexico, such men had many names, including Dandy, Currutaco, and Petimetre, but one of the most prevalent and local labels at mid-century was that of Pollo (Chicken), a type that foreshadowed important aspects of the sensationalist stereotypes of the Joto and Marica that burst into print literature in 1901. The Pollo was not a sodomite, but his androgynous style was universally seen as implying a closer proximity to feminine qualities than to masculine ones. The Pollo is not only key for understanding the more fluid and androgynous versions of masculinity that circulated at the dawn of Mexican modernity, but also for bringing into focus notions of productive (procreative) and unproductive (effeminate) notions of masculinity in the nineteenth-century.

“Birds of a Feather…” traces and specifically dates the emergence of the Pollo as a cultural category in nineteenth-century Mexico, and traces the gendered affinities between him and other androgynous men, such as currutacos, beaus, petimetres and dandies. My article also discusses the symbolic and etymological connection between birds and sexuality throughout history, and the construction of gender, specifically masculinity, in different historical periods and cultures. I define and explore the effeminacy of the pollo in relation to theatricality, childhood, leisure, fashion and transatlantic cosmopolitanism through texts drawn from an archive of nineteenth-century Mexican journalism, the caricatures of José María Villasana and the well-known writings of José Tomás de Cuéllar, who did more to popularize the term pollo than any other nineteenth-century writer.

The article closes with a discussion of the ways in which pollos may be read as forebears of the Mexican ‘homosexual’ that emerged as a result of the scandal of the forty-one at the turn of the century. My fragmentary reconstruction of early references to Mexican dandies (including an intriguing and revealing reference to “gay” in 1840’s Mexico), and coded and historically significant representations of same-sex desire (such as the use of the color green) lead me to suggest that the Mexican pollo was more than simply a Mexican beau or dandy.

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