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Salsa Epistemology: On the Present, Utopia, and the Caribbean Intervention in Critical Theory


This dissertation engages with salsa, a Spanish Caribbean music and dance tradition of embodied playfulness, to show how joy figures as an integral part of social justice work. It argues that the Cuba, Puerto Rico, and their diasporic communities have generated a particular mode of consciousness that—while often fetishized and dismissed as carefree and erotic island living—actually dismantles hegemonic forms of gender, sexualization, and racialization. I term this consciousness “salsa epistemology,” and define it as an embodied and playful way of knowing produced through Spanish Caribbean cultural practices. Salsa epistemology allows Spanish Caribbean people to navigate hardship by existing simultaneously in the everyday material circumstances of their lives and in the utopian spaces crafted in their media, literature, and philosophy. Both literally and metaphorically, it is the ability to think while one dances, or to dance while one thinks.

This dissertation constructs a genealogy of queer cultural production in the Spanish Caribbean during the last 60 years. It privileges queer texts because the convergence of queerness and Caribbeanness produces a generative space for understanding the role of critical utopian ways of knowing, such as salsa epistemology. Indeed it argues that salsa epistemology helps us rethink the social justice lens of both Latina/o Studies and Queer Theory by refusing to engage in the dichotomous assumption that we must attain some level of socio-political justice in order to entertain the possibility of utopia. It pushes scholars to

rethink playfully how temporality has been understood in critical theory by acknowledging the back and forth that always exists between the present moment and utopia. By suggesting that embodied joy in the present is a powerful force in creating a more equitable future, this dissertation rethinks the future-oriented framework of most social justice movements to argue that justice can be reconceived as something joyful, and that the joyful can reconceived as something just.

This dissertation unfolds in five chapters, each of which elaborates a tactic of salsa epistemology at work in Spanish Caribbean written, visual, or aural culture. Chapter one, “Playing Hopefully: The Present and the Utopic in Queer Theory and Puerto Rican Literature,” posits “play” as a tactic of salsa epistemology. Chapter two, “Zones of Possibility and Other Forms of Lezamian Consciousness,” examines “possibility” as a temporal framework and a tactic of salsa epistemology. Chapter three, “Penetrating Utopia: Sex as Politics in Queer Cuban Exile Literature,” posits “sex” as a tactic of salsa epistemology. Chapter four, “Choteo as a Tactic of Resilience in ¿Qué Pasa U.S.A.?” posits “choteo,” a Cuban form of humor loosely translated as “kidding,” as a tactic of salsa epistemology. The final chapter, “Capitalism con salsa: Money and Popular Culture in the Cuban Diaspora” suggests a non-teleological engagement with capitalism as a tactic of salsa epistemology. Finally, the conclusion, “An Epistemology of Resilience,” meditates on my own personal journey to salsa epistemology and on the larger implications of the work as a whole for the survival of the United States’ largest growing ethnic group: Latina/os.

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