Imán is a beautiful young Latino gay with whom I occasionally party, switching back and forth between the gaps of his second-generation Spanish and my schooled English. Until recently, we had a common ground in that comfortable linguistic melange where our very opposite experiences of Latin and American cultures met, him being a native English-speaker with a Latin legacy, me a Latin-American brought up speaking English. But the other night that ground shifted right from under me, when he greeted me warmly in something that sounded familiar, but of which I could only make out the word "honey." I thought drugs had done him in, but as things turned out, I was the one out of it: Imán had added a new layer to his Spanglish, that of Black and Latino drag balls. It all came together when someone finally explained that he had joined the House of Xtravaganza.
Imán's verbal crossing of not only two cultures but also, perhaps more impor-tantly, at least two subcultures, is emblematic of the intricate web of codings that constitute cosmopolitan experience. His baroque glossolalia renders obsolete all notions of identity based on ethnic or sexual essentialisms, going far beyond the simple multiplication of disparate cultural traits implied in multiculturalism. For his polyvalence is not the mechanical addition of separate identities that schizophrenically coexist along one another like in Sybil, the woman with seventeen personalities. And his resilience stands in glaring contrast to the melting pot generations whose cultural plurality evaporated in a slow but relentless boil that whitewashed them of all their vitality. Imán's uniqueness resides in having absorbed all the registers in which he was either inscribed or chose to inscribe himself in, allowing each one to reshape him all over again until he became much more than a sum of his parts.
While for some, Imán's androgyny makes him a freak of nature and his polyglotism a worthy descendant of the builders of the Tower of Babel, for others his skill for camouflage and change is only the sophisticated (and, in a world where subcultures are expanding by the minute, legitimate) version of instinctive survival strategies that enable him to live his difference with relatively few repressions. This infinite ductility and constant shifting of styles are characteristic of postmodernity, and, as such, they are often downplayed as superficial and arbitrary. Superficial because postmodern metamorphosis refuses a centered and systematic line of thought that would grant it historical depth and continuity, anchoring it to the fatigued hierarchies of class, gender and race. Arbitrary because postmodern versatility moves freely between multifarious discourses and styles, unapologetically choosing eclecticism over consistency. Yet it is precisely this mobility and heterogeneity that have burst open the binding strictures of ideological constructs at their seams, enabling the overflow of all that had been outcast as bizarre and distorted.
Imán's newly-found patter is one among myriad dialects and slangs in that Fourth World of homeless, exiles, refugees, immigrants, transvestites, punks, single mothers and other urban displaced. It is the product of a time when the artificial boundaries of nations and cities have collapsed under the weight of a diversity that could no longer be bound by uniform languages or monological discourses. It is the oral equivalent of the polysemantic clutteredness of Chinatown, Fourteenth Street and Times Square, whose shrewd merchants, Chinese, Arab or Jewish, transit fluidly between English, Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew and Arabic--a macaronic verbality perfectly suited to a pastiched visuality. It is the vehicle of simulation and impersonation in a culture where fantasy and reality have become undistinguishable, and where abandoning the self to become another is among the most valued forms of gratification. It is profane, irreverent and illegal because it flourishes in the cracks of a mainstream culture determined to annihilate, by absorption or eradication, anything different from itself.
Imán's Xtravagantic Spanglish is his home, a symbolic place where he can safely unravel the complexity of his urban persona without being attacked, despised or made fun of. Like most slang, it transforms divergence into distinction, rejection into validation, awkwardness into style. An outermost expression of intimate vulnerability, it is both a weapon and a shield, protecting with mystification the fragile territory of marginal belongings. But, in contrast to those codings where exclusiveness is granted by a blatant inaccessibility, Imán's lingo is so similar to common speech that it easily passes for it, in the same way that the members of his adoptive drag family subtly infiltrate the regimented roles of straight society. What is spoken is a make-believe language that feigns the syntax and cadence of regular talk, while surreptitiously establishing its own universe of references and network of tacit alliances. In so doing, it perpendicularly traverses the ritual formalities of business and professional exchange without antagonizing them, and further expands the already elastic boundaries of quotidian jargon.
This ability to ride on linguistic conventions while simultaneously proposing an alternative discourse adds a metaphorical dimension to Imán's particular brand of cityspeak. Its polytonality, hodgepodge vocabulary and veiled allusions endow it with the lyricism and evocation often praised as the most achieved form of poetry. And, like those remnants of vulgar Latin that, inscribed on the walls of ancient Rome as the first graffiti, provided an invaluable documentation of the evolution of Latin into the Romance languages, so Imán's vernacular parlance manifests the extreme flexibility with which popular culture absorbs and converts institutionalized norms and regulations, ultimately outlasting what is otherwise fated to the sure death of stagnation.
In the rudimentary anti-postmodern arithmetic that officially advocates for a unitary identity with many satellite cultures adorning its deflated crown, Iman's mutability and fragmentation don't add up to a round number, his ambiguity and transience undeserving of his being counted as a full person. But in the infinite exchanges that conform daily urban life, Imán has won as many places as he can vogue himself into; he can be many more people than he was born to be, an undis-putable advantage over being stuck with one same life for the rest of existence.
*This essay was originally published in Exit Art’s catalog The Hybrid State (New York, 1992), and later reprinted in May Joseph and Jennifer Natalya Fink, editors, Performing Hybridity (University of Minnesota Press, 1998).