March is a journal of art & strategy.

Conversations on Sound and Power: Jillian Hernandez

Sonic Insurgency Research Group

January 2022

We initially came to know Jillian Hernandez’s insightful and inspiring work through her book, Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment (2020). Writing through her experience as a founding member of the community arts collective Women on the Rise!, Hernandez analyzes how working-class Black and Latinx girls and women are often framed as deviant through an embodied excess and how, in turn, they respond to this over-policing by asserting artistic authorship and cultural agency. We had the privilege of sitting down with Hernandez just before the holidays and were especially interested in discussing how the aesthetic of excess, as outlined in her work and methodologies, pushes past the visual and into sonic space.

Dr. Jillian Hernandez is a community arts educator, curator, creative practitioner, and Associate Professor in the Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research at the University of Florida. Her book, Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment, published in 2020 by Duke University Press, examines how Black and Latinx working-class bodies, sexualities, and cultural practices are policed through gendered tropes of deviance and respectability. Aesthetics of Excess was inspired by and closely follows her work in Miami, Florida as founder of Women on the Rise!, an insurgent collective of women of color artists who engaged Black and Latina girls in feminist art practices and critical dialogues around race, sexuality, gender, and society. Articles by Dr. Hernandez have appeared in Visual Arts Research, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory and the Journal of Popular Music Studies, among others. Exhibitions curated and co-curated by Dr. Hernandez have been featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Bas/Fisher Invitational, Flaten Art Museum at St. Olaf College, Maryland Art Place, Space Mountain-Miami, the Welch Galleries at Georgia State University, and other venues.

Jillian Hernandez with her book Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment (2020). Photo: Masaya Gurdian.

Sonic Insurgency Research Group: Would you mind introducing yourself and your recent book, Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment?

Jillian Hernandez: My name is Jillian Hernandez. I’m inspired by Black and Latinx life and imagination. I study the autonomous aesthetics and sexualities of Black and Latinx people. My work stems from over a decade of community arts practice through the Women on the Rise! collective, which I established at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, Florida in 2004. My scholarship grew out of the collective work of women-of-color artists who comprised Women on the Rise!. We visited different community spaces throughout Miami-Dade County and engaged teenage girls in feminist art practices. The idea is to create spaces for intergenerational dialog and conversations around questions of embodiment, sexuality, and representation, primarily talking about the politics of representation. Through that work I became knowledgeable of the ways in which the girls’ bodies were policed in various institutional spaces including anywhere from an afterschool program to a juvenile detention center or a summer camp program. That made me reflect on my own experiences of navigating embodiment as a working-class Latina in Miami. My scholarship is really interested in the interstitial spaces between lived experience, embodied practices, and the politics of representation and cultural production.

My book, Aesthetics of Excess, chronicles the work of Women on the Rise!, but beyond that it theorizes this notion of working-class Blackness and Latinidad as excessive, as when particular modes of embodiment are viewed as doing too much, being too loud – both visually and sonically – and framed as wasteful, unnecessary, improper, and disreputable. My book theorizes this notion of excess as a performance of indifference towards assimilation and respectability that has the potential to transform our ideas around cultural value and, more importantly for me, sexual and aesthetic autonomy for Black and Latinx women and girls specifically, and for Black and Latinx people more broadly. I also look at questions of queerness and ideas of racial authenticity.

SIRG: We appreciate you linking it back to sound. Would you mind saying a little about the methodologies? They seem as important as content.

JH: In terms of discipline, the work we did in the community through Women on the Rise! was very much about dialog. I wanted that to be reflected in the book so I highlighted charlas, a Spanish term for informal conversations, but this is also a method that Meredith Abarca uses in her book, Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working-Class Mexican and Mexican American Women (2006), on the politics of cooking for Mexican immigrant women. My book highlights conversations that were had through Women on the Rise! as both performances and moments of everyday theorizing. I recorded our conversations and transcribed them to share with the reader, so there’s an ethnographic aspect to it. I have a lot of vignettes reflecting on particular moments both in the program but also in Miami in general. I use autoethnography to draw on my own experiences and the ways in which a lot of my ideas emerge in tandem with conversations with the girls who in the text I refer to as artists.

Another aspect of the book I think is really important are the interludes between the chapters. They are a place to be playful but also to leave particular things unresolved. The interludes include fragments of discussions with the girls, some poetry, some quotes that I’ve culled from different places, and images. Those serve as departures from the chapters or bridges at different moments. For me, it was really important to have a few spaces where the young artists’ words and work could sit without being analyzed. In this way, the book is a kind of archive in addition to being a scholarly monograph.

SIRG: One thing we were thinking about as we engaged your idea of the aesthetics of excess read through gender, class, racialization, and discipline is the role of sound in this process. You used the term loudness in the book often in terms of visuality, but we’re thinking about it in terms of the audiosphere. Would you mind reflecting on how loudness is used within the context of your book and the audio worlds that we’re thinking about?

JH: I first published work that appears in the Aesthetics of Excess on Chongas in 2009 and even then I was framing this idea of Chongas as loud. I was thinking about it sonically, but I didn’t really center on that. I centered on the loudness of their aesthetic. Regarding the loudness of working-class femininity, I am framing that as a racialized inscription that may or may not be real. I’m not saying that working-class Latina women are loud, but I’m also saying they could be and they sometimes are. I’m not interested in rejecting that inscription. I’m actually interested in what that sort of framing makes possible. Right? Like there’s really nothing excessive about working-class Blackness and Latinidad, but since we’re there let’s see what that makes possible. So, sonic and aesthetic loudness are viewed very much in tandem and that meeting point is what makes their [Chonga] modes of embodiment sort of intolerable. It’s this idea, again, that you assimilate through a particular performance of white middle-classness and you also assimilate by assuming an attitude of appreciation for your conditional inclusion into the US nation-state. So by standing out, by seeming like you don’t care about these modes of class performance that are also gendered, racialized, and sexualized, you’re improper and you need to be put in your place.

“It’s this idea, again, that you assimilate through a particular performance of white middle-classness and you also assimilate by assuming an attitude of appreciation for your conditional inclusion into the US nation-state.”

I think in many ways that the sonic element tends to be the most agitating sometimes, perhaps even more so than the visual aesthetic. In preparing for our chat today I was thinking about the sounds that make me think of Miami and the first thing that came to mind was how a lot of femmes have full-on phone conversations on speaker, like anywhere. You’ll be shopping at Target and they’re having an hour-long conversation; and it’s clearly audible to anyone, on speaker, and they truly don’t care. There is something interesting about that level of owning space in a way that flies in the face of the ways that racialized folks are supposed to move through space here.

SIRG: I absolutely love that. We think a lot about the mandate of silence that whiteness produces. In order to territorialize space, you have to first silence it. That is a great example of completely flipping that.

JH: I love that framing. It’s full-on. You know, like the phone is sitting on the child seat of a shopping cart and you hear everything that’s being said – and this is like multiple folks doing this within a given store – and you’re just moving through and you’re hearing all of these conversations happening at the same time.

SIRG: Would it be okay to circle back to talk a little about the term Chonga and Chongaliscious aesthetics?

JH: Chonga is a term used to describe poor and working-class Latina girls who have very particular modes of body presentation. This includes very heavily gelled and sculpted hairdos, a lot of jewelry, hoop earrings, very dramatic eye makeup, very long acrylic nails, form-fitting clothing that appears to have been procured from places like the flea market or shops like Rainbow. It’s a term that often is not a self-referent, although it is and has been used by one of the artists that I write about in the book, Crystal Pearl Molinary, who self-identified as a Chonga as a young girl in middle school. It’s really a term that’s meant to shame working-class girls who take on this embodiment. It’s basically a term to describe a loud, crass, hypersexual, working-class Latina girl whose aesthetics also appear to draw from Blackness and hip-hop culture in particular. So in the book, I talk about how that tacit citation of Blackness is part of what makes their mode of body presentation agitating to other people.

SIRG: Class plays a large role in your book, especially in terms of intercommunity debates about respectability that highlight certain biases within marginalized social groups, which raises a question about how the politics of respectability also hinge on audible or sonic practices as much as visual and aesthetic presentations or patterns of consumption. So, we’re curious about what qualifies as a wayward sound practice within a marginalized community, not to mention dominant society. What’s interesting to think about regarding what you’re mapping in relation to Miami, and what we know in terms of similar communities operating within rural parts of the borderlands, is the way that strategic invisibility and quiet become modes of survival. We’re curious what comes up for you in those terms.

JH: That’s really rich to think about and I love that idea of strategic invisibility. Miami is interesting as a space because when I think about what would be considered a wayward sound practice in Miami, I sort of go back to the Chonga or chusma [a term related to chisme or gossip], which tends to be very closely related to femmephobia and misogyny. I think the most wayward sound practice in Miami would be a femme-presenting person who’s considered to be too loud in a given moment, and that’s interesting because Miami is a space where strategic invisibility is not necessarily as much at stake for inclusion. I always trip out on how loud Latinx folks can be, in particular in Miami, when compared to when I lived in San Diego County where Latinx people are less audible. There’s no sense of self-disciplining that might occur perhaps in a different kind of space, like the space that you mention. People in Miami are cursing really loudly, people are ordering food really loudly, people are beeping their horns really loudly, right? Loudness is already a part of the landscape. But strategic invisibility to me comes into play when you’re moving into particular class-aspirational spaces within Black and Latinx communities where that loudness brings a trace of poverty or struggle. It brings a trace perhaps of Blackness. It brings along a kind of residue that could hinder moving up into a different class register. I feel like loudness could be okay for people who are acquiring mobility through the entertainment or sports industries, but within other forms of social-economic mobility that performance of quiet becomes really important.

That also changes depending on how and where you’re moving. For me, working at a contemporary art museum, I was the only Latina on staff at a certain time and I definitely had to perform a particular kind of sound accent in that space. Even if it didn’t feel imposed, I was still performing that. But then when I get into my car I can engage in a different kind of sound practice that flies in the face of that particular kind of sound-accent performance. It was very much the same – and continues to be the same – in the academy. I’m thinking about when racialized subjects move between particular spaces and how different spaces allow for different sound practices. But I do think that those sound practices that are considered the most wayward are ones that are read as Black and femme. There’s just a tremendous amount of femmephobia and misogyny that’s at work.

SIRG: Because you brought up accents it might be interesting to think about the trouble of reaching certain proficiencies of enunciation and pronunciation in relation to both Spanish and English. That’s something you bring up in the book. It’s not just a matter of broken English but also of Spanglish and how those two work together on a sonic register to activate the sonic imaginary around issues of race, class, and gender.

JH: Yeah, I do talk about how part of the ways in which Chongas are racialized is through this idea of a Spanish accent that’s a bit too heavy. There’s a way in which that is seen as indicating a kind of failure, a failure to assimilate. I’m interested now – and this is over a decade after the particular Chonga moment that I’ve written about – in how younger Latinxs are making Spanglish kind of trendy, like with Spanglish memes (see below) and Spanglish T-shirts. I don’t have any judgment about that, but it’s really interesting to see how in just the span of a decade there’s a particular kind of shame about the accent, or “broken English,” or “bad Spanish,” that has been shed. Although I will say that I think that everyday Miami working-class Latinx or Haitian folks who are perceived as having heavy accents are still marginalized, depending on the space they’re occupying.

One thing that is interesting to see now is how there’s a shame around not knowing Spanish among a younger generation of folks of Latinx backgrounds, but absolutely the accent. This is something that Kareem Khubchandani looks at in his book, Ishtyle: Accenting Gay Indian Nightlife (2020). He talks about the accent as both a marking of Desi bodies as other but also as a style and embodied practice. I love how Kareem brings those together and I think that a similar notion could apply to the Miami context as well.

SIRG: The last person that we talked with for this series was JJJJJerome Ellis, and he spoke at length about the idea of verbal dysfluency as a form of difference in the body that’s been structurally marginalized, and there’s definitely an echo here between that conversation and what you’re saying. Can we talk a little bit about how speakers employ multilingual approaches, even sometimes within the same sentence? An example would be when Bad Bunny uses multilingual stanzas within the same song. In the frame of the transcolonial project, as you discuss in Aesthetics of Excess, the resulting collision between capital logics and instances of punishment results in a failure to be read as coherent by the system’s rule or to somehow stop capitalist fluid time of communication. One thing that JJJJJerome brought up was thinking about dysfluency as a kind of open speech that produces potentialities. We are thinking about that regarding what you’re saying about the younger generation’s thinking around language and accent.

JH: I’m so glad you mentioned Bad Bunny because I love this meme that’s going around of Bad Bunny at the American Music Awards. There’s a reporter asking him a question in English, going on for a good 30 seconds without registering that Bad Bunny has no idea what’s being said. There’s a pause and then Bad Bunny is just like, I have no idea what you just said. It’s super cute and super gracious in a Bad Bunny way. I felt so affirmed by that moment because I felt that dysfluency – I love this term! And I don’t think Bad Bunny is intentionally performing refusal, but if I’m thinking about him as a colonial/racial Puerto Rican subject then clearly there is a move of rejecting having to become disciplined in the fluency of English.

To think again about the Chonga and how Chongaliscious became a viral hit, there was definitely a lot of Spanglish in it, absolutely. But you can’t compare the sort of cultural capital that viral phenomenon garnered to someone like Bad Bunny, who is a kind of Latin icon we could not have necessarily predicted, who insists on Spanish that Anglophone audiences would consume in a seemingly non-agitated way. To me, it’s just striking. I still need to do more thinking about it. I guess we’re in a different sort of Latinx boom than we were in the nineties. It’ll be really interesting to follow the politics of this new cultural capital of the dysfluent. What is that doing? And what’s happening there? Right? It’s an interesting moment. I wonder if a femme performer could get away with that, and I’m not sure that they could. Even Shakira has had to sing in English, right? I wonder about how gender plays a role in who can and who can’t refuse or perform dysfluency.

SIRG: That is an amazing question. It makes me think about how Selena had to reverse her fluency. She had to learn to sing in Spanish in order to be accepted by a certain listening culture that’s dominant in the Tejano music world. It is interesting to think about how people have to switch their linguistic codes to gain the kind of audience they are seeking and when they can refuse that. I think what you’re saying is that it can hinge on class and gender. Kali Uchis seems like a good counterpoint and the ways that her sexualized and racialized performance was challenged as not Latinx enough for a minute.

JH: I do think that she [Kali Uchis] is also super savvy. Maybe it’s like that post-Selena moment where other folks are doing all Spanish. Also, there is mobilization of the reggaetón sound, which goes back to Chonga-ness in a way. For a long time, you couldn’t consume reggaetón without assuming a kind of hypersexual inscription and association with the working class and with Blackness, going several decades back, even though the dembow [a bouncy musical rhythm originating from the Caribbean] of reggaetón is very much a Miami sound. It’s in that sonic landscape constantly. But the risk associated with it has just been almost eliminated with the global popularity of reggaetón and perrero at the moment. That’s something really interesting to think about, how a capitalist popular culture logic has very much taken it up and it seems to be working really well in that space. It doesn’t carry the same kind of threat that it used to. Although, I do think in the protests in Puerto Rico of 2019 we did see its potential to disrupt, but it was a very queer trans iteration of reggaetón and perrero practice that was doing that work.

SIRG: As we near the end of our conversation, we thought we’d focus on Miami. Specifically regarding this idea of Miami as a home for excessive aesthetics and how this plays out via sound, which you’ve already touched on, whether it’s music coming from customized cars or from clubs or anywhere else in the everyday sonic life of neighborhoods in the city. How does Miami, as a site of racialized, gendered performances of self, take up not only visual space but sonic space as well?

JH: I mean, it’s a saturated space, sonically. You still have the persistent dembow coming from cars. You have hip hop bumping from cars, but you also have the sound of construction that dominates. That work of displacement and gentrification is a constant hum. I also think about the sound of airplanes being really constant. There is also this idea of Miami as a place where movement is happening constantly. Miami sits at the crossroads of various different kinds of geographies and different kinds of racial formations as people are coming from the Caribbean and Latin America but also arriving from the African continent; it creates a very textured sonic space that can be viewed as something radical that resists the notion of strategic invisibility of quiet that you mentioned.

I was listening to a talk by Donette Francis this morning and she was talking about the trauma that people often carry when they arrive in Miami. They’re leaving their home places. They’re leaving really traumatic political contexts. One thought I had while listening to her speak was, does all of this sound, or perhaps, noise, mask grieving or trauma? How are these sonic practices a way of working through particular forms of trauma? Maybe they are ways of resisting engaging in a trauma that perhaps there’s not time or space to deal with, because the need to hustle is very real. So whatever the sound of the hustle might be – you know, the homie selling roses on the street or the women having conversations on the phone with their family back in Cuba who they’re trying to figure out how to get money to. I resist over-celebrating that. I recognize the way in which that declares spaces are being owned by racialized and colonized peoples, but also perhaps there’s something else at play because there are a lot of sounds of agitation. I remember coming home when I was working at UC San Diego (I would only get to come to Miami about twice a year) and one time I got to the airport and I got down to the bottom floor and the doors opened. I get the super hot, humid air and I hear some guy yelling at some person and it was like, I’m home, you know? Insult and agitation are such a part of the city. Again, I can make it nostalgic and it is kind of hilarious, for sure, but also we are in a space where folks are carrying so much. One way that plays out is through sonics. I’m also thinking of Gaye Theresa Johnson’s work in Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles (2013) and this notion of spatial entitlement and how that works sonically. I think that’s totally part of what’s going on. There’s a politics of spatial entitlement.

SIRG: That pivot you made is so important because we often think of trauma in relation to narrative and narrativity. It’s very interesting to think about trauma in terms of sound, sounding out, or the aural phenomena. Maybe we can go into even more detail with regards to the spaces of Miami. In your book, you mention Wynwood specifically, and that is actually the site of Locust Projects where we are organizing an exhibition, If the Source is Open (Megamix), opening next month [February 2022]. We’re very curious about the sonic worlds that you mentioned of reggaetón and bass music in relation to the construction of new condominiums or new capitalist live-work spaces and how that intersects the surrounding neighborhoods. We stayed in the area near Locust Projects and we heard a lot of rooster gritos [a specialized celebratory shout] mixed with the constant sound of the airplane, exactly as you were saying, because Miami is such a hub for travel to South America. So you get that sound of transcolonial movement and the reverberations of transcolonial movement overlaid on the grito of the rooster. How would you characterize that area, Wynwood?

JH: Yeah, it’s funny because when I was working at the museum years ago it was actually a semi-quiet place, Wynwood. It was very much the warehouse district with people working. The warehouses were that, warehouses and spaces of labor. I remember, I must have visited there in late 2018, and I was shocked by the sound of one of those Duck Tour buses [a big bus that looks like a boat and has a duck on it] and someone was giving a tour over a microphone. At first, I didn’t even know how to register it. My immediate thought wasn’t even that it was a tour. I was just so confused. When I realized that it was a tour bus it was like, oh this [gentrification] has really happened! This has completely changed. Wynwood to me was a quiet space at one point, actually, because it was such a space of labor, and if there were workers making sounds it was inside the warehouses, for the most part. Now it is a very loud space – visually, too. I think it also shows you the limits of celebrating particular modes of aesthetic excess. What I consider an excessive amount of sponsored street art there is not rich. It’s not generative, right? And so, yeah, I’m glad you still heard some roosters. I’m glad people are still doing their thing.

SIRG: When the chickens are evicted, that’s when you know it’s over! We think it might be interesting to conclude by hearing a little about how you’re thinking about transcoloniality, which we feel is emergent. It seems to be used more and more as a way to try to describe the entanglements of coloniality, decoloniality, and postcoloniality, if there is such a thing.

JH: I owe my engagement with that idea to Sara E. Johnson’s work and her book The Fear of French Negroes: Transcolonial Collaboration in the Revolutionary Americas (2012), where she’s looking at nineteenth-century networks between Cuba, Florida, and Louisiana as circuits that enabled both chattel slavery and also the circulation of resistant cultural forms. So transcoloniality is both the circuit of oppression and also the circuit of resistant possibility. For me, that was a productive way to think about Miami as a space. Particularly because Miami doesn’t fit into the way we tend to imagine the US borderlands, right? But it is a borderland. I like the way the scholar Fredo Rivera talks about Miami as an oceanic borderland. Transcoloniality provides a way to trace how the aesthetics of excess, the discourses and the practices of it, are linked to transcolonial histories – and we do need to look at Haitian history. We do need to look at the Bahamas. We do need to look at Cuba. We need to be attuned to the transnational aspect of our histories and our cultural practices to really understand what’s at stake – historically, culturally, politically, and aesthetically as well. That term, for me, was enabling, to really link these histories together. It’s so painful, you know? And that’s really why I was so inspired by that talk by Donette Francis today and thinking about grief because I don’t have a neat story about racial solidarity. I don’t have a neat story around gender solidarity. I just have a lot of stories of pain to share and intra-community and intra-gender violence, but also Latinx anti-Blackness. It’s difficult to move away from a kind of pessimism when we’re thinking about this; but I think the transcolonial could be a site where we both understand the stakes of these histories and also strategize about what more autonomous formations and relationships might look like.

Sonic Insurgency Research Group (SIRG) is Josh Rios, Anthony Romero and Matt Joynt. SIRG’s research-based performance and exhibition practice examines normalized associations be­tween criminality and sound, silencing as a form of social control, and voicing as a form of social resistance. SIRG’s group work has been exhibited and featured in M:ST 9 Biennial (Calgary, Canada), Counterpublic 2019 at The Luminary (St. Louis, MO), Acoustic Resonance at Institute of Contemporary Art at MECA (Portland, ME), State of the Art 2020 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, AR), Pulitzer Arts Foundation (St. Louis, MO), and Work for the People (Or Forget about Fred Hampton) at Co-Prosperity (Chicago, IL). Upcoming work includes solo and group exhibitions at Locust Projects (Miami) and The Vincent Price Art Museum (Los Angeles). Writing has been featured in ON Journal’s Rules and The Design Studio for Social Intervention’s Spatial Justice.