The Boundlessness of Being in Brown Neon – Book Overview | Candle Made Easy

AFTER ENRIQUE PEÑA Nieto, then-President of Mexico, refuted Trump’s campaign claim that Mexico would pay for “building a great wall” on the US-Mexico border, the construction relied on US funds. Several contractors eventually vied for the controversial appearance, and the federal government bought prototypes of the border wall for up to $500,000 a model. Many debated this country’s willingness to pay such an exorbitant price to keep others out. But walls also keep things inside – and that has its price.

In 2018, writer and artist Raquel Gutiérrez traveled to Tijuana from her native Los Angeles to see the prototypes of the border wall Gutiérrez is writing in Brown neon, were evaluated by US Customs and Border Protection on the basis of “violation, scale, manufacturability, engineering design, and aesthetics.” Yes, aesthetics. Perhaps the notion of art and beauty so closely related to the Trump administration’s policies seems contradictory. A Swiss artist even went so far as to call Trump a conceptual artist. But recalling the work of land artists like Donald Judd, who installed large-scale concrete sculptures in the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas, Gutiérrez writes:

A contradictory memory of history repeating itself, the frontier an exhausted hamster wheel, a Sisyphean crossing where migrants are only seen as workers if they are seen at all. What else can we squeeze out of the border? One stops wondering how art can be incorporated into a fascist project. Art has never left her side.

Born in Los Angeles to immigrant parents from Mexico and El Salvador, Gutiérrez meditates on Southwestern terrain, art, family and identity Brown neon, her first collection of essays from Coffee House Press – “part butch memoir, part ekphrastic travel journal and part queer family tree”. Everything about this collection pleads for boundlessness, including its refusal to fall into easy categorization. Gutiérrez’s essays span space and time – from Los Angeles, Tucson, Tijuana and San Antonio; from 2015 to 2019 – and back again.

Brown neons title comes from the essay “Behind the Barrier: Resisting the Border Wall Prototypes as Land Art,” in which Gutiérrez writes, “I am a brown neon sign: aimlessly aging homosexual hipster with attachment issues.” Throughout the collection, Gutiérrez’s awareness of centering their own hypervisibility within the political, cultural, and physical landscape as a queer person of color and first-generation immigrant. Yet the line between inside and outside – between what is external to the writer Gutiérrez and what remains beneath the surface, ingrained in Gutiérrez’s own self – is thin and porous. In fact, Gutiérrez’s work is in constant flux, shifting between art criticism, queer history, cultural and political commentary, memoir, travelogue—a reminder that identity is formed in relationship, not in isolation.

Driving back from Tucson to Los Angeles in the middle of the Arizona desert, Gutiérrez’s car battery light comes on, but stopping isn’t an option. It’s 2015, five years since Arizona passed SB 1070, known as the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, which sanctioned racial profiling and allowed state and local law enforcement to require immigration papers if they found the suspected that a person had no papers. As Gutiérrez notes in On Making Butch Family: An Intertextual Dialogue, “If we haven’t seen the seeds of fascism planted in this 2010 series of planned acts of violence, then we haven’t looked closely enough. How could we not know in 2010 that people we knew (or knew about) were already gone?”

Such (probably not rhetorical) questions are often in Brown neon. These essays don’t just talk, they invite the reader into an ongoing conversation with our past, present and future. An essay cannot listen, but these come close, leaving room for unanswered questions and unlived realities. Not only do Gutiérrez reflect on their own guilt in systems of oppression, but they implore us to do the same.

Do Migrants Dream of Blue Barrels? opens in 2017 when Gutiérrez joins two volunteers from Humane Borders/Fronteras Compasivas to simulate the migration of migrants as they cross the border (Gutiérrez knows the organization’s recreation bears little resemblance to the has reality). Throughout the narrative, they consider artist Karlito Miller Espinosa, whose installations use cement bricks from near the Arizona border, where bodies of migrants have often been discovered, and the memoirs of Francisco “Paco” Cantú. The line becomes the river, which recounts Cantú’s experiences as a US Border Patrol agent. Gutiérrez, in turn, considers her own family history, including her Salvador-born brother’s decision to join the US military, the privileged position of her US citizenship, and the migratory traumas that terrorize families and individuals across generations. They remind us that there is no division between the political and the personal:

We are people connected in deep and complex matrices to immigrants and migrants – as their children, their lovers, their friends, their bosses, their clients, their neighbors or, if we’re lucky, their students. Some of us will never experience this direct experience of moving through harrowing terrain. We will never know what difficult decisions were made to begin these journeys.

But while art and fascism are linked, so are art and revolution—both may be true, and the essays in them Brown neon never take a dualistic approach. The book’s final section, “La Mano Obra,” sharpens its focus on Southern California artists whose work confronts identity in some way. In “Vessel Among Vessels: Laura Aguilar’s Body in the Landscape,” a picture by Laura Aguilars Nature Self-Portrait No. 14 precedes Gutiérrez’s exploration of her queer youth growing up in Huntington Park and the cultural significance of Plush Pony, a lesbian bar in east LA where Aguilar took portraits of other Latinx lesbians. Another essay connects the work of straight photographer Shizu Saldamando — who documents queer spaces, but only after receiving permission — to the consent crisis at the heart of #MeToo. Together, these essays wrestle with art as a promise of survival beyond existence—sustained if we can (re)build a robust foundation.

However, and this is important Brown neon is not a meditation on queer or brown suffering, although it certainly acknowledges this. Rather, Gutiérrez’s writing affirms the humanity of the brown and queer life era, without conditionality or dependent labeling—queer lives lived in border spaces, brown bodies blurred in perpetual motion through and between borders, both literal and figurative senses. It seems to ask what is lost when we draw such lines. What can we build and what new formations are possible if we tear down the walls that separate us?

Gutiérrez recalls the work of Mexican-American artist Rafa Esparza, whose extensive performances include adobe installations, and learns brick-making in her essay “Stuck in the Adobe.” The work recalls the hardships her father endured as an immigrant to the United States in the early 1970s. It’s grueling work at a time when her heart is saddened by the separation from a former lover, but Gutiérrez is determined to do it [their] participate in the creation of a relational map – to create, see and share the worlds that we could actually belong to if we could maintain intimacy.”

Beginning with the opening essay, On Making Butch Family: An Intertextual Dialogue, the focus is on the intimacy maintained through intergenerational, queer, and found families Brown neon. Gutiérrez explores her relationship with her late butch mentor — writer and human rights activist Jeanne Córdova, who calls Gutiérrez “Big Poppa” — and Caleb, a trans boy who was similarly adopted by Gutiérrez. Some of Córdova’s writings appear throughout the essay, underscoring the narrative of transition to the ‘residual’ butch, ‘as if the two were categories and not spaces that we could go in and out of in a given situational context’. Gutiérrez questions whether the reason we make art is ultimately to secure love. While mourning the loss of some of those relationships, Baby Themme Anthems: The Werq of Sebastian Hernández, which concludes the essay collection, offers an opportunity for a queer family reunion.

The infinity of Brown neon is striking – in true ekphrastic style, one work of art gives birth to another. Ambitious in scope and narrative structure, perhaps most impressive is the way it takes on such diverse terrain – loss, genealogy, geography, architectural history, desire, art and our drive to create it – to show how much connected we are all share. There’s no way to separate the political from the personal, no wall to stop us bleeding into each other. By blurring these boundaries, Gutiérrez invites us to reflect on how illusory, arbitrary and restrictive walls and borders are. Freedom, on the other hand, is something in motion.


Rachel León is a writer, editor and social worker.

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