Chapinx: Guatemalan, Queer, and In Between

The term “Chapinx,” as a gender-inclusive variation of “Chapina” and “Chapín,” indicates Guatemalan origin, advocates for gender, ethnic, and sexual diversity, and, in tune with Maritza Cárdenas’s reflections on uneven representations in the diaspora, reverses the “‘nonspace’ that Central Americans occupy within Latinidad.”[1] Above all, it occupies a privileged position that flows back and forth between North and South. On June 27, 2015, I joined thousands of marchers in the Guatemala City pride parade, organized by community leaders of advocacy groups such as Gay Guatemala and OTRANS Reinas de la Noche, as it made its way down the Sexta Avenida toward the heart of the capital. The date was significant because it happened to fall one day after the Supreme Court eliminated all bans on same-sex marriage in the United States. Transgender Indigenous women wore ornately patterned huipiles, whose dress announced that their peaceful occupation of public space was as Guatemalan as woven textiles. Other women—cisgender, transgender, Ladina, and Indigenous—wore black dresses to mourn LGBTQ+ people lost to hate crimes. Ladino and Indigenous gay men also wore a mix of traditionally woven clothing and international name brands, as well as capes, knee-high boots, leather chaps, and see-through tops, stopping every so often on the parade’s path to kiss or pose for photos.

There were considerably more spectators when I marched for a second time on July 20, 2019. On that occasion, I observed a man performing a handstand with his legs completely outstretched in front of the Palacio Nacional de la Justicia. I also saw K’iche’ artist Manuel Tzoc and his partner, Chilean artist Rodrigo Arenas-Carter, on a float covered in scanned copies of H.I.J.O.S. photographs, which are typically found on facades of buildings in the city center. The ghostly images depicted forcibly disappeared LGBTQ+ persons, Ladina/o and Indigenous, whose stories of the internal armed conflicts are also chronicled in the Historical Archive of the National Police.[2] As I came to understand on this second occasion at the parade, the visual interplay of LGBTQ+ persons and the H.I.J.O.S. photographs intrinsically links queerness with Guatemalan memories of war and public discourse on human rights abuses. Due to the scope of the conflicts, these memories naturally extend beyond the country’s geographic boundaries.

As I began to uncover the mutual imbrications between transnational Guatemalanness and queerness, I further considered the reappropriation of the Sexta Avenida, Guatemala City’s pulsing artery with much historical significance, for the annual pride parade. The event provided a spatial turn toward inclusivity, I thought, alongside a recent literary turn. I considered Tzoc’s own homoerotic poetry collection Gay(o) (2010), detailing man-to-man sex, and the genderqueer character Keit who navigates pregnancy in Javier Payeras’s novel Días amarillos (2009).[3] These prominent narrative voices, like the pride parade, embrace queerness as a main pillar of urban Guatemalan life and, increasingly, the diaspora. In my view, the act of queering Central American-American Studies resonates with these recent spatial and literary advances in Guatemala City. Its development as a field of inquiry, I would argue, is discernible in cultural production and lived experiences, which intersects with other emergent identity markers that necessarily transcend Central American isthmian borders.

I particularly recall an episode in neighboring El Salvador that helps illustrate this point. In the back of a shared taxi circling the Monumento al Divino Salvador del Mundo, a Salvadoran woman whose name I never discovered made an acute observation after having just met me: “Eres chapín, pero fíjate que no eres chapín, chapín, mijo.” In that short sentence, she got at the heart of what it means to be Gringo/a Chapín/a—that is, a Guatemalan who grew up as an adopted U.S. American, of which there are approximately 50,000.[4] This was already a queer perspective, in the traditional odd or strange sense of the word. I had first coined Gringo Chapín in my creative work,[5] which subsequently led to the consideration of a more far-reaching term. Such a term should encompass undisciplined borders of both adoptees who defy odds and return to Guatemala and academic Central Americanists. It should also more overtly include queerness.

I am not the first to ponder undisciplined work that crosses ethnic, queer, and personal lines. James McMaster, in his conceptualization of “gaysian sexual ethics,” combines autoethnographic elements of Filipino identity with theoretical interventions.[6] Joseph Pierce explores “ambiguous Native histories” in relation to adoption, Cherokee kinship, and queerness.[7] In my own case, I have Maya-influenced Chapín features and speak Spanish as an accented second language due to my Upstate New York upbringing, which has been frequently pointed out in Central America. The Salvadoran woman’s unknowingly perfect articulation of being “Chapín” (Guatemalan) but not “Chapín-Chapín” captures the essence of a shared transnational crossroads, characterized by nearly forty years of civil war, human trafficking, gender violence (especially against Indigenous women), and “Cold War casualties,” as Claudia Milian might categorize us.[8] As is the case with my adopted contemporaries and other Central American-Americans, I am perpetually in between worlds.

Like Diana Taylor, who proclaims “I am not Mexican, but I am not/not Mexican,”[9] Guatemalan adoptees ostensibly embody varying degrees of cultural, ethnic, geographic, linguistic, and social separation between us and our country of origin. Despite this, our Guatemalanness is underscored by our adoption papers bearing given names such as Esperanza and José, physical features, places of birth embracing a range from Guatemala City to the depths of the Petén Department, and, in some cases, queerness, for those like myself who identify as LGBTQ+. In addition to the pride parade and more recent cultural production, queer dimensions of Guatemalan identity have been explored by mainstream voices. In Crossing Borders (1998), Rigoberta Menchú declared she “had never heard of homosexuality” prior to leaving her hometown of Chimel.[10] With her own internationalization over time, her friendship with a gay man in New York added another layer to her understanding of what it meant to be a minority. In the Guatemalan pride parades of 2015 and 2019, I similarly conceived of queerness and Maya ethnicity, understanding how each played a fundamental role in my understanding of Guatemala and Central America in global terms, including from the vantage point of the United States diaspora.

Thus, I follow the Nobel Laureate to question the place of queerness within transnational orbits, both in terms of personal preoccupations about identity, and academic and creative work. It is fair to say that the latter are “dispersed across the muddled undisciplines,”[11] to borrow the words of Debra Castillo and Shalini Puri, given that Central Americanists are in such academic departments as Anthropology, American Studies, English, Ethnic Studies, and some variation of Modern or Romance Languages, including stand-alone Spanish departments. At its core, my own undisciplined research examines how state violence and its aftermath elicit creative responses. Texts I analyze include the Historical Archive of the National Police, its related literary recreation in Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s El material humano (2009),[12] and H.I.J.O.S. photo collages with graffiti on buildings in Guatemala City. Taken together, these texts reveal urban space as an ongoing creative work in progress more than twenty-five years after the end of the war. Their transnational scope sheds light on the importance of understanding how Central American themes are developed outside the region across different platforms and cultural products.

Not losing sight of this, as my work advanced, I met others in similar subject positions such as Guatemalan American writer Patrick Mullen-Coyoy. In conversation with him, I observed how he identifies as “Chapinx queer” in his Twitter bio (@aguacatemalteco).[13] As I told Mullen-Coyoy, in my estimation the term “Chapinx” on its own denotes the gender-neutral ethos of Latinx, Guatemalan articulations of adoption, migration, and transnationality, and queerness that “exes out” or cancels heteropatriarchal norms. For adoptees, the X of Chapinx accentuates the crossroads between Guatemala and the United States, while for Central Americanists it signals the multiplication of knowledge across disciplinary boundaries, which are often as imaginary as the geographic ones that divide the countries we study.

With a nod to Mullen-Coyoy’s first known documented use of the term, I see Rigoberta Menchú’s musings about gay rights as an entry point into understanding the Chapinx condition, also present in cultural production by queer Central Americans of the diaspora such as Maya Chinchilla, Roy G. Guzmán, and Mullen-Coyoy himself. In addition to my own ongoing narratives as a gay Guatemalan adoptee who works in/on Central America, Chapinx materializes in spatial terms in the Guatemala City pride parade and OTRANS, a community organization for transgender women with an office in the capital. But it is more than simply a conceptualization of the self. As but one small fragment of Central American-American Studies, the term posits future queer turns of the field.

Chapinx builds upon extant work by Nicaraguan scholar Victoria González Rivera, who calls attention to women’s political participation in her home country, and Horacio Roque Ramírez, who drew on personal experience to highlight the interrelated threads of queerness and the Salvadoran exodus to the Bay Area in the 1980s.[14] Moreover, scholarship on gender and sexual diversity in Nicaragua by Cymene Howe and John Petrus speaks to how queerness intervenes in post-conflict urban placemaking, much as Chapinx does in Guatemala City and elsewhere.[15] While it encapsulates creative work and builds upon historical trajectories, Chapinx could also generate future cultural criticism about the ongoing exodus of Central American migrants to the United States, since the first arrivals of the late 2018 caravans were LGBTQ+ people.[16]

At once, then, the term Chapinx, in a similar fashion to the Salvadoran woman who contemplated the Gringo Chapín who wasn’t “Chapín Chapín,” is not firmly anchored in place. The Chapinx transcends national experiences, including where he/she/they were not meant to be. My participation in the Guatemala City pride parade on the Sexta Avenida, which certainly was not designed with queerness in mind, meant that I was there in defiance of all the forces that had worked so hard to keep me “out” in every sense of the word—out of Guatemala, out of disciplined boundaries in the academy, and out of the closet, which likely would have forced me to flee the country anyway. In this sense, the Chapinx is empowered and, as an emergent critical category, offers new possibilities for understanding received ideas surrounding diaspora, ethnicity, and social movements.

[1] Maritza Cárdenas, Constituting Central American-Americans: Transnational Identities and the Politics of Dislocation, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018), 6.

[2] “La persecución de homosexuales y el ‘álbum del terror’ de la Policía,” Nómada, 2018.

[3] Manuel Tzoc, Gay(o), (Guatemala City: Ediciones La Maleta Ilegal, 2010); and, Javier Payeras, Días amarillos, (Guatemala City: Editorial Germinal, 2014).

[4] Via @benfossen on Twitter. Fossen is the co-founder of the Adoptees with Guatemalan Roots nonprofit organization.

[5] Andrew Bentley, “El Gringo Chapín,” in The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States, edited by Leticia Hernández Linares, Rubén Martínez, and Héctor Tobar, (Los Angeles: Tía Chucha Press, 2017); and “El Gringo Chapín Goes to Guate.” Chiricú Journal: Latina/o Literatures, Arts, and Cultures, vol. 5., no. 1, 2020, pp. 88-104.

[6] James McMaster, “My Firsts: On Gaysian Sexual Ethics.” Journal of Asian American Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, 2021, pp. 51-58.

[7] Joseph Pierce, “Adopted: Trace, Blood, and Native Authenticity.” Critical Ethnic Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2017, pp. 57-76.

[8] Claudia Milian, LatinX, (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2019), 1.

[9] Diana Taylor, ¡Presente! The Politics of Presence, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 11.

[10] Rigoberta Menchú, Crossing Borders, (New York: Verso, 1998), 178.

[11] Debra Castillo and Shalini Puri, Theorizing Fieldwork in the Humanities: Methods, Reflections, and Approaches to the Global South, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 2.

[12] Rodrigo Rey Rosa, El material humano, (Barcelona: Anagrama, 2009).

[13] Via @aguacatemalteco on Twitter.

[14] Victoria González Rivera, Before the Revolution: Women’s Rights and Right-Wing Politics in Nicaragua, 1821-1979 (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011); and, Horacio Roque Ramírez, “My Community, My History, My Practice.” Oral History Review, vol. 29, no. 2, 2002, pp. 87-91.

[15] Cymene Howe, Intimate Activism: The Struggle for Sexual Rights in Postrevolutionary Nicaragua, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013); and John Petrus, “The Transformative Power of Performance Art in Contemporary Nicaragua.” Istmo: Revista virtual de estudios literarios y culturales centroamericanos, vol. 33, 2016.

[16] Sarah Kinosian and Joshua Partlow, “LGBT asylum seekers are first to reach the U.S. border from the caravan. Now they wait,” The Washington Post, 2018.

Andrew Bentley, Ph.D. (he/him/his), is an Assistant Professor of Spanish in the Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Central Connecticut State University. His research examines literature, artistic installations, social media, and urban space as vehicles for transnational social movements, particularly in the contexts of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and their diasporas. In tune with these themes, his teaching at all levels prioritizes antiracist thinking and human rights across borders. He is deeply committed to mentoring students at all levels and enjoys sustained dialogue as they move through their degree programs and into exciting careers. He especially enjoys showing students how a greater understanding of Latin America paves the way for success in various globally oriented careers.

Photo: Guatemala City pride parade on July 20, 2019, used with permission by author.

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