Chismeando con Ruben

A Conversation with Queer Xicano Chisme

by Paula Pacheco Soto

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published March 2, 2018

In English, the word chisme translates to gossip. Chisme is a cultural practice in Latin American and diaspora communities, an implicit understanding of how our communities are constructed and preserved. 

Chismosas, or gossipers, are the aunties, the mothers, las comadres: the women in the neighborhood. They are the everyday characters and matriarchs whose discussion of other people’s lives and actions is a crucial component of their survival. This has led to the notion of chisme as a feminized practice. More than just a word to be translated, chisme is also a transgenerational experience and tradition that serves to create safety and community through secrecy. 

In recent years, chisme has been reclaimed by Latinx communities in the US. Latinx platforms like Mitu, Remezcla, and Pero Like have published extensive content on chisme, showcasing its role in Latinx pop culture through videos, memes, and blog posts. Queer Xicano Chisme’s platform is built on chisme, but does not restrain itself to grappling with it as a fun, merely social activity. “Chisme is gossip, oral history, shade, news, and ancestral knowledge as practiced by many Chicanx/Latinx folks” he describes on his Facebook page. 

Ruben Angel, also known as Queer Xicano Chisme, is a writer, blogger and activist. As his name suggests, his work grapples with issues of identity and intersectionality in the Latinx and Chicano communities. An East Los Angeles native of Mexican origins, he strives to make social critique accessible through creating dialogue on social media platforms like Facebook—from which he launched his career in 2016—Instagram and Twitter. From Xicanx nationalistic discourse on Aztlán to Shakira’s whitewashing transition, QXC’s platform leverages the power and accessibility of social media to unpack complex discussions of tradition, identity, sexuality and representation that, while crucial in the lives of queer and trans communities of color, are often confined to gated institutions that do not include such an audience. Through his podcast, memes, and essays, Ruben grounds such issues in current affairs and the everyday experiences of his audience.

The podcast Bitter Brown Femmes, one of his latest projects with friend and activist Xicanisima, comes at social justice issues and discussion about la cultura with a comedic twist, with episodes discussing the #MeToo movement and current discourses on sexual assault, the role of race in Latinx communities, (white) feminism, and centering the perspectives of femme, queer, and trans people of color. 

Yet, Queer Xicano Chisme’s platform doesn’t mean to essentialize the complexity of Latinidad, Xicanismo, and other identities. Rather, it is a space for dialogue to arise. He states that himself, inviting the audience to bring to his attention if he “might fall into problematic territory.” Ultimately, as a self-defined “sissy brown boy,” Ruben Angel creates a sort of representation that is disruptive and steps away from identity politics into uncensored, sometimes uncomfortable discussions necessary for individual empowerment and community liberation. 

The Independent: How did you become Queer Xicano Chisme and what situations in your life led you to establish this platform? 

Ruben Angel: I went to school for English, and I always wanted to be a writer. I thought that my calling was fiction but ultimately I think I did a lot better when I got into critique and personal narratives, so I became interested in writing for social media. At the time, BuzzFeed was hiring Latinx people for Pero Like,  their Latinx brand. Kat Blaque, who is a YouTuber, came to my campus to talk one time and she invited me out for drinks and I told her, “I really love what you do. I know you work for BuzzFeed, and I’m thinking of going down that route too,” and she said, “No, don’t work for them. You won’t have the right to anything you create under them,” which sounded horrible, but being poor, I needed something else to do instead. “Trust me, you don't need anything,” she said, “I started with my computer camera,” and now she's featured on the cover of magazines and really is one of the foremost voices in the black trans community. In the back of my head I was like, “That's not going to happen.”

Then Pulse happened. I started writing a bunch of posts on my personal Facebook which started reaching a lot of people. I realized there was a need for the voice that I have, that people reacted to it. But I didn’t know what I was doing at all. 
I was never good with social media. I don't think I really knew who I was for the first few months, I was just trying to see what the heck my platform was. Then slowly I started seeing that people enjoyed when I’d unpack things, so I started doing that and spreading resources through it. I slowly moved from Facebook to Twitter. People on Twitter are really radical. I could work on my own. Although people in it might be intentionally obtuse, Twitter is a tool that a lot of folks use to subvert the academy and I wanted to be one of those. I think that's where I can be my full self and talk about anything. Nothing is off limits.  Like tweet about eating ass at 5 PM.

The Indy: In the process of constructing your voice through social media, when did you begin to integrate chisme?

RA: Chisme, in the way that I use it and that I believe in it, came from my closest friends in college. I realized that a lot of the ways in which students of color survive on college campuses are not by going by the brochure... a lot of it is actually through word of mouth. I think it’s a form of ancestral knowledge, passed on from generation to generation and something that we, as Latinx people of color, bring into the academy. We are used to that being how we keep records and keep each other safe in our own communities, so that's kind of how I developed this theory with my friends. I don’t think there was one single thing. 

It helps me think about how I survived as a queer person of color in East LA. In the early 2000s there were no safe spaces—there wasn’t even a lexicon for it until like 2004. When I was coming into my identity, I only found other queer and trans people by word of mouth. That's how you would find out about this place or that club and find each other.  That was one of the ways I had manifested chisme throughout my life. 

[Chisme] is also important for people that are first-generation and second-generation immigrants to the US. Sometimes their parents come with no documentation, no pictures, and they have no proof that they existed before coming here, so they rely on word of mouth to tell their stories.  This is something that is engraved into our community.  And we kept those forms of history keeping through colonialism. 

I own chisme because it is a very feminine form of communication, and I am a person that has had a very feminine experience. I'm not always going to be correct and respectable and that is the other side of chisme. Chisme sometimes is messy and incorrect and I want to own up to that. 

The Indy: How do you expand that into the work you do on social media? How do you manage being hyper-visible but also trying to maintain secrecy?  

RA: Chisme has always been one of the crucial tools that survivors use.  The system isn't here for us,  the system barely ever persecutes abusers. Survivors are left to fend for themselves. To protect other femmes sometimes you have to do it on the low, especially in activist spaces where a lot of the time people protect abusers because they do “good work.” They work for the community so they get a pass. Often times we’re only left with chisme. It's easier to do away with the survivor because it's easier to do away with people who have less power, and rape and abuse are ultimately about power. The #MeToo movement revolves around people saying the truth and hoping that someone will believe them. I don't think that's new; I think the hashtag is new. 

As for keeping these traditions in social media I think that a lot of Latinx people fail to be critical of the culture, they think criticism of Latinidad should be reserved for the academy, like ethnic studies or history or literarure. We have a lot of people who are very dogmatic, very much about worshiping icons: Selena, Frida, pan dulce. These things are untouchable. Rarely are our people up for critique, rarely are they open to discussion. And so I think the way I use chisme is to start a new label of discussion beyond the academy. I don't want to be one of those academics who stop bringing back to the community, those who produce work that only white people read. I don't care about white people reading my work. I want queer and trans people of color reading and engaging with my work.

The Indy: You were talking earlier about Latinx icons and symbols that are so grounded in our identity and have become almost mainstream. What are your thoughts on these contradictions of trying to reclaim tradition?

RA: I’ve found some of my best allies to be Central American and Caribbean people. In my experience Chicanos are the ones who are resistant to moving forward, and I think it's because a lot of us of Mexican descent haven't had to push notions of identity or culture forward because Mexican culture is ultimately one of the most powerful in Latin America. Because of Mexican hegemony, our traditions are imposed on other Latinx, especially in a US context, especially in the Southwest. Something that we have to remember is that, from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexican folks have tried to pass as white. So we are constantly immersed in a struggle between people trying to assimilate into whiteness while others try to reclaim indigeneity. I think a little of my work is trying to say that there's another way. That people can both not subscribe to nationalism and not subscribe to whiteness. So they can respect the culture while also critiquing it.
I just want people to do the work of reclamation and think of how some things are not meant for us to reclaim, and maybe your energy will be put to better use by trying to uplift other people. 

The Indy: Throughout our conversation, we’ve used Spanish and English, and also terms like Latinx. How do you navigate your own use of language? How has this been received by the communities you work with?

RA: If I'm in a Spanish-speaking community like back home I’d just say Latino... or if I'm feeling very spicy I would say Latino/Latinx. Just so we start hearing those. You have to understand that this is not a popular lexicon in our communities. It is better to not use them so as to meet people where they are at. By the same token though, I also understand that there are people who don't have this luxury of not caring so much about language, especially people who use the non-binary because that's the right identity. So what happens to their identity when we switch languages?  Again, language should be reflexive. Educating in the moment. Ultimately, I'm speaking to a US context,  specifically online. That's who my audience is. I wouldn't want to impose myself on people in Latin America that might have another use of language. I understand that there're going to be differences. I also have other people around me who use different articulations and that also helps me figure out what are the best ways to communicate. 

For example people who are Puerto Rican, Dominican, people who I didn’t grew up around in LA. People who have a different understanding of what these identities mean. I try to see where they're at and where their people are at.  I know that some people in Argentina for example use Latinx.  We should be able to have this exchange if you want to move forward. 

The Indy: You have said that you’ve been getting a lot of attention that you didn't expect. Where do you see your platform going in the future?

RA: Ultimately, I want a book. Currently, I'm working on setting up my website and writing longer essays—personal essays [and] cultural criticism. One of my favorite things to do outside of these issues of identity is pop culture. I want to explore this more and make it a habit for people to be critical of what’s going on their TV and what that says of the world we are living in. Even beyond that, I do want to write fiction one day.

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