Disorderly Bodies and Discourses of Latinidad in the Elián González Story

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In the spring of 2000, at the height of the news coverage surrounding Elián González, the young Cuban refugee found floating in international waters of the Florida coast, 78 percent of the U.S. population was actively and regularly following the story (Gallup Poll Reports, April 28, 2000). According to a report by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (2000), the Elián story was the second most reported story in the history of the contemporary general media. (The most reported story was the O. J. Simpson trial.) Few stories in recent U.S. history have so captured the popular imagination and media interest as did the dramatic and sometimes surreal events pertaining to the international custody battle over Elián, a photogenic Cuban boy who watched his mother die as she struggled to bring him to the United States. Underlying the general news coverage of Elián's saga is a story ideologically driven by symbolic constructions of family, home, and nation, a story ultimately framed by the media as a transnational family conflict (Banet-Weiser 1999).1 Since "motherhood" is one of the central signs associated with family and domesticity, it is not surprising that the news coverage of the Elián conflict foregrounded the lives, voices, and bodies of Cuban women. Consequently, it was informed by a gendered discourse, a set of textual and visual practices in which the female body and women's ideological position within the private sphere of home and family became central. The goal of this essay is to identify and critique the narrative practices that produced this gendered discourse by examining the politics of signification surrounding Elián's mother, Elisabet Brotons, and his second cousin, the U.S.-born Marisleysis González.2 In particular, this essay focuses on Marisleysis, Elián's media-dubbed surrogate mother. The representational politics that surround Marisleysis, however, cannot be understood in isolation from but rather in relation to those surrounding the story's other main woman, Elisabet Brotons, Elián's mother.3 Thus, my analysis begins by examining the symbolic role of Elisabet as structured through the narrative practice of gendered disembodiment. This practice positioned Elisabet as a hyperinvisible body, while the narrative structure of tropicalized gendering marked Marisleysis as a hypervisible sexualized and racialized body. The essay concludes with a discussion of the performance of Latina bodies as nationalized bodies in the U.S. media. This project is grounded theoretically in a multicultural feminist framework that interrogates the intersecting identity vectors of gender, sexuality, race, class, and nation (Shohat 1998; Shohat and Stam 2003). As such, it contextualizes the hyperbolized images of Elisabet and Marisleysis within a broader system of signification that generally elides the diverse transnational trajectories of Latina women and specifically erases the racial, economic, and political diversity of U.S. Cubans. As a result, the argument moves beyond an empirical concern with positive and negative stereotypes to an analysis of the ideological strategies and practices that construct gendered representations of Latinidad, in order to characterize how these representations function within the culture at large (Aparicio and Chávez-Silverman 1997; Ganguli 1992). Such an analysis explores how U.S.-mediated images and texts produce gendered and racial signifiers of difference that contribute to dominant constructions of ethnic communities (Molina Guzmán 2005; Molina Guzmán and Valdivia 2004).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationFrom Bananas to Buttocks
Subtitle of host publicationThe Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture
EditorsMyra Mendible
PublisherUniversity of Texas Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)9780292714922
StatePublished - Jan 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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