Sexuality Policy Watch

Evoking Teresita de Barbieri

By Sonia Corrêa


In late January 2018, three people departed whose voices, or better said whose writings, inhabit very special places in my memory and intellectual formation: the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, the North- American writer Ursula Le Guin and the Uruguayan feminist Teresita de Barbieri. I have encountered them in scattered moments across time and these encounters were meaningful in very different ways. But when started to search my inner bins for Teresita remembrances, as the person who I have known personally and for whom the mourning of this short note has been woven, I have intuitively revisited these various trails. I have recalled, for instance, that a few years back when I casually found and read his arid poem about the life of a primary teacher, I was taken aback on a cold night in November 1966 when, on my very first trip to Chile, I have seen Nicanor, at distance, in the Peña los Parra, the wine and empanada bodega that the Parra family – including Violeta – filled with music at that was located in the Calle Santo Domingo, in Santiago.  As for Ursula, in the 1970’s, I read the Orsinian Tales a dark saga that I found more mysterious and attractive than the Lord of the Rings.  But the fatal attraction happened when I read The left hand of darkness, in the late 1980’s while we, the Brazilian feminists, were doing our first incursions into the territories of gender guided by Gayle Rubin and Joan Scott. Against the backdrop of theory, which deeply de-stabilized my modes of thinking, I read and re-read, fascinated, the dialogues between the stellar voyager – apparently an Earth human being – and the mutable and androgynous inhabitant of the cold planet who is the other main character of the novel.

I met Teresita sometime after, in 1992, when I visited Mexico for the first time. On this occasion, amongst other errands, we coincidently lunched in a restaurant named Hosteria Santo Domingo.  Ruminating about these lost threads, I found a line of connection that goes beyond first travels and the spectre of a medieval saint who founded the order of preachers. As Nicanor Parra, Teresita de Barbieri has survived extreme authoritarianism and fully inhabits Latin American contemporaneity. As a feminist thinker, she was as daring and creative as Ursula in her feminist science fiction literary excursions.

When I met her I had never read her writings and this tells much about how scarce the circulation of Latin American feminist writings was in Brazil, at that point in time. I was charmed by her intellectual acuity, agility and flexibility as we strolled across the central area of Mexico City in the company of the feminist journalist Sara Lovera: late breakfast at the Hotel Majestic gazing at the Zócalo from above, the Rivera murals, the cathedral; the Aztec ruins and the unforgettable lunch at the Hosteria. The next day, we also did pleasant errands in San Angel e Coyoacán. Teresita has introduced me to the city, which hosted her as an exiled intellectual in the 1970s, with amazing generosity and an exceptional knowledge of history, sociological aspects and the meanders of its fait divers.

It was just after this intense encounter that I read Teresita and discovered the brilliant moments in her political and intellectual trajectory, for example, the famous polemic on Marxism and feminism with Vilma Espín (Raul Castro’s wife and then the president of the Cuban Women’s Federation). Between the 1990s and the mid-2000s, I have been many times in Mexico City and quite often for long periods.  We have met again on numerous occasions in seminars, but also in private encounters that were always warm and instigating. One of the last times we have been together with time enough for a fruitful conversation was at a Mexican brunch in Coyoacán, in the early 2000’s.

After that, my visits to Mexico became scarcer and, most principally, time compression has diluted our threads of connection. During my last visits to the DF, I was always so busy that I could not find time to look for her. I deeply regret it. Recapturing the two days of conversations, charming urban places and wonderful cuisine of my first encounter with Teresita, it was like re-entering a world that is now gone: a time when it was still possible to friendly wander around while critically reflecting on the state of the world and feminist challenges.

I am writing about Teresita immersed in this lost time cadence and recalling that, in the week just before her departure, she has been so close by. In the context of the intense and mercurial online conversations around the French feminist Manifesto Vs. #Metoo polemics I had a brief exchange with the young Brazilian feminist Manoela Miklos on patriarchy, After it, I thought it could be perhaps productive to revisit Teresita classical paper –  Sobre la categoria de género: Una introducción teórico metodológica – that was included in the volume Direitos Reprodutivos,  edited by Verena Stolcke and Sandra Azeredo that was published by the Fundação Carlos Chagas in 1993 (exactly a quarter of century ago).

I did not then what I would do as soon as I learned of Teresita’s departure. I went searching for the paper.  Even though the full publication is not available online, Albertina Costa (from Fundação Carlos Chagas), whom I dearly thank, has generously and quickly sent me the digital copy of the article linked in this note. There are indeed many good reasons to read or re-read this exemplary and seminal reflection of Teresita on gender.  To begin with, this exercise evokes and conjures her inestimable political and intellectual legacy.  As, for example, her prescience in regard to what we now call intersectionality (gender, class, race and ethnicity) or, yet more compelling, her sober and severe critique of the uses and abuses of the concept of patriarchy:

“ Very rapidly the totalizing vision of patriarchy extended and was absorbed in political discourses and academic work. However, precision was lacking in what concerns the constitutive elements of this system: the core of the conflict, its components, its dynamics, historical development and variations, simply because there was no information, reflection or even time to allow for that. The category of patriarchy was in fact a concept void of content, shallow from the historical point of view; it named something, but it did not transcend the act of naming; this vague definition became the synonym of male domination, but without explanatory value. It was very useful from the political point of view but it did not resist to the polemic with those critical of feminism and it did not allow for imagining viable projects of transformation” (page 28)

Not less importantly, for the feminists of my generation it is always healthy to remember with Teresita that in the “euphoria of emerging groups and mobilizations” we have performed parricides”. These were times when we deliberately forgot what we had learned and just read the authors that corresponded to our own revolutionary vortex that, for some time, were only two: Simone de Beauvoir and Engels. To recall that is, in my view, as important as the appeal to conceptual and methodological precision that Teresita imprints in the article and that, since then, has guided me in many ways including in what concerns the necessary caution in the use of patriarchy.

Gracias Teresita, sigues con nosotras!

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