When I first heard about tatiana de la tierra, I knew she would be dynamic. A multilingual poet, publisher, print-based activist, begrudging academic, lover of smut and eternal other, de la tierra was everything I couldn’t resist as a young, queer writer still struggling to find community. I ordered an out-of-print book online, the first I could find, and waited.
I didn’t know I would be transformed by immersing myself in her work.
Born in Colombia before immigrating with her family to Miami at age seven, de la tierra used language and the published word as a weapon—a method of resisting heterosexism, classism and xenophobia. Her coming out and rising woman of color consciousness further radicalized her commitment to Latina lesbian voices and art; during the 90s, she was a founder, editor and contributor the Latina lesbian zines esto no tiene nombre and conmoción, both of which garnered a transnational readership. These zines offered one of the first-ever forums for women like de la tierra: feminist, talented, outspoken, yet often unable to experience themselves holistically in either white lesbian groups or Latinx spaces.
While straddling both the physical and psychic borders of the U.S. and Mexico, de la tierra earned her Creative Writing MFA from the University of Texas at El Paso, queering and challenging the institution every step of the way. In 2012, she passed away at age 51, having dedicated her life to uplifting Latina lesbian and queer WOC artistic expressions.
When Para las duras: Una fenomonologia lesbiana / For the Hard Ones: A Lesbian Phenomonology finally arrived at my door, de la tierra took my breath away. Her poetry is experimental and bold, sexy and celebratory, deeply vested in erotic joy and border-dwelling subjectivity.
it is incredible that with only five fingers we are able to arrive at
the articulation of all the sung words and almost every thought.
incredible that with just going from open to close, from the
open mouth to the mouth that wants to be opened, we can give
sound to feeling.
few fingers and so many sounds.
within lesbians, small things are made larger.
the art of lesbianism is a question of opening and deepening.
increíble que con sólo cinco dedos en cada mano llegamos a
la articulación de todas las palabras sonoras y casi todos los
increíble que sólo yendo de abierto a cerrado, de la boca abierta
a la boca que se quiere abrir, consigamos darle sonido al sentir.
¡ah!….¡ay!….¡oooooo!……..¡uuuuuuuu!….¡son tan pocos dedos
y hacen tanto!
dentro de las lesbianas, las cosas pequeñas siempre se hacen
el arte lésbico es una cuestión de abrir y dejar entrar, de
I finished Para las duras in one sitting. I felt challenged—what was it that I just read? Memoir, erotica, philosophy, experimental prose? Manifesta was closest to the mark. I had read a lesbian-feminist declaration in and between English and Spanish, a collection of poetry in literal conversation with itself.
As seen with “Fingers” and “Los dedos,” multiple meanings between and from poems open up, leaving readers feeling the otherness, the muddling of binaries, the border-dwelling realities of de la tierra’s life. Also present in her work is the body, the opening and deepening of pleasure. Chronically ill most of her life, de la tierra’s work is marked by a deep connection to the body, the recasting of small things made large, the way lesbian bodies make art.
Sinister Wisdom’s editor and Ms. scholar Julie R. Enszer introduced me to de la tierra; she was interested in featuring one of her works as part of the Sapphic Classic series on lesbian poetry. (Sinister Wisdom is the the longest running multicultural and multiclass lesbian literary and arts publication—featuring the likes of Audre Lorde, Cheryl Clarke, Paula Allen Gunn, Gloria Anzaldúa, Minnie Bruce Pratt and Barbara Smith.) With support from her family and literary executors, Enszer and I spent a year and a half working on the Sapphic Classic reprint edition of Para las duras. This new version, released in April of 2018, includesan introduction by executors Olga García Echeverría and Maylei Blackwell, a foreword by queer spoken-word artist Myriam Gurba, my own essay on de la tierra’s zines and a tribute to de la tierra by her mother, Fabiola Restrepo. Echeverría, Blackwell and Gurba were not only artists contemporary to de la tierra—they were her close friends. Their words are personal testimony on the transformative impact de la tierra had on so many.
Continued engagement with de la tierra’s work isn’t valuable just for aesthetic pleasure or commemoration. It is vital that we have access to the power, strategies, joy and struggles of those that come before us—and it is vital that we are transformed through our access to radical work by women like tatiana de la tierra.