vulnerability, Elisa Fuenzalida

narrator Elisa Fuenzalida
term vulnerability

I will hear the dead speak

So the world is not as it is

Though I have to kiss a living face

To live tomorrow yet.

(To live tomorrow, Washington Delgado)


Santiago Alba Rico has beautifully exposed why he stands against optimism and in favor of ingenuity. Optimism he says, in certain times, times like these, is the prelude of cynicism and there is nothing that I fear more than cynicism since it replaced paranoia as a key for survival, after the dictatorship, during our transition to neoliberal democracy. Being Peruvian, the memory of how people around me gave up on anything that could mean an obstacle for their individual safety reactivated painfully at the beginning of the pandemia. Those first days of lockdown and curfew I felt torn between apocalyptic images of the future -especially the future of my working-class friends and perpetually in debt family- that entangled with apocalyptic images of the past and a strange, perhaps not even healthy conviction, that I could survive anything after growing up in the nineties in Peru. Most of us survived, indeed, but it had a toll on our mental health so I stood skeptical in front of the narrative that everything was going to be alright.


It was intuition that leads me to seek comfort, guidance, and perspective in my Peruvian trans and → travesti friends. The thought of them as experimented transgressors of thresholds, as possible guides back to the less and less transited path of the pains and efforts of the body, as embodied proof of the vulnerability that the delusion of safety and guaranteed happiness capitalism intents to erase with support of the new technologies and the medicalization of all emotional pains in the global north, came afterward. In the beginning, I just thought of them as the most experimented survivors I know, not only of AIDS, stigma, inaccessibility to the health system, extreme poverty, and poisonous body modeling substances such as air plain silicone.


I wrote Frau, a common friend with Giuseppe Campuzano, and asked if the possibility that the military took control of the public space had not crossed her mind, but even more, if she wasn't worried of fear taking over the place of love. She laughed irreverently and that laughter triggered so many back flashes of joy, fun and pleasure that filtered the cracks of the violent nineties of our youth. Then Frau proceeds to narrate the story that started all, that sparked the fire that led me to seek for tools to live communally through these times into trans and travesti approaches on vulnerability and → care during the nineties.


And so the story goes: she and Giu were partying, all dressed up in full women's clothing, wig, and make-up when a military raid started. Four young cadets commanded them to follow in the direction of an army truck. Frau was scared but Giu then turned to her and winked her eye. Story short, the raid turned into an orgy between the truck and the bushes of a near park.


"Is it like this?" "Does desire moves faster than fear?" "Why a body systematically trained to kill surpasses all written and unwritten rules of normality just to kiss, to touch, and feel the flesh of another body?" They were nice, Frau said, meaning this they didn't torture them. They did torture Lalys, though, not them exactly, but their fellow army colleagues. They raped her and her friends and buried them in the desert up until the neck and left them for days just because there were trans. They chased Belisa's friends to the beach, pushed them against the waves and then drowned them to the verge of unconsciousness. They killed them. And night after night they would reunite in the cheap "cantinas" and drink and seduce each other, again. But what impacts me the most is what usually happened the next morning. Most of them were caregivers, not only to younger trans girls but to the children of their neighbors who often called them “mother”, to the elder members of their families, they built houses for them with the money they made in sexual work as migrants in Italy, Germany and Spain and paid for the funerals of the girls that had no family who cared for them. This kind of protective force and stubborn naivety of caring that rose in the darkest corner of abandonment is precisely what comes into my mind when I read the words of Alba Rico: “…to live without hope and be kind, generous, brave, demanding, engaged…”.


I have been an activist linked to the cultural field for many years now, but it was vulnerability, not only as a notion but as a whole prism of interpretation and the possibility to think of it as an enabler of reality itself that made me a researcher. And this I realized after my project was selected as one of the research granters of Our Many Europes invitation to re-think the nineties.


To create an archive of trans communitarian approaches to vulnerability is not about celebrating the resilience capacity of the collective, that would be somehow reductive and closet o frivolous considering the media life expectation in Peru has only recently exceeded the age of 25. It is closer to unveil how the acknowledgment of vulnerability holds the potency to open a crack in hermetically atomized and individualistic ways of experiencing existence, as long as such recognition engages us in the relation of reciprocity that involves the affirmative exposure to loss and hurt that is implied in relations. This relational quality of the sensibilities at stake, what we also call interdependency, is quite central to prevent us to slide into a region where rage and pain are fetishized and vulnerability becomes a medal of moral status. Indeed, as the project was being conceived, what stimulates me the most was to imagine how research could also mean care, but what emerged more and more clearly through the series of interviews that composed the first phase was a powerful foundation and an incredible set of tools for the developing of ethics of catastrophe.


What I learned after three months of illuminating, funny, hard, emotional and de-romanticized interviews about vulnerability is that life springs from ultimate resignation, as Polanyi says. In other words, vulnerability can be not only an active condition but also a core field of critical exploration of relations of normality. Indeed, going through the process of listening talking about their past gave my own otherwise repetitive and uncertain present sense and value. Obviously, I was the one being cared for.

I fail to describe what vulnerability is, perhaps an anthropologist limitation, so I've been focusing on how to relate to it as a ground for communality instead of a breeding ground of cynicism and nihilism. Now that the global north, especially Europe, is rediscovering it through mortality, loss, uncertainty and surveillance and there is an opportunity to tune in with Latinamerica´s memory of political imagination in such not far behind contexts for a better understanding of the present and the inevitable fact that, despite the promises of new technologies and the neoliberal narrative, we remain bodies, bone, hair and skin, and we don't even need to be more than that to demand dignity.


I have turned into travesti and trans women memories to search for tools and strategies that could serve as the foundation for common politics because they developed those tools from a raw state of vulnerability as we will have to do to navigate present times. Curfew, isolation, pandemia and cancellation of the future have been survived already by them. As Miluska, one of the interviewed transwomen said: “In the colonial world, we travestis, have always been in lockdown”.


The key of the value of vulnerability then might be found in the kind of light that sheds into a lot that feels ripped from us: an idea of freedom, a sense of tomorrow, a certain perception of what our body means for others, the chance to desire and feel desired togetherness. "Do they mean the same as before the pandemia?"

Alba Rico, S. (2021, February 1) Contra el optimismo. CTXT.

Delgado, Washington. (1959) Para Vivir Mañana. Lima: Casa de la Cultura de Perú.

Polanyi, K., & MacIver, R. M. (1944). The great transformation (Vol. 2, p. 145). Boston: Beacon press.