Q&A: Dr. Celiany Rivera-Velázquez shares her experiences of documenting feminist and queer music spaces

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Whose bodies? Our bodies! Whose rights? Our rights!” are the first lines of the song “Mi Cuerpo es Mio” by Las Krudas Cubensi, a queer feminist Afro Cuban hip-hop group. The group starred in guest lecturer Dr. Celiany Rivera-Velázquez’s short-film featuring queer music and dance groups from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

The feminist studies department and Cantú Queer Center invited Rivera-Velázquez to speak on queer and trans lives in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean on April 26 in the Rachel Carson Red Room.

A self-described queer Puerto Rican filmmaker, Rivera-Velázquez  focused on highlighting the resilience of queer women and art groups to document lesbian life in Havana, Cuba. Las Krudas Cubensi, a radical lesbian music group, was the first organization she documented. Their message of inclusivity in “Mi Cuerpo es Mio” inspired Rivera-Velázquez to continue detailing the stories of other queer women from the Caribbean who were confident being on stage and sharing their expressions of social justice.

Rivera-Velázquez  obtained her doctorate in media, culture & communications from the University of Illinois. She served as a research consultant on Caribbean issues for the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, and is also a member of the ​Women of Color Sexual Health Network, a group that creates opportunities for the inclusion of women of color in fields of sexuality, sexology and sexual health.

City on a Hill Press and Rivera-Velázquez sat down to discuss organizing, representation and the work she is doing today.

City on a Hill Press (CHP):Why was music the aspect you chose to focus on to document LGBTQIA+ experiences?

Dr. Celiany Rivera-Velázquez:

There are so many movies about the LGBTQ community that are so sad, and so pitiful, that highlight all the bad things, that it was important to highlight joy. It was important to highlight how do we think ourselves and recreate ourselves through music in a way that says, “Actually we are thriving.” Because as oppressed as LGBTQ communities can be in very obscure parts of the world, there’s always a glimpse of joy. There’s always somebody who’s organizing something in their houses, there’s always some secret meeting that’s happening, there’s always something underground that’s happening because we are resilient people. So my interest has always been in documenting the ways that we actually are existing and surviving and being joyful.

CHP: What can others do to support lgbtqia+ voices?

Rivera-velázquez:

Education is really key. There are so many ways in which we can constantly keep each other informed. Self-education is really important […] having conversations with family members that may disagree is really key. Overall, just having the consciousness that you are a student right now, but soon enough you’re going to have employment. You’re going to have access to a different crowd than what you have now, and that from wherever you are in the world there’s always something that you can do for others. Even if you’re in corporate, even if you are social justice oriented, there’s always going to be somebody who needs some kind of perspective about how to move forward in their own development of anti-racism, pro-women and pro-LGBTQ perspectives.

CHP:How are you personally organizing to highlight LGBTQIA+ experiences?

Rivera-velázquez: Even within the LGBTQ community, there are a lot of things that are not as visible. We know a lot about the “G” in LGBTQ, we know more and more everyday about the “T”, but we have consistently not known a lot about the “L” or the “B”, and many other letters as well. In my personal work, I’m very interested in creating spaces and opportunities for more marginalized communities within the LGBTQ community. One of the things that I do is a workshop called “69 Strategies for Safer Sex for Women.” It emerged to try to teach lesbians how to protect themselves when they are having sex because most doctors tell us that we are low risk, and that’s not the truth. […] We can actually give each other a bunch of different STIs. The misconceptions from authority figures about our lives, and the way that we have sexuality, has damaged us so much. In those regards, that’s one of the things I’m really excited to do, to highlight, and put a spotlight on some of the less visible realities within the LGBTQ community.

CHP:What does visibility mean to you?

Rivera-velázquez: Someone once said, “Lo que no se ve, no existe.” “If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.” In order for folks to be able to move ahead in their different agendas to obtain rights, it is really hard to do that from anonymity. It is hard to do that from the shadows, and more and more I always tell people to, in whatever way they are comfortable, to come out. Because […] the idea of having role models is really important, and role models have to be visible in order to obtain change.