Julio Capó, Jr.
Julio Capó, Jr., assistant professor of history, was recently published in TIME magazine, having authored an editorial article about the historical geography, immigration, and queer movements of Miami; this city, which he approaches as the setting for the film Moonlight, is also the cultural centerpiece of much of his research. He discusses this research, its modern context, and his recent recognitions at UMass and abroad.
Your recent article for The Washington Post, “Gay bars were supposed to be safe spaces. But they often weren’t,” addresses the 2016 Pulse massacre. How did you approach writing this piece?
As one might imagine, it was incredibly taxing to write about the Pulse massacre and its many threaded implications. Prior to entering graduate school, I worked in broadcast journalism, so writing about current and ongoing tragedies was by no means new to me. As a historian, I am always looking to the past for answers, explanations, and inspiration. I firmly believe that an astute understanding of the past helps shed light on our present, to say nothing about how it can help improve that present and future.
I wanted to discuss the Pulse tragedy at the intersection of its multilayered history. We cannot fully grasp the massacre outside the web of numerous experiences that coalesced over time: the displacement of Puerto Ricans from the Caribbean and the formation of new diasporic communities, austerity politics and the shrinking of communal spaces, structural inequalities, the carceral state and heightened attacks and policing of people of color (in the United States, its borders, and abroad), new manifestations of homophobia and transphobia, among many others. I have been studying these issues, with a focus on Latina/o/x communities and their relationship to gender and sexual politics, for over a decade. With this piece, I sought to highlight how the Pulse massacre, unfortunately, has very deep roots that we must first understand if we are to eradicate them and stop them from growing.
In this piece, you centralize the experiences of “queer and transgender people of color, whose race, ethnicity and class associations can often put them at greater risk of violence and harassment.” In what ways do current movements—and academia—fail to include these people?
First, I’d like to note that these are complicated issues that require us to frame our understanding of the world we live in through a prism of experiences. Not all queer people navigate this world the same way, for instance. We are, after all, a sum of our parts. How do constructions of gender, sexuality, class, race, ethnicity, age, religion, (dis)ability, among others, inform our individual and collective experiences?
Let’s take, for example, the issue of marriage equality. Same-sex marriage has now been legalized throughout the United States. It has, for many years, been subject to intense and sharp criticisms—both from the right and left. How does one’s interpretation of the national legalization of same-sex marriage change, however, upon shifting the focus away from property rights and tax benefits and instead making room to view its passage as a victory for immigrants? For sure, it had a massive impact on queer bi-national couples who had been denied access to the same pathways—afforded to cross-sex married couples—to permanent residency and citizenship.
So, I think I’ll answer the last part of your question in the positive, rather than in the negative. That is, I’d like to highlight the great intersectional work that many communities and organizations have undertaken. We see deeply inspired and transformative work in numerous movements and efforts today, including #BlackLivesMatter, #NoDAPL and Solidarity with Standing Rock, and the DREAMers, among others. They have been at the forefront of some of the most effective social and political queer, feminist, and antiracist organizing in recent years; they are keenly aware that such radical politics is, by its very nature, intersectional.
What connections did this attack draw to topics you currently cover as a professor? What about to those addressed in your own research?
So much of what I do as a professor and researcher links our present to the past. In this way, I like to make clear to my students that we are all, at this very moment, writing tomorrow’s histories. I teach a course on U.S. LGBT and Queer History, for example, that highlights the multiple forms of violence against queer and people of color communities. Sometimes, these are easy to identify, such as with the Pulse massacre (even as disentangling its deeply rooted history can prove challenging). Other manifestations are, however, often eclipsed or made less visible to us. It’s an ongoing project we take, as a class, to uncover, recover, and analyze them. This can include misrepresentation and underrepresentation, archival erasure, gentrification, incarceration, bodily regulation, and so forth.
The same goes for my research, which I see as inextricably linked to my teaching. The majority of the forty-nine people who died at Pulse were Latina/o/x. My research over the years has shown why, despite what some commentators have suggested, it really matters that the massacre in Orlando took place at a gay club’s popular “Latin night.” We can’t treat this as incidental. A killer came into their home—as gay spaces have long since been homes to queers, and queers of color in particular—on June 12, 2016 and let in the fears, prejudice and violence from the outside world. Although we may never fully know or understand what the killer hoped to achieve that night or what might have inspired him, my research reveals a long history of systemic violence, prejudice, displacement, homelessness, and poverty many queer people of color know well that set into motion the possibility of the Pulse tragedy.
How does it feel to have been named a 2015-2016 Outstanding Teacher for the College of Humanities and Fine Arts?
This was such an incredible honor. I am most humbled, in large part because it’s quite difficult for me to express just how much joy teaching brings me. Even in the most difficult of teaching sessions, I constantly find a great deal of inspiration from a student’s question, response, engagement, or even respectful disagreement. Sometimes it’s even quite subtle; students may not even know they’ve done it. It can be a nod, a look of surprise, or an intent expression. The intellectual energy of so many diverse opinions and backgrounds in that one room is something really special. It goes without saying, part of the pleasure for me is that this process is also multi-directional. In their class participation, written essays, research, and even social activism, students are constantly opening up my purview as both scholar and citizen and similarly providing new perspectives to their peers.
Congratulations also on your visiting scholar position at the University of Sydney in Spring 2017! What are you most hopeful for this semester?
Thank you! I’ll be based in the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, which is an energetic space committed to interdisciplinarity. I’m really looking forward to connecting with scholars in Australia and expanding the geopolitical and methodological parameters of my own research—things I directly tie to my teaching. The issues I research are of course not insular and are indeed produced and molded by global forces. For example, nativism or anti-immigrant fervor manifests in numerous ways across space and time. In preparation for my semester in Sydney, I have studied current debates concerning immigration in the United States alongside those taking shape throughout Australia. I’ve been noting their parallels and disparities in language, tone, and emphasis. This has all inspired me to undertake new comparative and transnational research (the latter is by no means new to me) about restrictionist policies in the twentieth century, particularly in the 1950s. I don’t know where that research will take me just yet, but I’m quite eager to find out. I’ll keep you posted.
"Best Picture winner Moonlight is a Window into Florida's Past," TIME magazine.
"Gay bars were supposed to be safe spaces. But they often weren't," Washington Post.