Knowing Like A Jinetera

The last commentary post in our forum on Megan’s From Cuba With Love, following contributions from Megan herself, Rahul, Dunja Fehimovic and Nivi. Megan’s rejoinder will be up imminently.


Visit Cuba Poster

So near and yet so foreign! declares the advert. Intimate and exotic, Cuba as a repository for fantasy and self-discovery, the neighbour with the mixed-race charms, the imagined nation Cindy Weber once analysed so relentlessly as “the near colony and certain feminine complement” of the United States. Megan’s new, and first, book – From Cuba With Love – exposes the same kind of dynamic, although from a different standpoint.[1] Hers is a near-seamless blend of reportage and feminist IR, moving from autobiography to testimony to political theory, translating from events on the Malecón (the long waterside promenade in Havana dubbed “Cuba’s great sofa”) to the masculine histories of the Cuban state and back again. It is also – for those seduced by such things – a book beautiful to look at, and to hold (which is a way of saying that you should buy a hard copy). It is a book about evasion, repression and muddled motives, but is itself a model of generosity and clarity.

The central figure throughout is the ‘jinetera’, superficially close to the idea of a ‘prostitute’ but evidently much more ambiguous in definition and shifting in practice. As Megan explains, the term ‘jinetera’ and the general practice ‘jineterismo’ are plays on ‘jockeying’, meaning to manoeuvre for advantage and also to have sex, both connotations clearly playful, if also risky (see the previous posts in the forum for more discussion on the meaning and forms of jineterismo).[2] It is with a curiosity about jineterismo that Megan starts. But where we end up is inside an indispensable guide to the ‘sexual-affective economy’, a bold innovation in disciplinary writing, and a testament to the difference gender analysis makes in studying the global political.

From Cuba With Love does what a certain kind of post-structural feminist IR does best, dissecting the identities created by, and in, a concrete historical system. Not the narrow ‘identity politics’ critics abhor, but identity as the fullness of lived experience shot through with power, subjectivities which are at once deeply personal (love, hope, desire, sex) and interwoven with the most brute forms of political violence (the state, the prison camp, the rehabilitation centre, the police system, imperialism and resistance, exclusion and poverty). It is a study that is undeniably ‘global’ in its scope, even about inter-national relations in a rather precise sense, given how often the admixture of sex and money circles the desires of the (usually) western male for a ‘local’ rendezvous, and how implicated notions of race, nation, difference, rivalry, trade, progress, savagery, miscegenation, and geopolitical virility are in that. A kind of diplomacy, even. This is an encounter with ‘the Other’, and a negotiation of the foreign, in its most visceral possible form. Or, as one key informant more bluntly puts it:

It’s different if one goes to bed with a foreigner, or a mountain of foreigners…Do we have to carry such chauvinistic patriotism with us in our pussies too? Is it obligatory to make use of a mambí dick? Or are they trying to avoid alienating penetrations?

Yet From Cuba With Love is not just a great success on those terms. It is also in many ways the stand-out example of ‘narrative IR’, that vague but increasingly popular sub-field (or is it a method?) devoted to exploring world politics from the situated perspective of someone experiencing it (that someone usually being the researcher themselves). As the recently established Journal of Narrative Politics has it, this is a way of insisting on the embeddedness of researchers. What it is to speak precisely of embeddedness or subject positioning is of course a question distracting in its intricacy. We have previously tried to explore it at little (Megan and I explicitly, and others through their own stories, plus some visiting contributors in a dedicated forum). And while From Cuba With Love is explicit in centring Megan as the subject-observer-creator of her own text, it is less explicit about the methodological (or better, meta-theoretical) stakes of embeddedness. This is no criticism, since there is more than enough to elucidate without recourse to that. And yet meta-theory haunts us still.

Víctor Patricio de Landaluze, 'Tipos Populares (Damas en la Ventana)' ('Popular Types: Ladies in the Window')

Víctor Patricio de Landaluze, Tipos Populares (Damas en la Ventana) (‘Popular Types: Ladies in the Window’)

I want to pick up on the parallel between an investigation of desired and desiring bodies (the jineteras and their companions) and the desire for a body of knowledge about them, or created with them (about, say, the foreign men who come to Cuba in search of something like love, on which more shortly). The corpus delecti for tourists in the sex/love economy, and the corpus of knowledge/lust for us. Megan is ever-conscious of her own place in this setting – the sympathetic outsider, sometimes the assumed seeker of sex, a guest to be protected from jineterismo, an infiltrator whose researches may undermine the revolution – and so we are pulled in with her, inhabiting an academic tourist gaze to go with the sex/love tourism held up to the light. As such, we might look to From Cuba With Love not just for its own claims, but as an exemplar of a way of thinking about situated knowledge, and our ability to relate the most macro and abstract of themes within the bounds of discrete personal experience (the discreteness of our perceptions being no denial of the thoroughly inter-subjective and properly social coordinates of the world).

Megan’s approach is to make space for “the jineteras themselves to define their own position in Cuban society”, and her emphasis therefore, in contrast to other work on the subject, with “starting from the perspectives and identities of the jineteras themselves” (the close repetition of “themselves” within two pages is, I think, crucial). While this forms the analytical core, and the narrative thread, for the book, it is not all that the book does. There is also archival reading, surfacing the sexed histories of colony and plantation, interviews with those who police jineterismo, one detailed encounter with a foreign “consumer”, passages of reflexivity on the research experience, overlays of critical theory, and more besides. The interlocutors in these sections are not jineteras but cigar boxes, magazine covers, local religious practices, state correctional policies, political speeches, 19th century poems, 20th century ethnographies, and 21st century human rights reports. The techniques of inquiry change accordingly: historical explication here, participant observation there, a cultural studies panorama in-between. Although these various styles are all from a broadly critical tradition, they do not all take the same stance on how to think with jineteras themselves. And so the question arises: just how much is this an encoded file on what it is like to be a jinetera? How much a deconstruction of – that is, an illustration of the impossibility of – jinetera experience? How much a narrative of what it is like to talk with jineteras (i.e. to be Megan)? And what does it mean to know like a jinetera (that unstable fiction, but also reiterated, persistent social role) anyway?

We might say that while these different approaches are rivals in their demands on our time, focus and methodological speciality, they are not – at least not straight-forwardly – rivals at any more fundamental level. Knowing like an archivist and knowing like a jinetera are clearly different, but not perforce mutually-exclusive paradigms. Rather, these knowledge forms (historical, testimonial, genealogical, sociological, ethnographic) and knowledge sites (the policy document, the conversation, the reconstructed notebook) are inter-woven in complex, and perhaps deeply context-specific, ways. We speak in different registers depending on the claims we are trying to defend, but that does not mean that we refer to quarantined elements of the world, or that there is no translation possible between registers. We seek instead to construct a more-or-less robust story from the disorder of themes, and from all the different ways in which global politics can be grasped and explained.

Coke - A Sign of Good Taste CubaBut we might also see that this disposition towards combination has its limit. Because From Cuba With Love is centrally concerned with asking how bodies are governed, it is not a mere report on the jinetera experience. That would be difficult enough, given the logistical, ethical and personal challenges Megan navigates in winning trust and relating to her informants. But tracing and in turn deconstructing the powers of jineterismo draws us in various other directions. For example, the terminology around processes of gendering and racialisation – drawn from queer theory, critical whiteness studies, post-colonial scholarship and post-structuralist discourse analysis – does much to convince, but is both starkly different, and in some cases in contradiction with, the language used by informants “themselves”. Similarly, the meaning of certain metaphors of lightness and darkness as they function in the sociology of this economy – such as the way “whiteness stands as a marker for purity of morals and intentions and even sexual passivity [while] black and mulata women are inscribed with greed and promiscuity” in the pairing of tourists with university students – are derived not from the situated language of jineteras, but from the analytical lens Megan (reading with others) brings to bear on their experience.

That is no surprise, since the languages are intended to do different things. Nor do I mean to suggest that because some Cuban men embrace an idea of themselves as animalistic in their sexuality a critical history of that symbolism is therefore anachronistic. However, a number of possible tensions arise in the process of combination. Like the gap between narrative (which is a way of relating research that proceeds with reference to the self’s experiences over time) and standpoint (which makes a stronger claim about which actors have which kinds of knowledge about a phenomenon). Or like the gap between taking informant testimony as the empirical basis with which to illustrate critical theories and using the lived experiences of informants to undo theoretical edifices. Or between foregrounding marginalised voices because of an ethical obligation (to recount and reveal their experiences) or because of their explanatory value (because we learn new and truer things about the world in the process).

One answer is to say that this soup of method-styles works just fine, that each element stands on its own and is in turn woven into a larger narrative. National statistics form the background to anecdotal colour, formal reflections juxtaposed with personal detail, ethics atop analysis, a strong authorial voice carrying the momentum onwards, as happens in the very best of investigatory journalism (or in the testimonial-judgement-history mashup of something like Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem). This is not a problem so long as you think there is a fundamental methodological unity that remains essentially untroubled despite the mix of more discrete knowledge styles. It also works well enough if the various elements reinforce each other, or can be made compatible. But what if the ‘answers’ generated by each knowing form clash directly? And what if you think some methods are better placed to deliver answers to particular kinds of question? It won’t do to say that there are just stories amongst stories. For the weight of the standpoint argument rests on not just producing different stories, but better stories. And better in terms of their ability to overcome the distorting effects of prejudice, the condescensions of theory, and the silencing of conscious, struggling human persons living in the midst of whatever is being studied.[3]

Consider a cluster of themes that run throughout From Cuba With Love – money, economy, and exploitation. The sexual-affective economy, Megan insists, is not “purely economic“. We should stand opposed to generalised outside observers who:

regularly presuppose their relationship is purely transactional and devoid of genuine emotional attachment, basing this judgement on the assumption that money and love are antithetical, mutually repellant concepts – and that sex can only exist in the context of one (prostitution) or the other (a “real” relationship), and never the twain shall meet.[4]

We too can recognise the limits of such a binary, and endorse the explanatory, political and ethical positions that follow. Yet the repellant tension of money and love is also internal to how jineteras talk about themselves, not to mention the general social milieu in which they are expressing themselves. Like Lily, who says “These girls just want their papers. The men – it’s like they’re buying your freedom, like they’re buying you”, and explains that the normality of jineterismo is derived from there being “no other options”. Or Haydée who describes “a way of looking for easy money when you need it. There’s a lot of need in Cuba, and going to bed with a foreigner is a way to solve problems”. To be sure, affection can still exist in such an arrangement, but its parameters, if we are to know like these particular jineteras, are indeed transactional. That is not to deny that the meanings of freedom are multiple, or that identifying the role of deprivation means condemnation of jineteras or engaging in the saviour-politics of abolition. Nor to insist on maintaining the binary ourselves, since it is possible to see love and transaction as not antithetical. Rather, the opposition between love and money is evident in the jinetera reports themselves.

At one point, the journalist Rosa Miriam Elizalde is cited for her view of jineteras as “throwaway flowers” for American consumers. It is clear that Megan is opposed to this dismissal, and that we should read it as politically problematic (since it contradicts how some jineteras themselves describe their experiences, and smothers with moral condemnation). But is that enough to make it wrong? Especially if we consider such a sentiment alongside the real role played by chulos, who act as both protectors and pimps for jineteras. The basic counterfactual – that without poverty there would be no (or much less) jineterismo – is key. As Rahul says, the move from economic to moral condemnation in Cuban state policy (through the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas, or FMC) is ironic. Yet it is clear that many criticisms of jockeying within Cuba come down to this question of need. Megan is rightly suspicious of crude explanations, even as they come through many of her informants’ own descriptions. And so her own voice comes through most strongly in resistance to the violence of the discourse of prostitution (the idea of prostitution itself and the moral and carceral practices that feed on it) that economic reductionism in part enables.[5] We thus encounter a variety of narrated standpoints, and perhaps some doubt about the balance between Megan’s standpoint and jineteras’ in her conveying.

Again, this is not a criticism of From Cuba With Love, which handles these diverse positions admirably, and which is after all, committed to the exploration of multiplicity in subject-making. Rather, I want to indicate the challenge of a project that is invested in the standpoint of the jinetera and also seeks – as it must – to discuss a series of ethical, theoretical and political propositions that are always in danger of overwhelming the variety of lived narrative. For some questions – such as whether poverty encourages certain forms of the sexual-affective economy – there may well be ways of answering that depart from the self-images of jineteras, and the convictions of those working most directly with them. And it becomes tenuous to set that methodological difference to one side when narrative approaches end up addressing, even if only implicitly, the same kind of questions (see Nick and PTJ on some of these inferential problems). One person’s reductionism is another’s parsimony. The abiding dilemma is how to have it both ways, combining the aesthetic and intimate with the scientific and distant (and here ‘science’ in the manner that would include such things as genealogical readings). And to have it both ways not as an insult, but as a recognition of the multiple registers of being and knowing.

Puck Some Time in the Future

And so to four final provocations, building on what From Cuba With Love does so well to considerations of narrative knowing generally.

One. There is something extremely compelling about the style in which Megan links her encounters with the wider histories and practices in which they are embedded. If we follow suit in our own projects, what other methodological commitments might we have to surrender to do so? If narrative IR belongs to one methodological box (‘reflexivity’), must other knowledge-forms be evinced, or merely carefully positioned within the story told? What does embracing narrative tell us about the limits of other possible approaches?

Two. What, in turn, are the limits of narrative? If something like ‘the jinetera perspective’ produces different answers to core questions (what motivates dating/prostitution?; what are the harms, if any, involved?; how does jineterismo fit within circuits of gender power?) then an explicit consideration of the grounds for different claims will be warranted. Alternatively, if focusing on jineteras has as its major rationale the demonstration that there is simply no such thing as the jinetera experience, do the various experiences (some seeing a fundamental link to economic exchange, others more focused on sexuality-as-self-expression, others still denying the division) not simply fold into poles of the debate alongside contrasting methodologies? For example one cluster of positivist, narrative and deconstructive studies that all hold that jineterismo is not a form of gender violence and a rival cluster, also of positivist, narrative and deconstructive studies that maintain that it is. Do we have a duty to put these layers into conversation with each other, or a more pressing ethics of re-presenting marginalised lives?

Three. Megan writes early on of her informants as co-producers of her text, a sentiment found elsewhere, and which resonates given the weaving of standpoints at play. But what, following Latour’s nicely twisted definition of objectivity as arising “not from standing above the fray or suppressing subjectivity, but from maximizing the capacity of actors to object to what is said about them” (per), might it mean to truly make informants co-producers? If narrative is about standpoints, whose? Why not also those of the police and foreign romancers?[6] Such questions, as Alice Goffman’s recent ethnographic work shows, can elicit starkly different judgements. Are there alternative methodological procedures and styles of presentation, that we are called on to explore?

Four. Is narrative IR a form of strong objectivity? One approach has been to situate stories as messy and plural, which means that they are partial and suggestive rather than bold counter-claims to some other description. In this sense they are ‘relative’. Another approach – the one more associated with the “situated knowledges” tradition – has been to insist on the value of autobiographical location to enrich or supplement a larger story. In this view, it becomes possible to make more forceful claims for what ‘knowing like a jinetera’ does, not just in terms of the conclusion of a given text that deploys narrative, but even in something like policy. As in the phrase Nothing About Us Without Us! 

We should not expect definitive answers, but thinking with From Cuba With Love pushes us, at the very least, to recognise the diversity of possible questions, and our located investment in them. The dappled world of sexuality, geopolitics and method just became a little richer as a result.


[1] Whilst usually referring to authors by surname (as per academic norms), it will be ‘Megan’ throughout, the familiarity due to someone on the blog roster.

[2] The jinetera – a women who jockeys with foreign men – is not the sole figure surveyed. There is also the jinetero – a man who dates foreign men – and the much less visible and discussed pinguero – young men who date male tourists (female same-sex liaisons subsisting in “almost total silence”). Each is in turn crossed by a range of raced classifications like mulatico and negrito and yuma, all of which are explored in the book at some length.

[3] This argument is expanded on in Chapter 2 of This Thing. The take-away is that far too much of IR thinking about standpoints and subject-position has ignored that a critical element of Sandra Harding’s work (and that of co-travellers like Donna Haraway) has been to insist that standpoint is a better way of knowing. This is the so-called strong objectivity thesis: accumulated knowledge will be more robust if it consciously works through the specificity of multiple positions in the world, the better to avoid the distortions and violence of the partial androcentric lens that has usually been described as ‘science’. Far from seeking to unseat objectivity, as shallow criticisms would have it, standpoint instead proposes to combine multiple situated perspectives because, in Harding’s words, conventional objectivity is “not rigorous or objectifying enough”.

[4] This is Megan recounting the frustration of one informant – Yakelín – but the description stands in for the general problematic of prostitution, sex tourism and sex work as filtered through jineterismo.

[5] I say in part because whilst the economic account historically feeds into the Cuban state’s repression of jineterismo and other ‘deviant’ sexual practices, and while this repression has a strongly moral tenor (the revolution having abolished certain stereotypes), economic arguments can also be used to counter moralising and abolitionism.

[6] In fairness, Megan addresses this directly, justifying her choice in terms of the historical marginalisation of jinetera position. Again, this is entirely appropriate in this case. I raise here a wider question about how perspectives are to be brought into conversation and aggregation with each other.

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