115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Intuitive Epistemologies:  Allusive Signifiers in Chicana Feminist Visual Culture

Melanie Hernandez, California State University, Fresno

This paper offers a semiotic analysis of Chicana Feminist visual culture – in particular within picture books -- to explore how meaning re-appropriations within multi-layered sign systems often occur without a clearly articulated signifiers.  This paper asks what stands to be gained by deploying an epistemology that resists attaching itself to fraught language?


While operating through deceptively simple surface-layer formal qualities, many modes of Chicana cultural production actually enact a complicated semiotic liberatory practices which utilize guerilla re-appropriation tactics.  Complicated sign systems are layered with additional meaning that do not simply supplant the original meaning—they fully embrace the original as a starting point to build upon and defamiliarize it.  The result is to expose the underlying ideology and to emphasize the constructedness of their original meaning so that it can no longer be mistaken as an extension of “Nature.”  While my ongoing work explores these semiotic practices through juvenile and young adult literature, this paper unpacks the layers of signification embedded within picture book illustrations—specifically, within the illustrations of both hard cover and paperback editions of Sandra Cisneros’ Have You Seen Marie?


In the realms of anti-corporate branding and media activism, this process is known as “culture jamming,” which “seeks to undermine the marketing rhetoric of multinational corporations, specifically through such practices as media hoaxing, corporate sabotage, billboard ‘liberation,’ and trademark infringement.”   Stated plainly, a culture jammer will tweak (often through vandalism) an existing corporate message in order to embed a counterargument atop the original.  It allows the culture jammer to combat the corporation’s political clout and deep pockets, using the corporation’s own media campaign as the canvas for the protest messaging.  Culture jammers rely on the recognizability of the original corporate branding materials, but whatever modification they make to the original image creates a disparity between the corporation’s intended message and social protest launched through the jammed image.  This is a pictographic appropriation strategy that Chicana artists have undertaken for generations.


To explore this process, this paper focuses on a single semiotic chain—the signifier “La Llorona”—as its meaning is made into a sign system, imbued with ideological meaning at the secondary signification level, and finally defamiliarized and re-appropriated at a third-level signification using the process of “meta-ideologizing” as described in Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed.  The paper uses Esther Hernandez’s “Sun Mad” as its point of departure, and then turns to more complicated sign system re-appropriation in Have You Seen Marie?, whose original semiotic chain signifier (“La Llorona”) is all the more difficult to pin down since it is only ever implied, but never overtly mentioned.  Finally, the analysis unpacks these signification methods to explore the ways that other visual pieces like Alma Lopez’ Coyolxauquhi Returns As Our Lady Disguised As La Virgen de Guadalupe to Defend the Rights of Las Chicanas must turn to sophisticated semiotic layerings as a performative strategy in order to appropriate and reinscribe meaning onto hegemonic sign systems in the service of Chicana feminist political imperatives.