Feminist critic talks life of Latina porn star


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Photo by Dennis Zuraw |

Feminist Critic Juana María Rodríguez spoke to members of the Rutgers community at the Institute for Research on Women seminar last night.


Vanessa Del Rio does not only consider herself the most legendary Latino adult film star of the 1970s. She also sees herself as the “biggest freakin’ feminist there is,” as quoted from her biopic. 

The star, who no longer stars in films but has her own X-rated website, is quoted as saying, “I like sex. I’ve always liked sex, and I will never deny liking sex.”

Del Rio’s unapologetic sexuality and refusal to be cast as a victim of the porn industry or of her own life lead feminist critic Juana María Rodríguez to explore how race and pornography intersect.

Rodríguez, professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, led this year’s first seminar of the Distinguished Lecture Series, “The Edge of Encounter: Sexual Narratives and the Limits of Representation,” by the Rutgers Institute for Research on Women.

The supported the series. 

Supported by the School of Arts and Sciences and the Office of the Vice President of Academic Affairs, the series is themed gender and visual studies this year.Yesterday’s lecture was held yesterday in the Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett building on Douglass campus.

Nicole Fleetwood, director of IRW, said she and Rodríguez were former colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley.

Fleetwood, associate professor in the Department of American Studies at Rutgers, said she was excited to host Rodríguez and called her a “brilliant, fun and fabulous” feminist theorist. 

Rodríguez recently published her second book, “Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures and Other Latina Longings.”

“In [my] book, I wanted to think about how it is that despite the extravagant ways that feminine racialized subjects experience violence, injustice, and indignity, some of us come to know pleasure, including sexual pleasure,” Rodríguez said.

Rather than focusing on ways that women might counter or resist these forms of subjugation, Rodríguez said she wanted to explore what it might mean to dwell sexually and politically in a space of vulnerability and submission. 

Rodríguez looks at how images of Latino submission become a part of people’s sexual fantasies, and how they get activated in the racially gendered scripts that come alive in our sexual and social practices. 

What Rodríguez really wanted to talk about was her encounter with a book and a life — the life of Del Rio. 

The book is entitled “Vanessa Del Rio: Fifty Years of Slightly Slutty Behavior,” and Rodríguez said it is so heavy that they probably would not have let her bring it on the plane. 

The book, which tells the story of Del Rio’s life after leaving Harlem to work as a racialized woman in the sex industry, posed a special challenge to Rodríguez, who was led to consider the moments in which critics like herself are faced with their own limits of interpretation. 

“My purpose is not to rescript these stories through lens of a Latino feminist analysis, “ she said, “but instead to wrestle with what she has to say.”

Rodríguez found that reading and interpreting representations of violence and pleasure in films and performances might involve the same kinds of critical discourse as those that might be used to analyze a life story like that of Del Rio. 

While a few black, Asian and Latino men passed through the adult entertainment industry, none developed the recognition that Del Rio did, Rodríguez said.

“Del Rio is huge. Legendary, even, not because she has starred in [over 100] films, but because in the world of adult entertainment during the golden age of pornography, Vanessa Del Rio was a star,” Rodríguez said. 

In spite of such recognition, Rodríguez said the pervasive nature of the film industry prevented her from making top dollar.

Del Rio’s first film was a “one-day wonder,” a full-length feature film shot in a single day. 

Those 18 hours of fellatio, intercourse and double penetration earned Del Rio a measly $150, and her shorter films earned her about $40 each.

Rodríguez also pointed out how throughout Del Rio’s entire career in the adult film industry, she never received a starring role. Rather, she always played the role of the maid, the hooker or the “Latino spitfire.”

“Her racialized difference represented the forbidden fruit that fed the endless appetites fueled by jungle fever,” Rodríguez said. 

Del Rio personified the aggressive racialized woman who sees someone or something and goes for it, Rodríguez said.

In fact, Del Rio said that in her first porn film, she was more nervous about saying her lines than having sex on camera. 

Del Rio continually insists that she has never had any bad sexual experiences and was never victimized, Rodriquez said

“[Del Rio] is fully aware of the many forms of violation and victimization that impact women, but she distinguishes that from feeling like a victim,” Rodríguez said.


Carley Ens

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