Julie Avril Minich

Radical Health: Unwellness, Care, and Latinx Expressive Culture

Duke University Press, 2023

232 pages


Reviewed by Shannon Potter

Julie Avril Minich’s Radical Health: Unwellness, Care, and Latinx Expressive Culture powerfully argues for the political interventions of Latinx aesthetic work. She claims art as a social justice tool, asserting its capacity to critique dominant conceptions of health by reimagining the current and possible contexts in which individuals make decisions about their bodyminds. Challenging individualized medical constructions of illness, Minich develops a politic of ‘radical health’ that understands wellbeing as a shared responsibility shaped by dynamic sociopolitical circumstances. ‘Radical health,’ as Minich traces it through a multimodal amalgamation of texts, balances destigmatization with demands for access to “resources that support wellbeing (including, but not limited to, health care).” As such, she highlights works that simultaneously “embrace debilitated bodies” and “critiqu[e] systems of debilitation.” 

Situating her scholarship at the intersections of Latinx and disability studies, Minich argues for the interrelated constructions of race and health. She highlights Latinx struggles for racial justice that coalesce around issues of community wellness, understanding such activism as resistance to racial inequality reproduced by the “apparently race-neutral ideology” of health. Minich joins crip-of-color critique, feminist-of-color disability studies, and disability justice activism in articulating the unique knowledge about health and unwellness constructed within racialized communities. Although they do not conform to the language or expectations of the mainstream white disability rights movement, Minich claims the advocacy and aesthetics of Latinx artists as imaginative work that is “inseparable from social justice struggle.” 

Minich dedicates the first half of her monograph to stigmatized forms of bodily illness—HIV/AIDS and diabetes—that are overrepresented in health discussions about Latinx communities. She argues for reframing decisions connected to their prevention and management as taking place within communal contexts shaped by the complexly negotiated identities of those who encounter them. Extending her argument beyond easily legible experiences of illness, Minich dedicates the second half of her monograph to an expansive consideration of unwellness, where she defines public health’s promotion of community wellbeing as distinct from the medicalized treatment of individual bodies or conditions. She centers two social issues—domestic violence and migrant trauma—that are “pervasive in contemporary Latinx expressive culture” while remaining “infrequently addressed through health or disability frameworks.” Minich characterizes both as issues of collective responsibility, furthering her vision of ‘radical health’ as reaching beyond individualized accountability. 

Chapter One considers the role of time in public discourses about disease, arguing that characterizations of ongoing crises as existing in the past “construct the people still affected . . . as unimportant, lacking value, expendable.” Minich reads literary works as essential interventions into the construction of HIV/AIDS as a bygone threat, including Gil Cuadros’s autobiographical poetry from City of God, Jamie Cortez and Adela Vázquez’s graphic biography Sexile, and Rafael Campo’s essays and poetry in The Desire to Heal and Alternative Medicine. Emphasizing the need to understand sexual health as a collective rather than individual concern, Minich addresses the nuances and tensions of risk-mitigating choices related to sexual health. She argues that these creative works represent their subjects—HIV/AIDS and the individuals navigating its dangers—as present realities deserving of collective attention. 

Chapter Two advances her call for systemic shifts in the treatment of complexly embodied conditions. As a state of unwellness often attributed to the poor decision-making or “cultural and biological traits” of Latinx subjects, diabetes presents particular representational challenges. Minich explores these within Sonia Sotomayor’s children’s writing, Tato Laviera’s poetry, Virginia Grise and Irma Mayorga’s theatrical Panza Monologues, and ire’na lara silva’s poetry collection Blood Sugar Canto. Minich challenges the notion that health-related decisions—including those that may result in states of unwellness—are best analyzed as failures of individual rationality. Rather, she affirms the possibility that seemingly “unhealthy, counterproductive, or even harmful” behaviors can result from structural constraints shaped by race, class, and gender. Reiterating a belief in the power of art to reflect the multifaceted realities of embodied unwellness, Minich claims it as an essential resource in imagining new possibilities. 

Chapter Three engages texts that address “the sociopolitical context that foments heteropatriarchal violence,” neither pathologizing abuse victims and perpetrators nor valorizing cure as the goal of healing. Minich critically reads Sonia Nazario’s editorial essays to establish “dominant ideas about gender violence,” but her primary focus traces the theoretical interventions of works that engage such violence while refusing to graphically display or dramatize it. These works include Alyssa Segarra’s (aka Hurray for the Riff Raff) album The Navigator, Manuel Muñoz’s short stories in The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, Rigoberto González’s memoir Butterfly Boy, and Angie Cruz’s novel Dominicana. In Segarra’s work, Minich notes their commitment to both “affirm[ing] the value of lives lost” and naming systemic sources of harm without reproducing their impact. Minich traces aesthetic efforts to imagine multi-leveled and communal responses to violence, calling for structural changes to the institutions that persistently devalue gendered and racialized bodies. Articulating her personal investment in such narratives, Minich claims the necessity of “the messy ending” wherein healing does not require eliminating the wounds inflicted by trauma, but learning how to address their causes while honoring their impact.

Chapter Four explores the effects of US immigration policy on the mental and physical health of Latinx communities, challenging rhetoric that blames migrant parents for the unwellness of their children. Minich centers texts that complexly consider trauma by both destigmatizing its effects and critiquing the systems that enact it, including Reyna Grande’s memoirs, Javier Zamora’s poetry collection Unaccompanied, and Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s creative memoir The Undocumented Americans. Minich draws upon the ‘radical compassion’ centered in La Marr Jurelle Bruce’s ‘mad methodology,’ reading for the “full complexity” that these texts grant migrant families. Minich further engages the nuance of radical compassion when reading Junot Díaz’s short stories “Fiesta 1980” and “Negocios.” Tracing the public controversy of Díaz’s abusive behavior, she ponders the power of writing that forces readers to “confront what happens when reckoning is withheld.” Altogether, she insists on complex representations of mental unwellness that account for the reproduced traumas of white supremacist and heteropatriarchal violence, firmly placing individual and familial experiences within the expansive sociopolitical contexts that shape them. 

Rather than concluding her chapters with neat summations of their arguments, Minich closes each one with a ‘remedio.’ She invokes a Spanish word typically translated as “remedy” or “cure” that also alludes to the English concept of “remediation,” meaning both reversing damage and translating between mediums. In doing so, she meditates on approaching matters of public health through the lens of artistic and cultural critique, frequently articulating the origins of her interest in featured topics or the tensions that remain unresolved in her critical readings. The final chapter of her monograph expands on this form. Minich uses her last remedio to discuss her social position within Latinx and Disability Studies as a “white, crip ciswoman who is often assumed . . . to be nondisabled.” Rather than tracing her histories of allyship or solidarity, she opts to tell “a harder story” about her personal and familial relationship “with ableist white supremacy.” She asserts the necessity of “acknowledg[ing] and understand[ing]” such stories in order to advance meaningful struggles for racial justice. In the midst of this self-disclosure, Minich also embodies the crux of her argument that aesthetic works can serve as political interventions. Recounting her introduction to texts like Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and Aurora Levins Morales’s “Class Poem,” Minich traces how her encounters with these texts shaped her belief that “another understanding of health and wellbeing is possible.” 

Despite not naming accessibility as a central concern, Minich’s organization and writing style reflect a clear desire to maximize accessibility for readers of differing backgrounds and investments in her book’s intellectual project. She “invite[s] readers to skim, to bounce between sections, to pick and choose the analyses that most call to them,” all with an eye towards the material impacts of her work. Skillfully resisting the tendency of academic writing to obscure meaning within abstraction or dense prose, Minich employs descriptive subheadings, signals shifts in her overall argument, and explains terms and their purpose to guide readers towards deep understanding without sacrificing the depth or rigor of her arguments. Although she keeps her close readings brief to maintain their legibility for diverse audiences, she nevertheless offers compelling attention to form and genre as tools of political action. 

Minich is deeply attentive to political relevance in multiple forms, repeatedly situating her work in contemporary contexts shaped by COVID-19 and the shifting political landscape of the United States, including discussions of Donald Trump’s presidency, implementation of and alterations to the Affordable Care Act, and important shifts in US-Mexico border law. In doing so, Minich asserts that current crises are not isolated to the present day, despite their dire present circumstances. However, by critically engaging texts extending from the 1990’s to today, she also demonstrates that the cultural workers of previous decades have already been working to imagine otherwise. Minich’s scholarship precisely enacts the radical health she seeks in her objects of study, extending deep compassion to subjects impacted by debilitating systems while incisively challenging structural sources of harm.