Las Américas has often been a site of critical inquiry within American Studies, but as the 2013 ASA meeting in Puerto Rico enunciated, a hemispheric approach has become even more central to interdisciplinary study in the field. Volume 66, Issue 3 (September 2014) emphasizes the historical and productive tensions between Latin America and the US and the experiential diversities of Latinxs. As the editors refer to in the introduction, the issue includes essays on colonial histories, sexual cultures, social movements, and aesthetic practices. “Las Américas” is understood in this issue, then, as a reorganization of nation-state based scholarship through affinities, projects, memories, archives and acts that have hemispheric meaning.
Edited by Licia Fiol-Matta & Macarena Gómez-Barris
Las Américas has often been a site of critical inquiry within American Studies, but as the 2013 ASA meeting in Puerto Rico enunciated, a hemispheric approach has become even more central to interdisciplinary study in the field. The issue emphasizes the historical and productive tensions between Latin America and the US and the experiential diversities of Latinxs. As the editors refer to in the introduction, the issue includes essays on colonial histories, sexual cultures, social movements, and aesthetic practices. “Las Américas” is understood in this issue, then, as a reorganization of nation-state based scholarship through affinities, projects, memories, archives and acts that have hemispheric meaning.
- Regarding the Central American Child’s Pain, Macarena Gómez-Barris
- Barrio Affinities: Transnational Inspiration and the Geopolitics of Latina/o Design, Johana Londoño
- For a Pluriversal Declaration of Human Rights, Rosa-Linda Fregoso
- Queer Argie, Carlos Figari
- Documenting The Crime of Cuba: An Américan Left and the 1933 Cuban Revolution, John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco
- Recuperating Histories of Violence in the Americas: Vernacular History-Making on the US-Mexico Border, Monica Muñoz Martinez
- Lorenza Böttner: From Chilean Exceptionalism to Queer Inclusion, Carl Fischer
- The Reparative Politics of Central America Solidarity Movement Culture, Patricia Stuelke
- “Under the Skirt of Liberty”: Giannina Braschi Rewrites Empire, Arnaldo Manuel Cruz-Malavé
- The Myth of Diaspora Exceptionalism: Wyclef Jean Performs "Jaspora", Régine Michelle Jean-Charles
In Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag returns to violence through war photography. Sontag suggests how certain photographs produce indelible traces and form archives of human suffering in the encounter with war. These archives raise questions about historical framing, and the appropriate response of the viewer to the visibility of atrocities. Sontag concludes that the image of another’s pain has mostly failed to move the American public. As she puts it, “our failure is one of imagination, of empathy: we have failed to hold this reality in mind” (9).
Sontag’s discussion of failed empathy is an important comment upon US liberalism’s inability to consider the victim’s point of view. It also implies a disappointment in the image, and its failure to prevent violence in the US or elsewhere in part because of the oversaturation of visual atrocity. The problem Sontag names, however, is not solely the impetus to remember or the incapacity to empathize with the other in any formulaic way. There is, more subtly, an absent historical referent that does not allow us to better perceive the pictures of calamity that have been put before us. Especially in relation to the shadows of US Empire, dismal public memory prohibits an analysis of root causes. What if instead of seeing and analyzing victimhood within the frame of an image, we used another modality of perception, one that situated the liberal imagination within the structures of US historical complicity? How can we attach present images of suffering to the empirical evidence and historical trace that is US Empire?
I consider these questions in relation to the recent Central American refugee crisis, and the place of the child within it. The image of the Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran child wrapped in Red Cross blankets, sleeping on the floors of sub-par ICE detention centers has permeated the media environment. As we know from the prolific mainstream news and photojournalism on the topic, Central American immigration to the US/Mexico border by children, particularly at Rio Grande, has reached epic proportions. This year child immigrant arrival has already doubled the rates of the 2013 to an estimated 77,200 by the end of the year. The striking feature of the rising wave, of course, is the degree to which young children have arrived alone, unaccompanied minors that have somehow survived harrowing journeys across at least two borders. Amidst countless interviews and speculation, the image of how this all happened remains hazy in a public culture of imperial forgetting. In the mainstream news account, there has been little analysis of the sending context, and even less historical information that suggests the region as a site of geopolitical intervention by the United States.
Significantly, two recent news reports, one from the New York Times and another from the Washington Post critically pose the crisis as the result of the failed drug wars and flawed US policy.1Despite this important critique, dominant news coverage has yet to invoke the ghost of the Central American civil wars, or to offer the role of US militarization during the 1980s and 1990s as the precedent for the present day humanitarian event. Specifically, those arriving represent the post-war generation of political violence in the region, second inheritors of anti-communism whose politics and violence were both sponsored and legitimated by the Reagan Doctrine. These are the children of the children of the Cold War that Leslie Marmon Silko uncannily predicted in Almanac of the Dead(1992) would cross en masse to the North.
It is not hyperbole to state that a death-security complex in the region devastated Central American nations. During the 1980s and 1990s, a period in which twenty-two US military bases operated within the national boundaries of Honduras, US backed state violence left more than 70,000 deaths in El Salvador, 200,000 in Guatemala, and 50,000 in Nicaragua. As multi-decade “internal” wars receded, highly militarized societies remained. As scholars have documented, in the absence of strong government institutions there has been a continuum of violence in Central American societies (Menjivar 2011, Manz 2008). While poverty is a contributing factor, the saturation of political violence continues to weighs heavily upon the Central American region. Cecilia Menjivar argues that higher rates of violence take place in Guatemala, El Salvador, and to a certain degree in Honduras precisely because the state terrorized its own citizens with little accountability to follow highly visible reports by truth commissions.
As United Nations and global human rights NGO advocates busily trumpeted the successes of peace processes during the late 1990s, Guatemala and El Salvador ended their bloody wars with a blurry road map for how to imagine these nations afterward. In the breach of a culture of impunity, and in the turn to the neoliberal, the radical inequalities that initially propelled militancy quickly sharpened and ossified. Meanwhile, the rise in illicit economies such as the drug and sex trade, and youth gangs (due in part to US war on drug and its homeland deportations) mushroomed. In the continuum of violence that has been the structuring narrative of Central America, then, little room is left for the innocence of children “growing up” after war.
How do we imagine childhood in the shadow of US Empire? Describing the non-normativity of the child, Kathryn Bond Stockton has used the term “growing sideways” (2009) to think outside of the normative teleology that is stature, marriage, reproduction and adult status. Bond Stockton comments upon how racialized and working class children hardly ever experience the normalized inscription of their Anglo-middle class counterparts. Speaking directly about immigration debates, Gretel Vera-Rosas theorizes the position of “the mother of anchor-children,” a debasing term that references undocumented mother of US born children (2014). Like Bond Stockton, Gretel Vera Rosas proposes a feminist/queer rethinking of the meaning of normal childhood in relation to the taken for granted structures of families, nations, and developmental processes. Vera Rosas analyzes the subjectivities that emerge from immigration, charting the figure of the migrant mother as constituted through social failure, where anti-immigrant legislation stigmatizes and moralizes her maternity.
Both authors ultimately enable a different kind of imagination about the Central American refugee child. I am especially interested in how Vera Rosas describes the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2009 and 2013 as central legislation of the racial state that reproduces links between citizenship and military service as sites of privileged access to American citizenship. What if we took a cue from the idea of privileged pathways, and thought anew about whom the appropriate inheritors of US citizenship might be? What might the US state owe these children often “growing sideways” because of the legacies of war? What would US policy look like that sets up an accountable, rather than a punitive relationship to the child refugees of empire?
In the repopulated communities I worked in near Guazapa, Cuscatlán El Salvador from 1992-1994, even in the utter social fragmentation of the post-war terrain, children disproportionately suffered. The children of that generation experienced thirty-kilometer walks at night to escape “experimental” bombings by the Salvadoran military that carried out their expeditions in US planes against the mostly civilian population. During my time in the repopulated communities, I met dozens of orphan children, either newly adopted by local families, or taken to grassroots orphanages run by former FMLN combatants unassisted by the state.
In addition to these groups of child survivors, we can never forget the image of brutality committed against children by the Salvadoran army trained at the military-base formerly known as the School of the Americas as told to us by Rufina Tamayo, sole survivor of El Mozote massacre. In The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War (1994), Mark Danner recounts the chilling story: In December 1981, after hundreds of men were systematically murdered in the small village of El Mozote, hundreds more women and children were brought out for slaughter. As Rufina Tamayo hid in the bushes nearby, she watched babies being skewered by the infamous Atcatl battalion.
This is the genealogy of Central American childhood during the Cold War. The acclaimed film Voces Innocentes (Innocent Voices) directed by Luis Mandoki (2004) is a coming of age story of 11-year old Chava, based on the events of writer Oscar Torres’ childhood. Torres sees the violence of the army recruiting from local schools his slightly older cohort of 12-year old boys, and he feels the abandonment of his father in the midst of counter-insurgency campaigns meant to eradicate “like a fish out of water” the base of guerrilla’s support. We might perceive recent events from the under the bed seeking cover viewpoint of Chava, who experiences the terror of the child witness, survivor. His vantage point speaks to us as the locus of the child victims made by US racism.
On July 1, 2014 when anti-immigrant protesters turned away the three buses with immigrant women and children, as they awaited legal processing at the Border Patrol facility, the “voces inocentes” of the last two generations came to mind. In particular, as anti-immigrant groups rerouted groups of people to San Ysidro, and shouts of the threat of tubercolis was heard on right-wing media.2 The matter at hand was not about the absence of empathy, but of the specter of the children that had come to remind the US public about its history. The return to the familiar rhetoric of security, and the threat of contagion articulated the extent of US historical complicity.
In the AQ special issue, Las Américas Quarterly, in her essay, “The Reparative Politics of Central America Solidarity Movement Culture,” Patricia Stuelke analyzes the history of US solidarity with Central America. While Stuelke acknowledges the material and affective obstructions to such solidarity work, she reads reparative visions as necessary to dealing with imperialist legacies. I would add that this reparative modality is imperative, a mode of thinking about affiliation and solidarity that stares down rather than returns the imperialist gaze.
It seems simple, but important to say that American Studies is in the unique position to redirect the US public’s view back to Central American history. Even in Los Angeles, where a million plus Guatemalans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans are concentrated in the Pico/Union district, most of the local universities, with the exception of Cal State Northridge, offer very few courses on the Central American experience, the genealogy of solidarity, and the U.S. military’s entanglement in the region. At the University of Southern California where I teach, there is, to my knowledge, no tenure-track Central American faculty. What would it mean to produce a robust curriculum on hemispheric studies that included Central American voices and scholarship as part of every course on twentieth-century American politics and history? We might begin to differently see the proliferating images of detention camps today, and better sense the long pain of Central American childhood.
1The New York Times finally used the term “refugee” instead of “immigration” to modify the crisis in an opinion piece in the Sunday Review. The article is entitled “The Children of the Drug Wars: A Refugee Crisis, Not an Immigration Crisis,” by Sonia Nazario, July 11, 2014. The Washington Post piece is “The Child Migrant Crisis is just the Latest Disterous Consequence of America’s Drug War,”by Ted Galen, July 21, 2014.
2“The Mexican Germ Invasion is Just the Right’s Latest Anti-Immigration Myth,” by Laura Murphy, July 2, 2014.
Manz, Beatriz, “The Political Continuum of Violence in Post-War Guatemala,” Social Analysis, Vol. 52, Number 2, Summer 2008, pp. 151-164.
Menjivar, Cecilia, 2011, Enduring Violence, Ladina Women’s Lives in Guatemala, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
Stockton Bond, Katherine, The Queer Child or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.
Stuelke, Patricia, “The Reparative Politics of Central America Solidarity Movement Culture,”American Quarterly Special Issue: Las Américas Quarterly, edited by Macarena Gómez-Barris and Licia Fiol-Matta, Fall 2014.
Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Picador Press, 2004.
Vera Rosas, Gretel, “Regarding the Mother of Anchor-Children: Towards an Ethical Practice of the Flesh,” in Eds. Jill Lane, Marcial Anativia-Godoy, and Macarena Gómez-Barris’ Decolonial Gesture, E-misférica, Spring 2014.
My essay ends with the suggestion that design culture has made the barrio into an image articulated to but not reducible to the barrio's historically segregated, socio-economic spatial parameters. In the essay I explore the work of designer Pablo Medina, whose typography is an example of barrio culture's visual currency and mobility (visit his studio website). As discussed in the article, the hand painted lettering of Leonard, once commonly seen in Latino-majority Union City, NJ, inspired Medina's early typographic design. Here are two additional images of Leonard's work in Union City taken in 2012.
Photos courtesy of author
Now under new management, the businesses pictured here no longer display Leonard's signs on their storefront. Instead they have chosen monotone facades of black and beige and digitally printed lettering, showing how this gentrifying city continues to think of hand-painted signs as "racialized symbols of the barrio" that are "thus deemed of little value to elites anxious to cater to the presumed tastes of professional gentrifiers." This is a reminder that the barrio image that circulates, regardless of where it circulates, should carry with it the weight of how the politics of place value and determine the image's public visibility.
I want to take this opportunity to go "beyond the page" to also explore how the barrio becomes an image in other visual realms that experts, designers or otherwise, manipulate as a source for solutions and contemplative inspirations for profit and creativity. I find the article, "World Cup: Making the Right Call" written by Adam Aston this past June for the newly created T Brand Studio of the New York Times provocative for this purpose. This article, along with the rest of Studio's content, is featured in the Times and targets its readers, but operates separately from the Times with a distinct team of journalists and designers.
The main idea of the Studio is to contextualize their advertiser's product in current news trends, what marketing professionals describe as "native advertisement." This is what the Studio did for its widely-circulated article for the “Orange is the New Black” series on Netflix. Thomson Reuters, whose slogan is "the world’s leading source of intelligent information for businesses and professionals," paid for the "World Cup" article to advertise its Global Sports Forum, a editorial-led sports community. The article's written content is aimed at market watchers and focused on discussing the possible economic effects the World Cup may have on its host, Brazil. Interestingly, the article ends with a section titled, "Visibility is currency." The written text under this subheading suggests that the World Cup has heightened Brazil's global profile, in a way that may lead to economic advantages for the country. "Visibility" in this section is, as long as we only consider the written text, defined as visibility in the global market. But I want to take the vague subheading to task. What is being made visible here in this article?
By far, the favela (the Portuguese word similar to the Spanish word barrio) is most visually prominent in the article. A pristine mountain favela with brightly colored homes is depicted in the article's leading photograph and favela entrepreneurs and their World Cup-driven tourism are main subjects in the article's embedded videos. Though the favela is not discussed in the article's written text, it is the primary visual narrative in accompanying materials. I propose that the favela image is used in this article as an affective and aesthetic tool. A brightly colored built environment is selectively chosen to illustrate the favela and make it a compelling representation of Brazil. Gilson Fumaca, a proud resident, tour guide and travel agent for a favela in Rio, assertively states about favela tourism, "The tourist leaves feeling a bit like a resident [...] the World Cup is bringing worldwide visibility to Rio de Janeiro." For Gilson, Rio's favelas are not just abject places. Rather they are worth experiencing and embodying, and making visible for the world to see.
The article exploits this “‘barrio affinity,’ a scopic regime that values and frames the marginal” urban space to depict favelas as key players and beneficiaries in Brazil’s World Cup economic prospects and link the interests of market watchers with those of marginal spaces. The favela is this article's and the World Cup's visual currency. Yet, the favela performs this function while the article simultaneously evades the ongoing difficulties of living in these marginalized spaces, especially considering the massive displacement of favela residents during the construction of World Cup stadiums and related infrastructure.
In the essay I end by “reminding Latina/o and American studies scholars to consider the socioeconomically poor barrio as a contemporary hemispheric place whose cultural values and visuality are shaped by global policies, elitist interests, and design culture, professionals, and industries.” The Studio’s article is one recent example of the image-making processes shaping the public understanding of barrios or favelas as concepts that exceed the actual urban places their images reference.
This essay begins with a question: What can we learn from artists about human rights? The presumption for a legalistic response is reasonable. However, my line of inquiry goes elsewhere.
An underlying premise of this essay is that artists can teach us about human rights in resonant ways that exceed the rational language of legal and state-centered discourse. We must be open to alternative imaginaries and contingencies. For the artistic idiom of human rights is found in another register--its sensibility, lyrical and sensual.
As detailed in the contrapuntal writing italicized throughout this essay, the artistic reference to human rights is oblique and indirect, neither dependent on legalism nor the state. In crafting my argument I selected collaborative arts projects that retain the critical edge of human rights politics in much the same way as radical movements for justice, without sacrificing the poetic imagination. Featured on this website are additional materials illustrating the human rights pedagogy of artists creating for social change.
Flor de Arena. Bronze Sculpture by Verónica Leiton
During their monthly protest marches (2007-08), mothers created altar installation in memory of their murdered or disappeared daughters. Ciudad Juárez Chihuahua. Photo courtesy of the author.
Storefront gallery space in downtown San Diego. NHI Multimedia project. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Sisco, Louis Hock, Scott Kessler, Clara Kirkwood, and Deborah Small.
One of three walls picturing forty-five women from the San Diego community who volunteered to stand-in for the images of the deceased women. The names in italics indicate the actual victim depicted. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Sisco, Louis Hock, Scott Kessler, Clara Kirkwood, and Deborah Small.
Donna Gentile, one of the first murdered women, picture in the center, flanked by images of two women from the community standing-in for the deceased “Jane Doe” and Tara Mia Simpson. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Sisco, Louis Hock, Scott Kessler, Clara Kirkwood, and Deborah Small.
In collaboration with Milenio Feminista’s organized protests for International Women’s Day, March 8, 2005, the Colectivo Malaleche installed 370 coffins representing feminicide victims from Ciudad Juárez. Pasos en la oscuridad Installation, Queretaro Mexico. Photo courtesy of the author.
Across from Queretaro’s main Cathedral, Colectivo Malaleche placed body bags containing replicas of female bodies, each with its own identification tag imprinted with the actual name of a murdered victim. Photo courtesy of the author.
Community members participating in the ReDressing Injustice workshop. Las Cruces New Mexico, 2006. Photo courtesy of the author.
Community member participating in the ReDressing Injustice workshop. Las Cruces New Mexico, 2006. Photo courtesy of the author.
Redressing Injustice Installation. Las Cruces New Mexico, 2006. Photo courtesy of the author.
This dress was created by one of the community participants in the ReDressing Injustice workshop. Las Cruces New Mexico, 2006. Photo courtesy of the author.
In my essay I analyze the links and tensions between queer theory and politics of recognition in the Southern Cone. The queer gaze in Argentina seeps into the discussion of state recognition and the processes of civic normalization. Several demands with respect to the state were initiated or adopted by those who discussed queer theory in Argentina, from which circumstances I think also derives the originality of the process. These stretched from demands for legal personality for transvestite groups and for civil union at one end to equal marriage and gender identity law at the other. I also examine how none of these achievements was a point of arrival but a rather step towards the next objective and that each particular law did not solve the totality of any demand but, on the contrary, made it possible to continue deepening the analysis of the needs of increasingly wider publics.
Argentina OKs Gay Marriage in Historic Vote
Equal marriage in Argentina was not explained nor demanded as a value and much less as a new "normal" or "politics of respectability". It was not the content itself, marriage, which was important, but rather inciting the discourses - to paraphrase, Foucault to make them tell the truth of what the LGBT population is for certain sectors of the state and society.
In 2010, the Argentine Bishop Jorge Bergoglio - now Pope Francis - called same sex marriage “an attempt to destroy God’s plan” and likened gay adoption to a form of discrimination against children:
“Here, the envy of the Devil, through which sin entered the world, is also present, and deceitfully intends to destroy the image of God: man and woman, who receive the mandate to grow, multiply, and conquer the earth. Let us not be naive: it is not a simple political struggle; it is an intention [which is] destructive of the plan of God. It is not a mere legislative project (this is a mere instrument), but rather a ‘move’ of the father of lies who wishes to confuse and deceive the children of God”…
A Social Conservative: Pope Francis Led Effort against Liberation Theology and Same-Sex Marriage
In the Argentina of the early twenty-first century, the Kirchnerista political style reestablished in the country a clearly populist logic which divided the water into two radically antagonistic and polarized currents. In a populist context and, therefore, one which amplified the democratic bases, to be for or against equality marked boundaries and repositioned subjects. A string of similarities which unified scattered longings and allowed the emergence of a "popular subject" made it necessary to take a decision with no half measures. Something higher unified at the level of feeling rather than thought and, consequently, mobilized for action. Hence the question: marriage between people of the same sex was established on the basis of the logic of the "comrade"; this is something perfectly capable of being understood by any Argentinean, of whatever gender (Peronista or not). The signifier equality and loyalty would acquire almost mystical contours. This meant taking a stand and it was felt in the soul. It reinstated a mystic of activism which was experienced at all times in the most diverse collective actions: in vigils, marches, in the slogans, in the demonstrations of support and requested in the media, the mass meetings in the Congress, in the demonstrations and flags of different political stripes. No one could remain indifferent and the rank-and-file movements in different locations, formerly oblivious to the demands of the LGBT, convened themselves massively to support them.
Peronist Faggots (trailer)
In 2010 Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalize gay marriage. Since 2013 the gender-identity law enables people to change their gender on official documents and require public and private medical practitioners to provide free hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery without first getting approval from a judge or doctor. No other country in the world allows people to change their official identities based merely on how they feel.
Argentina: Pass the Gender Identity Law
Many of us were very clear that the imperative was not to focus on what was demanded but rather on the forces which, by way of a multiplier mechanism, are released in political practices. The demands for the recognition were not necessarily viewed as particular demands for rights to be enjoyed or to generate new conditions of normality, but rather to demonstrate the protocols of civic normalization and critically discuss the construction of citizenship.
As transvestite activist Lohana Berkins says in the follow video: “today we have the law but we won't stop here.” “We want it all.” “The day of transvestite fury is upon us!”
Argentina Passes Gender Identity Law. Celebrations (Spanish)
Related Links and Recommended Bibliography About Equal Marriage in Argentina
Shawn Schulenburg. 2012. “The Construction and Enactment of Same-Sex Marriage in Argentina.”Journal of Human Rights 11(1): 106-125.
María Gracia Andía. 2013 “Legal Mobilization and the Road to Same-Sex Marriage in Argentina” in Same-sex Marriage in Latin America: Promise and Resistance (edited by Jason Pierceson, Adriana Piatti-Crocker, Shawn Schulenber), Lanham, Md. Lexington Books.
Jordi Díez. Forthcoming 2015. "The Politics of Gay Marriage in Latin America: Argentina, Chile and Mexico." New York: Cambridge University Press.
About Argentina’s Gender Identity Law
Global Action for Trans Equality. 2012. English Translation of Argentina's Gender Identity Law as approved by the Senate of Argentina on May 8
Jayson McNamara. 2014. “Argentina’s Gender Identity Law is the best in the world,” Buenos Aires Herald, August 4.
International Gay and Lesbian Rights Commission. 2012. “Argentina Has Passed the Most Progressive Gender Identity Legislation in Existence.” May 13.
My article excavates interwar left alliance making between Cubans and U.S. Americans and the problems incurred when doing so in the context of empire. Efforts to make equitable what William McKinley called “ties of singular intimacy” between the United States and Cuba could not be separated from the history of U.S. intervention in Cuban life. This made for the paradoxical conditions that allowed Cuban exiles to use resources in the United States to fight for Cuban liberation from U.S. domination, as well as the fetishization of Cubans by U.S. dissidents who were transformed by a revolutionary tourism that depended on the neocolonial economy, which enabled leftists to do their cultural work. Though my research focuses on history, the underpinning questions animating my work seem as relevant today as they did in the 1930s, for they are suggestive of the ways empire continues to mediate the life of the left and the work of scholars who align themselves with radical causes. How to be left without empire? How to struggle against empire yet remain tethered to it?
This project took a new turn for me when it moved from the archive to the street. What Michel-Rolph Trouillot referred to as “the unearthing of silences” in history required me to discover the unexpected by undergoing my own itinerancy that followed the paths of my historical subjects between Havana and New York, which greatly impacted how I interpreted this history and estimated its lived legacies. Seeing the landscape of Havana’s El Morro, Paseo del Prado, El Capitolio, or New York’s Union Square, Audubon Hall, and Madison Square Garden in their former and contemporary guises helped fill the silences with sounds that would bring new meaning to the poetry of Nicolás Guillén and Langston Hughes, journalistic diatribes of Joseph North and Pablo de la Torriente Brau, and photography of Walker Evans.
If I did stumble into some postmodern semblance of Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, it was to witness the wobbly ways the mind struggles to grasp architectural and spatial palimpsests in radically different politico-historical contexts. Sites such as El Capitolio or Paseo del Prado still hold their recognizability, as does Union Square. But to mentally recreate the thousands of trade unionists, agitators, and intellectuals clamoring for better wages and world peace in Union Square in 1934 requires the work of imagination. To see Madison Square Garden today in all of its libidinal theatrical wonderment and then hazard a visualization of what the former institution (some twenty blocks away) would have meant as a meeting place for Latin American communists and their U.S. allies in the 1930s suddenly causes the history one has written to make little sense. It forces a necessary step back that creates anew the investigator’s relationship to his/her historical subject matter.
On a final note, like the revolutionary tourists I studied, my own privilege as a U.S. scholar, even as a meagerly-waged graduate student, granted me access to spaces and interactions that would have been more difficult without a U.S. passport and entitlement. (And still in other ways that passport may have been a roadblock to other experiences, beleaguered by the ongoing history of intimate ties). I viewed my journeys to Havana not unlike the trips waged by Ellen Starr Brinton or Clifford Odets. In many ways, such tarriances today are made more difficult by the continued U.S. embargo against Cuba and the travel ban that prohibits both populations from creating avenues of dialogue. The ASA’s recent support of the BDS movement in the name of academic freedom for Palestinians and against Israeli settler violence is an important one. The topic also provokes questions about other contexts in which academic freedom is limited and the nations or institutions that impede scholarly contact. Today the United States continues to restrict interactions between Cuban and U.S. scholars. The State Department routinely denies visas solicited by Cuban scholars to participate in U.S. conferences. The ASA might join other academic organizations such as the Latin American Studies Association and the American Historical Association in their criticism of the State Department for upholding a policy towards Cuba that lacks any reasonable political or humanitarian justification. The U.S. has ignored the desires of the U.N. General Assembly, which, for over twenty years, has denounced overwhelmingly the U.S. embargo against Cuba. In 2013, 188 members supported an end to the embargo; only two states voted against the resolution—the United States and Israel.
This article examines the 1915 double murder of Jesus Bazán and Antonio Longoria north of the Rio Grande River in Hidalgo County Texas and shows that this event is emblematic of the wider use of violence in subject formation and state-building projects in the Americas. This article describes a state-sanctioned period of racial terror that allowed state agents to abuse their authority and deny protection to ethnic Mexicans within their jurisdiction. By looking beyond mainstream archives, this article exposes the state projects that used mass execution, torture, and other forms of violence to eradicate ethnic Mexicans from economic and social influence in the border region. This period of anti-Mexican violence continues to be memorialized a century later. Generational memories of this double murder--and the vernacular histories created by local residents in Texas—continue to challenge historical narratives that disavow generational loss and obscure roots of state violence. These histories make transparent the longer legacies of histories of border policing and they confront historical narratives that justify the violence inherent in nation-building practices.
Local residents have primarily assumed the burden of challenging state narratives that celebrate state violence. One method residents use to introduce this history to a wider public is online publishing. The websites referenced in this article include the website Los Tejanos by Hernán Contreras. The site displays family historical documents and a page dedicated to this period of violence. To compliment his documentary Border Bandits Kirby Warnock also has a web presence with a trailer for his documentary and links to his grandfather’s account of the double murder of Bazán and Longoria.
In collaboration with some of the residents making great efforts to preserve this history, in February 2013 a group of professors met at the National Association of Chicano Chicana Studies Tejas Foco in San Antonio, Texas to discuss strategies for commemorating the centennial of this period of state sanctioned anti-Mexican violence. Trinidad O. Gonzales of South Texas College, John Morán González of the University of Texas at Austin, Sonia Hernández of Texas A&M at College Station, Benjamin Johnson of Loyola University in Chicago, and I were in attendance to coordinate the initiative. Evaristo “Buddy” and Benita Albarado are two Texas residents from Uvalde, Texas who dedicated years, and their own private resources, to document the Porvenir Massacre of 1918 in Presidio County in west Texas. The Albarados and Curtis Smith, the Chief of Staff for Texas State Representative Terry Canales of Edinburg, Texas, participated in the planning.
The meeting resulted in coordinated steps for building a multifaceted project, titled “Refusing to Forget,” that will come to fruition through the collaboration of professors, Texas residents, state legislators, and the staff at state institutions in Texas. The memorialization effort will include a multiyear series of historical marker unveilings, public lectures, an exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in 2016, a complementary online exhibit, a traveling exhibit, and curriculums for public school teachers.
For other examples of collaborations between university professors and public institutions see:
- “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942 – 1964” and the Bracero History Archive.
- The Guantanamo Memory Project
- The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project
One continuing question for this project is how to present this history within the context of ongoing violence on the US—Mexico border. The publication of this article offers a timely reminder that the criminalization of racial groups and immigrants has a long and brutal history of encouraging vigilante groups to take policing international borders into their own hand. Under the endorsement of Governor James “Pa” Ferguson in 1915, Texas state agents, local police, and vigilante groups collaborated to enact a period of racial terror. This period produced a discourse about policing the border region that informs contemporary forms of anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant violence on the US—Mexico border.
Nearly a century later, Texas Governor Rick Perry is again militarizing the border and warning residents of an eminent social crisis of recent immigrants crossing into the US. Many of these immigrants are unaccompanied children from Mexico and Central America. On July 21, 2014 Governor Rick Perry announced that he would deploy 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the Rio Grande Valley to support the efforts of the Texas Department of Public Safety to secure the border. Perry’s decision came despite resistance from local politicians like State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa. The San Antonio Express News printed Senator Hinojosa’s plea, “My position is that we do not need to militarize the border.” Instead Hinojosa requested aid for local law enforcement agents to feed and provide health checkups for the young migrants in south Texas and reimbursements for local communities housing and caring for the crossing immigrants. Governor Perry redirected $38 million in the Department of Public budget to fund the militarization of the border with the Texas National Guard. Currently, none of these funds are earmarked for reimbursing communities that provided aid to recent immigrants.
Opponents to administrative militarization tactics to deter immigrants argue that the current border crossings are not an immigration crisis, but a refugee crisis as Sonia Nazario points out in her recent opinion piece in The New York Times. Nazario and an article in Mother Jones both point to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee report on unaccompanied children leaving Mexico and Central America which designates 58% of the immigrant children they interviewed as refugees fleeing regional violence and gang extortion. All children crossing into the US, the report concluded, must be screened for international protection needs. For children coming from El Salvador and Mexico the percentages of children in need of protection are as high as 72% and 64% respectively.
Instead of asking why these immigrants are leaving their countries of origin and what form of international protection they need, the Texas Department of Public Safety director Steven McCraw stated that their security efforts are focused on making arrests and deterring immigrants from crossing the border with a military presence. He described these immigrants as cartel members, criminals, and terrorists.
The continued criminalization of immigrants fuels anti-Latino and anti-immigrant sentiment along the US-Mexico border. In an alleged attempt to bolster the efforts of the US Customs and Border Protection agencies, approximately 10 armed militia groups are camping along the Texas-Mexico border from El Paso to border towns in the Rio Grande Valley. In a collection of photographs released by the San Antonio Express News, men dressed in military fatigues and tactical gear pose carrying semiautomatic weapons while other images show men patrolling the south Texas brush. Texas State Senator Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, stated that the militia groups traveling to the border “pointing guns at children solves nothing.”
Van De Putte’s words of caution resonated widely in the last weeks of August when the media turned its attention from the militarized force on the border to the police shooting of the unarmed teen Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. As the media responded to the militarized repression of protesters in Ferguson, Marcia Chatelain took hold of the momentum to initiate a conversation for educators with the #FergusonSyllabus. The collaborative syllabus offers strategies for teachers to bring ongoing events in Ferguson into the classroom on the first day of a new school year. Twitter users also turned to the digital platform to share vernacular histories of police abuse they learned from earlier generations. #IGotTheTalk contributors posted stories of the histories that taught them how to conduct themselves when interacting with the police and state authorities. #IGotTheTalk rovides insight into the vernacular histories of public interactions with police abuse and racial profiling passed from on generation to the next.
These events remind us that responding to a humanitarian crisis with armed force yields devastating events that remain with residents for generations. Understanding current social crises in the Americas and the increasing militarization of local and federal police requires hemispheric examinations of the past. Calling on Latin/a American vernacular histories and centers of knowledge is necessary to reform policing methods and prevent future generations from inheriting new histories of violence."
The story of Lorenza Böttner, a disabled, transgender Chilean performance artist profiled by Pedro Lemebel and Roberto Bolaño, offers a productive complication of critical efforts to deploy narratives of dissident gender comportment that can disrupt the country’s discourse of economic exceptionalism. This remarkable story spans continents and decades; here are some more artifacts from her life that did not appear in the article
The full version of Michael Stahlberg’s short (19:12) documentary film about Lorenza is available online. (Courtesy of Michael Stahlberg and Flicker Free Films.)
The film offers images of her performance art in Munich, her sculptures and paintings, and an interview with her mother. Made in 1991, when Lorenza was already sick with AIDS, it provides an in-depth portrait of Lorenza’s life.
The artist Mario Soro, a distant relative of Lorenza’s, took a number of pictures from a performance that Lorenza gave at the Bucci Gallery in Santiago, Chile, in early 1989. There, Lorenza drew life-sized portraits of two figures, one male and the other female, and positioned her own body between them.
She then performed a dance while silhouetted behind a sheet.
And finally emerged from behind it to take a bow.
Soro talked about this performance to Lemebel, who described it in his short 1996 chronicle about Lorenza.
(Photos courtesy of Mario Soro; read more information about Soro’s own art, some of which has been inspired by Lorenza.)
In 1992, Lorenza played the part of “Petra,” the mascot of the Special Olympics in Barcelona. The La Vanguardia newspaper in Barcelona published an article on September 9, 1992, about her life, her art, and how she made it to Barcelona.
A reconstruction of Lorenza’s life and work can show how one person’s refusal to neatly fit into historical, artistic, political, national, and economic narratives of the Chilean “postdictatorship”—as well as North Atlantic thinking about queerness—can serve as an eloquently radical defense of inclusiveness.
This essay examines the affective structures of the Central America solidarity movement in the 1980s. Through an analysis of movement photography, memoir, and Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Bean Trees, the essay shows how the 1980s Central America solidarity movement was characterized by a disillusionment with the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and a valorization of sentimental reparative modes that emphasized affective connections between US and Central American subjects. This reparative orientation often required depoliticizing racial performances from Central Americans, anticipating the demands of neoliberal multiculturalism.
El Salvador: The Work of Thirty Photographers
In the essay, I briefly discuss two photographs from the book El Salvador: The Work of Thirty Photographers. The book was edited by Susan Meiselas, Harry Mattison, and Fae Rubenstein, with text by poet Carolyn Forché, and then transformed into an exhibition that debuted at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in 1983 and circulated throughout the country for two years in order to educate viewers about the violence of low-intensity warfare in El Salvador. In 2005, after the collection was donated to the ICP, the ICP reprised the exhibition. You can view the images online through their e-museum.
For me, what’s striking about the book El Salvador: The Work of Thirty Photographers is the balance between paranoid and reparative modes of engaging the reader. While the images I discuss in the essay enlist paranoid practices of looking and knowing, the collection as a whole operates at that nexus of the paranoid and reparative that Eve Sedgwick describes, particularly because of the character of Forché’s text. Unlike the later sentimental sensibility of The Bean Trees, which directs its reparative energies at healing the torn American national fabric and shoring up the exploitation of racialized labor under the cover of neoliberal diversity, Forché’s text imagines the reparative impulses of Salvadorans, their attempts to sustain not just survival, but pleasure, in the face of years of US modernization efforts and US sponsored violence, while simultaneously and unflinchingly presenting the mechanisms and effects of U.S. imperial power.
We Don’t Need No More Activist Tourism
The essay concludes with the voices of contemporary Central America solidarity activists, citing a group of MECHA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) students at a 2010 protest to close the School of the Americas. Watch their powerful critique of the reparative mode of solidarity activism that the essay describes.
In “Under the Skirt of Liberty: Giannina Braschi Rewrites Empire,” I argue that Braschi’s intention in Empire of Dreams (1988, trans. 1994), is to assault and occupy what the critic of urban space Michel de Certeau has called in The Practice of Everyday Life the abstracted, noncorporeal, idealized, totalizing or panoptic vision of the city of New York that is promoted, according to him, by the views from atop buildings such as the old World Trade Center or the Statue of Liberty. Braschi’s attempt to appropriate and invert here that dominant, abstracted, imperial gaze by having her migrant and gender-bending characters assault and occupy the Statue of Liberty, has a long history in New York Puerto Rican writing.
It is evident in the early attempt of NY Puerto Rican or Nuyorican poet Lorraine Sutton to appropriate Lady Liberty as a symbol by incorporating her and placing her literally at the center for the struggle for the liberation of the island of Puerto Rico envisioned, from her nationalist and feminist poetics, as a “sacred lady,” as the striking cover of her 1975 groundbreaking book of poems, SAYcred LAYdy shows. It is also manifest in the famous image of the 1977 takeover of the Statue of Liberty by New York Puerto Rican activists from the Young Lords Party in protest of the incarceration of Puerto Rican nationalist political prisoners in American jails, an image which has since been referenced by poets and reproduced in films such as Luis R. Torres’sBirthwrite: Growing Up Hispanic (1989), a documentary about the experience of growing Hispanic up in the United States as expressed by Latino writers, and Iris Morales’s documentary on the Puerto Rican militant group The Young Lords, ¡Palante Siempre Palante! (1996). In Birthwrite, for instance, this image of the Puerto Rican flag draped around the statue’s crown accompanies the Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera’s reading of his critical poem, “Lady Liberty,” from Mainstream Ethics/Etica corriente(1988).
Yet, as I have argued in my reading of the foundational Puerto Rican text, Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets (1967), “The Anti-Foundational Foundational Fiction of Piri Thomas (1928-2011)” (See PDF), the opposition proposed by Certeau between the panoptic vision of the city that may be had atop the Statue of Liberty or the old World Trade Center and what he calls the multiple, partial, provisional, corporal “migratory” visions of the city that are constructed from the ground by its pedestrians or “users” is a central dynamic or structuring tension in New York Puerto Rican writing. As I claim in my reading, this opposition is most often expressed in New York Puerto Rican writing through a dichotomy or tension that opposes the experience and symbolism of the tenement rooftop and that of the streets, the “mean streets,” where the rooftop represents the often-failed attempt to rise above the social abjection and fragmentation of the body to which the New York Puerto Rican or Nuyorican is subjected, to attain a total transcendent experience where the self, the city, the author’s collective ethnic identity, and the larger society are harmonized. This is a structuring tension or dynamic in many New York Puerto Rican texts from the Puerto Rican exile writer José Luis González’s brilliantly moving short story “La noche que volvimos a ser gente” [The Night We Became People Again] about the experience of Puerto Rican migrants reconstructing their sense of community in a New York East Harlem rooftop in the 1950s to Miguel Piñero’s abjectly emblematic 1970s “A Lower East Side Poem” which asks his readers to “take my ashes and scatter them thru out [the streets of] the Lower East Side.” Cinematically this tension is captured by the Cuban-American filmmaker León Ichaso in his film Piñero (2001) in a rooftop scene where Benjamin Bratt in the role of the poet Piñero recites his well-known poem “Seeking the Cause” as well as in the reading of “A Lower East Side Poem” at the end of the film by Miguel Algarín, Amiri Baraka, José-Angel Figueroa, and Pedro Pietri where the crowd heeds the poet’s words and scatters his ashes on the streets of the Lower East Side.
León Ichaso’s Piñero. Benjamin Bratt Recites Miguel Piñero’s “Seeking the Cause”
León Ichaso’s Piñero. Miguel Algarín, Amiri Baraka, José-Angel Figueroa, and Pedro Pietri Read Miguel Piñero’s “A Lower East Side Poem.”
Giannina Braschi Reads from United States of Banana
On the Statue of Liberty
On the Collapse of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, Part 1
On the Collapse of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, Part 2
Cruz-Malavé, Arnaldo. “The Anti-Foundational Foundational Fiction of Piri Thomas (1928-2012).”CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies XXIV, 1 (Spring 2012): 4-19.
González, José Luis. “La noche que volvimos a ser gente/The Night We Became People Again.” InCuentos: An Anthology of Short Stories from Puerto Rico. Ed. and trans. Kal Wagenheim. New York: Schocken, 1987.
Ichaso, León, Piñero. Miramax Films, 2001.
Laviera, Tato. “Lady Liberty,” Mainstream Ethics/Etica corriente. Arte Público Press, 1988. 7-10.
Piñero, Miguel. “A Lower East Side Poem,” La Bodega Sold Dreams. Arte Público Press, 1980. 7-8.
__________. “Seeking the Cause,” La Bodega Sold Dreams. Arte Público Press, 1980. 23-25.
Sutton, Lorraine. SAYcred LAYdy. New York: Sunbury, 1975.
Thomas, Piri. Down These Mean Streets. New York: Knopf, 1967.
Torres, Luis R. Birthwrite: Growing Up Hispanic. Cinema Guild, 1989.
Puerto Ricans Occupy the Statue of Liberty, The New York Times, October 26, 1977
Cruz-Malavé, Arnaldo. “The Anti-Foundational Foundational Fiction of Piri Thomas (1928-2011).”
Fugees video "Fugee-la."
Shakira & Wyclef video "Hips don't lie."