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From Threatening Guerrillas to Forever Illegals

From Threatening Guerrillas to Forever Illegals
US Central Americans and the Politics of Non-Belonging

A meticulous survey of US media representations of Central Americans.

Series: Latinx: The Future is Now

May 2022
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249 pages | 6 x 9 | 11 b&w photos |

The experience of Central Americans in the United States is marked by a vicious contradiction. In entertainment and information media, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and Hondurans are hypervisible as threatening guerrillas, MS-13 gangsters, maids, and “forever illegals.” Central Americans are unseen within the broader conception of Latinx community, foreclosing avenues to recognition.

Yajaira M. Padilla explores how this regime of visibility and invisibility emerged over the past forty years—bookended by the right-wing presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump—and how Central American immigrants and subsequent generations have contested their rhetorical disfiguration. Drawing from popular films and TV, news reporting, and social media, Padilla shows how Central Americans in the United States have been constituted as belonging nowhere, imagined as permanent refugees outside the boundaries of even minority representation. Yet in documentaries about cross-border transit through Mexico, street murals, and other media, US Central Americans have counteracted their exclusion in ways that defy dominant paradigms of citizenship and integration.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Central Americans among “US”
  • Chapter 1. Signifying US Central American Non-belonging
  • Chapter 2. Domesticated Subject? The Salvadoran Maid in US Television and Film
  • Chapter 3. Lance Corporal José Gutiérrez and the Perils of Being a “Good Immigrant”
  • Chapter 4. Central American Crossings, Rightlessness, and Survival in Mexico’s Border Passage
  • Chapter 5. The Cachet of Illegal Chickens in Central American Los Angeles
  • Conclusion: Seeing beyond the Dominant
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Yajaira M. Padilla is an associate professor in the departments of English and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. She is the author of Changing Women, Changing Nation.


From Threatening Guerrillas to Forever Illegals is a pivotal book for the fields of Central American, Latinx, and American studies. Padilla’s deft analyses not only elucidate how US hegemonic representations congeal with juridical-political practices to perpetually disenfranchise (US) Central Americans but also powerfully illustrate the ways this community formation produces counternarratives that contest its exclusion."
—Maritza Cárdenas, University of Arizona, author of Constituting Central American-Americans: Transnational Identities and the Politics of Dislocation 

“In From Threatening Guerrillas to Forever Illegals, Padilla skillfully curates what she terms a regime of hegemonic representations of Central Americans in everything from presidential communication to films and novels. From the 1980s to the present day, she argues, Central American immigrants have been represented as existential threats to the United States, and through her concept of non-belonging, Padilla makes visible the signification processes that both symbolically and materially marginalize Central Americans so thoroughly that many can inhabit the neoliberal “good immigrant” role only in death. Non-belonging, however, also leaves space for counternarratives that resist neoliberal rules. This is an important read for scholars in Central American studies, Latinx studies, visual studies, and literary studies."
—Leisy Abrego, UCLA, author of Sacrificing Families: Navigating Laws, Labor, and Love Across Borders