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Continental Shifts

Continental Shifts
Migration, Representation, and the Struggle for Justice in Latin(o) America

A timely, hemispheric examination of the post-NAFTA shift in US discourse surrounding Latinos, which has created dehumanizing representations that equate Latinos with animals and criminals, and of the ways in which Latino cultural producers contest these persistent misrepresentations.

October 2015
Active (available)
214 pages | 6 x 9 |

Applying a broad geographical approach to comparative Latino literary and cultural studies, Continental Shifts illuminates how the discursive treatment of Latinos changed dramatically following the enactment of NAFTA—a shift exacerbated by 9/11. While previous studies of immigrant representation have focused on single regions (the US/Mexico border in particular), specific genres (literature vs. political rhetoric), or individual groups, Continental Shifts unites these disparate discussions in a provocative, in-depth examination.

Bringing together a wide range of groups and genres, this intercultural study explores novels by Latin American and Latino writers, a border film by Tommy Lee Jones and Guillermo Arriaga, “viral” videos of political speeches, popular television programming (particularly shows that feature incarceration and public shaming), and user-generated YouTube videos. These cultural products reveal the complexity of Latino representations in contemporary discourse. While tropes of Latino migrants as threatening, diseased foreign bodies date back to the nineteenth century, Continental Shifts marks the more pernicious, recent images of Latino laborers (legal and not) in a variety of contemporary media. Using vivid examples, John Riofrio demonstrates the connections between rhetorical and ideological violence and the physical and psychological violence that has more intensely plagued Latino communities in recent decades. Culminating with a consideration of the “American” identity, this eye-opening work ultimately probes the nation’s ongoing struggle to uphold democratic ideals amid dehumanizing multiethnic tension.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Hemispheric Latinidades: Migrating Bodies and the Blurred Borders of Latino Identities
  • 2. Dirty Politics of Representation: Dehumanizing Discourse, Latinidad, and the Struggle for Self-Ascribed Ethnic Identity
  • 3. Spectacles of Incarceration: Biopolitics, Public Shaming, and the Pornography of Prisons
  • 4. Latinos in a Post-9/11 Moment: “American” Identity and the Public Latino Body
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Williamsburg, Virginia

The son of Ecuadorian immigrants, Riofrio is an associate professor of Latino and Hispanic Studies at the College of William and Mary. He has also contributed to the Huffington Post on controversial topics related to immigration.



On 20 May 1997, Esequiel Hernández Jr. of Radford, Texas, headed out to the desert to herd the goats he was raising to start his own business. Knowing full well about the dangerous animals that often made easy prey of his goats, the eighteen-yearold went out armed with an old World War I rifle to protect himself and his goats from the wild dogs and boars that sometimes roamed the hills. Hernández was woefully unaware, however, of the four-man Marine contingent that had also been roaming the hills for three days looking for drug smuggling. Situated more than two hundred yards away, and rendered practically invisible by their full camouflage ghillie suits, the Marines radioed base claiming that they had been fired upon. Legal proceedings, however, have determined that the boy—who was a good student, had no prior arrest record, and was dreaming of an eventual career in the military—likely had no idea the Marines were even there.

According to Kieran Fitzgerald’s documentary film The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, the Marines, led by Corporal Clemente Bañuelos, followed Hernández for roughly twenty minutes, closed the distance on him to within a hundred yards, and then killed him with a single shot under the armpit. The incident, which marked the first time a member of the US Armed Forces had killed a US citizen within the national territory since the Kent State protests of 1970, is emblematic of the complex interplay of hemispheric forces taking place throughout the Americas that, in this case, coalesced at the US/Mexico border.

This book begins with the assertion that Hernández’s senseless death, more than simply an isolated example of military overreach, is indicative of the severe consequences of recent practices that dehumanize and criminalize laboring Latino bodies. The story of Esequiel Hernández Jr. distills in discrete ways the “coming together” of the Americas that my title, Continental Shifts, invokes, for the story of Hernández is the tragic confluence of a number of continental shifts: a long, sharply accelerated history of continental migration, the shifting landscape of media and representation, the shifting domestic locus of the War on Drugs, and the coalescing of the War on Terror with the cyclical anti-Latino xenophobia that has increased dramatically over the last three decades.

By taking seriously the consequences of a representational process that criminalizes and dehumanizes Latinos through minute incremental acts, this book shows how the continental shifts of the last three decades have wrought a representational ideology that summarily devalues Latinos by reducing them to a sameness irrevocably equated with invisible labor, a dehumanized animal status, and a criminalized poverty.

While Latinos have long been interpreted as “foreign” invaders that pose a threat to “the” American way of life,1 the period preceding Hernández’s death through 9/11 and into the present has seen a pronounced shift in the treatment of Latinos. This shift is one characterized by the proliferation of representations of Latinos as animals and as criminals. This wide-ranging shift toward dehumanized criminality has enabled acts of physical and psychological violence on Latino communities. However, the communities themselves have responded with narratives that recuperate the right of Latino communities to live and to labor in safety and dignity and also to contest their status as a monolithic, peripheral “minority” community. Latinos have forwarded compelling arguments about the central role that they play, writ large, in broader US efforts to articulate a coherent, democratic national identity. Hernández’s story paves the way for a discussion that emphasizes the human cost of the persistent (mis)representation of Latinos throughout the Americas.

The subsequent internal and external investigations into Hernández’s death indicated inconsistencies, particularly with the Marines’ version of the event. The Marines claimed that Hernández, after they had silently and invisibly closed the distance on him, pointed his weapon at them in a hostile manner. Alleging that he was about to shoot at Lance Cpl. Blood, Bañuelos shot and killed Hernández. Further investigations, however, revealed that the fatal wound Hernández suffered would have been impossible on a person facing the Marines in a hostile manner, suggesting that Hernández had his back turned to the Marines and that he did not even know they were there. Despite this counterevidence, Cpl. Bañuelos was never indicted and subsequently never brought into a Texas courtroom to face formal charges.

Fitzgerald’s film, narrated by the Oscar-award-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones, is a powerful attempt to provide a complete picture of the events surrounding Hernández’s death. Fitzgerald foregrounds lengthy interviews with three of the four Marines involved in the incident and spends considerable time speaking with Hernández’s family, in particular his father, Esequiel Hernández Sr., and his older brother Margarito.

What one gets from watching the film is a profound appreciation for the emotional and psychological complexity of the incident. As we meet the Marines involved, we hear the tension in their efforts to walk the fine line between a sense of loyalty to the Marine Corps and the gnawing sense that someone made a terrible mistake that day.

Cpl. Ray Torrez Jr.’s interview is particularly revealing. He admits that now, as a police officer looking back over his field notes, he would question certain key inconsistencies; and yet he offers a defense of the Marine actions that is startling. He says,

Talk to me. Tell him, when he’s sitting next to me, tell my team leader, that he’s a murderer and he did this and I’m a murderer and I did that, and then the other two guys, the same thing. Say all that, talk to me. Tell me that. And when you’re done, I’m gonna tell you to take a nice deep breath. And say “you enjoyed that deep breath, right? Cuz that’s the freedom that we give you. That we gave you. That the Marines that are out there and the soldiers and the navy, the guys that are out there dying right now give you to do. That’s your right because we do our job. Do it all you want. It means two squirts of piss to me right now what you friggin’ think about what I did. Until you man up, earn that EGA [Eagle, Globe, and Anchor: the official insignia of the Marines], put that uniform on, and go lay in the dirt with me, then you come talk to me. Until that day comes around, enjoy all that air you’re breathing in your lungs right now, cuz there’s a guy out there dying for you.”

His statement, marked by an intense stare straight into the camera, is stark because of its fiercely loyal sentiments but also the palpable arrogance and entitlement that seem to permeate every phrase. Torrez is correct in pointing out the sacrifices military personnel and their families make. These sacrifices are real and they are profoundly meaningful. However, while he is correct in asserting the value of those sacrifices, his assumption that freedom is something that the military gives to the citizens of the United States ignores that it is US society that pays, with taxes, those same military. It suggests that the dangerous nature of their job puts them above any notion of accountability when that job leads to blatant abuses of power. To suggest that their job puts them in harm’s way and therefore absolves them of accountability for misuses of that power implies the notion that their allegiance is inclined more toward members of the military than the larger social body of the United States. To swear an allegiance to protect the United States is to swear an allegiance to protect all of the United States, not merely the fraction that agrees with everything we have ever done in the name of “America.”

Whereas Cpl. Torrez recalls the incident with an intensity bordering on defensiveness, two of the other Marines, ten years removed from the original incident, get visibly emotional thinking back on Hernández’s death. Lance Cpl. Ronald Wieler confesses that after the event he experienced long-running nightmares and often woke up unsure of where he was. Similarly, Lance Cpl. Blood seems to connect the incident to the wreckage of his life since leaving the Marines. Their efforts to make sense of Hernández’s death are juxtaposed in subtle ways with the treatment of the incident by high-ranking officials as well as interviews with Hernández’s family. The juxtaposition is equal parts moving and disturbing.

Watching the film, one is most awed by the fact that the entire incident could legitimately be considered an enormous, awful misunderstanding. Marines who had been taught to respond to perceived aggression with force, and who no one knew were out there, had been sitting in the desert for three days feeling bored and useless, calling in half-heartedly to report “incidents” such as people crossing the river on horseback or the presence of “six people in a Bronco.” They repeatedly characterized their presence on the border as a “waste of time.” This despondency regarding their mission was compounded by the way the mission had been characterized to them prior to deployment. As the sociologist Joseph Nevins has pointed out, Bañuelos and his men had been fed a steady diet of reports regarding the area as being hostile and plagued by drug activity. The film directly addresses the absurd stories of smugglers purportedly using mules to carry 2,000 pounds of cocaine and the anonymous circulation of statistics suggesting that 70–75 percent of the residents of Redford were involved in the drug trade. Inspired by a drumbeat of alarmist narratives, the Marines ventured clandestinely into the desert expecting the worst. And like all good Marines, they wanted action. The film shows that they were trained to respond in exactly the way they did.

The notion of Hernández’s death being a misunderstanding—he didn’t know the Marines were there, listlessly fired an outdated shotgun in their direction, and they responded aggressively, as trained, to a perceived threat—is made all the worse by the utter lack of compassion for his family and his community and suggests that the problem goes deeper than the tragedy of Esequiel’s death.

The Death of Esequiel Hernández: An American Tragedy

Hernández’s death has been characterized as nothing short of a tragedy. We learn that Esequiel was a successful student who loved to draw horses, who decorated his room with Marine recruitment posters and pictures of the Virgen de Guadalupe, and who loved the United States as much as he loved the traditional Mexican dances he learned in school. But Fitzgerald’s film also examines the depth of the tragedy through the eyes of Esequiel Hernández Sr., who introduces himself modestly and humbly by telling us that he has spent his whole life working in the fields and with livestock. We are immediately struck by his quiet, resilient demeanor and his abiding love for his family, evidenced in one particularly poignant scene.

Hernández Sr. describes his son’s desire to raise goats for profit. Although the family already had a couple of goats, Esequiel Jr. wanted more so that he could raise a herd and eventually make and sell cheese. Hernández Sr. recounts that his son was doing well in school and was on track to graduate from high school. He explains how he told his son, “Mejor tu trabajas allá [in school] y yo cuido los animales, yo te ayudo pa’ que tu pongas lo que tú quieras.” (It’s better if you work there [in school] and I’ll take care of the animals. I’ll help you so that you can put together whatever you want.) He tells the story calmly, plainly, and with that glimmer of pride that gives us a glimpse of a man proud of his son but also proud of his own sacrifices on behalf of that son. His voice, softspoken but dignified, never breaks, even when he says “Nunca se lo voy a olvidar.” (I will never forget him.)

Simultaneously, and by contrast, the film points out the consistency with which Hernández’s death was brushed off by upper military authorities. No doubt concerned about the potential ramifications of a lawsuit that could find the young Marines guilty and accountable for merely following orders, the press statements by military and political leaders consistently categorized Hernández’s death as a sad consequence of a changing landscape. The need to stem the flow of illegal drugs by militarizing the border becomes akin to actual “war,” and war, as we are reminded, sometimes results in collateral deaths, or, as a clip from Bill O’Reilly’s program blithely puts it, “accidents will happen.” Seen from this vantage point, deaths like that of Esequiel Hernández Jr.’s are simply the unfortunate byproduct of a legitimate continental war against drugs and terrorism that forms a “new reality.”

The cold, mechanistic, matter-of-fact description of Hernández’s death—the notion that Esequiel had ceased to be a person, becoming instead “an accident”—is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film’s unflinching analysis of the incident. We get the sense that the calculated nonchalance of the military authorities is a result of Hernández’s identity, for even though he was born in “America,” a fact that should have granted him certain inalienable rights and protections, he was never perceived as “American,” and as such his death required no moral outrage. It was to be quietly accepted as a consequence of keeping “us” safe from the scourge of narcotics.

The film lingers on the contradictions in a definition of “American” that excludes people that look like Esequiel. What it doesn’t address, however, is the complexity of the case itself with regard to Latino identity. The film never discusses the fact that two of the Marines, including the shooter, had surnames suggesting Latino descent, Torrez and Bañuelos. The presence of Latinos in the military and in the Border Patrol is neither new nor particularly surprising; Latinos have long seen participation in the military as a way to earn both de facto and de jure citizenship rights. The reality, however, has often been a disappointment.

In “Hispanic Values, Military Values,” Gina M. Pérez writes that “while military recruiters seek to include US Latinas/os and Latin American immigrants in the responsibilities and privileges of US citizenship, policy makers, conservative policy analysts, and citizen groups vigorously resist and seek to exclude and regulate Latin American immigrant incorporation in the United States” (169). Pérez’s essay points out the deep-seated contradictions inherent in Latino participation in the US military. In particular the burgeoning, actively focused recruitment by the US military of Latino youth has centered on mobilization of national “in” values like patriotism and loyalty that stand in stark contrast to the national(ist) “out” discourse of right-wing conservatives who persistently question the “Americanness” of Latinos.

Pérez points out that “Given that the citizen-soldier is located at the pinnacle of citizenship hierarchy, one way marginalized communities of color have laid claim to full citizenship rights is precisely through military service and the performance of patriotism and loyalty” (170). For Latinos (and other minority communities), participation in the military has become a sanctioned way of proving one’s value to the body politic of the United States.

The continental shifts of the last three decades have seen the confluence of an accelerated Latino migration coupled to a War on Drugs that has merged seamlessly with the War on Terror. This multiple-front “war” has contributed to an increasingly thorny social reordering that has produced Latino identities that are exceedingly complex. One measure of this complexity is the stark militarization of certain Latino groups, who have expressed a desire to be seen as simply “American” (versus “Latin” American) while also responding to a sense of duty to the United States by filling the ranks of state-sponsored policing units like the Border Patrol and the military. This participation puts them in direct, and often ironic, contact with other would-be US Latinos.

However, as the journalist Juan González reminds us, the pursuit of active military service by marginalized communities as a strategy for acceptance has historically proven ambiguous and illusory. Contextualizing a larger discussion of the “tiered” hierarchy of de facto citizenship for Puerto Ricans, González refers to the civil rights era when he writes:

The assassinations of Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King (1968) sparked mass urban riots among blacks and polarized the civil rights movement, and many of us who were influenced by those events found greater affinity to the black power movement than to the integration movement.

That identification intensified as thousands of Puerto Ricans went off to fight in the Vietnam War, only to return, like the veterans of World War II, to a country that still misunderstood and mistrusted them as foreigners. (93)

The sociohistorical processes that bring two Latino Marines into contact with a Mexican American high school student on the border are complex and intergenerational. However, placed in antagonistic contact with people “like them,” Latino military personnel and Border Patrol agents are often asked, implicitly, to embody an American identity that transcends their Latino identity. The result is often one of overt hostility to other Latinos, particularly those who are deemed “illegal.”

Although The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández avoids the messy entanglements of Latino on Latino violence, it lingers painfully on the palpable sense of injustice. Fitzgerald offers a detailed discussion of the shooting: a montage of interviews with the Marines recounting how they saw things develop as well as the varied opinions of outside investigators. Over the course of the film we are struck by the quiet dignity of Esequiel Hernández Sr. In another powerful scene we are given rough local news footage of Esequiel’s funeral, including an interview with the grieving father. He describes vividly, but with a firm voice and clear manner, the ghillie suits that the Marines were wearing to blend into the landscape and remarks that no one in this area had ever seen anything like that before. He seems incredibly composed for a man describing the men who had killed his son.

Then, minutes later in the film but years after the event, a visibly aged Hernández Sr. recounts the moment of his son’s death. With his wife sitting next to him stoically, he recalls hearing the gunshot; sensing that something is not right, he rushes to see what has happened, only to be rudely turned away by a US Marine. He describes how, after being rebuffed several times, the local sheriff asked him to come identify the victim. Finally allowed to approach the scene, he walks slowly past the Marines and finds his son, lying in a well, dead. It is then, thirty-five minutes into the film, that Hernández breaks down. As he resurrects the image of his son’s body lying there, he can bear it no longer, and he sobs, a grief that we hear as a sublime, poetic invocation of a father’s loss, any father’s loss.

Hernández’s sob is thick with the disbelief that his boy had been shot, that his American-born son was hunted down by US Marines and killed. It is here that the film conveys the full weight of the tragedy: scenes of family members and friends sobbing uncontrollably, the funeral procession with the entire town following the truck, and the mournful mariachi trumpet as a soundtrack. In stark juxtaposition to the calculated, official rhetoric of the “unfortunate accidental consequences of warfare,” these are the proper reactions to the unnecessary death of an eighteenyear-old boy shot for having the audacity to labor in the desert fields of his birthplace.

Ultimately The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández makes the case that the cover-up and prevarication that followed Hernández’s murder testify to the sense that certain citizens of the United States continue to be secondclass citizens and, as such, are seen as less deserving of mourning. This book is an effort to pay respects to the life and death of Esequiel Hernández Jr., and others like him, by attempting to unravel the shifting continental social processes of representation that conspire to transform an eighteen-year-old boy herding goats into a perceived threat by a heavily armed contingent of US Marines.

Continental Shifts: Tectonic Demographics

Two interrelated arguments tell the story of Latino struggles for, and against, the power of representation: first, representation is a social process that has had profound consequences for Latino communities in the United States and beyond; and second, in order to understand the social construction enabled by representation, it is essential to understand the role of the public sphere as a space of interchange. Building on the idea foregrounded by critical race theory and Latino studies that race is not biological but rather constructed by day-to-day interactions, I argue that representation of Latinos via public media is shifting to a discourse of dehumanization and criminalization.5 Continental Shifts thus interprets representation as a social process that affects Latino communities in complex ways by opposing the discourse inherent in catch-all ethnic labels such as “Hispanic” or “Latino.” Furthermore, it acknowledges the colonial dynamics that distinguish the various Latino communities—colonial dynamics that range from the overtly colonial, as in the the case of Puerto Rico, to the neocolonial, as in the case of Mexico and Central America, to a complex iteration of neocolonialism visible in the often privileged “white” bodies of South American migrants.

Approaching Latino studies hemispherically represents a shift in the way the paradigm of Latino studies has mainly been articulated. Whereas foregrounding the hemispheric nature of Latino communities reveals a nuanced process of identity construction and affiliation that reflects a globalized reality, focusing on the hemispheric connections between Latino communities emphasizes the structural nature of US domination by revealing oppression at work within the United States and throughout the hemisphere.

The theories and sensibilities around the notion of a unifying catchall identity marker, be it “Hispanic” or “Latino” or some other term, run a gamut of possibilities. As Marta Caminero-Santangelo’s book On Latinidad explains, these responses run from visceral rejections of the term “Latino” by the scholar Gustavo Pérez-Firmat to the politically inclined effort to unify divergent experiences and people evidenced in Paul Allatson’s Latino Dreams to what Caminero-Santangelo describes as “glib” efforts by scholars such as Fatima Mujcinovic and William Luis to bring together disparate “Latino” groups based on a shared, albeit variegated, marginality. She contends that

Despite the continuing and often un-self-reflective use of the umbrella term “Latino” as a singular category, much scholarship that directly addresses the panethnic implications of this label has made it much less easy to generalize about common culture, common political orientation, or even common experiences of marginalization within the United States. . . . At best, this scholarship also searches for alternative means of understanding of a “Latino” collective identity that is not based in reductive essentialisms about language or culture. (15)

Understood in these terms, the inchoate but nevertheless intellectually grounded sense offered by a collective definition of a group of people—that some have called “Latinos”—ultimately works because it refers to something palpable (if not consistently so). Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita lead the way in working through the dilemma of ethnicity by embracing it as what they have called the Latino Bloc.

Rather than attempt to find the single strand that unifies Latinos, they have underscored the importance of difference among Latino peoples: “The Latino Bloc is, like the multitude, diverse at the level of culture, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, forms of labor, political views, and class” (28). This attention to difference ironically leads to an assertion of unity—that the Latino Bloc is a population “alienated to varying degrees from the state.”

These strategies of representation have effects that determine how close Latinos feel they are to a larger “United State.” The diversity of Latino experiences will cause some groups to feel more alienated than others. Even those who potentially—because of class or white privilege—feel significantly less alienated will still be marked by the material effects of strategies enacted on Latinos writ large.

Hence, Sánchez and Pita’s argument about a designator like the Latino Bloc remains salient. They write, “there are good reasons—all political in nature—for us to construct ourselves as a nexus, an entity marked not by unity but by difference, by a shared sense of dislocation and oppression. It is an identity born in the context of difference. Present national and international conditions call for the deployment of a Latino Bloc identity, even though it is tentative and will in time melt away” (27).

Although I will use the term “Latino” throughout this book, I do so with the politically inclined notion of the Latino Bloc in mind. My use of the term Latino reflects the parameters by which Sánchez and Pita have constructed the Latino Block: “we are a transcontinental and transnational population, deeply divided by class, national origin, race, language, residence, and political orientation. Issues of gender and sexual orientation further divide us. We are not a nation but a conglomeration, a social construction, what Hall might call ‘a politically and culturally constructed’ grouping that is continually reconfiguring itself ” (30).

The story I aim to tell about the social consequences of Latino representation is connected to widespread perceptions of reality: it is a story that is not simply about what the rest of US society thinks about Latinos but also about what they believe the enormous cultural presence of Latinos means for “America.”

This palpable concern over the future of the United States is linked to concrete, verifiable demographic shifts, what Marcelo and Carola Suárez-Orozco and Desirée Baolin Qin have referred to as “The New Immigration.” The title of their 2005 anthology refers to the first of the continental shifts I address here: the steady, growing influx of immigrants from Latin America. The “newness” of this shift is in some ways debatable. This wave of immigration has roots that go back to the eighteenth century.6 Starting in the 1960s, however, the character of immigration to the United States changed dramatically.

Published in 2000, Juan González’s Harvest of Empire offers a summary of the dramatic demographic shift in immigration to the United States. He explains that

this movement of labor northward, rivaling in size the great westward trek across the North American frontier by early European settlers, has led to something else—the Latinization of the United States. Unparalleled immigration has taken place from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America since World War II, especially escalating since the 1960s. . . . More than 50 percent of the immigrants since 1960 have been from Latin America—and that’s not counting an estimated 2.7 million Latinos believed to be here illegally, or the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican migrants the Immigration and Naturalization Service doesn’t keep track of because they are already U.S. citizens. (xi)

The last five decades of immigration has wrought a massive shift with regards to who is coming to the United States and under what conditions. One out of two immigrants come from Latin America, which reveals the particular source of concern voiced by those who see the population shift as indicative of larger, more controversial shifts.

And while the demographic shift is important, the rhetoric of immigration tends to suggest a one-way dynamic from Latin America to the United States that simply fails to accurately represent the depth and complexity of migration. Instead, Continental Shifts envisions the two hemispheres as sliding toward each other on unseen tectonic plates and folding inward, like an enormous continental origami, such that what was once considered separate and distinct has been forced to mutual acknowledgement. My title is thus meant to invoke a theoretical grounding that sees the two hemispheres as more intimately entwined demographically, culturally, and ideologically.

The notion of mutual acknowledgment is critical. Due in part to the United States’ frequent political and military incursions into Latin America and its looming status as the world’s largest economy, Latin America has long been aware of its neighbor to the north. The demographic shift of so many hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans migrating north, however, has suddenly forced the United States to take notice of its neighbor(s) to the south.

The inward folding of the Americas reveals a United States that is growing increasingly anxious about the perceived cultural shift, the notion that somehow the United States (or “America” as they see it) is being irrevocably transformed. Wayne Cornelius, for example, has argued that with regard to a significant sector of the native-born population, “the economic benefits of a large, flexible, relatively low-cost supply of immigrant labor are offset by the noneconomic costs of a rapidly expanding and increasingly settled immigrant presence” (165). Salient among the perceived noneconomic costs of immigration is the hysteria about the way immigrant presence changes the face and the “sound” of America.

The fear is that the US population is quickly becoming darkerskinned. And many believe that the wholesale influx of Latin American migrants is placing the English language in jeopardy. Although Gloria Anzaldúa’s work centers precisely on her right to use language in a way that is most reflective of her multiply constituted identity, her insight about the relationship between ethnicity and language—“Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language” (81)—is just as applicable to the hysterical xenophobes who perceive the presence of multiple “foreign” languages as an imminent cultural threat to “their” America.

This fear is convincingly evoked in John Sayles’s brilliant film Lone Star (1996). Set in and around the post-NAFTA US-Mexico border, the film enacts the social and cultural dynamics wrought by demographic change and racial politics. In one scene, the white progressive sheriff Sam Deeds (son of the legendary sheriff Buddy Deeds) sips on a beer and talks to the garrulous owner of the local bar.

—You joke about it, Sam, but we are in a state of crisis. The lines of demarcation are gettin’ fuzzy. To run a successful civilization, you have got to have your lines of demarcation between right and wrong, between this’n and that’n. Your daddy understood that. He was a, whadya call it, a referee in this damn menudo we got down here. He understood how most folks don’t want their salt and sugar in the same jar.

—Boy, you mix drinks as bad as you mix metaphors, you’d be out of a job.

—You’re the last white sheriff this town’s gonna see. Hollis [the mayor] retires next year, Jorge Guerrero’s gonna take over. This is it, right here, Sam. This bar is the last stand: Se habla American, goddamit.

What the film’s dialogue captures so presciently is the state of perpetual crisis imposed by the sense of an impending invasion that threatens not just a particular lifestyle but the overall sense of what America is. The bar owner notes this phenomenon by invoking the phrase “the last stand” and then collapses the fear of invasive change—manifest demographically, politically, and culturally—into the concept of linguistic nonassimilation. For the bar owner, the last stand is marked precisely by the fact that here, in the bar, we speak “American.” We don’t, presumably, speak Spanish or “Un-American.”

This is partially why English-only political platforms are so popular; they raise the alarm that the linguistic “Reconquista” of Spanish over English is underway and then issue impassioned, patriotic calls to reclaim or defend the ostensibly endangered “American” culture. In 2010 Alabama businessman Tim James, son of former Alabama Governor Fob James, sought the Republican Party’s nomination for governor. Although unsuccessful, one of his campaign television ads was notable in its emphasis on the politics of language. James questions the efficacy of giving state-wide driving exams in more than one language and, with the kind of forced, “folksy” congeniality typical of the genre, expresses his view: “This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it.” Although proposed as a businessman’s “commonsense” approach to cutting costs and government spending, the deeper impetus of James’s ad was his clear effort to capitalize on anti-immigrant sentiment. James recognizes the way fear about demographic and cultural shifts— “se habla American, goddamit”—can be manipulated as a means of garnering support.

What this cultural hysteria ignores, however, is the reality of linguistic acculturation that takes place consistently across generations. The research in this regard is absolutely unambiguous: The longer immigrant populations are in the United States, the less likely they are to speak their native language: the longer they are here, the more likely they will become monolingual English speakers.

The linguistic anthropologist Ana Celia Zentella, for example, has argued that while first-generation immigrants often struggle to learn English, for secondand third-generation immigrants “Spanish is disappearing altogether because parents are raising their children in English, actively or passively” (331). She contends that the pressures to drop Spanish in order to pick up English are multiple and complex: “The net effect of dialect dissing, Spanglish bashing, the Hispanophobia that insists that only English be used in the schools and workplaces, and the ‘Mock Spanish’ spoken by Anglos that makes fun of Spanish speakers (‘no problemo’), is the promotion of language shift. Latin@s who end up convinced that their Spanish is bad or mata’o (killed), and that ‘real Americans’ are English monolinguals, rush to adopt English and eventually do kill off their Spanish” (331).

While much of the social pressure to acculturate is generated externally, as in the case of “Hispanophobia” and “mock Spanish,” much of it originates from within Latino communities. In their own efforts to gain the privilege that accompanies whiteness, Latinos often internalize the very standards propagated by an overt racial hierarchy that, while clearly differing in kind and degree, is as prevalent here in the United States as it is throughout Latin America. The result is that in the United States, whether via pressure to stop speaking Spanish because you speak “the wrong kind” or via pressures to disassociate yourself from Latinidad, Spanish has historically ceded ground to English in generation after generation of Latino immigrants.

Like Zentella, Lily Wong Fillmore emphasizes the role that the host society plays in either promoting or discouraging linguistic polyphony. In analyzing data collected from immigrant families across the United States, Fillmore argues:

Why are so many children dropping their home languages as they learn English? This question can be answered only in reference to the societal contexts in which the children are learning English. Secondlanguage learning does not result in the loss of the primary language everywhere. But it does often enough in societies like the United States and Canada, where linguistic or ethnic diversity are not especially valued. Despite our considerable pride in our diverse multicultural origins, Americans are not comfortable with either kind of diversity in our society. (302–303)

Fillmore’s argument draws our attention to the fact that linguistic acculturation signals a lack of value for diversity in its many complicated forms. This reality has inspired some scholars to refer to the United Sates as the language graveyard, the place where multiple languages come to die.7 More to the point, however, and contra the reality of unequivocal linguistic assimilation, the perception of a linguistic/national culture under attack wins the day. Some have speculated that the perception of Latin American resistance to linguistic assimilation stems from the steady influx of new migrants (most of whom do not yet know English), but the popular media has done little to foreground this argument instead of the notion of linguistic resistance.

Defining (Un)Americanness

In the end it is both fair and ethical to say that I have no idea what Cpl. Bañuelos was thinking when he ordered his contingent of Marines to track Esequiel Hernández as he meandered with his goats. And it is also true that I have no idea what he must have been thinking when, twenty minutes later, he pulled the trigger and shot Esequiel Hernández dead. What I am certain of is that the incident reveals much with regards to some of the key questions that have long been central to understanding the place (or placelessness) of Latinos in the United States. At the very least the tragedy speaks to a series of processes that afflict Latino communities throughout the United States and Latin America, processes that make poverty a crime and that render laboring Latino bodies into criminals. Put more succinctly, Latinos, such as Esequiel, become bodies because of their bodies.

Esequiel’s Latino body, however, was also an American body: his murder was the loss of an American life, on American soil, killed by American troops. And yet this singular fact was almost entirely absent from the discussion. Sadly, Hernández’s death is not unique, and the refusal to engage with and acknowledge his position as an American citizen is a manifestation of the narrowly defined parameters by which we designate who is American, and more broadly, who counts.

In Rethinking the Borderlands, Carl Gutiérrez-Jones focuses his research on the criminalization of Chicanos, their ensuing relationship to the legal system, and the various artistic efforts to contest this larger historical (mis)perception about Chicano communities. Gutiérrez-Jones asserts the importance that some Chicano historians give to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo because of the way its nonenforcement, with regards to the rights of newly incorporated Mexicans, signaled an immediate difference between Mexicans (and their descendants) and real Americans. Referring to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Gutiérrez-Jones writes:

Because this document guaranteed to the former Mexican national inhabitants of the lands ceded to the United States legal rights even beyond those defined in the Constitution—rights which were not honored by the United States—it is, in the eyes of these scholars, a key to understanding the social situation in which Chicanos find themselves. By contrast, the Cortina Revolt (1859), the zoot suit–U.S. servicemen’s riots (1943), the Chicano Moratorium (1969), and even the King verdict riots (1992) have all acted as defining moments for the Anglo establishment, inasmuch as these legal interactions have been read in the media and the courts as symptoms of a racially defined criminal penchant. (1)

Gutiérrez-Jones’s cogent summary of the history of exclusion manifest in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo couples with the ensuing criminalization of Chicanos to reveal a persistent construction of Chicanos as outside the body politic of America. Mexicans were purposely excluded from the rights inherent in American citizenship—even though the treaty with Mexico promised full inclusion as citizens beyond what was stated in the Constitution. In addition, the consistency with which their interactions with the legal system have been constructed along racist lines ostensibly verifies their presumed violence and criminality, a reality that confirms that Chicanos, from the outset and into the present, have been systematically understood as simply less American than Anglos.

Gutiérrez-Jones, again with a sharp eye on criminalization as a social practice linked to a programmatic dependency on Anglo US society, explains the process of constructing Chicanos as a distinct class. He writes: “I argue that systematic institutional collaborations of the sort revealed in the King verdict riots are the norm and that they are premised on a strategic deferral of racism as a central force in US history; hence the importance of ‘forgetting’ how Mexicanos and Chicanos have been made into a malleable working class through economic, educational, and political underdevelopment, even as they have been effectively targeted as a class” (2).

Gutiérrez-Jones’s definition of Chicanos as a class highlights that by default, Chicanos were systematically portrayed as un-American. Moreover, as a group they have been marked by the absence of the characteristics that are presumably inherent in real Americans.

Honing in on the politics of exclusion, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists is an important contribution to this discussion because it highlights key aspects of the larger historical context of the continental shifts of the last three decades. Even though it focuses almost exclusively on black/white issues of racism (with the occasional mention of the changing complexity of a multiracial “America”), Bonilla-Silva’s topic is the shift from Jim Crow–style racism to what he has termed “color-blind” racism. Since its appearance in the post–Civil Rights era, color-blind racism has slowly become what Bonilla-Silva describes as the racial ideology of the contemporary United States.

Bonilla-Silva’s term “racial ideology” refers to a process that is distinct from that of “racism.” Whereas “racism” has largely come to be associated with individual actions and beliefs, racial ideology, by contrast, “helps to glue and, at the same time, organize the nature and character of race relations in a society” (26). Bonilla-Silva’s work highlights how a larger, systemic racist ideology maintains a strict ordering of social belonging and exclusion. This means that the centuries-long presence of Latinos in the United States, and their arrival in unprecedented numbers since the 1980s, is a demographic and cultural reality that has been effectively managed by the dominant racial ideology of pre-civil rights violence—Jim Crow– and Juan Crow–style segregation and lynching—as well as the ensuing color-blind racism examined by Bonilla-Silva.

This larger historical context, which persistently structures communities of color as literally and figuratively beyond the pale, is not, however, without its complex ambiguities. While rap music continues to be the music of choice for white suburb-dwelling teenagers, the presence and success of Latinos in popular media is part and parcel of what José Limón has called “the play of eroticism and desire in the relationship between Greater Mexico and the United States”(4).

Written as a series of interrelated essays, Limón’s American Encounters uses a cultural studies lens to articulate the complex ambivalence that marks the ongoing relationship between the United States and Greater Mexico. In particular, Limón’s chapter “Tex-Sex-Mex” traces the shift from the typical denigration of the Mexican male to the emergence of the “Latino Lover” trope. Referencing here the addition of the Latino Lover to what Limón calls “the entire figurative complex”—which includes the heroic Anglo frontiersman, the derided Mexican male, the eroticized Mexican woman, and the sexually liberated Anglo female— Limón argues that this complex “has had considerable staying power in American culture through the present moment” (138). He adds that “such an iconography speaks to a history of quasi-colonialism but does so in ambivalence, an ambivalence in which the colonized are sites for projecting a split or decentering within the colonizer” (138).

Although Limón’s assessment of the shifting ambivalence between Greater Mexico and the United States is beautifully articulated through a close reading of various “expressive episodes”—including a brilliant reading of Lone Star—there are moments that border on the utopic. He argues that “these public and cultural events may be giving us expressive evidence of a certain further shift in the sociocultural encounter between Mexicans and Anglos in the United States. As such they may also be representing the ending or at least the decisive transformation of the discursive but also sociological and political history that we have been tracing” (139).

Limón’s assertion about how key cultural expressions might have been signaling a positive shift with regard to the United States’ deep ambivalence toward Greater Mexico (and I would argue Latinos writ large) is carefully articulated and well evidenced. But it is also, in some ways, dated, for his book appeared just three years before 9/11. As such, part of what Continental Shifts explores is the way this larger social context of wildly shifting ambivalence toward Latinos coincides with the colorblind racism that Bonilla-Silva highlights to consequently undo much of the utopic Anglo-Latino “transformation” that Limón indicates.

If we take Limón’s assertions about the shift toward a positive cultural interaction between Anglos and Latinos as possible (which I do), 9/11 signaled an immediate return to the white supremacy of the post– Jim Crow era. Charles W. Mills, in his evocative The Racial Contract, has called this white supremacy global in scope and contends that it is “itself a political system, a particular power structure of formal or informal rule, socioeconomic privilege, and norms for the differential distribution of material wealth and opportunities, benefits and burdens, rights and duties” (2).

Mills’s assertion about the global nature of white supremacy as a political system has been woefully underrecognized. However, the patent white supremacy of inclusion and exclusion that is woven into the fabric of the United States, though barely acknowledged, does occasionally surface in ways that force even the most strident of “American” apologists to take notice. Hurricane Katrina, and in particular Spike Lee’s film about Katrina, When the Levees Broke, emphasize saliently the press of this exclusion and the deeply rooted sense that certain lives matter and others don’t.

Katrina initially made landfall in New Orleans on 29 August 2005, breaching the levees and eventually flooding over 80 percent of the city. Estimates abound, but general consensus numbers one million people displaced by the flooding and over one hundred billion dollars in damages. The physical destruction, however, was perhaps only surpassed by the emotional devastation of the storm, a result of the loss of life and property but also pretense. For the predominantly black residents of the lower ninth ward, the thin veneer of citizenship that had enabled them to feel as if they too belonged to the United States was summarily stripped away by the government’s failure to react to the urgency of their situation. Thousands of black US citizens were left for days without food, water, or adequate shelter, a disaster that forced the resignation of Michael Brown, director of FEMA, and had a lasting effect on public perception of President George W. Bush’s presidency. The result was an outcry from the public and an emerging concern with the idea that suddenly, as a direct result of Katrina, the United States had come to partially resemble a Third World country.

The rhetoric of the Third World in the First World arose swiftly and originated from myriad vantage points. Writing on 9 September 2005 for NBC’s, Karen Barrows offers a brief report on the possibilities of “Third World” diseases “reaching America” as a consequence of the flooding in New Orleans. Barrow describes the raw sewage in the water as contributing to possible outbreaks of hepatitis A and cholera, diseases she signals as most closely associated with tropical Third World climates. Sensationalist print accounts followed of the spread of deadly diseases associated with far-away locations of poverty and social deprivation, and were carried by local and national television outlets as well. By contrast, a few of the articles and news pieces emphasized the notion of the Third World as a means to illustrate, or “reveal,” a lack of social justice that had long been a reality in the United States.

On 6 September 2005, for example, the highly polemical conservative essayist Richard Rodriguez was invited to PBS Newshour to share his thoughts on Katrina. Rodriguez contended that Katrina was psychologically devastating because it forced mainstream America to witness, in slow motion, the nightmarish devolution of our “nation’s achievement of civic order.” Furthermore, the real-time decaying of our “civic order” painfully revealed the poorly engineered foundations of our own naïve belief in a progressive America, characterized by a shared prosperity. The images that were broadcast worldwide—of poor, mostly black US citizens wading through chest-high water, living in desperate conditions, suffering visibly and publicly—collectively opened our eyes to the reality of a First World/Third World dichotomy that we had long (mis)understood as being about “here” versus “there.” Katrina upended that pretense and effectively brought “there” “here.”

Rodriquez argues, “it is insufficient to say that the first world population got out of town and left New Orleans to become a third world capital, flooded and stinking and dangerous. It is truer to say we discovered that New Orleans, like any other city, had been in the third world all along.” Katrina thus stripped an astonished public of its willful ignorance and forced us to confront the idea that the Third World might be a part of our own existence in ways that we would rather ignore. The deprivation that larger US society has always wanted to associate with remote places like Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America was now, and had always been, an integral part of our own sense of self. New Orleans, and by extension the United States, was, and always had been, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

As the fetid waters of Katrina slowly receded, part of what remained there silhouetted on the damp ground was the unmistakable rotting flesh of American racism. For Katrina, aside from emphasizing the secondclass (Third World) citizenship of poor African Americans, also revealed the extant connection between criminalization and the perpetuation of white supremacy. Lisa Marie Cacho’s book Social Death highlights the role that criminalization played in distinguishing between white hurricane victims who “found” food versus black victims who were perceived as “looting” those same food items. Cacho explains that, although criminalization shares conceptual roots with stereotyping, the two are distinct social processes with distinct consequences. She writes: “The term ‘criminalization’ has been used to refer to being stereotyped as a criminal as well as to being criminalized, but it’s important to maintain a distinction between the two. . . . To be stereotyped as a criminal is to be misrecognized as someone who committed a crime, but to be criminalized is to be prevented from being law-abiding” (4). Cacho foregrounds criminalization as a social process that, practiced in daily, minute increments, forestalls the opportunities of certain people to simply live their lives lawfully and peacefully.

Viewing Esequiel Hernández Jr.’s story through the lens of criminalization, we can see clearly that his “crime” was to be “Mexican” in a context that had over-determined the meaning of Mexicanness. To be Mexican, a few miles from the US-Mexico border, was to invite immediate, aggressive suspicion. In Esequiel’s case, that suspicion was fatal.

Cacho specifically addresses the key function of visibility, what we see or fail to see when we look at certain people. She writes:

Akin to “the stranger,” so called “unlawful” people (looters, gang members, illegal aliens, suspected terrorists) and so-imagined “lawless” places (totalitarian regimes, inner cities, barrios) are ontologized. These grossly overrepresented, all-too-recognizable figures with lives of their own—the looter, the gang member, the illegal alien, the suspected terrorist—have real world referents. We can transparently recognize criminals (with their disreputable traits and deceitful nature) only if we refuse to recognize the material histories, social relations, and structural conditions that criminalize populations of color and the impoverished places where they live. (9)

The answer, then, to how a soft-spoken eighteen-year-old high school student out tending a flock of goats gets interpreted as a legitimate threat to four armed and camouflaged Marines is premised on the larger social context that had already determined his potential guilt. In a context where aggressively trained Marines are told they are entering a town in which 70–75 percent of the population is involved in the drug trade, it seems almost impossible to assume that the Marines would see anything else.

Cacho’s argument underscores the notion that the easy, transparent (mis)recognition of criminality is only possible when we have ceased to see the inherent humanity in others. Lost in the myopic gaze of the social criminalization of the border and its residents are the “real world referents,” the actual people who inhabit the region and whose only goal, like most of us, is to work, survive, and flourish. Lost too in the narratives of a violent drug war that has come to our shores to endanger all of “us” are people like Esequiel and his family, “Americans” full of the same dreams and aspirations that mark our collective investment in the American Dream.

Continental Shifts thus takes Cacho’s notion of the willful (mis)recognition of Latinos and expands it to engage a hemisphere that has collapsed in on itself: fueled in part by a backdrop of fever-pitched Latin American migration to the United States (both real and imagined), the attacks of 9/11 and the confluence of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror have shifted a collective sense about who we mean when we say Latino. A social context that, if we are to believe Jose Limón, was beginning to slowly come to terms with a Latino presence that was both material and symbolic, suddenly reverts to a discourse predominantly concerned with the dehumanization and criminalization of Latino bodies. Hernández’s murder is located in a time of stark, uneven social ambivalence that dares to revere Latinos in popular culture while simultaneously vilifying their material realities.

This uneven social ambivalence has produced a definition of Latinos as a people that is disarming and consequential in its lack of depth. The sociologist Avery Gordon writes that complex personhood “means that even those who haunt our dominant institutions and their systems of value are haunted too by things they sometimes have names for and sometimes do not. At the very least, complex personhood is about conferring the respect on others that comes from presuming that life and people’s lives are simultaneously straightforward and full of enormous subtle meaning” (5).

For Gordon, recognizing the complex personhood in others involves not simply conferring respect but also understanding that the imposition of labels such as “victim,” or even presumably benign labels such as “superhuman,” can actually function to limit the range of personhood. Gordon’s work on haunting and on complex personhood remind us that the stories of tragic deaths, or mere collateral “accidents,” are stories about people and that part of our goal of creating, inhabiting, and perpetuating a just, democratic society rests upon precisely the need to recognize and honor the subtle personhood of people such as Latinos, who have otherwise been reduced to criminal, laboring bodies.

Alicia Schmidt Camacho has suggested that narratives, while certainly capable of granting a sense of complex personhood, also play a role in obscuring what she describes as the “real world referents” of Latino lives:

The imaginary represents a symbolic field in which people come to understand and describe their social being. . . . This means that the repertory of symbolic representation and practices that constitute cultural life may exert material force in the everyday existence of a people. . . . Cultural forms are not a reflection of the social, or merely a detached “set of ideas,” but rather the means by which subjects work through their connections to a larger totality and communicate a sense of relatedness to a particular time, place, and condition. (5)

Camacho’s point is well taken because it gestures specifically at the double-edged nature of narrative. On the one hand, autochthonous Latino narratives, what Juan Flores has collectively described as the “Latino Imaginary,” function as a kind of explicit negotiation with a larger social structure, a broader “set of ideas.” And yet these ideas are not exclusively, or even primarily, self-generated; rather, the larger social imaginary actively writes Latinos into being: in a narrow way, on a perpetual basis, and almost always without their input. Most important, therefore, is Camacho’s argument that symbolic practices are constitutive of cultural life but also extend well beyond the symbolic into the material reality of Latino lives. Stories matter.

Consequently, the story of Esequiel Hernández Jr., while not the explicit subject of this book, matters, and his story haunts my efforts here in profound ways. My work in this introduction and in the project as a whole is in large part about making Esequiel—the young man, the student, the hard-working dreamer—but also the resonant weight of his story (and that of others like him), visible, both symbolically and literally. Returning to Cacho’s notion of social death, she argues that “certain populations’ very humanity is represented as something that one becomes or achieves, that one must earn because it cannot just be” (6). Cacho’s interdiction here gestures at the problematic reality of a group of people whose very humanity is denied to them a priori such that, for certain populations such as the laboring class of Latinos, earning respect and cultural capital becomes secondary to efforts to simply be seen as human. In this sense Continental Shifts is partially about engaging the collective efforts to resist the press of a social system that actively inhibits the humanity of Latinos.

This book is an effort to capture the proliferation of dehumanizing social practices and hold them in focus while extending the focal length of the lens to keep the reality of its victims in equally sharp focus. I hope readers will see the people behind the processes so that when we talk about Latino communities and the victims of racism, we see the people that inhabit those communities, we see the people affected by a residual, entrenched white supremacy that thunders from on high with rhetoric about egalitarianism while wallowing in the mire of consistent, persistent racial exclusion. And most importantly, we must see the people actively struggling to resist and overturn pernicious entrenched historical racism.

The Shifting Media Landscape

The continental shifts that are the subject of this book are unthinkable without the simultaneous shift in global media. The world has changed dramatically with regards to the available media, their reach, and their consequence. As the anthropologist Dominic Boyer has suggested, “‘The media’ has become one of those terms like ‘the government’ or ‘the market’ that are used to talk about forces that are extensive, abstract and complex, unknowable in the details of their supposed entireties, but, at the same time, immediate, pervasive, and banal in important ways” (8). The proliferation of television programming, the internationalization of US film, and the advent of the Internet and its rapid extension throughout the globe have made instantaneous communication relatively easy; in a broader sense, however, this shifting technology has meant the inevitable expansion of cultural interchange. The blink-of-an-eye exchange of cultural artifacts and ideas through music, film, television, and consumer products has gone hand-in-hand with the rapid increase in demographic changes to produce a dramatically shifting sense of “what matters” both in Latin America and the United States.

Néstor García Canclini, the renowned Latin American cultural critic, offers the following summary of how technological globalization has shifted Latin America’s perspective on “the world”: 

En menos de cincuenta años las capitales de nuestro pensamiento y nuestra estética dejaron de ser París, Londres, y en menor medida Madrid, Milán o Berlín, porque sus lugares en el imaginario regional fueron ocupados por Nueva York para las élites intelectuales; por Miami y Los Ángeles para el turismo de clase media; por California, Texas, Nueva York y Chicago para los trabajadores migrantes. (17)

(In less than fifty years the capitals of our thought and our aesthetic ceased to be Paris, London, and to a lesser degree Madrid, Milan, or Berlin, because their place in the regional imaginary was occupied by New York for the elite intellectuals; Miami and Los Angeles for the middle-class tourist; by California, Texas, New York, and Chicago for the laboring migrants.)

For García Canclini, the advent of widespread, globalized consumerism, wrought primarily by the United States, has had a consequential effect on the migratory choices made by Latin Americans. The intellectual and cultural center that used to be occupied by the overt geographical Eurocentrism of Madrid, Milan, and Berlin has given way to the cultural capitals of New York and Miami and the labor capitals of lessfamiliar places like Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and central California, suggesting that, more than simply a shift in destination, the continental shifts of recent globalization have also shifted Latin America’s diasporic consciousness.

Alberto Fuguet and Edmundo Paz Soldán, both established, prolific contemporary Latin American writers and also editors of the influential anthology Se Habla Espanol, have gone so far as to argue that this shift in demographics and cultural exchange has effectively blurred national borders in surprising ways.

Porque a estas alturas, ¿qué es América Latina? ¿Estamos hablando de Latinoamérica o de la parte latina de América? Sea lo que sea, una cosa está clara: no se puede hablar de Latinoamérica sin incluir a los Estados Unidos. Y no se puede concebir a los Estados Unidos sin necesariamente pensar en América Latina. Mejor dicho: en las Américas Latinas. Los acelerados procesos de la regionalización en marcha hacen que el registro de lo latinoamericano sea, por suerte, cada vez más diverso y más amplio. (19)

(Because at this point, what is Latin America? Are we talking about Latin America or the Latin part of America? Whatever it is, one thing is clear: one cannot speak about Latin America without including the United States. And one can’t conceive of the United States without necessarily thinking about Latin America. Better yet: about Latin Americas. The accelerated processes of regionalization underway have fortunately made the register of what is “Latin American” increasingly broader and more diverse.)

It is not, they argue, just Latin America that has been forced to contend with a changing sense of self in a globalized, commodity-driven world; the United States too can no longer hope to understand itself, or be understood, without first acknowledging the role of Latin America and its diaspora, here on its own shores. Fuguet and Paz Soldán are correct in focusing on the “accelerated process of regionalization.” This process—spurred on by the proliferation of free-trade agreements and the Internet, dizzying in its speed and its relentless drive—is one in which the export of cultural products and values has had profound consequences on the range of desires of Third World nationals to live First World lives via the sometimes frenzied and often self-sacrificing acquisition of consumer products.

Speaking to the exportation of First World consumerist behavior, Marcelo Suárez-Orozco’s concept of “structures of desire” usefully contributes to larger, ongoing discussions regarding immigration in a hyperglobalized context:

Here is another paradox of globalization: As it continues to penetrate the local, cultural imaginaries of poor, developing countries, even if it destabilizes local economies and livelihoods, globalization generates structures of desire and consumption fantasies that local economies cannot fulfill. These twin factors, globalization’s uneven effects on the world economy and the emergence of a global imaginary of consumption, are behind the largest wave of immigration in human history. Globalization’s paradoxical power lies in its manufacture of both despair and hope. (4)

Suárez-Orozco’s discussion highlights the inherent paradox of a globalization that is either demonized or lionized. Suárez-Orozco emphasizes how globalization itself bears much of the blame for the frenzied migratory movements of the recent wave of immigration. As US companies become better at exporting their products to distant places, they become equally successful at manufacturing the desire for those products. The catch is that by and large the local economies aren’t capable of supporting or fulfilling those desires. People want what they can’t have, so they work out a way to get those things that are out of reach. This has often meant the strategic migration of the most mobile member(s) of the family who are then expected to help support the family “back home” with hard-earned remittances.

Additionally, Suárez-Orozco’s work signals the simple reality that people migrate for many reasons, the least of which is destitute poverty. He highlights how the human desire for comfort and consumption are directly associated with efforts to achieve those desires. Globalization structures desires in a way that for vast portions of the global population can only be satisfied via migration. The Chicano writer Luis Alberto Urrea crystalizes this dynamic in remarkably clear terms in The Devil’s Highway, his journalistic account of the “Yuma 14,” an incident that at the time made national news.

A party of twenty-six undocumented migrants ran into trouble as they attempted to cross the Arizona desert to enter the United States illegally. Because the incident led to fourteen deaths it drew serious, if momentary, attention to the effects of border policies that effectively sealed the urban corridors between the United States and Mexico, forcing migrants deep into the desert. Urrea’s book rejects the stock stereotypes of villainous border agents and nefarious coyotes13 locked in combat with noble undocumented migrants in order to make the more nuanced argument—that the human victims of migration are the result of national policies that refuse to account for the realities of migration.

Although Urrea doesn’t use the language of “structures of desire,” the concept resonates in his description of the genesis of migratory impulses throughout Latin America.

It was a two-way flow. Western Union has facilitated a cash-flood back from Chicago and Los Angeles. Remittance money stormed south from East Harlem and San Francisco, Seattle, and Skokie. It cost fifteen dollars a pop to transfer funds to the terminals at BanaMex. Western Union became so much a part of the folklore that it had its own nickname, “La Western.” People without electricity were well versed in using its computerized services. Bright high school kids from the dirt and thatch villages in the hills could make their way to the city and call up Justin at the Internet café. If they didn’t go north before, they were not going to let the American Millennium pass them by this time around. (46)

Urrea’s observations about the US-Mexico border reveal a widespread, culturally inspired global restlessness. For many Latin American youth, their collective disaffection goes beyond the lack of basic comforts like electricity to reside in the Internet-inspired sense that a better place exists just across the border, a place populated by unfettered access to cultural objects and consumerist possibilities.

As the communication and film scholars Nick Couldry and Anna McCarthy suggest, this is precisely the inherent complexity of what they call mediaspace. They argue that “modern media are among the principal means through which a certain type of order has been introduced into larger territories (the order of nationalism and propaganda). Yet the problem of order is also the problem of disorder. MediaSpace may be dominated by ideologies of control and individualized power, but, like any complex system, it is constantly under stress through forces of flux, transience and unmanageability” (3).

What Couldry and McCarthy put their finger on, and what Urrea evokes with his frenetic, chaotic prose, is the way in which, despite the best efforts of multinational corporations, globalization frequently exceeds the grasp of those who would wield it for themselves in narrow, particular ways. While in no way downplaying the significant economic and cultural effects of globalization, as the United States has sought to export its culture and its products—to order the territories, as it were, around the idea of global consumption—it has had to face the fact that the same mediaspace that allowed for this global exportation has produced a very palpable disorder in the form of mass migration to the United States.

This disorder, inspired by the virtuality of migration, is further entrenched by the clear messages sent by emigrants about their new lives in the United States. Urrea describes the inordinate influence that these migrants have on those left behind:

[The immigrants] built cement block additions to their tumbledown homes, added aluminum to the thatch roofs. New clothes were signs of great success: satellite dishes, air conditioners, boom boxes, guns, cattle, televisions, coffeemakers, PCs, pigs. Some even got telephones. It was unheard of. Villages all over Mexico were suddenly slotting in the Internet, watching CNN. Families came back with babies who were supposedly American citizens. . . . The neighbors of these adventurecapitalists watched and wanted. Their children were dying. Dengue fever had made its way up from the Amazon. Malaria was spreading again, and it was worse than before—this new black blood malaria. Corruption, political violence, indigenous revolution in the south. People in Veracruz were looking north, as inevitably as the rains came and the mosquitoes bit. (46–47)

Urrea’s packed description reveals how the increasing presence of global, instantaneous mediaspace in far-flung Mexican villages augments the feeling of relative isolation and transforms it into a tangible sense of foreclosed possibility, one marked by violence and a sickness that is as much physical as it is political. Juxtaposed with the relative wealth and freedom embodied by returning migrants, the routine of disease, violence, and corruption becomes untenable while access to satellite television, domestic appliances, and US passports become increasingly seductive symbols of an achievable affluence made possible by migration.

The role of ever-increasing virtuality in this process simply cannot be overstated. Couldry and McCarthy, however, counter the oft-repeated suggestions that mediaspace is above all else a tool of liberation and social equality by drawing attention to the inherent “unevenness” of virtuality. They write that virtuality, “despite its connotations of diminished dependence on materiality and space, is itself the product of uneven development: the transformations it has wrought in the lives of the middle class in the West are mirrored by material transformations of the basic conditions of existence elsewhere in the world” (3). By nuancing the notion that virtuality is indicative of placelessness and immateriality, Couldry and McCarthy emphasize that the raw material necessary to make the technology that enables virtuality comes from somewhere and that this “somewhere” often pays a heavy price whether in terms of civil wars fought over raw materials or ecological consequences of unfettered mining. Embedded here is a larger point about the unevenness of development: aside from distributing unequally the consequences and benefits of technology, this unevenness is also largely responsible for bringing the distant Third World to the doorstep of the First World in increasingly overwhelming numbers.

Given this increase, part of what makes Urrea’s voice so important in the debate over immigration is the insightful engagement with the cultural flows embedded in contemporary globalization. Urrea understands the flow of money via remittances14 and the role of returning migrants in their evocation of a “new and improved” lifestyle, but he also emphasizes the role of media and in particular popular culture.

Migration to the United States, Urrea emphasizes, isn’t simply about money and goods; it is about the persistent appeal of an American Dream manifest in wide-ranging cultural iterations.

Mexicans still behind the barbed wire continue to listen to fabulous tales of Los Estados Unidos. They watch drunk and disorderly teens vomit in the streets of Spring-Break–Aztlán. They wait tables and mop floors while sailors scream and naked girls dangle from balconies. Topless gringas pout on their beaches, where they are not welcome unless they’re sweeping up cigarette butts or carrying trays of Day-Glo liquor concoctions. They watch television, go to open-air twelfth-run movie houses where the tickets cost fifty centavos and the mosquitoes bite their necks. Radio is alive with propaganda: Eminem! ’NSync! Britney! Ja Rule! (They call him: Ha!) It’s Radio Free Mexico, on every AM and FM dial! They buy castoff American clothes at the segundas, and by God, even the gringo trash is better than anything else they can buy! (207)

Although forced to endure the presence of obnoxious sailors and American teenagers fulfilling escapist, exoticized fantasies of licentious abandon in places like Tijuana, would-be migrants also gain access to films and music. This avid consumption of cultural forms makes their own world seem smaller and smaller, foreclosed economically yes, but also culturally. In pinning down the enormous influence that popular culture has on shaping would-be migrants’ perceptions of the world they inhabit, Urrea reveals that for the generation of adolescents raised on cultural exports like Eminem and American action movies, the United States is a place where life happens.

Urrea’s expansion of the conversation to include a broad range of cultural influences should not be taken lightly, for his work concretely addresses an issue that García Canclini raised more than two decades ago. Writing in the mid-1990s about the shifting role of neoliberalism and consumerism in national belonging, García Canclini rightly identifies the arbitrary limits placed on wider discussions of migration:

Tiene una baja presencia en esta conversación académica lo que ocurre en los medios masivos de comunicación, salvo cuando puede ser reducido a las problemáticas legitimadas por el universo culto. . . . Desde hace más de medio siglo los intercambios culturales entre Estados Unidos y América Latina ocurren, más que en la literatura, las artes visuales o la cultura tradicional, en las industrias comunicacionales. (19)

(There is a lack of “presence” in this academic conversation about what happens in the mass media, except when it can be reduced to the types of problems legitimated by the universe of the cultured. . . . For more than half a century, the cultural interchange between the United States and Latin America has taken place, more than in literature, the visual arts, or traditional culture, within the communication industries.)

For García Canclini, the role of communication industries begins, in many ways, to trump existing emphasis on the role of high culture as the site par excellence for understanding the complex relationship between the United States and Latin America. But high culture, or at least more formal and long-studied aspects of culture, tend to lead to ossified interpretations regarding the dynamics of power and interchange between the northern and southern hemispheres. A sharpened focus on the communication industries enables a deeper read on a cultural and economic power differential that is consistently unequal but also shifting in unpredictable ways. This is due, partially at least, to the close relationship/overlap between the foregrounding of commercial/economic interests and the wholesale exportation of cultural goods from the United States to Latin America and vice-versa. What García Canclini hints at, and what Couldry and McCarthy elaborate on, is the complexity of the changes brought about by globalized, virtual connectivity.

The shifting importance of place, or co-presence, is one such complex change. In addressing whether or not co-presence as a value has increased or decreased in proportion to increased globalization, Couldry and McCarthy argue about the “particularly intense meaning” that copresence can take on. As evidence they claim that, “on the one hand, executives fly across the world to meet each other, fans gather from large distances to be in the presence of a celebrity. On the other hand, those who live far from the ‘nodes’ of the global capitalist economy experience ever more intense forms of disconnection” (7). The intensity of disconnection is among the most powerful of the effects linked to the tectonic shifts wrought in the last several decades by the rise in neoliberal policies throughout the hemisphere and the globe.

Much of neoliberalism’s seductiveness has been its emphasis on individuality, an emphasis that, by suggesting that success and failure are direct results of individual merits, has slowly and steadily eroded our sense of community and of a shared common humanity. As enormous financial institutions like Citibank and J. P. Morgan, and as multinational corporations like Apple, Nike, and Walmart, amass increasingly unimaginable sums of money and profit—often at the expense of middleincome investors and low-wage employees—our global society has become more and more striated. Wage disparities are increasing rather than decreasing while the US government continues to spend enormous sums of money to wage an ineffective War on Drugs and to incarcerate more of its citizens than any other nation on earth. Caught in the midst of seismic tectonic shifts of technologies, demographics, and globalized exchanges, the many millions of Latinos, like Esequiel Hernández Jr., are both victims and actors in the ongoing struggle for justice in the United States. In order to tell their story, this book charts the complex story of reductive, dehumanizing representations of Latinos and the contestatory articulations by Latino communities throughout Latino America.

Chapter 1 counters reductionist approaches that have consistently framed Latin American immigration to the United States as a “Mexican” issue while arguing against the prevalent social construction that actively homogenizes all Latinos as “illegal Mexicans.” “Hemispheric Latinidades” contends that the ease of communication and cultural crosspollination wrought by globalization have forced a reconceptualization of Latino identity that takes seriously the notion that “Latino” identities are in fact being born and developed in far-flung places like Ecuador, Colombia, and Nicaragua. Building on the theoretical work of hemispheric American studies (also called inter-American and trans-American studies) and looking closely at two contemporary novels written by Latin American writers about Latino migration to the United States, this chapter argues that Latinos should be understood as widely dispersed hemispheric communities whose connections reach far beyond the borders of the United States. Conceptualizing Latino identities in this way complicates reigning popular discourses about Latinos and enables the argument that the social forces that structure inequality throughout Latin America are extensions of the social inequality that has maintained US Latinos as second-class citizens and vice versa.

Chapter 2 looks at news stories and popular media videos—including advertising and video-taped state hearings—posted on highly visible websites such as Huffington Post, to argue that the years leading up to 9/11, and since, have witnessed a troubling shift in the public representation of Latinos to a discourse that consistently dehumanizes them. Engaging with theoretical work in linguistics, media studies, and critical race studies, “Dirty Politics” historicizes the public sphere’s longstanding relationship to US Latinos to further contend that the dramatic rise in neoliberal values of individuality and meritocracy has resulted in an increasingly aggressive anti-poor sentiment that belittles low socioeconomic groups. This belittlement is intimately connected to the persistent invocation of African Americans and Latinos as “animals” undeserving of the respect offered to white communities. Further, by taking seriously and analyzing the homemade videos of various adolescent YouTube users, chapter 2 argues that these videos represent sincere and often sophisticated efforts to understand and contest the occluded social processes that construct and constrict ethnic identity in the United States.

Chapter 3 picks up on the issue of dehumanizing representation laid out in chapter 2 in order to analyze “spectacles of incarceration”—popular reality programs like MSNBC’s Lockup alongside the media exposure granted to the now-infamous Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. On a nightly and increasingly profitable basis, these spectacles enact an insidious rhetorical and ideological violence that bolsters support for anti-communitarian neoliberal policies while targeting primarily poor communities of color. These spectacles of incarceration, whose explicit purpose is to satisfy both our fascination with criminality and our abiding interest in violence, also function to expose the “cracks and rigging,” to use Avery Gordon’s term, of a prison system predicated on the profitable warehousing of people (transformed into profitable criminal bodies). This chapter argues that what Foucault has called the “trace of torture,” which has haunted the criminal justice system since the nineteenth century, has partially reemerged, and we would do well to pay attention to what that reemergence—the haunting—reveals about the social world we have constructed.

Chapter 4 contends that the 2005 film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada—written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Tommy Lee Jones—and Ariel Dorfman’s 2009 novel Americanos: Los Pasos de Murieta are paradigmatic works about an emerging post-9/11 era marked by deep insecurities about safety, cultural purity, a profound antiimmigrant hostility motivated in part by the xenophobia typical of economic downturns, and the struggle over national identity that has been partially played out on literal and figurative Latino bodies. While Dorfman’s novel Americanos has been all but ignored by critics, and reviewers of Jones’s film have consistently mischaracterized it as a simple film about justice and revenge, chapter 4 contends that they are both sustained, sophisticated meditations on the larger sociopolitical struggle for a post-9/11 American identity. In so doing, chapter 4 highlights the myriad ways the Latino body has become both an object and a symbol for the struggle over the ideological center of the United States.

The book concludes by examining the tension that marks our current political moment by juxtaposing the kind of dehumanizing rhetoric consistent with a xenophobic United States uncomfortable with diversity to the increasing calls by the Republican Party to “reach out” to and include Latinos. By reading the prevalence of these two seemingly conflicting discourses, I bring to the fore one of my core arguments: that the story I tell about Latinos in these pages is not just a story about Latinos, but rather, one about the arc and bend of the United States in its efforts to embody the democratic ideals presumed to be at its core.


“Riofrio engages wide swaths of popular culture and literary criticism, using them as a prism for understanding contemporary historical events and public policy. ”

“...critically ambitious, highly readable, and furiously passionate. The book indeed provides an exciting contribution to Inter-American studies, Latino Studies, literary and cultural studies, but truly triumphs in the way it models ethically grounded and publicly directed scholarly work. ”

“Exceptionally readable and teachable, with a breadth of examples. Few books in this niche have been published in Latino studies, and this contribution should be highly welcome.”
Michael Hames-Garcia, Professor of Ethnic Studies, University of Oregon and author of Identity Complex: Making the Case for Multiplicity

“A compelling framework that will impact how we think about hemispheric Latino studies in the years to come.”
David J. Vázquez, Associate Professor of English, University of Oregon and author of Triangulations: Narrative Strategies for Navigating Latino Identity