Maritza E. Cárdenas
The use of the term “Central American” as an identity category is neither new nor restricted to the US diaspora. However, it is within the last forty years and in the geopolitical setting of the United States that a thriving identity politics has developed. It is during this time period that the use of the term Central American has emerged to denote a tactical American pan-ethnic social identity. This act of consciously employing the term “Central American” as a unification strategy for peoples from the isthmus in the United States echoes other US-based ethnoracial identity politics. Such movements often utilize a pan-ethnic term not only to advocate on the behalf of a racialized minoritarian community but also seeking to provide them a space of belonging by focusing on sociopolitical, cultural, and ethnic commonalities. As other identity markers in the United States such as “Asian American” and “African American” illustrate, Central Americans are not the first population to utilize a region as a strategic unifying term of self-identification. Yet, unlike these other US ethnoracial categories, for those who identify as “Central American” the term “Central America” often connotes not simply a geographic space but also a historical formation that advances the notion that individuals from the isthmus comprise a distinct but common culture. Another key difference from other US ethnoracial identities is that use of the term “Central American” in US cultural politics emerged during a historical era where the broader collective terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” were already in place. The creation and deployment of “Central American” is therefore an alternative to this other supra-ethnic identity category, as subjects view this isthmian-based term as being able to simultaneously create a broader collective while still invoking a type of geographic and cultural specificity that is usually associated with national identities.
Cara Anne Kinnally
While cultural critics and historians have demonstrated that print culture was an essential tool in the development of national, regional, and local communal identities in Latin América, the role of oral culture, as a topic of inquiry and a source itself, has been more fraught. Printed and hand-written texts often leave behind tangible archival evidence of their existence, but it can be more difficult to trace the role of oral culture in the development of such identities. Historically, Western society has deeply undervalued oral cultures, especially those practiced or created by non-Westerners and non-elites. Even before the arrival of the first printing presses to the Americas, starting with the very first encounters between Spaniards and indigenous peoples in the Americas in the late-15th and early-16th centuries, European conquerors understood and portrayed European alphabetic written script as a more legitimate, and therefore more valuable, form of history and knowledge-making than oral forms. Those cultures without alphabetic writing were deemed barbaric, according to this logic. Despite its undervaluation, oral culture was one of the principal ways in which vast numbers of Latinas/os were exposed to, engaged with, and exchanged ideas about politics, religion, social change, and local and regional community identity during the colonial period. In particular, oral culture often offers the perspective of underrepresented voices, such as those of peasants, indigenous communities, afro-Latinas/os, women, and the urban poor, in Latina/o historical, literary, and cultural studies. During the colonial period especially, many of these communities often did not produce their own European script writing or find their perspectives and experiences illuminated in the writings of the letrados, or lettered elites, and their voices thus remain largely excluded from the print archive. Studies of oral culture offer a corrective to this omission, since it was through oral cultural practices that many of these communities engaged with, contested, and redefined the public discourses of their day.
Oral culture in the colonial period comprised a broad range of rich cultural and artistic practices, including music, various types of poetry and balladry, oral history, legend, performance, religious rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and much more. These practices served as a way to remember and share ideas, values, and experiences both intraculturally and interculturally, as well as across generations. Oral culture also changes how the impact of print culture is understood, since written texts were often disseminated to the masses through oral practices. In the missions of California and the present-day US Southwest, for example, religious plays served as one of the major vehicles for the forced education and indoctrination of indigenous communities during the colonial period. To understand such a play, it is important to consider not just the printed text but also the performance of the play, as well as the ways in which the audience understands and engages with the play and its religious teachings. The study of oral culture in the Latina/o context, therefore, includes an examination of how literate, illiterate, and semi-literate Latinas/os have engaged with, resisted, or repurposed various written forms, such as poetry, letters, theater, testimonios, juridical documents, broadsides, political treatises, religious texts, and the sermon, through oral cultural practices and with various objectives in mind. Oral culture, in all of its many forms, has thus served as an important means for the circulation of knowledge and the expression of diverse world views for Latinas/os throughout the colonial period and into the 21st century.
From the countryside to the city, from the city to foreign lands, people who challenge heteronormative notions of gender and sexual practices have left their place of origin in search for freedom of expression for ages. Despite this, it was only in the late 1980s to early 1990s that migration studies scholars started to look at the role of sexuality within migratory patterns, probably due to historical facts such as the civil rights movements, new trends within feminism (i.e., Third World feminism), the birth of fields that spur on intersectional approaches (such as cultural and LGBTQ studies), and most importantly, the AIDS pandemic and the way it “traveled” around the world, particularly affecting sexual and racial minorities.
Whereas exile is often understood as a legal or political category, sexile may come detached from official institutions and yet still imply an individual’s undesired uprooting from his or her nation state. Building on the scholarship of David William Foster, Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé, José Quiroga, and others, Puerto Rican academic and author Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes was the first to put into circulation the implications of sexual practices and identities for migratory patterns within Latin American literary studies. But it was Puerto Rican sociologist Manolo Guzmán who coined the neologism “sexile” to refer to emigration caused by one’s sexual orientation.
While the practice is, in a sense, a timeless and global phenomenon, it is more common for residents of the Caribbean due to the region’s colonial history. The effects of extended colonialism and its constant cultural contact with previous colonizing empires, as well as neocolonialist socio-economic structures in place at present and common to the geographical zone as a whole, make its development differ from that of other Latin American countries, which obtained independence in the early 19th century. Thus, many of its inhabitants look to move to places such as the United States or Spain, which have commonly influenced their sexual imaginaries, seeking a friendlier environment than that of a region contestably referred to as one of the most homophobic places on earth.
Lorgia García Peña
The formation of Dominican identity has been linked to the historical nexus that placed Dominicans in relationship to Haiti, Spain, and the United States. The foundational literature of the 19th century sought to shape national identity as emerging from racial hybridity through notions of mestizaje that obscured Dominican African roots. In the early to mid-20th century, at the hands of the Trujillo intelligentsia, these myths shaped legal, educational, and military structures, leading to violence and disenfranchisement. Since the death of Trujillo in 1961, Dominican writers, artists, and scholars have been articulating other ways of being Dominican that include Afro-Dominican episteme and accounts for the experiences of colonialisms, bordering, and diasporic movements. These articulations of dominicanidad have led to a vibrant, exciting, and incredibly diverse literary production at home and abroad.
Asians in the West Indies are primarily migrants and their descendants from either South Asia or China. The representation of the Chinese in West Indian fiction is integrally connected to the specific development of the region. Indeed, to consider the role that the Chinese play in West Indian fiction is to engage, more generally, in the act of imaginatively locating the West Indies. Despite the fact that numerically, they have always held a marginal status in the region, the Chinese are very much present in West Indian literary landscapes. The recurring representations of the Chinese and Chineseness in such fiction are intimately tied to locating the metaphorical and discursive contours of the West Indies and of West Indians. In this context, depictions of the Chinese in West Indian literary texts tend to follow three lines of representation: (1) defining the region as an exotic “other place”; (2) negotiating the boundaries of West Indian belonging; and (3) complicating settled narratives of West Indian identity.
Nancy Kang and Silvio Torres-Saillant
Dominican American literature comprises the body of creative writing in various genres by US-based authors of Dominican ancestry. Here, “Dominican” refers to people who trace their origins by birth or descent to the Dominican Republic, not to the island of Dominica in the Anglophone West Indies. “Dominican American,” in turn, applies to writers born, raised, and/or socialized in the United States, who received their schooling in general and, in particular, their literary education in this country irrespective of the extent of their involvement in the life of their ancestral homeland. Writing by Dominicans in the United States has a long history. Its existence reaches back at least to the first half of the 19th century, shining forth meaningfully in the 1990s, and showing little sign of abatement in the early decades of the 21st century.
While this article concerns itself primarily with Dominican American writing, it seeks to answer predictable questions regarding the rapport of this corpus with the literary production of Dominican Republic-based writers and Dominican authors who have settled in the United States largely as immigrants, using Spanish as their literary language. The article distinguishes Dominican American literature from the writings of people who, beginning in the 19th century, came to the United States from the Dominican Republic as travelers, adventurers, and individual settlers, having left home for political or economic reasons. They could be exiles escaping danger or immigrants seduced by the possibility of enhancing their lives in the proverbial “land of milk and honey.” They tended to regard their time in the United States as temporary and yearned for the change of fortune—political or economic—that would bring them back home. However, having had their return either thwarted or delayed, they would often build families or raise any offspring that came with them to the receiving society. Their children, US-born or brought to the land while young enough to be socialized as US citizens, became Dominican American by default.
US-born children of foreign parents who have pursued writing as a vocation have been able to vie for recognition in the American literary mainstream. English speakers by virtue of their US upbringing, they would have their ears attuned to the rhythms of US literature writ large. Dominican American writers in the 21st century have shown their mettle, making themselves heard in the ethnically partitioned map of the country’s letters. As with other Caribbean-descended American writers, they typically inhabit their US citizenship with an awareness of the contested nature of their civic belonging. Family legacies, personal memories, and their own process of self-discovery keep them reminded of the effects of US foreign policy on the land of their forbears. As a result, their texts tend to reflect not only an ethnic American voice, but also a diasporic perspective.
Rita Indiana Hernández (b. June 11, 1977, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic) is a Dominican writer, musician, and performer. In addition to her popularity as a singer-songwriter, she is widely regarded as one of the most important Dominican authors of her generation. Her literary career began in the 1990s with short works included in zines such as Vetas. By 2001, she had self-published three books: two collections of short stories—Rumiantes (1998) and Ciencia succión (2001)—and one novella, La estrategia de Chochueca (2000). A second novel, Papi, followed in 2005. About that time, she began experimenting with musical and visual projects as part of different performance groups, such as Casifull and Miti Miti. In 2009, she was the youngest Dominican author to be honored in the Santo Domingo Book Fair, where she was also booked as a musical performer. Her popularity as a musician grew even more after the 2010 release of the album El juidero, recorded with her band Rita Indiana y los Misterios. She subsequently published two more novels, Nombres y animales (2013) and La mucama de Omicunlé (2015). Scholarly interest in her writing and her music has centered on the way they give voice to contemporary subjectivities and put forth imaginaries of citizenship, social relationships, and belonging that depart from institutionalized discourses of identity. Rita Indiana has stated on various occasions that she sees her literary projects and her musical projects as intertwined endeavors. This is evident not just in the thematic unity between them but also in the aesthetic strategies she uses. In her work, she references mass media, Dominican popular cultural production, and global youth cultures to highlight the interplay between the local and the global in the postmodern Caribbean. Rita Indiana also explores issues pertaining to the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, and migratory status. Since approximately the middle of the 2000s, Rita Indiana’s work has been embraced increasingly by critics. She was also named one of the one hundred most influential Latino/a personalities by the Spanish newspaper El País.
Heteronormativity is the dominant belief in Western and Westernized societies prescribing heterosexual sex and romance as “natural.” Its more recent same-sex equivalent, homonormativity, expands upon heteronormativity by championing domestic consumerism, middle-class respectability, and reproductive futurism as practices and values for same-sex households to observe in their quest for political inclusion. Together, heteronormativity and homonormativity figure largely in the rights-based claims of marginalized communities on the nation-state for citizenship. Such an assimilationist ethos proves popular in the political arena because gender and sexuality remain central to the racialization of marginalized communities as “other.” To undo stereotypes that cast marginalized communities as unassimilable and, thus, unfit for the privileges of democracy, those same communities proceed to invalidate dominant scripts casting their gender and sexuality as dangerous, deviant, and diseased. The mainstream US immigrant rights movement, for instance, has capitalized on the ideology of the nuclear family to make compelling claims for immigration reform centered around family reunification. This approach depicts idealized immigrant families (read: worthy) through sanitized images of strict hardworking fathers, self-sacrificing mothers, and productive sons and daughters. However, such liberal approaches to rights and citizenship risk shoring up the very same technologies of normative power that pathologize gender non-normativity and sexual deviance. First, the ideology of the nuclear family—in both its heterosexual and homosexual guises—neglects the abundance of familial experiences that do not adhere to hard and fast notions of traditional gender roles. Second, when heteronormativity and homonormativity shape the organizing logics of rights-based mobilizations, a danger coalesces in reinforcing the partition between “deserving” and “underserving” subjects. Third, the ideology of the nuclear family conceals the involvement of the nation-state in establishing those conditions of precarity it is then petitioned to rectify. In spite of the legibility that heteronormativity and homonormativity ascribe onto marginalized communities, some social justice movements have divested from the nuclear family model. By jettisoning gender and sexual normativity as prerequisites for personhood, these grassroots efforts, including the UndocuQueer movement, have made intelligible a once unfathomable position: “deviant,”—that is, non-normative—but valuable, nonetheless. In short, heteronormative and homonormative rubrics of social value may prove beneficial in extending rights and citizenship to some, but these rubrics cannot sustenance broad structural change.
In the U.S.-Mexico context, the concepts of the border, borderlands, and la frontera represent their ongoing complex geopolitical, cultural, and historical relations. With the signing of the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty in 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, the Mexican and U.S. governments established the southern border of the United States. The border is the international boundary line between the two countries, and the borderlands are the zones neighboring both sides of that boundary. It is a place where the First and Third Worlds collide daily, creating borderlands that amount to collective spaces of transcultural/transnational encounters. The concept of la frontera represents a counter-narrative of the term “frontier,” which became synonymous with American expansionism, or the westward expansion of the United States as proclaimed by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1883. The Spanish term “frontera,” as used in this framework, presupposes a knowledge production ranging from the implications of land annexation to the geopolitical and cultural processes of borderland sites. While the borders mark the place where adjacent jurisdictions, communities, and nation-states meet, it has also been a hotly contested subject—literally and figuratively speaking—inciting extreme emotional reactions that fuel negative stereotypes about immigrants, ethnic discrimination, and xenophobia. Immigration has become one of the most salient sociopolitical issues discussed on the national level. Unfortunately, it is debated mainly outside of the historical context because the histories embedded in its borderlands can contribute enormously to inform current political debates about immigration in the United States. Border crossers coming from south of the border are often portrayed by U.S. politicians as the most unwelcome and undesirable (yet necessary) immigrants. As the national discussion on immigration reform continues and the alleged ills of the U.S.-Mexico border dominate the political discourse and the media, expressive art and print culture must continue to form novel epistemologies of borders and counter unsubstantiated alternative facts propagated by anti-immigrant groups. To that end, it is important to consider the border's literature and imagine the borderlands as the fruitful heterogeneous site of an imagined and creative homeland: Aztlán.
To consider the most influential Argentine writer of the 20th century within the South American cultural and historical framework implies going deeper in a literature that put the periphery—the margins, the minor literature—forward as a particular place of enunciation, not only by destiny but also by choice, as an imaginary place of freedom derived from the lack of cultural tradition tied to a territory.
After some years in Europe as a youth, in 1921, Jorge Luis Borges went back to Buenos Aires, where he took part in avant-garde projects and little magazines, as well as in mass circulation publishing and journalistic endeavors. It was in this junction of Modernism and mass culture that, from the 1930s, he began to create his sophisticated fictions, which fully exploited the resources of a second-hand culture, made of hybrid genres, clippings, displacements, plagiarism, and mistranslations, making artistic innovations from some of the most usual practices in printed culture. In the following decade, his anti-Hispanism and his appreciation of certain forms of Argentinian orality were paradoxically combined with his militancy against nationalism. The peripheral condition he addressed in one of his most famous essays (“The Argentine Writer and Tradition”), which stands as a theoretical and critical locus that could decenter Western tradition in its entirety, was an argument stated from a particular time and place against the realism and the nationalism that predominated in the vernacular literary field. His opinions on literary, cultural, or political matters (veiled, as in “The Aleph,” or more visible, as in his anti-Peronist texts “L’Illusion Comique,” “The Monster’s Feast,” and “The Mountebank”) present a minefield of controversial interventions in the Argentinian disputes of his time and account for a specifically Borgesian way—self-interested, instrumental, strategic—of taking part in the dilemmas of the history and the culture that he was part of.
Borges has sparked various responses throughout time in Argentina. Some milestones are the tributes to him by the Megáfono group, in 1933, and by Sur magazine in the 1940s, the Contorno patricide trial in the following decade, the Borges “for the masses” in the 1970s, and the generalized rejection of his support for military dictatorships (the one that overthrew Perón in 1955 and the one that began in 1976). In 2009, the literary experiment of a young writer using one of the most famous short stories by Borges gave rise to a lawsuit for copyright fraud, which, in turn, triggered intellectual debates on literary heritage in a socially significant and broader sense, reinstating the problematic—and not merely legal—character of literary property. A well-nourished history tells how, in Argentina, consecutive generations of authors, critics, and readers have dealt with one of their most challenging and intense writers, wondering how to read him, how to get away from the fascination he causes, and how to make his powerful legacy their own.