The Presence of Coloniality in Central American-American Fictions
- Oriel María SiuOriel María SiuLatina/o Stuides Program and the Department of Hispanic Studies, University of Puget Sound
The Spanish invasion of 1492 was the first marker and constitutive element of coloniality. The presence of coloniality is critical for the explication and reflection on racialized and subalternized relations of dominance/subordination in the Americas and all other places affected by European colonization. In 1992, Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano introduced the category of coloniality of power, further developed in 2000 by Walter Mignolo in his work Local Histories/Global Designs. Coloniality not only constituted a pattern of continual production of racialized identities, and an unequal hierarchy whereby European identities and knowledge were considered superior to all others in what amounted to a caste system; it also generated mechanisms of social domination that preserved this social classification into the present. Coloniality is not limited to the colonial period, which ended for most of Latin America in the first quarter of the 19th century. Despite political independences from Spain and Portugal, the pattern articulated by Quijano continues to our day, structuring processes of racialization, subalternization, and knowledge production. This is the reason Mignolo labels coloniality a “matrix of power.” The literature examined in this article concerns itself with revealing the markers of coloniality on the Central American social body in diaspora. This article contends that diasporic Central American literatures produced within the United States represent not only the experience of exile and migration, but also an experience of continued war and perpetual violence, as Central American bodies discover in this US diasporic landscape, the racialization of their bodies, and how they in turn become disposable as a result of their status.
Coloniality, the Central American Diaspora, and Literature
As a concept, coloniality was introduced in 1989 by Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano in his seminal essay “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality.”1 As a lived experience, however, coloniality was birthed much earlier—in 1492 more precisely—as a direct result of the European occupation of the continent initial settlers called America, and the subsequent subjugation and colonization of its existing beings, territories, institutions, and forms of knowledge based on the imported European idea denoting white beings as superior to non-white beings, and worthier of life than others.
Coloniality is not the same as colonialism. Although colonialism is the beginning of coloniality—it is its seed—colonialism refers to a specific political moment with a clearly demarcated beginning and end; it is the practice of a power or a people extending political, social, and economic domination over another power or people within a delineated geography over a particular period of time. When colonial rule is terminated by sectors of the colonized, by agreement, or by the colonizer, colonialism meets its end. Under the specter of independence, the political discourse and imageries of the dissolution of colonialism create the illusion that the cultures and structures bred inside the moment of colonialism are over. Coloniality however, proves this impression false. Rooted in the constructed idea of race deeming Christian/European/male subjectivity superior to any other, coloniality refers to the logical structures of colonial domination that survive the moment of colonialism even after colonialism’s official termination. Affecting all domains of human existence, the racial and governing structures of coloniality permeate the post-colony, informing the imaginary of both ex-colonized and ex-colonizer, and operating for generations to come given the deeply entrenched economic, civic, subjective, and political footings of these structures. Thus, despite the advent of independence, post-colonialism, or advanced modernity, coloniality continues to act as the governing logic of the present. It interjects the manner in which cultures once directly affected by European imperial planetary expansion are today lived and understood. As a governing structure rooted in the constructed idea of race, coloniality survives and finds expression in the formation, operations, and expressions of identities, economies, governments, private and social spaces, institutions, labor, human relationship to the earth, the practice of knowledge productions, and intersubjective relationships. As modern people, we live and experience coloniality every day, be it through the privileges that it grants a minority of living beings, or the lack of privileges endured by others—the majority—and the earth.
For those at the bottom of this racial scale in America, coloniality can also be understood as a slow and continued death sentence where life translates to the normalization of conditions of war, death, and the experience of perpetual violence, whether this violence is enabled and reproduced by those who most privilege from coloniality, or is replicated within the very communities that are mostly affected by it. A normalized violence has been the particular case endured by a large number of Central Americans of the diaspora, particularly those fleeing Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” an experience well documented and examined by the literature this diaspora has produced in places like the United States.
While Central American migration to the United States dates back to the early 20th century, massive migration from Central America to the United States began in the early 1980s, during the height of the region’s civil wars (1960–1996).2 It is in this decade of the second half of the 20th century that Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and to a lesser degree Nicaraguans, began to leave the region en masse to arrive in Europe, Mexico, and mostly the United States. It is estimated that during the decade of the 1980s alone, more than 1.1 million Central Americans arrived in the United States, a vast increase from the estimated population of 40,000 residing in the United States prior to the beginning of the exodus.3 Despite the signing of peace agreements in the 1990s moreover, between governments and organized guerrillas pronouncing the end of civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, this emigration of Central Americans to the United States did not stop. On the contrary, not having addressed any of the social or economic conditions that had once provoked the wars, those peace agreements and their accompanying policies of impunity and economic neoliberalism, resulted in the worsening of life conditions and an escalated social and political violence for the majority of Central Americans, and more specifically, for Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans. As of 2015, 3.4 million Central Americans were already residing in the United States, 85% of whom were from the region’s Northern Triangle.4
Plagued with impunity, an armed populace, a gang phenomenon fueled by broken social structures, unparalleled levels of impoverishment and unemployment, a 40-year-old US-imposed drug war, failed democracies, and deeply rooted structural racisms, among other ills, large sectors of post-war Central America proved to be the perfect incubator for the continuation of war beyond officialized war. A “death world,” as the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe would more suitably term it, Central America’s Northern Triangle, in particular, is today a place too familiarized with wretched deathly matters. Death and violence here, have become the common denominator of daily life, making of Central Americans from the Northern Triangle expressions of what Mbembe would also call the “living dead.” These deadly living beings are, specifically, subjects of coloniality; people whose condemned subjectivity is directly tied to their historical racialization within the context of the European occupation of the Americas and its aftermath in Central America and its diaspora.
As of today, hundreds of Northern Triangle Central Americans, continue to flee monthly in search of safety.5 Children as young as three and four years of age are making the trip to the United States unaccompanied. Young women and men must leave to escape recruitment by gangs or death by police, militias, government, drug lords, rape, domestic violence, and various other forms of violence. Many who leave the Central American region are escaping material impoverishment and the abject social conditions surrounding it.
The Central American migratory route north has become a mere extension of the Central American death zone. It directly and inevitably links to Mexico’s own deathly worlds and the borderlands of the United States—an ever more sinister killing zone of migrants as deterrence policies of the United States and Mexico have continued to force people to cross the border line through the most inhospitable and dangerous terrains. By boat and by land, migrants are being forced to risk their life in this perilous and illegalized voyage north. The detention and deportation of mostly Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans who have managed to cross to US territory have also escalated in the past two decades, normalizing the disposability of US Central American life.6
Despite these conditions, Central Americans in the United States have been producing and publishing literary works since the beginning of this diaspora in the 1980s. Their works examine, fictionalize, and document not just the journey north, but also the experience of Central Americans in the United States. Writers of this diaspora have included: novelists Oscar René Benítez, Silvio Sirias, Roberto Quesada, Marcos McPeek Villatoro, Francisco Goldman, Tanya María Barrientos, Cristina Henríquez, Héctor Tobar, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Mario Bencastro, Arturo Arias, Mario Angel Escobar, Gioconda Belli, and poets Maya Chinchilla, Leticia Hernández, Martivón Galindo, Quique Avilés, Karina Oliva-Alvarado, as well as short story writer Carolina Rivera. The compilation of Leticia Hernández, Rubén Martínez, and Héctor Tobar, The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States, reunites the work of dozens of US Central American writers. It is the first to centralize Central American poetry written in the United States by writers of the diaspora.7
Not all writers of the Central American diaspora migrated out of the isthmus. Despite some of these writers already being born and growing up outside of the Central American region, various of these “foreign born” Central Americans have also taken on the Central American diaspora as a key subject in their literary works, further enriching the gaze through which the Central American diaspora is being articulated, examined, and represented in the literary. Not all writers either, have remained in the diaspora. Many returned to Central America nearing or after the end of the war period, producing only some of their works in exile. From novels, poetry, short stories, theatrical pieces, and music lyrics, literature of the Central American diaspora is wide-ranging, written at different junctures of the last 40 years in diverse localities by older and newer generations of writers, born in and outside of the Central American isthmus.
Examined by this growing body of literature are varying topics, all of which provide a platform for examining the operations of coloniality on the US Central American social body. Among these topics are the variations and transformations of war as seen by migrating and diasporic subjects; the construction of intersecting identities in new political and social territories; diaspora as a space not of refuge but as another warring battleground; the impossibility or difficulties of the reconfiguration of subjects marked by war; the experience and gravities of dislocation; the neoliberal market and its instrumentalization of bodies of color in the interest of US capital accumulation; the wars carried within and perpetuated by the very same warred subjects; violence as an enduring structure—not a moment—in the Central American experience, and among other topics; the illegality of being within US social and political spaces.
In very general terms we can say that the literature of the Central American diaspora highlights how diasporic Central American subjects survive, resist, reproduce, or fall prey to complex and multi-layered forms of violence, a violence intrinsically connected to the long-enduring presence of coloniality in the Central American experience.
Devalued Life, the Route North, and Immortal Mortality
Various literary texts document the initial plight of the Central American diaspora, providing us with a glimpse of life for many of those who first fled the Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Nicaraguan wars during the 1980s, to cities like Los Angeles, Mexico City, New Orleans, New York, and Washington, DC. The plots of these works all pronounce the migratory route north as, from the beginning, mined by the continued presence of violence, suggesting the condemnation of diasporic life, to permanent conditions of war, invisibility, and the experience of liminality. Diaspora is presented not as the end of war for those subjects escaping war, but rather as war’s transformation, a view that permeates the entirety of Central American literary productions of the diaspora to date. At the center of their storylines, these texts demonstrate racialized Central American subjects in diaspora as physically and spatially excluded entities, lacking physical, legal, and social protections in their new inhabited urban spaces. In addition, these texts also represent Central American subjects as diseased by coloniality itself, often reproducing attitudes that operate at the service of their own destruction. The very attention these texts give to such precarious experiences, however, can be also read as resilient repudiations to such liminality.
The first novel published by a Central American of the diaspora in the United States, Inmortales (1983), was written in the span of six months by Salvadoran novelist Oscar René Benítez upon his own arrival in the city of Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Although the novel does not center its plot on the experiences of any one character in particular, but rather exposes the reader to the intertwined lives of multiple characters, the suicide of one of its female characters is emphasized. Jacinta Trejo is a young Salvadoran undocumented migrant who flees El Salvador in the early 1980s, for reasons not directly linked to her country’s Civil War,8 but due to another more intimate war endured at home: long-term rape by her stepfather made possible by the full consent of her mother. Tired of enduring the sexual and emotional abuse, Jacinta decides to do as thousands of other war-stricken Salvadorans were doing during the time, and decides to escape to the United States. Not having the economic means to migrate legally, she—like those thousands of other Central American refugees referenced in the backdrop of the novel’s plot—does so via the migratory routes made illegal by US immigration policy of the time.9
En route north, however, Jacinta is yet again forced into abject living conditions, this time, at the hands of her coyote, who leaves her no other option than to offer herself sexually to him in exchange for protection and guidance while crossing the US/Mexico border.10 Once in Los Angeles, Jacinta’s fortune does not change either. Undocumented, her options for work are very limited, and before cleaning homes of very wealthy white North Americans, she survives by selling her body, sexually servicing various men at a bar where she works as a fichera.11 While working there, she becomes not only emotionally depressed, but also sexually and intimately involved with a man who turns out to be her biological father. Escaping the war, Jacinta’s father had left El Salvador for Los Angeles much earlier than Jacinta, while she was still a child. For this reason, when they meet in Los Angeles many years later, neither recognizes the other, and attracted to one another, they become lovers instead.
After many mishaps, Jacinta leaves her job at the bar and goes to work as a live-in maid at the mansion of an affluent white couple in the wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood of Malibu, where she must also work under conditions of exploitation. It is at this mansion where, feeling tired and hopeless in her situation as an undocumented woman without any family in the city, she takes her life. She cuts her veins and hangs herself to death in the middle of the mansion’s kitchen, where she is found during the evening by her two bosses. If up to that point, her life had been of absolute disinterest to the couple, at the moment of her death, her experience becomes—for the first and only time—the center of the couple’s attention:
La comida estaba aún caliente en los sartenes que humeaban en la estufa. Después de llamarla en tres ocasiones, la primera con un tono normal, la segunda con la voz casi desesperada, y la tercera con un grito que inundó con el eco los perfumados aposentos y en respuesta acudió su marido para ver qué era lo que pasaba, la encontró muerta [. . .]: ¡No la toques!, le advirtió él, completamente alarmado al ver el cuerpo tendido sobre el pavimento. ¡Está muerta!, agregó ella, llorando y se tiró en los brazos de su marido.12
Her existence recognized by her bosses only by way of its self-termination, Jacinta’s life exemplifies the invisibility to which the Central American characters in the rest of the novel are conditioned as refugees in Los Angeles. To those who hold the privilege of whiteness and financial power in the city, the novel reminds us once and again that lives like Jacinta’s are worthless. These refugee, migrant, undocumented lives only matter as cheap, exploitable labor; as hands that will clean white people’s homes, cook their meals, and conveniently disappear from the horizon into invisibility when they are no longer needed. Their humanity omitted, these migrants’ lives are valid only as objects of exploitation; this is the argument of the novel throughout.
Before taking away her life, however, Jacinta leaves a letter that reads as follows:
Me despido [ ], de todas las injusticias de la tierra y de todos aquellos que colaboraron con mi autodestrucción, haciéndome sentir como una persona insignificante, sin ningún interés social. También quiero despedirme con un fuerte abrazo de todos los latinos indocumentados, de las sirvientas, de los lavaplatos y de las costureras, porque sé muy bien, que seremos inmortales como las mismas injusticias.13
By Jacinta making visible her own insignificance, and that of others like her, Benítez makes denouncing such marginal forms of existence a focal point of the novel. While the act of taking her own life could be seen as a way to reassert the very reality of her social worthlessness—her perpetual damné state, to use Martinique-born philosopher Frantz Fanon’s terminology for subjects of coloniality—self-destruction, and the suicide letter, or the act of writing itself, is utilized by Oscar René Benítez as a tool for calling the reader’s attention to such peripheral experiences.
Both the route north and the experience of undocumentation for these exiled Central American characters are given central importance in Oscar René Benitez’s narrative. In this first novel of the Central American diaspora, Jacinta’s suicide is as much a trope of unending war on already warred bodies as it is a call to reassert and centralize the very right to life of these warred subjects, making the characters of Inmortales immortal only in paradox, that is, through the very fact of their normalized mortality.
Urban Territories as the Continuation of Warring and Routinary Death Zones for Central Americans in the US
The most widely read US Central American novel, The Tattooed Soldier (1998), by Guatemalan-Angelino writer Héctor Tobar, takes its readers straight to the heart of 1990s Los Angeles.14 Antonio Bernal is a recently arrived mestizo refugee who has fled war-ravaged Guatemala soon after finding out about the assassination of his family at the hands of a tattooed member working for one of Guatemala’s Paramilitary Death Squads.15 As the narrative voice points out, these Death Squads operated freely during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–1996), attempting to eliminate all life thought to be invested in Communist social projects. Maya life in the highland rural areas of the country was targeted in particular during the period, as were university students, and the laboring and middle professional classes of Guatemala. In the eyes of the army, “Guatemala was like a human body,” the novel’s narration goes, and those carrying the “virus” of Communism were understood to be sites of contamination for this social body. According to the Guatemalan military at the height of the war, “if you didn’t kill these organisms[,] the body could die,” a logic that made genocide, mass disappearances, and political terror at the hands of those holding political power, fully permissible during Guatemala’s Civil war.16
In Los Angeles, Antonio must not only endure the psychological traumas of having recently lost his entire family, he must also deal with the harsh realities of undocumentation, homelessness, joblessness, and social invisibility. One day, however, while walking among one of LA’s new Central American refugee communities in the making, Antonio recognizes Sargent Longoria, the tattooed man who killed his family in Guatemala, and his life regains a sense of purpose. Of Maya descent, Longoria had been recruited into the Guatemalan military as a boy, and instrumentalized by the state to kill members of his own community thought to contain “the virus of communism.” Unwilling to accept the fact that Longoria can walk freely in Los Angeles without facing any judicial consequences for the murders he committed at home, from that moment on, Antonio dedicates himself to conjuring a plan to kill him. In the following days, Antonio tracks Longoria, taking notes of all of his daily routines, learning of Longoria’s work schedule, whereabouts, hobbies, and meet-ups. Antonio is motivated not only by the ever-constant memory of his murdered family, but also by the consciousness that thousands of other Guatemalans, the majority of them Maya, were also killed by men like Longoria, at the service of the Guatemalan military regime.
Taking advantage of the social unrest sparked by the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, which disrupted the city for a span of six days, Antonio is able to put his plan to work.17 In the midst of the riots, he shoots Sergeant Longoria to death in one of the city’s tunnels, walking away from the scene of the crime entirely unnoticed, and overcome by a liberating sense of freedom and justice.
A direct commentary on the social and psychological consequences of impunity, Tobar’s novel represents the city of Los Angeles as an extension of the Guatemalan Civil War. A few pages into the novel, it becomes clear to the reader that the judicial systems of both Guatemala and the United States have failed the victims of Guatemala’s Civil War. Perpetrators of atrocious human rights violations walk freely in US cities without facing any legal repercussions for their actions at home, while the victims themselves must figure out ways to bring justice and peace to their lives. Consequently, and despite living in the diaspora, neither perpetrator nor victim manage to fully escape the war they fled, for war has fled with them in their memory, in their traumas, and physically, by forcing victims and perpetrators to co-exist in shared spaces of exile.
Like many other texts of the Central American diaspora, The Tattooed Soldier highlights the aftermath of war on warred subjects. Such aftermath is characterized by an intrinsic connection between the continuation and normalization of violence in the lives of these characters, and the impossibility of finding peace in their respective sites of refuge. In The Tattooed Soldier, this war on their peace appears further aggravated by US social environments that estrange and other these racialized Central American refugees, converting them and their experiences into fully disposable matter. Like Inmortales, written at the beginning of the 1980s, The Tattooed Soldier, written more than a decade later, also stresses the experiences of those whom we can think of as socially dead subjects; these are beings that can cease to exist in US social landscapes without any political or social consequence. Made invisible by the federal legal system of the United States and the social cultures of a city like Los Angeles, these socially dead subjects’ lives are not worthy of recognition. They matter only as exploitable and disposable labor.
Throughout the novel moreover, the Los Angeles police heighten rather than prevent violence against the undocumented, the homeless, street vendors, and people of color, displacing, chasing, threatening, and, as in the case of the historic Rodney King riots that play a vital part of the novel’s ending, even killing them. Just like the Guatemalan Death Squads were commissioned to eliminate all that was thought to disseminate the “virus” of communism, the Los Angeles police department is represented in Tobar’s novel as an agency trained to keep the white supremacist structure of Angelino society uncontested, keeping brown, black, and homeless life in the city under a perpetual state of control and vigilance.
The LA Riots described as the backdrop to Longoria’s assassination in The Tattooed Soldier, both symbolically and literally denote a war scene. A direct response to the 1992 acquittal of four white Los Angeles Police Department officers in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King in 1991, the arsons, lootings, and civil disturbances described in the background of Longoria’s assassination evoke a sense of collective rage that is met with police and military brutality. As evinced in the novel, Los Angeles city officials respond by deploying the military, the marines, and ordering all of its police forces to contain the chaos. Consequently, military Humvees appear in the novel roaming the streets of Los Angeles during the days of the riots, thousands of people are arrested, dozens are hurt, and many are shot dead at the hands of police and the military. In the novel however, the people’s rage is represented as empowered by a consciousness of powerlessness needing to express itself through extra-legal means because the novel makes clear that the legalized police structures meant to protect civilians will not, and do not, protect them.
The Tattooed Soldier’s interconnected narrative of Antonio’s revenge against an agent of the Guatemalan armed forces and the Los Angeles race riots, is not coincidental. In the novel’s larger symbolic horizon, this connection can be interpreted as a strategy for exposing the naturalization of the war experience on racialized lives in both Guatemala and the United States, violence and death being not a moment for these subjects of coloniality, but the very structure of their lived and collective experiences.
Longoria’s story particularly exemplifies such lived experience. Despite having dutifully served the Guatemalan military by killing and eliminating members of his own Maya community, in diaspora, Longoria is equally left unprotected by the state he once served. Like the majority of victims of Guatemala’s civil war, in Los Angeles, Longoria is left to endure the difficulties of PTSD and is represented as incapable of inserting himself into civil society. As Longoria continues to reproduce the racist and misogynist ways of life imprinted on him by the Guatemalan military, he is unable to sustain intimate or meaningful relationships in Los Angeles because psychologically, the narration insists, Longoria is still at war.
As yet another brown undocumented immigrant in the city of Los Angeles, moreover, Longoria has been made an instrument of an economy that preys on his exploitable labor; like thousands of other undocumented people in the city, he works risky and low paying jobs, in one instance even exposing his own health working with dangerous chemicals at a sweatshop.
Where Longoria’s disposability is most evident, however, is in the irrelevancy of his own violent death in Los Angeles. Like the people he was once paid to eradicate in Guatemala, his life can be disposed of without any legal or social repercussions in Los Angeles. No one entity or character in the novel is shown to care about Longoria’s annihilation. Scholar John D. Marquez calls this the racial state of expendability, where “the capacity for obliteration with legal impunity” of subjects of coloniality “mark the base effect of raciality.”18 Like the deaths of the Guatemalan war’s thousands of victims, the majority of them Mayan, Longoria’s is just another irrelevant death in the city of Los Angeles, gone unnoticed due to the chaos produced by the very dignified rage people of color express towards the routinary, state-sanctioned violence they endure.
The riots, which appear as a cover-up to Antonio’s own quest for justice, are a strong statement about the deeply engrained racist structures that protect agents of the US state despite their obvious public intent to eliminate black, homeless, and brown life in the city of Los Angeles. The riots in the background can also be interpreted as conveying the transnational character of coloniality in the Americas; the logic that dictated who possessed the right to live, and who deserved to die during Guatemala’s Civil War, operates also in this new place of exile. Despite victims and perpetrators belonging to different social and ethnic groups in Los Angeles, the racial paradigm upholding white supremacy is still at work. While the riots disproportionately and negatively affect people of color in the city of Los Angeles, at the end of this novel, it is too another Maya man who loses life; exploited in Guatemala and made an instrument of the state, in Los Angeles, Longoria is not just exploited but also left for dead without legal or social consequence.
The Necropolitical Economy, Zones of Lawlessness, and the Ordinariness of US Central American Life
Francisco Goldman’s second novel, The Ordinary Seaman (1997), details the experience of a crew of fifteen desperate Central American men hired to restore a crumbling ship, the Urus, stationed at an isolated shipyard in a Brooklyn pier during the early 1990s. The capitalist venture of the white US owners of the ship does not play out as planned, and as the months go by, none of the hired men receive the agreed compensation for their labor. The owners of the ship act ever more elusive with their crew and eventually abandon the ship as well as their responsibility towards the Central American men, leaving them trapped in the decrepit, rusting, rat and roach-infested vessel. Without heat, plumbing, or electricity, in the upcoming six months, the fifteen men must endure dehumanizing living conditions, hunger, cold, malnutrition, sickness, isolation, and even the death of one of the crew members aboard the Urus.
In desperation, the ordinary seaman—19-year-old Esteban—manages to escape the shipyard in search of food, only to encounter a socially hostile New York City where people who look like him—penniless, a brown man clearly unacquainted with his surroundings, unable to speak English, and not having showered for days—appear as just another homeless, and therefore socially invisible being in the city. Constantly tortured by flashbacks of his experience as a Sandinista guerrillero in Nicaragua and the loss of his lover during the war, Esteban’s experiences in the ship, and in Brooklyn, enclose this main character in a never-ending cycle of horror, violence, and the tiring struggle to live life on constant survival mode.
A ship as prison—although one that never sails—becomes Goldman’s framing metaphor for examining the immediate post-war Central American experience in the United States. Structuring this metaphor is the abusive instrumentalization of these men by the ship’s owners, who throughout the novel possess the freedom to exploit the men with absolute legal and social impunity. Recruited solely on the basis of their exploitability, as they are “the cheapest possible crew,” the experience of these “little brown guys,” as they are called by the owners, denotes a situation of coercion and modern-day slavery, wherein the bodies and lives of racialized individuals are used and withheld for the benefit of privatized US capital accumulation, right in the heart of the “modern world,” New York City.19 The potential profit to be made from these Central American men appears in The Ordinary Seaman as superseding the humanity of the crew members. Left to die aboard a broken ship, while at the same time being made to labor in it, the lives of the crew members are, from the beginning, seen and treated as disposable material; people to be used, abused, made invisible, and trapped—at the whim of two white men with the power to make them disposable.
Making use of loopholes in the US ship registry system, the owners of the ship find a legal way for their abuses inside the Urus to go undetected. Having registered the Urus in Panama, the owners are able to bypass local Brooklyn law enforcement authorities, US labor and safety codes, and benefit from the weaker Panamanian rule of law. The ship’s incorporation abroad, moreover, relegates the workers of the Urus to an undetermined legal status. Their personal documents and papers also withheld, the fifteen men hired and taken from Central America to Brooklyn, are made to become stateless, deprived of all legal protections aboard and off board the ship. If they step outside of the ship, these Central American automatically become undocumented, subject to detention and deportability under US immigration law, and easy prey to social hostility, homelessness, and street violence. When they remain inside the ship, they are nonexistent; neither the US state nor their own Central American states recognize them, and their very imprisonment isolates them from the surrounding society that could potentially see or recognize them as hostages. Trapped in a zone of lawlessness and limbo, and literally secluded from society, these unlicensed seafarers are left with nothing but their own selves, each other, and their disposition to survive the conditions to which they become subjected aboard the Urus.
Toward the end of the novel, Esteban eventually manages to escape the ship. Despite running into situations of violence in New York City, he is able to obtain help, eventually helping free the men. The death onboard of the oldest crewmember, Bernardo the cook, however, remains unresolved and goes unpunished, a reminder of the very state of disposability from which the other fourteen men luckily manage to escape alive. Having suffered third degree burns and hallucination, brought on by sleep deprivation and the ship owners’ absolute neglect of his condition, Bernardo’s death is symptomatic of the death world in which the men easily became trapped, isolated, and utilized.
The Ordinary Seaman evinces a long-standing history of exploitation by US corporations and white individuals who have, since the 1800s, preyed on the labor of racialized Central Americans in the interest of economic profit. Goldman’s novel shows that despite these beings now inhabiting a space outside of the Central American region, this relationship of domination continues unabated. Symbolically dead even before their moment of dying, as are subjects of coloniality, the humanity of these fifteen Central American men is from before the time of boarding on the ship, already condemned to the dictates of a routinary necropolitical economy. Their lives deemed ordinary within the neoliberal racist order, they are given value only as far as they can be used to nourish the interest of private capital accumulation.20
The ship as prison metaphor, just as it highlights an individual experience of a voyage gone wrong, also underlines the United States as a facilitator for capital accumulation by dispossession of racialized beings. In the novel, Francisco Goldman portrays post-war Central American subjects in the United States as exposed to the continued violence of coloniality. Made inferior and less human by the very color of their skin and “Centralamericanity,” these men’s lived experience in the United States cannot escape coloniality. By writing this story in The Ordinary Seaman however, Goldman resists these men’s eternal condemnation to oblivion, transforming, at least symbolically, the deathly intentions of necropolitics into something that denotes perdurability, and not disposability.
Disallowing Coloniality and Writing as Survival
Written in New Orleans, Uriel Quesada’s novel, El gato de sí mismo (2005), uses allegory and fantasy as a tool for dismantling and rupturing necropolitical structures of power meant to make invisible and to disappear marginalized beings. Centralized on the experiences of its main narrator Germán, the novel presents the story of a gay male writer exiled by the dictates of his father the King, from a kingdom located somewhere in a modern-day Costa Rica. The main reason for Germán’s expulsion is the King’s inability to accept his sexuality, which the father deems punishable for existing outside all of the kingdom’s societal and cultural norms. Ashamed of his son’s homosexual orientations, the King then tells Germán to leave and not come back, “hasta que hayás cambiado.”21 As opposed to home, however, in exile, both physical and symbolic death are directly contested by Germán. Throughout the novel, the narrator portrays the act of migration and exile as a moment of reaffirmation, demonstrating the character’s conscious will to disobey the fate bestowed upon him by the homophobic and disciplining power structures governing the home place.
The novel, which according to the plot, Germán himself has written, begins when this main character decides to return to El Reino de Cartago after countless years of living in exile. Mentally ill, the King of Cartago is incapable of governing, and his immortal and millennial servant, Rasputina, has urgently called Germán to take charge. On his return voyage from exile, however, Germán encounters a series of mishaps. Among these, he meets Hipatia, who is organizing a revolution to tumble down the king, yet Germán quickly learns that he is not welcome in that space of supposed liberation, not because he is the son of the king, but because of his sexual orientation.
When he finally makes it to Cartago, except for the new technological apparatuses being used by people, Germán finds that nothing has changed in the kingdom: all throughout, afro-descendant workers are still being enslaved and disappeared, townspeople continue to regard Germán as invisible—“la gente me borra de su mente”—and the King, be it because of his homophobia or his “mental illness,” still does not recognize Germán as his son. Germán also notices that the kingdom does not need any substitute king anyway. Despite the mental absence of the King, the kingdom of Cartago is perfectly capable of functioning on its own. A culture of surveillance is kept alive by the very people ruled by the kingdom, corruption is protected by the political structures in place, and fear of the King is so engrained in the culture of the kingdom, that it helps maintain the governing structures of power intact. Despite the advent of “modern times” evinced by the use of cellular phones and other technological devices among Cartago’s people, it is clear that systemic change is impossible in this Kingdom. Despite his long absence, Germán is also, still, unwelcome.
The novel ends when Germán kisses his father, making the King suddenly return from that mysterious “más allá,” allowing him to regain his mental health. Germán leaves the palace soon after the kiss, but this time, on his own accord. Already a diasporic and stateless subject, in German’s view, the only possible way for him to continue living, is by leaving: “Tomaré el autobús y el miedo a lo desconocido se sentará junto a mí. Mirará obsesivamente por la ventanilla, no hablará de puro susto, pero tampoco se bajará en la siguiente parada,” he states.22 The character leaves the kingdom convinced that such a space is to be left, and that beyond travel, writing, and finding his lover—“la única persona a quien debe hallar aunque todos le digan que no existe”—is what will keep him alive. Traveling, despite the journey’s unknown roads, and loving, despite the difficulties of finding and practicing love in a homophobic society, are the ways in which this main character chooses to contest the structures that, inside the kingdom—an allegory of Central American spaces imbued with the cultures of coloniality—condemn and subject him to invisibility.
An allegorized Central America incapable of uprooting itself from its colonial past despite modernity, this modern “Cartago” continues to breed practices of domination that insist on converting racialized and othered beings into disposable, expellable, subjects. Germán’s expulsion from the palace and the experiences he has upon his return, allude to these ongoing practices of exclusion that infiltrate even so called emancipatory spaces. Like the Marxist and left-leaning revolutions that attempted to solve many of Central America’s problems during the second half of the 20th century, Hipatia’s Revolution in El gato de sí mismo asserts itself as informed by Eurocentric emancipatory, albeit exclusionary, ideals. Homophobic in nature despite its “revolutionary” agendas, Hipatia’s Revolution deems Germán unworthy of joining in the struggle because, as a gay man, he does not fit the prototype of a revolutionary. Germán is thus asked by Hipatia to leave as soon as possible, “Desdichadamente, aquí no podés buscar refugio, estamos muy atareados preparando la revolución. Te puedo ofrecer un té, pero después tendrás que irte,” she tells him.23 A space of control and domination, the representation of Hipatia’s Revolution is a direct commentary on, and allegory of, those late 20th-century revolutions that we now know replicated exclusionary, patriarchal, racist, heterosexual, hierarchical, Eurocentric practices of liberation. The appearance of Hipatia’s Revolution in El gato de sí mismo is a direct commentary on Costa Rica’s or Central America’s inability to escape its coloniality; like the King’s personal servant Rasputina, coloniality in this region of the world is equally immortal.
Quesada’s use of fantasy to narrate the story summons his readers to think through and beyond the solid establishments of coloniality. Every object and person in El gato de sí mismo is transformable. Throughout the narration, characters constantly metamorphose personality, form, shape, or size. Humans become objects; shadows become people; boxes become suitcases; boats become airplanes, and so on. Germán’s lover Iñigo is ambiguous. From beginning to end, the reader never really knows if the love Iñigo actually exists or not, if he is real, or if he is but the creation of Germán’s imagination and his need to love.
Feelings in El gato can become objects. A deck of cards is capable of speaking, voices freeze, frogs can write, people receive phone calls from the past, or the future, shadows have the capacity to leave the shadowed object or person, and Germán himself sometimes appears as a little piece of trash, other times his body is multiplied, appearing with different names and personalities.
This endless transfiguration of objects and characters in Cartago lies at the center of Quesada’s project. Through the use of fantasy and language, Quesada is capable of rupturing the zones where coloniality has for long operated unaltered. Through fantasy, he instead reinvents a world where the impossible is possible, and where the unimaginable is made imaginable and concrete, transforming and disallowing—at least through the literary—the long-standing structures of power that have wanted him forgotten, obliterated from public space, and expelled.
Germán’s conscious choice in exiling himself from the kingdom the second time around, as well as the act of writing this novel, asserts Quesadas’ project of transgression. Determined not to be made a subject of any kingdom, Germán says and writes, “Decidido a no morir, abrí la maletita y subí a ella.”24 Thus, Germán’s exile and writing function to potentiate life, all the while rejecting the confines of normalized and continued death sentencing for those who, like Germán, cannot and will not conform to them.
The Disobeying Signs of US Central American Writing
This article has contended that coloniality acts as both a vicious presence and a consciousness in US Central American textualities, suggesting US Central American literatures be read not just as words condemned by the abject experiences of coloniality in the Central American diaspora, but also as vocabularies of survival; as the confirmation of disobeying Central American life signals within the omnipresent orders of death affecting and informing US Central American communities and its literary productions.
While the few selected and analyzed works here cannot, and do not, represent the entirety of the Central American diasporic literary corpus, they do invite us to think about what the enduring presence of coloniality looks like in the US Central American experience. The paradigm of war initially provoking the mass exodus of Central Americans to the United States of the 1980s is portrayed in this body of literature as merely transformed in the diaspora. Patterns of domination founded on the racialization, and categorization of humans as superior or inferior continue unabated in the new social spaces of the United States inhabited by the Central American diasporic subject. In the United States, Central American writers are representing their characters as warred; not only scarred by the experience of war at home, exile, or migration, but submerged in continuous conditions of war once in their places of exile.
These new conditions of war manifest themselves in a multiplicity of ways, including social, legal, economic, political, and intersubjective expressions. The United States is not a site of refuge for the characters in many of these works, but rather a space that continues to potentiate experiences of marginalization, violence, and exclusion.
Many of these US Central American works demonstrate the depths of internalized oppressions and the manner in which warred subjects themselves perpetuate violence onto others and even onto themselves. Thus, in these works, coloniality is shown to operate much like a parasite, eating its subjects from the inside out and allowing for a reproduction of itself within the very subjects it gradually and continuously eradicates. A slow and continued death sentence where life translates to the normalization of conditions of death and the experience of perpetual violence, coloniality is posed as inescapable.
US Central American literary works, however, do not succumb to the erasures of coloniality. In their pages, the presence of coloniality is examined and contested, disallowing its expressions of death to overshadow the remaining, or insisting, expressions life. US Central American words document, examine, and write themselves in so as not to allow the experiences they underline, to become invisible, forgotten, or silenced. The act of writing even appears in many of these works as a key and instrumental part of their plots, reaffirming the writing of words as a conscious act of resistance at most, or more likely than not, as a conscious manifestation of survival.
- Belli, Gioconda. El país bajo mi piel. País Vasco: Txalaparta, 2000.
- Bencastro, Mario. Odyssey to the North. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1998.
- Benítez, Oscar René. Cuando concluyó la guerra. Mission Hills, CA: La Mancha, 2003.
- Benítez, Oscar René. Las huellas de una lucha sin final. Mission Hills: La Mancha, 2009.
- Chinchilla, Maya. The Cha Cha Files: A Chapina Poetica. San Francisco: Korima Press, 2014.
- Henríquez, Cristina. Come Together, Fall Apart. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.
- Henríquez, Cristina. The World in Half. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.
- Hernández Linares, Leticia, Rubén Martínez, and Héctor Tobar (eds). The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. San Fernando Valley, CA: Tia Chucha Press, 2017.
- The Invisibles. Produced by Gael García Bernal and Mark Silver, with Amnesty International, 2010. Documentary film.
- McPeek Villatoro, Marco. Minos: A Romilia Chacón Mystery. Boston: Kate’s Mystery Books, 2003.
- Mignolo, Walter D. Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
- Rodríguez, Ana Patricia. “As the Latino/a World Turns: The Literary and Cultural Production of Transnational Latinidades.” In Latinas/os in the United States: Changing the Face of America. Edited by Havidán Rodríguez, Rogelio Sáenz, and Cecilia Menjívar. New York: Springer Science Business Media, 2008.
- Rodríguez, Ana Patricia. Dividing the Isthmus: Central American Transnational Histories, Literatures, and Cultures. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.
- Quesada, Roberto. Big Banana. Biblioteca breve. Barcelona: Editorial Seix Barral, 2001.
- Quesada, Roberto. Nunca entres por Miami. Literatura Mondadori. México, D.F.: Editorial Grijalbo, 2002.
- Sirias, Silvio. Bernardo and the Virgin. Latino voices. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2005.
- Sirias, Silvio. Meet Me under the Ceiba. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2008.
- Tobar, Héctor. The Barbarian Nurseries. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011.
- Who Is Dayani Cristal? Directed by Marc Silver. A Pulse Films Productions, 2014. Documentary Film.
1. Anibal Quijano’s essay “Colonialidad y modernidad/racionalidad” (1989) was reprinted in Robert Blackburn and Heraclio Bonilla, Los conquistados: 1492 y la población indígena de las Américas (Ecuador: Tercer Mundo Editores, 1992), 437–448.
2. While the Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Nicaraguan civil wars lasted from 1960 to 1996, the years of the most violence occurred during the decade of the 1980s. It is estimated that the Central American population in the United States before 1980 did not surpass 50,000, a number that dramatically increased in the decade of the 1980s, with more than 1.1 million Central Americans residing in the United States by 1990. Kate Brick, E. Challinor, and Mark R. Rosenblum, “Mexican and Central American Immigrants in the U.S. (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2011), 3.
3. Gabriel Lesser and Jeanne Batalova, “Central American Immigrants in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, April 5, 2017.
4. Lesser and Batalova, “Central American Immigrants in the United States.”
5. Nina Lakhani, “Central Americans Desperate to Reach US Risk New Dangers at Sea,” The Guardian, September 16, 2016.
6. Ana Gonzalez Barrera and Jens Manuel Krogstad, “US Deportations of Immigrants Reach Record High in 2013,” Pew Research Center, October 2, 2014.
7. Writers of this diaspora have included these novelists and their works: Oscar René Benítez Inmortales (Sherman Oaks, CA: Editorial Encuentro, 1983), Cuando concluyó la guerra (Mission Hills, CA: La Mancha, 2003), Las huellas de una lucha sin final (Mission Hills, CA: La Mancha, 2009); Silvio Sirias Bernardo and the Virgin (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2005); Meet Me under the Ceiba (Houston: Arte Público, 2008); Roberto Quesada, Big Banana (Houston: Arte Público, 1998), Nunca entres por Miami (Houston: Arte Público, 2002); Marcos McPeek Villatoro, A Fire in the Earth (Houston: Arte Público, 1996), The Holy Spirit of My Uncle’s Cojones: A Novel (Houston: Arte Público, 1999), Home Killings: A Romilia Chacón Mystery (New York: Dell, 2001), Minos: A Romilia Chacon Novel (New York: Dell, 2005), Blood Daughters (Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2011); Francisco Goldman, The Long Night of White Chickens (New York: Grove Press, 1992), The Ordinary Seaman (London: Walker, 1997), The Art of Political Murder (Seattle: University of Washington, 2009); Tanya María Barrientos, Frontera Street (New York: New American Library, 2002), Family Resemblance (New York: New American Library, 2003); Cristina Henríquez, Come Together, Fall Apart (New York: Riverhead, 2006), The Book of Unknown Americans (New York: Knopf, 2014), The World in Half (New York: Riverhead, 2009); Héctor Tobar, The Tattooed Soldier (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux,1998), The Barbarian Nurseries (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2011); Uriel Quesada, El gato de sí mismo (San Jose de Costa Rica: Editorial Costa Rica, 2005); Horacio Castellanos Moya El asco (Barcelona: Tusquets, 1997), La diáspora (San Salvador: University Centroamericana Cañas, 1989); Daniel Joya, Sueños de un callejero (San Salvador: Ed. Nuevo Enfoque, 2003); Mario Bencastro Odyssey to the North (New Delhi: Sanbun, 1999), Arturo Arias, Sopa de caracol (Guatemala: Editorial Santilla, 2002), Arias de Don Giovanni (Guatemala: F & G, 2010); Mario Angel Escobar, Gritos interiores (Los Angeles: Cuscatlan Press, 2005); and Gioconda Belli, El país bajo mi piel (New York: Vintage España, 2003).
Poets of the diaspora include: Maya Chinchilla, The Cha Cha Files: A Chapina Poética (San Francisco: Kórima, 2014); Leticia Hernández Razor Edges of my Tongue (San Diego, CA: Calaca, 2002), Mucha muchacha: Too Much Girl (San Fernadina, CA: Tia Chucha, 2015); Martivón Galindo, Retazos (San Francisco: Editorial Solaris, 1996), La tormenta rodando por la cuesta (San Francisco: publisher not identified, 2016); Quique Avilés, The Immigrant Museum (Washington, DC: Sol & Soul, 2003); and Karina Oliva-Alvarado, Desde el epicentro (Los Angeles: publisher not identified, 2007), Transverse: Altar de Tierra Altar de Sol (Los Angeles: Izote Press, 2009).
Short stories are represented by Carolina Rivera, . . .After. . .: A Collection of Stories, (Los Angeles: World Stage, 2015); and by the collection edited by Leticia Hernández, Rubén Martínez, and Héctor Tobar, The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States (San Fernando, CA: Tia Chucha Press, 2017).
8. El Salvador’s Civil War between the military-led government of El Salvador and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition or umbrella organization of five left-wing guerrilla groups, officially started in 1980 and ended in 1992, leaving more than 75,000 people dead, and thousands of others “disappeared.”
9. The United States government was heavily implicated in causing the massive migration of Salvadorans and Guatemalans to the United States. Consequently, the Reagan administration granted only a very limited number of Salvadorans and Guatemalans asylum and refugee status, making the entrance of Central Americans into the United States, and the migratory route north, in essence, illegal. In her book Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, United States and Canada (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006), María Cristina García writes that only 3 to 5 percent of Salvadorans and Guatemalans were granted asylum and refugee status during the Reagan era.
10. A coyote is slang in (Mexican and Central American) Spanish for people who smuggle migrants from Mexico and Central America into the United States via illegalized migratory routes.
11. A fichera is a woman who gets paid for her company at a “Fichera bar.”
12. Benítez, Inmortales, 114.
13. Benítez, Inmortales, 115.
14. Tobar, The Tattooed Soldier.
15. During Guatemala’s Civil War (1960–1996), armed paramilitary death squads financed by wealthy Guatemalan landowners, the United States and the Guatemalan government itself conducted countless extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances of groups and people deemed a threat to government forces. The majority of those considered a “threat” to the state were people of Maya descent.
16. Tobar, The Tattooed Soldier, 64.
17. Also known as the Rodney King Riots, the 1992 LA riots were a series of civil disturbances that occurred throughout Los Angeles County between April and May of 1992. The riots were a direct response to the acquittal of four white police officers from the Los Angeles Police Department who, in 1991, had been caught on videotape using excessive use of force against unarmed black motorist, Rodney King. Thousands of people participated in the riots, to which the city responded by bringing in the National Guard, the Marines, and its own police force. The LA Times reports that more than 60 people lost their lives during the riots, ten of whom were shot to death by law enforcement officials. More than 2,000 people were injured and over 12,000 arrested.
18. John D. Márquez, “Latinos as the Living Dead,” Latino Studies 10, no. 3 (2012): 476.
19. Goldman, The Ordinary Seaman, 276.
20. For Mbembe, the concept of necropower and necropolitics accounts for the various ways in which mass destruction and living death become the dominant logic of our time. In these “death worlds,” vast populations of people existing within the racialized capitalist order are subjected to conditions of life that confer upon them the status of “living dead.” See J. A. Mbembé and Libby Meintjes, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 11–40.
21. Quesada, El gato de sí mismo, 56.
22. I will take the bus and the fear of the unknown will set next to me. It will look obsessively through the window and will not speak out of pure fear, but it won’t get down on the next stop either (translation by author). Quesada, El gato de sí mismo, 341.
23. “Unfortunately, you cannot seek refuge here. We are too busy preparing the revolution. I can offer you tea, but you must leave right after” (translation by author). Quesada, El gato de sí mismo, 81.
24. “Not willing to die, I opened up the suitcase and inside it I went.” Quesada, El gato de sí mismo, 76.
- The Indigenous Presence and Central American-American Writers in the United States
- War and Its Impact on Central American-American Literature
- Decoloniality and Identity in Central American Latina and Latino Literature
- Central American-American Feminisms
- Central American-American Identity and Politics
- Literary Representations of Migration