Diasporic Social Imaginaries, Transisthmian Echoes and Transfigurations of Central American Subjectivities
Ana Patricia Rodríguez
Throughout the mid-20th and early 21st centuries, Central American writers, in and outside of the isthmus, have written in response to political and social violence and multiple forms of racial, economic, gendered, and other oppressions, while also seeking to produce alternative social imaginaries for the region and its peoples. Spanning the civil war and post-war periods and often writing from the space of prolonged and temporary diaspora as exiles, sojourners, and migrants, in their respective works, writers such as Claribel Alegría, Gioconda Belli, and Martivón Galindo have not only represented the most critical historical moments in the region but moreover transfigured the personal and collective social woundings of Central America into new signs and representations of the isthmus, often from other sites. Read together, their texts offer a gendered literary topography of war, deterritorialization, and reterritorialization and imagine other “geographies of identities” as suggested by Smadar Lavie and Ted Swedenburg for post-conflict, diasporic societies. These writers’ work is testament to the transformative and transfigurative power of women’s writing in the Central American transisthmus.
Luis J. Rodríguez is a Chicano memoirist, novelist, poet, children’s author, and activist. Born in 1954 in Mexico, his family migrated to the United States when he was young. As a youth, he spent many years immersed in the street gangs of Los Angeles while concurrently partaking in community protests and mobilizations that became known as the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It took Rodríguez several years to extract himself from a life of crime and addiction to drugs, though all the while he was writing, painting, and being inspired by revolutionary figures. His first book of poetry was published in 1989, but it was his memoir of gang life, Always Running—La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA, released in 1993 in the aftermath of the LA riots, that garnered him mainstream literary attention. Always Running and its sequel, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions and Healing, eighteen years later, can be labeled testimonio for detailing a Latina/o “lived” experience and fighting social injustices. In many ways Rodríguez can be deemed a “classic” Chicana/o author: he addresses the experience of migration and writes in both English and Spanish; he explores themes of prejudice and identity for Mexican Americans in the United States; and he considers the role of heteropatriarchal aspects of Mexican culture in defining his relationships (with women and children). His steadfast dedication to Native American/indigenous spirituality is a more recent focus in his life and writings, situating him among a long list of Chicana/os who have embarked on the “Red Road,” that is, life as indigenous-identified subjects. But what most arguably sets Rodríguez apart from fellow Chicana/o writers is his allegiance—throughout all his works in all genres—to proletarian politics and concerns for the working classes. His critiques of deindustrialization and its subsequent effects, particularly poverty, are reflected, for example, in his depictions of the Bethlehem Steel Mill of LA, where Rodríguez worked.
José Luis Morín
Racially demeaning representations of persons of Latin American origin, also known as Latinas/os or the more gender inclusive Latinx, as criminally inclined can be found throughout US literature—broadly defined in this article to include laws, fiction and nonfiction, news stories, as well as movie, television, and theatrical scripts. Rooted in a history of conquests, hemispheric domination, and an expansionist ideology premised on the myth of Anglo-American racial superiority, this literature promotes the idea that Latinx populations are racially alien and inferior. These depictions involve negative stereotypes depicting Latinxs as criminals. For instance, in the period following the US war against Mexico through which the United States wrested half of Mexico’s land base by 1848, popular novels about the post-conquest era typically depicted Anglo-American settler colonialists as noble and heroic, while persons of Mexican ancestry were commonly portrayed as bandidos (bandits) and denigrated as “greasers”—shiftless, deceitful criminal threats to white society. Mexican women were typecast as devious “halfbreed harlots.” Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Colombians and other groups of people of Latin American descent continue to be portrayed as innately criminal in novels, newspapers, movies, and other media, whether it be as greasers, pachucos, knife-wielding gang members, or drug traffickers. These abject characterizations are a recurring trope in some of the most popular and iconic works of fiction and entertainment media. Even in popular social science literature—from the controversial 1960s “culture of poverty” to the discredited 1990s “superpredators” theory—deviance, depravity, and criminality are presented as being at the core of Latinx nature and the problems their communities face. Since the late 1970s, a range of writers, scholars, activists, and organizations have sought to present a counter-discourse to these ubiquitous dehumanizing and demeaning caricatures. Often equipped with empirical data and social scientific analyses, a more accurate account of the lives of Latinx persons in relation to criminal justice issues in the United States has been emerging. These efforts notwithstanding, racist and negative narratives associating Latinxs with illicit drug cartel operations and other criminal activity endure, influencing and distorting the public discourse and the perceptions about Latinx communities in contemporary US society.
Joselyn M. Almeida
Francisco de Miranda (1750–1816), known as El Precursor (the Precursor) in Latin America, belongs in the canon of Latino Literature as a contrapuntal figure to the better-known and frequently anthologized Álvar Nuñez, Cabeza de Vaca, and as a critical Hispanic voice amidst better-known European travelers such as Alexis de Tocqueville. Miranda’s journey can be considered within the context of his dramatic transatlantic life and the broader historiography. In the Viaje por los Estados Unidos, 1783–1784, translated as The New Democracy in America: Travels of Francisco de Miranda in the United States, 1783–1784, Miranda articulates a hemispheric consciousness that anticipates the impact of Latino immigration in the American story, turning it into a North–South narrative, as well recent developments in American studies. At the same time, he opens a space for sovereignty in Latin America. Through his experiences in the United States, Miranda confronts the limits of a democracy predicated on exclusionary categories of race, gender, and class. Finally, Miranda can be considered an early exponent of Romanticism in the Hispanophone world in his engagement with the historical sublime and his construction of an autobiographical subject who is conscious of being a historical agent.
Yomaira C. Figueroa
Junot Díaz is a Dominican American award-winning fiction writer and essayist. For over twenty years his work has helped to map and remap Latinx, Caribbean, and American literary and cultural studies. Since his collection of short stories, Drown, debuted in 1996, Díaz has become a leading literary figure in Latinx, Afro-Latinx, and diaspora studies. His voice is critically linked to the legacy of Latinx Caribbean literary poetics reaching back to the 1960s (including Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets, 1967). Díaz’s work is likewise transnational and diasporic, often reflecting the lived experiences of working-class immigrant populations of color in northeastern urban centers. Within a broader scope, Díaz’s writing is tied to feminist African American and Chicana literary traditions, with Díaz citing the influence of writers such as Toni Morrison and Sandra Cisneros in his writing practice. His 2007 award-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, earned him a Pulitzer Prize in fiction and catapulted him into literary superstardom. Díaz followed that success with his 2012 collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, which was a finalist for both the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2013 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. In 2012, Díaz was conferred the MacArthur Fellows Program Award, commonly known as the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and in 2017, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2019, he was the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the fiction editor at the renowned literary magazine the Boston Review.
Over the course of his professional writing career, Díaz has published numerous nonfiction essays and political commentaries, and coauthored opinion editorials on immigration and reflections on Caribbean and US politics. His short story “Monstro,” published in 2012, further rooted Díaz in the genres of science fiction and Afrofuturism. “Monstro” was understood to be a teaser for a now discarded novel of the same name. The simultaneous publication of the English-language Islandborn and Spanish-language Lola in 2018 represented the author’s first foray into the genre of children’s literature. Like much of Díaz’s literary oeuvre, the children’s books chronicle the experiences and memories of Afro-Dominicans in the diaspora through the perspective of a child narrator. Díaz is one of the founders of Voices of Our Nation (VONA), a summer creative writing workshop for writers of color where he helps aspiring writers to workshop their fiction. Díaz’s fiction and nonfiction writings have catalyzed work in literary, Latinx, and Afro-Latinx studies, prompting renewed discourses on literary representations of masculinity, gender, sexuality, intimacy, sexual violence, dictatorship, immigration, disability, Dominican history, race and anti-blackness, anti-Haitianism, decolonization and radical politics, and diaspora and belonging.
Francisco J. Galarte
The field of Latina/o/x studies has long been interested in various forms of gender and sexual deviance and diversity as a site of inquiry. Yet, there are many gaps in the literature of the field when it comes to the study of trans subjectivities, politics, and cultural formations. Foundational theoretical works such as Sandy Stone’s “A Posttransexual Manifesto” (1991) and Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands (1987) share a theoretical approach to understanding autoethnographic texts that propose to write minoritarian subjects into discourse. The result of the two works is the emergence of the “new mestiza” and the “posttranssexual,” two figures that come to shape the fields of transgender, Chicana/o/x, and Latinx studies, respectively. There are myriad ways in which the fields of transgender studies and Latinx studies overlap and depart from each other. Most often, transgender studies is characterized as not grappling directly with race, colonialism, and imperialism, while Latina/o/x studies can at times be read as treating transgender subjects as objects, or sites of inquiry. Therefore, there is much to be gleaned from exploring how the two fields might come into contact with each other, as each becomes increasingly institutionalized.
Clint J. Terrell
Jimmy Santiago Baca is a poet, memoirist, novelist, essayist, filmmaker, and activist who began his literary career in Florence State Prison, Arizona, where he was incarcerated from 1974 to 1979. Baca spent most of his adolescent years between orphanages, stints of homelessness, and time in juvenile detention facilities. He credits learning to read and write in prison as the galvanization of his journey from illiteracy to worldly poet, and his endorsement of literacy as an avenue for individual and community empowerment echoes the black nationalist political thought of Malcolm X. In addition to an overarching theme of literacy, he also maintains a critical awareness to the politics of land ownership. He is of Chicano and Apache descent and often draws on his Indigenous heritage, as well as his prison experience, to critique the colonial settler ideology that associates private property with personal liberty. He is among the gallery of canonized Chicano pinto (prisoner) poets like Ricardo Sánchez and Raúl Salinas who discovered their talents while incarcerated. His poetry and prose are in harmony with prisoner discourse that indicts the state for economic injustices and contextualizes crimes as economic necessity instead of demonizing the individual. Similar to Sánchez and Salinas, Baca’s poetic voice can be both figural and visceral in the same breath. But distinct from these pinto poets, Baca’s poetic introduces a proliferation of personas that go back and forth between a poet who wants to love and make peace and a pugnacious identity that was nurtured by the violence of life in various state institutions, particularly prison. He has published eighteen books that include poetry, memoir, fiction, creative non-fiction, essay collections, and chapbooks. He is an active writer and frequently has additional publications in various stages of production, showing us that the negotiation of his traumatic past is never fully complete. Indeed, he continues to push his boundaries as a writer and challenges any preconceived notions about the literary limits of a prison cultivated intellectual.
Norma E. Cantú
During the first decade of the 21st century, a political movement based in Arizona sought, through legislation, to ban the use of certain books and the teaching of certain authors and concepts in high school classrooms in the Tucson Unified School District. HB 2281 was signed into law in May 2010 on the heels of one of the strictest anti-immigrant legislative acts, SB 1070. These two bills would become intertwined in the imagination of the country and would elicit protests and generate actions by activists, writers, and teachers as they wound through the legal battles that ensued. This article explores the consequences of the law and the impact both locally and nationally of such actions by focusing on two key events: The Poets Against SB 1070 and the Librotraficante project led by Houston activist Tony Díaz. Moreover, it contextualizes such a historic event within the larger history of educational disenfranchisement of Latinx in the United States.
Butchlalis de Panochtitlan are a queer Chicana-Latina theater and multimedia performance group active as an ensemble from 2002 to 2010. Formed in Los Angeles, they have performed in a range of venues and events throughout California and nationally. They premiered their major stage works at the important queer cultural arts center Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, California. Their irreverent name, a play on Tenochtitlan, the pre-Columbian name for modern day Mexico City, and panocha, creative Spanglish slang for female genitalia, translates to “the butch stars of pussy land.” True to their name, BdP render brown butch-centered worlds in their works that map the City of Los Angeles through the queer life in its neighborhoods, barrios, nightclubs, and re-imagined spaces of radical possibility. Although they are no longer active as a group and few primary documents exist, their impact is traceable well beyond these limits and local contexts. This article presents an overview of the work and impact of Butchlalis de Panochtitlan with attention to key themes in their body of work including home, belonging, queer family, gentrification, butch-femme relations, and brown butch socialities and aesthetics. This article draws from primary and secondary sources, digital recordings, visual images, online sources, ephemera, reviews, and published interviews.
Angélica J. Afanador-Pujol
In the area known as Mesoamerica (Mexico, Guatemala, parts of El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize), indigenous writers between the 13th and 16th centuries produced manuscripts using both pictographic and alphabetic-based texts. They worked closely with noble and priestly elites to meticulously design and paint manuscripts. Before the arrival of Europeans, writers worked on a variety of media, from animal hide and textiles to paper. They folded long sheets into accordion-like manuscripts, covered them in a lime plaster, and, using rich natural pigments, recorded complex writing systems. These books contained historical, religious, political, scientific, and cultural knowledge. They not only recorded information, but guided the lives of individuals and communities. Only fourteen of these manuscripts are known to survive, as Spanish conquistadors and friars destroyed the vast majority of them in their effort to eradicate indigenous religions during the conquest of the region in the 16th century.
In the years following the Spanish invasion, Mesoamerican artists and scribes had to adapt to new demands from their indigenous patrons, the viceregal government, and the Catholic church. They learned to use the European alphabet and artistic conventions to produce new materials containing ethnographic, religious, and historical information. In addition, they transcribed and wrote speeches, songs, and poems, and produced legal documents to fight for their own rights and those of their communities, rulers, and patrons. Modern-day scholars have made great strides deciphering pre-Columbian writing systems and understanding the make, medium, and function of manuscripts. The vast corpus of colonial-era manuscripts has also been a productive field for understanding Mesoamerican thought, cultural practices, and the social and political forces that shaped colonial life and its literary production.