Yajaira M. Padilla
Central American-American feminisms have come into existence within the recent span of the late 20th to early 21st century as communities of Central Americans have become more established within the United States and multiple generations of US Central American women have come of age. Central American-American feminisms are conceived of in a collective fashion and share some general characteristics. However, they are also characterized by their heterogeneity, reflecting the diversity of US Central American women and their emergent feminist politics. Among the key influences that have helped shaped Central American-American feminisms are women of color or Third World women feminisms. The theory making and feminist praxis that form the basis of Central American-American feminisms register many of the central tenets of the latter, including an emphasis on intersectionality and the notion of shared struggles against broader systems of dominations among women and peoples of color. Within the scope of these broader women of color feminist influences, Chicana feminisms have been particularly important, partly due to the cohabitation of US Central American and Mexican American/Chicano communities in areas such at the US Southwest. In as much as US Central American women identify with Chicana feminist paradigms and experiences of oppression, they also disidentify with them, responding with their own sense of US Central American feminist politics and paradigms that draw on their Central American roots and diasporic experiences.
In keeping with their transnational or transisthmian nature and sensibilities, Central American-American feminisms also bear the imprint of the histories of oppression and resistance and of migration of Central American women. Indeed, such histories, and the ongoing struggles tied to them, are understood within US Central American feminist politics as ones that remain inherently linked to those of women in the Central American diaspora. This helps to explain why diasporic experiences and issues related to the legacies and traumas of war, transnational migration and family separation, intergenerational relationships between mothers and daughters, and notions of identity and belonging are prominent within Central American-American feminisms. Such issues and experiences are integral aspects of the everyday lives of US Central American women, immigrants and subsequent generations alike, and, as such, are foundational to US Central American feminist politics.
The literature and cultural production, as well as scholarship, of US Central American women, both feminist and not, has been instrumental to the cultivation and emergence of Central American-American feminisms. Looking to such texts provides a useful means of helping to define what Central American-American feminisms are and to make discernible their general characteristics and limitations, the US and Central American-based influences that have shaped them, and the issues that drive them. Many of these works also push back against the multiple mechanisms and structures that have silenced multiple generations of Central American women in and outside of the isthmus. In this sense, such works do more than just offer fertile ground for exploring many key dimensions of Central American-American feminisms. They also constitute an example of US Central American feminist praxis.
The South has generated a unique set of myths, which are often at odds with the dominant Puritan-bred tales of American exceptionalism. If the North had to downplay vertical visions of the social, class stratifications have always been recognized more readily in the Southern regions. Rather than disentangling race from class, however, these categories were seen as closely connected in the antebellum slave-holding South. Even after the end of slavery, class was never solely an economic category; surprisingly close to notions of caste, class dynamics came fully entrenched with cultural distinctions, which more often than not were cast in the language of blood ties—the rhetoric of race. As a result, strong values were attributed to these distinctions. And although the North, too, assessed the rich and the poor in the stern moral vocabulary, the influence of pseudo-scientific Eugenics studies and other factors added a new dimension to this moralizing of the hierarchic order in the South. This had repercussions on the way the poor were perceived. The allegedly chivalrous planter aristocracy at the top found their counterpart at the low end of the stratum in a form of abject poverty. Some poor whites were located just a notch above the black citizenry whose exclusion dramatically exceeded went beyond economic hardship. It proved to be a proximity structuring the cultural imaginary to come. Intricately linked to the logic of racism, a slur such as “white trash” introduced a categorical difference into whiteness—the good, reformable poor were pitted against the hopeless “dirty” poor—thriving on stereotypes similar to the dehumanizing depictions of African Americans and begging the question of reciprocity between “them” and “us.”
From the Old South to the New South, literature has fulfilled a variety of functions in this regard. Often, it was complicit in maintaining the biases of this peculiar culture of poverty, by revitalizing the stock of stereotypes of poor whites, or by downplaying the terror of the plantations and naturalizing the hierarchies between the classes. At times, it also subverted the household representations and created ambiguous tales of class and life in poverty; at others, writers aimed at a more truthful account, or tried to tell tales of solidarity. The literary history of white poverty is only the most consistent tale to be told when it comes to Southern writing. While not unrelated, another tradition has come to the fore when African American writers were able to create and publish their own accounts of black life. Ever since Jim Crow laws created a black underclass in the Reconstruction period, depictions of their life experiences included economic hardships as well. Tied to different genres and poetological interests, black writers engaged in a reflection of the twin exclusions of race and class. Finally, in the so-called Postsouth era, the literature of poverty has been rejuvenated by a more self-reflexive aesthetics that moves beyond the earlier concerns of Southern literature.
The presence of coloniality is critical for the explication, and reflection, on racialized and subalternized relations of dominance/subordination. The Spanish invasion in 1492 was the first marker and constitutive element of modernity. In 1992 Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano introduced the category of coloniality of power, further developed by Walter Mignolo. This epistemic change 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 but 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 independence from Spain or Portugal, the pattern elaborated by Quijano continues to our day, structuring processes of racialization, subalternization, and knowledge production. This is the reason Mignolo labels it a “matrix of power.”
Central American–American literature represents the nature of colonialized violence suffered by U.S. Central Americans and constitutes racialized and subalternized migrants as a form of interpellating agency deployed in the name of the excluded subjects. Novelist Mario Bencastro’s Odyssey to the North, Sandra Benítez’s Bitter Grounds, Francisco Goldman’s The Divine Husband, and the EpiCentro poets mobilize in different fashions and directions the inner contradictions of identitary and decolonial issues in reaction to colonialized perceptions of textual subjectivities—or their traces—manifested in their respective discursive practices. These phenomena cannot be understood outside of the historical flux generated by the coloniality of power.
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.
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.
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.
Aline Lo and Kong Pheng Pha
Hmong American literature is an emerging field within Asian American literature, seeing a steep rise in production starting in the early 2000s. In collective and individual publication efforts, the literature includes mostly memoirs, short stories, and poetry. Essays, personal narratives, transcribed oral folktales, and plays have also been published in anthologies, including two that are edited by Hmong American writers. Although there has been an upsurge in publication and a wide representation in terms of genres, there is still no widely published Hmong American novel. Coming from an orality-based culture and a long history of marginalization both in Asia and the United States, many Hmong American narratives contend with issues related to silence and secrecy. In the context of 20th-century French imperialism and US neocolonialism, much of the literature also touches on the subjects of displacement, refugee resettlement, trauma, and cultural shifts. Of the latter, there is a definite preoccupation with religion and changes in gender roles and sexuality, particularly as many of the writers have been born or largely raised in the United States and are therefore interested in representing Hmong American identities and experiences. Hmong American literature can also be characterized by a sense of regionalism; many of the narratives and publications take place in heavily Hmong-populated areas like the Central Valley of California and Upper Midwest states like Minnesota and Wisconsin. While the move toward textuality comes with its own problems, it also presents Hmong Americans with a new method of self-representation. Historically studied by outsiders and exoticized for belonging to a culture that has resisted assimilation and maintained a unique language, religion, and cultural practices, Hmong writers are producing their own narratives, and altogether, the literature is rich with complex characters, speakers, and stories that represent and explore Hmong American experiences.
Like Frantz Fanon, Anne McClintock, R. W. Connell, María Lugones, Elizabeth Martínez, and other scholars of postcoloniality/decoloniality, I agree that the concrete historical conditions of colonization as constituting and constitutive of heteropatriarchy set the parameters of masculinity for men of color and subsequent specific expressions of cultural nationalism and masculinity for Chicano men. These contexts, in fact, are best described by María Lugones as part of the modern/colonial gender system. Still, any investigation of gender/masculinity must simultaneously attend to other interlocking and intersecting systems of oppression and identity formation like racism and class, which remain dynamically constituted by other facets of identity like sexuality. “Homeboy Masculinity,” in these contexts, then, indicates a situational and historically specific type of masculinity that remains influenced by the complexity of the modern/colonial gender system. This particular type of masculinity, as such, emerges in various practices and expressions of masculinity in Chicana/o barrios across the United States but especially in the American Southwest and is particularly exemplified by barrios in East Los Angeles, the west side of San Antonio, and El Paso, among others. Homeboy masculinity also emerges in primary and secondary cultural texts whose locus of expression and whose epistemological formation is the Chicana/o barrio.
In this respect, the barrio, as the site of the production of this type of masculinity and epistemological formation, must consequently be understood as a byproduct of the dialectical processes of “barrioization” and the barriological. Indeed, Raúl Homero Villa argues that barriology is a critical and witty challenge to knowledge produced in the predominantly white institutions of academe and in dominant ideological apparatuses like the mainstream media that is made by offering a subaltern knowledge produced from within the barrio and by barrio residents. Villa, in Barrio-Logos: Space and Place in Urban Chicano Literature and Culture, succinctly distinguishes between the “socially deforming” processes of barrioization and the “culturally affirming” processes of barriology in describing this dialectical model for understanding the social and material construction of the barrio; this model, as a result, is integral to understanding homeboy masculinity
In addition, homeboys, as culturally and historically specific subjects, also form part of a legacy of Mexican and Chicana/o figures that have worked to set the parameters for Mexicano/Chicano masculinity and femininity. Therefore, while La Malinche, La Virgen, and La Llorona function to structure Chicana femininity, they also operate as an implicit boundary zone for the construction of Mexicano/Chicano masculinity, as Gloria E. Anzaldúa notes in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Octavio Paz and Tomas Almaguer, like Anzaldúa, note the sociohistorical and linguistic relationships between these figures and their gender/sexual correlations in various cultural expressions and practices in the community. Paz and Almaguer, in discussing one specific role of la chingada as La Malinche in the Mexican/Chicano imaginations, describe the power politics involved in being los hijos de la chingada and how this framework produces a homophobia that stems from the onset of conquest. They also note how the framework of “being the fucked one” produces a type of Mexican “masculine homosexuality” that is tolerated among Mexicans alongside of such homophobia. These scholars, as a result, point to the multifaceted ways in which these archetypal historical, religious, and cultural figures structure both Chicana femininity and Chicano masculinity.
Moreover, the figures of the Aztec warrior, Hernan Cortes as a model of the conquistador, the revolutionary figures of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, el pelado as a manifestation of working class “noble” masculinity, and el pachuco (later, the homeboy) collectively form an explicit historical and ideological apparatus that structures Mexican/Chicano masculinity. In many ways, these culturally and historically significant figures, as embodiments of Mexican and Chicano masculinity, can also be understood as part of complex negotiations in the maintenance of a hegemonic masculinity and as potential challenges to such a masculinity from an insurgent or subaltern form of Mexicano/Chicano masculinity. This phenomenon of competing and, at times, mutually reinforcing forms of masculinity as a result remains rooted in the onset of conquest but is also dynamically intersectional. In the contemporary context, race and ethnicity, nonetheless, remain the primary modalities upon which this phenomenon rests; it is best exemplified by adapting Gayatri Spivak’s calculus as: white men saving all women from the threat of black and brown men.
Hegemonic masculinity, as defined by Tim Carrigan, Bob Connell, and John Lee in “Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity,” is part of a set of powerful circumstances in which the meanings and practices of masculinity also become a normative force through, for example, the mass media; it also emerges through a “naturalized” division of labor that works to reify classed and gendered identities and spaces in society. Furthermore, this type of hegemonic masculinity is more powerfully underscored, they argue, when supported and embodied by the state. Homeboy masculinity, by contrast, is not ideologically or politically pure in practice or performance precisely because it is informed by the complex histories of Spanish and American imperialisms and the modern/colonial gender system that emerges from these large-scale structures. In the present context, homeboy masculinity is also de/formed by the late-modern processes of urbanization—themselves inflected with the legacies of those imperialisms and more contemporary racial and spatial formations. It is, consequently, a central social element of the dialectical relationships between barrioization and the barriological. Homeboy masculinity, nonetheless, remains an insurgent form of masculinity whose spirit challenges these white hegemonic forms of masculinity and, by extension, a compulsory heteronormative sexuality.
Asian American literature and art have had an illuminating effect on the significance of human rights in the United States and in national culture. Americans are often assumed to enjoy exceptional liberties and rights, which they seek in turn to deliver to other people, in other parts of the world. However, Asian American cultural critique provides an incisive perspective on the limits of citizenship and national belonging as the basis for the granting of fundamental human freedoms, rights, and protections to all persons. The legal exclusion of Asians from immigration and naturalization, as well as from other forms of social and economic security such as property ownership, has long been justified through the construction of Asian racial difference. Reforms in immigration law after World War II, which did eventually transform Asian American life in the United States, took place in the context of a “global Cold War,” and during the same period that saw the institution of an international human rights regime. “Integration” proved as essential a mandate in US domestic and foreign policy as did “containment” in this global conflict. As a result, not only has the Asian American population grown significantly and become more heterogeneous since the late 20th century, the nation has seen the flourishing of Asian American literary and cultural production. Asian American writers and artists have been especially keen to investigate the political, legal, and ideological tensions and contradictions that pervade the postsocialist world and the war on terror. Their works explore the political precarity faced by those caught between the contradictions of neoliberal multiculturalism, the logics and technologies of state security, and the legal tethering of human rights to citizenship.
James Kyung-Jin Lee
Alongside readings of Asian American literature that foreground the racial, gender, class, and transnational constitution of the community and the writers that produced literary work, one may consider how ill, disabled, and wounded embodiment work their way into the literature as well. Indeed, one might go as far to say that these differential modes of embodiment are constitutive of the corpus of Asian American literature itself, for illness and disability are often, though not always, the somatic expression of the kinds of racial and other forms of violence that Asian American authors take up as central themes. To explore the world of illness and disability and to pay attention to the ways that wounded embodiment figures in the literary provide a critical index of how Asian Americans have been and are valued. Moreover, to take the Asian American ill and disabled body in literature seriously as producing specific narratives themselves, rather than merely more deficient versions of those produced by their able-bodied counterparts, is to read Asian American literature as a site through which new ideas of sociality, intersubjectivity, and care might be possible, which then may trigger new political imaginations. Whether reading in Asian American literature’s most historical and canonical works traces of illness, disability, and wounded embodiment’s marks or the early-21st-century “boom” in nonfiction that attends to questions of illness and disability, death and dying, a generative, even capacious, understanding of Asian America emerges from the shadows of what was previously known and knowable as a social identity.
The study of Native American and Indigenous literatures reveals how native knowledges resisted the Westernizing onslaught implemented forcefully since the beginning of the colonial era by colonial authorities, and after the 19th century by ruling national elites that shared with colonial authorities their belief that local Indigenous cultures needed to be Westernized to be saved. Despite its brutal enforcement, ancestral knowledges managed to resist and survived through the many social crises and transformations that took place from the 16th to the late 20th century. Their lingering effects are visible in this new literary corpus that began to appear in print since the 1960s. In the Latin American case, it is a literary production that is bilingual in nature, as all the authors publish in their own language and in Spanish. The authors in question have rescued their maternal languages in written form and standardized their systems of writing. As Central American-American Indigenous subjects migrate to the United States, they carry with them ancestral knowledges and written literatures as well.
Chicano/a literature may not excel in representing labor movements, but the literature itself has been influenced by, and is often a response to, various labor struggles. Of the labor movements that have had an impact on Chicano/a literature, the farmworkers movement has been the most significant. Even though Mexican American farmworkers throughout the 20th century played a significant role in building an agricultural empire in the United States, they have not been properly credited with this accomplishment, nor have they prospered equitably from the economic gains of agribusiness. Historically, Chicano/a farmworkers have been physically visible in the workplace but not socially recognized—needed for their labor, but not always wanted as participatory citizens. The farmworkers movement led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) during the 1960s and early 1970s contributed to the emergence of the Chicano movement during those same years. The movement in turn served as a catalyst for the emergence of Chicano/a literature. The farmworker has been a central figure in Chicano/a literature since its inception, but representations of farmworkers in the literature have changed over time—from Tomás Rivera’s groundbreaking novel . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra in 1971 to Salvador Plascencia’s fantasy novel The People of Paper in 2005. One of the reasons for these changes has been the rise of neoliberalism, a politico-economic system that has debilitated, and in some cases destroyed, labor unions. Neoliberalism has also contributed to the deterioration of living and working conditions for the working class, especially for those at the bottom of the economic chain, such as farmworkers. Thus, contemporary Chicano/a farmworker literature tends to oscillate between nostalgia for a time when the farmworkers movement was powerful and cautious optimism that a strong movement can once again be built.
Ricardo L. Ortiz
Latinx literature’s historical interest in the cultural, social, and political dynamics of gender plays as central a role in its long and varied discursive tradition as any other major thematic concern. Since the 19th century, representations of life in Latinx communities inhabiting what increasingly became the territory of the United States put the forces and conflicts of culturally based gender differences center stage, whether those differences came from within a culture, whose values shifted when it moved to a new geographic setting, or from without, when a culture confronted the differing values of an often dominant, oppressive other. Latinx literature is too vast and varied to accommodate a comprehensive account of these shifts and currents. But one can see a steady move away from the rigid binary logic of gender difference inherited from the traditional cis-hetero-patriarchal mindset of colonial Spanish-Catholic rule, a mindset that, historically, overwhelmed whatever more fluid or ambiguous formations of gender and sexuality circulated through indigenous American societies. That steady move cannot be traced in a single line or direction, but it does clearly demonstrate a greater opening of the possibility of dislodging gendered styles of expression from the particular anatomical manifestations of sexed bodies, as well as a greater opening of the possibility for mixed lines of attraction and desire between, within, and even beyond genders. While much liberatory work remains to be done in the actual world, Latinx literature has increasingly opened itself up to more inclusive, affirmative representations of nonnormative lives under the signs of sexuality and gender.
Frederick Luis Aldama
Discussions and debates in and around the formation of Mexican American letters, including its periodization and formulations of its unique ontology, are reviewed, and discussions and analysis of key literary phenomena that have shaped in time (history) and space (region) Mexican American and Chicana/o letters are presented. Foundational scholars such as María Herrera-Sobek, Luis Leal, José Limón, and Juan Bruce-Novoa are considered along with scholar-creators such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. A wide variety of Mexican American and Chicana/o authors of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction are reviewed, including Alurista, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Marío Suárez, Arturo Islas, Richard Rodriguez, and Ana Castillo, among many others.
Ju Yon Kim
The term “performance” covers expansive ground: it can suggest theatrical presentation, the demonstration of ability, or the execution of a task. Theories of performance variously emphasize one understanding over others or put multiple conceptions into play. For example, because performance encompasses both theater and “performativity,” or the efficacy of declarations and reiterated acts, the relationship between these distinct kinds of performance has been the subject of fruitful scholarly debate. Yet however elastic the term might be, the field of performance studies has coalesced around questions of embodiment, identification, presence, repetitions, and cultural transmission.
Asian American literature and culture similarly encompasses a wide range of works, but it shares with performance theory an interest in embodiment, identification, and cultural transmission, especially in relation to issues of race and nation. Studies of Asian American literature and culture have moreover turned to performance as an analytic framework and object, emphasizing theatrical models of social interaction, the relationship between performance and performativity, and the potential to respond to the forces of racialization, colonization, and assimilation through various kinds of performances. Although juxtaposing performance theory and literature might seem to run counter to the critical distinction between text and embodiment underscored by academic fields such as performance studies, works of Asian American literature evince an affinity with theories of performance in dramatizing the tension between text and embodiment, particularly in efforts to capture the voices of “Asian America” in accents, dialects, and pidgin. On the stage, productions have taken advantage of the distinct possibilities afforded by performance to explore the complexities of identification, kinship, and memory in the context of migration and racial marginalization.
Frances R. Aparicio
Given Puerto Rico’s long colonial history, Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the diaspora have had to grapple with contested notions of nationhood. Having been described as a “divided nation” and a “commuter nation” due to the geographical divides between the island population and those who have migrated to cities in the United States, Puerto Ricans have deployed literature to forge and re-imagine a space for belonging and community informed by the experiences of living in between the island and New York, in between Spanish and English, and in between racial notions of skin color, social class, and gender and sexualities. Challenging and unsettling the foundational discourses of national identity on the island, “Diasporican” literature proposes alternative imaginaries that resist power inequalities. This essay argues that Diasporican literature has come into its own, contributing new understandings of the fissures of Puerto Rican national, ethnic, and cultural identities.
Puerto Rican writers in the United States have textualized their experiences of migration and transnationalism through their poetry as well as fiction, memoirs, and autobiographical narratives. They have contested traditional notions of home and have explored the failures and limitations of a sense of belonging. Rejecting both the island of Puerto Rico as the geographical site for Puerto Rican authenticity and the dominant urban imaginaries of New York City that have long excluded their working-poor communities, Puerto Rican writers in the United States have represented el barrio as an urban space that offers them a sense of community despite the mainstream notions of hyper-masculinity, violence, and illegal practices. Afro-Boricua and Diasporican writers have also reflected on the fissures of racial belonging, as their dark skin color is not always integrated into dominant notions of the Puerto Rican and U.S. national imaginaries. Their deployment, in poetry, of English, Spanish, and “Spanglish” speaks mostly to the centrality of orality and sounds in the formation of nationhood, while challenging the homology of Puerto Rican nationality to Spanish. Exploration of the ways in which female, feminist, and queer Diasporican writers grapple with issues of belonging, gender, and sexuality foregrounds how these categories of identity continue to go against the grain of traditional masculine narratives of nationhood. It is essential to acknowledge the geographic dispersion of Diasporican voices away from New York and the transcultural alliances and global identities that are being produced in Morocco, Hawaii, and other far regions of the world. A short discussion of Lin Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” focuses on an example of staging a return home to New York, in a performance that celebrates community, family, and the neighborhood for second- and third-generation Puerto Ricans among other Latino and Latina groups. The multiple and complicated ways in which Diasporican literary voices, from poetry to theater to fiction, textualize notions of home, belonging, and community are examined within the larger frameworks of nationhood and ethnicity.
Alan M. Wald
At the start of the last century a modern tradition of literary radicalism crystallized with inspiring results. From 1900 onward, socialists and bohemians yoked their ideals to become a marathon of forward-thinking activist cultural workers. For the next three decades, writers and intellectuals of the Left, such as Max Eastman (1883–1969), were oracles of enchantment in a world increasingly disenchanted, initially by the international war of 1914–1919 and subsequently by a decline in popular political defiance as capitalism consolidated. Still, the adversarial dream persevered during the violence and later, often in little magazines such as the Masses, Liberator, Seven Arts, and Modern Quarterly. Since the 1920s, literary radicalism meant creativity in the service of an insurrection against political power combined with a makeover in human relationships.
With the economic catastrophe of 1929 and the triumph of Nazism in 1933, what might have been a generational succession morphed into a paradigm shift. This previously self-governing literary radicalism was now multifariously entangled with Soviet communism during its most awful hour. An unofficial state of emergency escalated so that a range of journals—this time, New Masses, Modern Monthly, and Partisan Review—once more served as barometers of the depth and breadth of radical opinion. Bit by bit, a strange new ethos enveloped the literary Left, one that blended heroism, sacrifice, and artistic triumph with fifteen years of purge trials in the Soviet Union, mortifying policy shifts in the international Communist movement, and relentless domestic repression against the organized Left in the United States. By the end of this phase, in the reactionary post–World War II years, most adherents of communism (not just the pre-dominant pro-Soviet Communism, but the other varieties of communism such as Trotskyism and Bukharinism) desperately fled their Depression-era affiliations. The upshot was a blurring of the record. This occurred in ways that may have seemed clever for autobiographical concealment (by one-time literary radicals who feared exposure or embarrassment at youthful excesses) but became maddening for future scholars wishing to parse the writers’ former convictions.
As literary radicalism passed through the Cold War, 1960s radicalization, the late 20th-century culture wars, and into the new millennium, the tradition was routinely reframed so that it faces us today as a giant puzzle. New research and scholarship emerge every year to provide insights into a very complicated body of writing, but there is a fretful ambivalence about its actual location and weight in literary history. Not surprisingly, most overall scholarly histories, chronicles, and anthologies do not include the category of literary radicalism as a well-defined, principal topic. This is because enthusiasts of the last twenty-five years brilliantly championed the tradition less under the rubric of “literary radicalism” than as the fertile soil for a blooming of gender-conscious, multicultural, and polycentric legacies connected to the Left but primarily rendered as eruptions of American literary modernity onto the world stage. These revisionist images came to us in discrete volumes about black writers, women writers, regional writers, children’s writers, Jewish writers, and so forth. Nonetheless, such celebratory portraits remained in competition with a dark double, a notion that nearly all literary radicals were wanting in artistic value. This skeptical appraisal was entrenched in an older scholarship, a point of view that is partly an aftereffect of the long shadow that the Communist imbroglio cast on its entire legacy.
The study of settler colonialism has evolved from a nearly exclusive examination of the interplay of Indigeneity and white settler colonial domination to an engagement that has become attentive to questions of racialized migration. Because British settler colonies violently displaced Indigenous peoples without widespread exploitation of their labor, racialized migrant labor has played an important role in establishing and developing settler colonies, from the exploitation of enslaved and convict labor, to indentured and contract labor, and to contemporary iterations of guest and undocumented labor. The reliance on hyper-exploitable, deportable, or disposable classes of migrants has been an integral logic of settler colonialism in North America, rendering Indigenous communities even more vulnerable to dislocation, dispossession, and environmental harm. Asian North American cultural representation offers a rich site to explore settler colonial logics of land dispossession, resource extraction, relocation, urban redevelopment, and incarceration. In particular, Asian North American cultural production has often recycled settler colonial tropes that both denigrate and romanticize Indigenous cultures in claims for belonging that attempt to challenge the racial logics of civil, social, and political exclusion. In North America, the projection of a heroic “pioneer” identity aims to recover early Asian labor from historical obscurity by demonstrating its vital contributions to developing the settler nation. These expressions reinforce the value of Western civilization and industry over an empty, uncivilized, and unproductive Indigenous world. Asian American invocations of “local” identity in Hawai‘i similarly assert a romanticized identification with Indigenous cultures that obscures Asian Americans’ structural dominance and active role in the dispossession of Native Hawaiians. Alternatively, Asian North American cultural producers have also become strong voices in social and cultural movements to prioritize Indigenous self-determination, ecological protection, and decolonial anti-capitalism. Critical approaches to Asian North American representation have become increasingly attuned to reckoning with colonial complicity, exploring the ethics of responsibility, indebtedness, and solidarity with Indigenous communities.
Despite the prominent work produced by Sri Lankan American writers Michael Ondaatje and Rienzi Crusz since the 1970s, Sri Lankan American literature and culture has maintained a doubly marginalized position in Asian America due to the historical disregard of South Asian America and the dominance of Indian America. Literary and cultural work by writers and artists of the first and second generations reveal how Sri Lankan America is, to use Rajiv Shankar’s phrase, “a part, yet apart” of the South Asian American milieu as well as postcolonial Sri Lankan studies. First-generation writers initially reflect on the common diasporic theme of nostalgia for the land of origin, but their larger body of work is not directly related to “Sri Lankan” topics. For instance, Ondaatje, who gained prominence as a “Canadian postmodernist,” kept Sri Lanka largely peripheral in his early poetry until his 1982 memoir Running in the Family. However, after the outbreak of the Sri Lankan civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), presaged by the state-sanctioned pogrom of Tamils known as the Black July riots of 1983 that occasioned a second wave of immigration to North America, the volatile political background at home and the national “betrayal” by the Sinhalese Buddhist government became a major thematic motif for Sri Lankan American writing. Indran Amirthanayagam’s 1993 poetry collection The Elephants of Reckoning reveals a new responsibility embraced by the diasporic writer—to recognize that “the dead have tongues” and to pose the question: “What are they saying?” Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1994) reiterates Amirthanayagam’s position, becoming a blueprint for a new generation of Sri Lankan American writers and popular cultural artists invested in social justice vis-à-vis not only race, ethnicity, and citizenship but also politics of gender and sexuality. Second-generation Sri Lankan American writing such as V. V. Ganeshananthan’s novel Love Marriage (2008) experiments with new archival forms by mediating traumatic “inherited memories” of the civil war, pointing to the future directions of the Sri Lankan American literary and cultural terrain.
Although it may not be a truth universally acknowledged, the pages of Asian American literature are nevertheless filled with complex representations of transpacific women. These constructions of Asian femininity counter the more recognizable versions of Asian women that have circulated from the late 19th century to the present: archetypes of the Asian mother as symbolic of a lost homeland, the exotic and submissive Asian butterfly, or the vilified and dangerous dragon lady. These persistent characterizations of Asian femininity are in one sense no surprise, especially given the longstanding Orientalist binary (Edward Said) that imagined the East as the West’s submissive and feminized other and the frequent connection between women and the land in nationalist fiction. As a critical framework and archival methodology, transpacific femininities reconfigures the centrality of gender, sexuality, and transpacific experience to Asian American literature. Transpacific femininities was originally conceived as a mode of analysis for a specific historical context and literary form: the Philippines in the early to mid-20th century and representations of women in prose. But it is ultimately a more capacious model that (a) recovers a long history of the importance of women to transpacific literature, (b) carefully considers how multiple empires and nations influenced the Pacific, and (c) counters the feminization of Asia by revealing how writers were actively involved in redefining the terms of national identities, communities, and transpacific relations. The plural “femininities” underscores instability and contradictions in texts and authorial strategies, for while transpacific femininities is above all a feminist way of reading, the term also recognizes that these authors and texts do not all advocate feminist practices.