Nueva York - Diaspora City: U.S. Latinos Between and Beyond

September 25, 2007

Back in 1999, New York magazine was renamed Nueva York, at least for the week of September 6. The Spanish word on the issue was an eye-catcher for readers of the popular weekly, and attested to the currency of things, and words, “Latin” among the contemporary public in the United States. The theme of Nueva York, after all, was “The Latin Explosion,” those words emblazoned in bold yellow and white lettering across the half-exposed mid-section of Jennifer Lopez. The Nuyorican actress, singer and pop idol was surely “Miss Nueva York”—and remains so two and a half years later: Her shapely body, a large crucifix dangling suggestively above her conspicuous cleavage, provided the cover image, and the feature article, entitled “La Vida Lopez” (calling Ricky Martin to mind), set out to explain “why Jennifer Lopez, Puerto Rican Day parade marshal, girlfriend (maybe) of Puffy Combs, inspired by Selena, aspiring to be Barbra Streisand, and owner of America’s most famous backside, might be the celebrity of the future.” Before you knew it, all New Yorkers, and all America, would be “living la vida loca” on the streets of Nueva York!

Since the publication of Nueva York, Latino fever has been gripping U.S. popular culture at a pitch unprecedented in the protracted history of that continental seduction. Hardly a week passes without still another media special, and hardly an area of entertainment and public life—sports, music, movies and televison, advertising, fashion, food—is by now untouched by an emphatic Hispanic presence. Visibility is of course not new to the “Latin look” in American pop culture—think of Carmen Miranda, Ricardo Montalbán or Desi Arnaz—nor is the Latin “flavor,” the salsa y sabor, a new ingredient in the proverbial melting pot, be it musical, sexual or culinary. But those passing crazes and that subliminal sense of otherness have become in the present generation a veritable saturation of the pop public sphere, the “Latin” way attaining to a ubiquity and prominence that has converted it into an active shaper of contemporary tastes and trends.

Underlying this spectacular cultural ascendancy are of course major demographic and economic changes, which have resulted in the incremental growth and enormous diversification of the Latino population in the United States, such that nearly all the Latin American and Caribbean countries are now present in substantial numbers in many settings, especially in the global cities of Los Angeles, Miami and New York. By the early 1990s New York Newsday titled a lengthy supplement “The New Nueva York,” and with that phrase encapsulated the momentous increase and dramatic recomposition of the city’s Latino community since the 1970s. The swelling influx of Dominicans, Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadoreans and numerous other Latin American nationalities has meant that “Latin New York,” for decades synonymous with Puerto Rican, has become pan-ethnic, to the point that Puerto Ricans, while still the most numerous group, have come to comprise less than half the aggregate. By 1999, then, it was high time that New York become Nueva York, and that its burgeoning population of Spanish-language background be given its day in the glitz.

Visibility, though, can do as much to obscure as to illuminate, particularly when it remains so preponderantly concentrated in the image making of the commercial culture. In the case of U.S. Latinos, celebrity status and ceremonial fanfare is clearly one of those mirages, effectively serving to camouflage the structured inequality and domination which accounts for their diasporic reality in the first place, and deflecting public attention from the decidedly unceremonious and unenviable social status of the majority of Latino peoples. The spectacular success stories of the few serve only to mask the ongoing reality of racism, economic misery and political disenfranchisement endured by most Latinos, who moved northward from their homelands only because of persistent inequalities at global and regional levels.

But the Latino avalanche has given birth to the “sleeping giant,” a demographic and cultural monster whose immense commercial and electoral potential has only begun to be tapped and who, if roused, could well upset some of the delicate balances necessary to the prolongation of the “American Century.” Typically, awe and fascination mingle with a sense of foreboding, an alarmism over the imminent threat Latinos are perceived to present to the presumed unity of American culture and to an unhampered control over the country’s destiny. An integral component of this nervous prognosis, repeated with mantra-like predictability when public discussion turns to the “browning of America,” is the identification of Latinos as the country’s “fastest growing minority,” the group whose numbers are on pace to exceed that of African-Americans as early as the end of the first decade of this new millennium. The fear of an “alien nation”—the title of a xenophobic book on immigration—veils but thinly an even deeper phobia, the fear of a non-white majority. And this without mention of the next sleeping giant: The “brown peril” is soon to be eclipsed by another “yellow peril,” as Asian-Americans are poised to outnumber both blacks and Hispanics by mid-century.

Such calculations, however, beg more questions that they answer when it comes to assessing the cultural and political relations that prevail in contemporary society. Most obviously, they take for granted the sociological equivalence of the various “minority” groups, in this case Latinos and African-Americans, as though a diverse set of immigrant and colonially conquered populations occupy the same historical position, and constitute the same kind of collective association, as a group unified, within the United States, on the basis of their common African ancestry and history of enslavement. Of course African-Americans, like all other groups, have long differed along class, gender, color, regional and other lines, but the seams in the Latino patchwork stand out as soon as we go beyond the media hype and wishful census counts and undertake comparative analysis of any rigor. Even the obvious commonalities like language and religion, for example, turn out to be deceptive at best in light of the millions of U.S. Latinos who are neither primarily Spanish-speaking nor of the Catholic faith. But beyond that, it is certainly a spurious sociological exercise to conjoin in one unit of discourse Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans on the one hand, whose position in U.S. society is fully conditioned by legacies of conquest and colonization, with, on the other hand, immigrant and exile nationalities of relatively recent arrival from varied national homelands in Latin America. Differences along the lines of economic class and educational and entrepeneurial capital are striking, as are those having to do with issues of race and national cultures.

These marked differences are one reason why Dominican writer Junot Díaz is skeptical about any and all ethnic generalizations, stating about “Latinos” that “I’d rather have us start out as fractured so we don’t commit the bullshit and erasures that trying to live under the banner of sameness entails.”[1] The most obvious of these erasures for Díaz, aside from the internal differentiation among the varied “Latino” groups, is the reality of racism—being called a “spic” and reacting to that denigrating denomination. “And rare is the Latino kid who hasn’t been called a spic.” Discrimination in educational opportunities and in the criminal justice system, for example, is what unites Latinos beyond the multiple cultural variations, along with the strategies developed to confront these social inequalities. “This is a nightmarish place,” Díaz concludes, “for people of color.”

What is seldom mentioned in the celebrations of Latino identity is the most consequential of the “erasures” involved in pan-ethnic naming—the relation of Latinos to blackness, and to African-Americans in particular. While the Latino concept does generally indicate otherness, “people of color” and non-white, the history of social categorization has selectively equivocated on the issue, and many media representations allow for, or foster, a sense of compatibility with whiteness; the Latino face shown for broad public consumption, whether it is Daisy Fuentes, Keith Hernandez or Chita Rivera, tends to be decidedly from the lighter end of the spectrum. The unspoken agenda of the new Latino visibility, and of the imminent surpassing of African-Americans as the largest minority, is the ascendancy of a non-black minority. To mollify the fears of an invasion from south of the border is the consolation that at least their presence does not involve dealing with more souls of more black folk.

Yet social experience tells us otherwise. The rampant “racial profiling” and waves of police brutality are directed against both African-American and Latino victims, with no color distinctions of this kind playing a role. For the fact is that in many inner-city situations there is no such difference and it is not possible to “tell them apart.” What the hegemonic, consumer version of Latino ethnicity obscures is that many Latinos are black, especially according to the codes operative in the United States. And what is more, while this version tends to racialize Latinos toward whiteness, much in tune with the racist baggage of Latin American and Caribbean home cultures, on the streets and in the dominant social institutions “brown” is close enough to black to be suspect.

In Nueva York in particular, where the prevalent Latino presence and sensibility remains Caribbean, this counter-position to blackness is often disconcerting at best, and among many Puerto Rican and Dominican youth the response has been to reaffirm a sense of belonging to an African diaspora. Indeed, in the case of Puerto Ricans this perspective entails not only an emphasis on Afro-Boricua heritages but, because of the decades-long experience of close interaction with African-Americans in New York, an identification and solidarity with American blacks perhaps unmatched by any other group in the history of the “nation of immigrants.” Cultural expression in all areas—from language and music to literature and the visual arts—typically illustrate fusions and crossovers, mutual fascinations and emulations, that have resulted in much of what we identify, for example, in the field of popular music, as jazz, rock and roll and hip-hop. Collectively, and as a reflex of broader social experiences, this demographic reality and this conjoined cultural history put the lie to any wedge driven between Latino and black life and representation.

This Latino “double consciousness” among Puerto Ricans and other Caribbeans goes back generations, in intellectual life to the contributions of Puerto Rican collector and bibliophile Arturo Alfonso Schomburg during the Harlem Renaissance, in music history at least to the 1940s with the beginnings of Latin jazz, and in literature to the writings of Jesús Colón in the 1950s and Piri Thomas in his 1967 novel, Down These Mean Streets. In our own times, Latino youth find themselves in tight league with young African-Americans in forging the constantly shifting currents of hip-hop and other expressive styles. In a frequently cited poem, “Nigger-Reecan Blues,” the young Nuyorican writer Willie Perdomo addresses once again the interracial dilemmas first articulated by Piri Thomas 30 years earlier, and concludes with the dramatic lines:[2]

I’m a Spic!
I’m a Nigger!
Spic! Spic! No different than a Nigger!
Neglected, rejected, oppressed and depressed
From banana boats to tenements
Street gangs to regiments...
Spic! Spic! I ain’t nooooo different than a Nigger.

In a similar vein, the spoken word artist “Mariposa” (María Fernández) objects to being called a “Latina writer,” as present-day literary marketing would group her, reminding her audience that “I myself feel more in common with my sistahs [African-American women writers] than with, say, Chicana poets like Sandra Cisneros or Lorna Dee Cervantes.”
Yet Mariposa does not consider this intense affiliation with African-Americans to stand in any conflict with her Puerto Rican background. On the contrary, in her signature poem, “Ode to the DiaspoRican,” she signals her “pelo vivo” (wild hair) and her “manos trigueñas” (dark hands) as evidence of her national identity, and rails against those who would deny it:

Some people say that I am not the real thing
Boricua, that is
cuz I wasn’t born on the enchanted island
cuz I was born on the mainland...
cuz my playground was a concrete jungle
cuz my Río Grande de Loiza was the Bronx River
cuz my Fajardo was City Island
my Luquillo, Orchard Beach
and summer nights were filled with city noises
instead of coquís
and Puerto Rico was just some paradise that we only
saw in picture
What does it mean to live in between...?

Mariposa thus gives voice to the sentiments of many young Puerto Ricans, and of many Latinos in general, in their defiance of a territorially and socially confined understanding of cultural belonging. Place of birth and immediate lived experience are not wholly definitive of cultural identification, which in this view has more to do with political and social experience, and with personally chosen ascription. “No nací en Puerto Rico,” she exclaims in the poem’s refrain, “Puerto Rico nació en mi.”

As these instances show, present-day social identities press simultaneously in varied directions, linking individuals and groups along lines that would appear mutually exclusive according to their representation in commercially and ideologically oriented media. Nueva York, New York magazine’s momentary interlude as a Latino-focused publication, dwarfs the cultural horizons of Latino experience by postulating its categorical differentiation from blackness, and also by disengaging Latino culture in the United States from its moorings in Latin American and Caribbean realities. Not only are the featured Latino celebrities treated as interchangeable in their collective background, but in the entire issue no mention is made of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic or Colombia except as potential extensions of the U.S. market. What is more, there is no discussion of the massive migrations from those home countries, nor of the historical relations with the United States which have generated modern migratory movements, as the transnational origin and setting for the very presence and position of Latinos in U.S. society.

Today’s global conditions impel us beyond these tidy, nationally constricted views of cultural identity, which might well be referred to as “consumer ethnicities.” The Latino community is if anything a process rather than a circumscribed social entity, and its formation entails complex and often converging interactions with other, purportedly “non-Latino” groups such as African-Americans and American Indians. But the idea of the pan-Latino necessarily implies the trans-Latino, the engagement of U.S.-based Latinos in the composition of cultural and political diasporas of regional and global proportions. The interdependence of old and new “homes,” the constant bearing of U.S. policies and practices on the life circumstances in Latin America and the Caribbean, propel more and more Latinos across the hemispheric divide, and resonate loudly in the everyday lives of all Latinos. But beyond those direct geopolitical ties, awakened cultural heritages and congruencies also engage Latinos in more abstract but no less pronounced diasporic affiliations, notably transnational indigenous and “Black Atlantic” trajectories of identity formation.[3]

The “new Nueva York” is rich with these innovative cultural possibilities, and as the newfound home of so many people from so many Latin American countries it now serves as a seminal ground for the rethinking and reimagining of America. One hundred years after the prophetic ruminations of José Martí about the contours of “nuestra América,” we are now in a position to conceptualize “América” itself in its world context, and the multiple lines of an “American” identity as coordinates of radical transnational remappings. The “Latin explosion” receiving so much coverage in the United States today, the hyperboles and hypes generated by “la vida loca,” is but one index of a pervasive change in human affairs, leaving all of us asking, with Mariposa, “what does it mean to live in between?”

Juan Flores is professor in the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College and in the Sociology Program at the CUNY Graduate Center. His latest book is From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity (2000). This article was originally written for the catalog of the exhibition "Territorios Ausentes" (Absent Territories),Casa de América Museum in Madrid, January 2000.

1. “Voices of Change,” New York Magazine, September 6, 1999, p. 29.
2. Willie Perdomo, Where a Nickel Costs a Dime (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), pp. 19-21.
3. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

Tags: New York, US latinos, immigration, identity, racial profiling, diaspora

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