Monday, April 30, 2007

The Latino Body in Question

Mexicans Americans have found it difficult to imagine state power in the US to be anything but arbitrary since the "Mexican Repatriation" of 1930 to 1934. Occasioned by the Great Depression, the forced deportation of over 500,000 Mexican Americans to Mexico made the idea of state protection for nationals of Mexican ancestry in the US a failed legal promise with limited dividends (over 60% were US citizens, many others were legal residents). So as the nation contemplates immigration "reform" what is surprising is that in the convoluted history of Mexican American rights initiatives and immigration battles there have been so few attempts at mass rallies and demonstrations on the national scene. Tonight, on the eve of the May Day rallies across the US, it is also surprising that we are already being given a narrative about how it will likely pale in comparison to last year's national rallies and demonstrations.

Immigration rallies likely smaller

By Martin Kasindorf, USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES — Marchers demanding a path to U.S. citizenship for as many as 12 million undocumented immigrants will take to the streets in many cities Tuesday, but organizers say crowds will fall far short of last year's giant rallies on May 1.

A year ago, police estimated that more than 1 million people rallied for rights for illegal immigrants and against a short-lived proposal in Congress that would have made illegal entry to the USA a felony.

Crowds were estimated at 400,000 in Los Angeles, 400,000 in Chicago, 30,000 in Houston and 20,000 in New York City. In economic boycotts billed as "a day without immigrants," hundreds of thousands of Hispanic workers and their supporters didn't punch the clock. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach shut down, and 72,000 students walked out of classes in Los Angeles.

In contrast, a march here Tuesday is likely to attract no more than "tens of thousands," says Javier Rodriguez of the March 25 Coalition, a group named for a rally of 500,000 here in 2006.

In Tucson, where 18,000 marched last year, 10,000 are expected to turn out, says Frida Espinosa of the Tucson May 1 Coalition. There's comparatively little talk of boycotts.

Event planners attribute part of the difference to nationally syndicated Spanish-language radio disc jockeys. They whipped up crowds last year but have shifted political tactics.

The popular Eduardo Sotelo, known as Piolín or "Tweetybird," is asking listeners to write a million letters in support of immigration changes. He says he'll deliver those letters to Congress. Renán Almendárez Coello, the DJ known as El Cucuy ("the boogeyman"), says persuading legal residents to become citizens and vote is more effective than marching.

"It was very nice to see everybody walking around and being supportive and not making a big mess, but it is more important to register and vote," he says.

Demonstration organizers also attribute lowered expectations to fragmented leadership, discouragement that Congress approved no immigration bill last year and a more punitive climate.

"The situation has changed drastically for us," says Armando Navarro, coordinator of the National Alliance for Human Rights. "Last year, there was a sense of passion and determination, inspired by fear of criminalization and rising expectations for legalization. The political climate is becoming more restrictionist right now, and our capacity to respond is not there."

As cities such as Hazleton, Pa., pass laws cracking down on illegal immigrants, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement stages raids on workplaces to detain undocumented workers.

By displaying such toughness in protecting borders, President Bush could soften opposition to the kind of immigration bill he wants: one that would combine stepped-up law enforcement with a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

House Republicans blocked such a bill last year after the Senate passed it. Democrats now control Congress and side with Bush on the issue, but Republican votes are needed.

Immigrant rights groups are split over the latest proposal in Congress, sponsored by Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. The bill would provide a way to earn citizenship that "could take up to 20 years," the skeptical Navarro says.

Navarro says activists did little to keep immigrant communities mobilized after last year's rallies and find it hard to "rekindle that spirit." Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Central American Resource Center here, cites one reason it's so hard: "There is a real disappointment in the community that last year we became so engaged, and nothing happened."

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

PBS and the Latino Body at War, Yet Again

Mario Solis Marich's populist rendition of the PBS/Ken Burns debacle gets to the point (see below).

Hispanic Caucus Raises Stakes in PBS Fight

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Written on the Latino Body: Of Tattoos and Discrimination in the Military

The New Mexico National Guard is overwhelmingly comprised of Chicanos. After they arrived in Kuwait recently, a soldier from Wisconsin told superiors that he believed the Chicano servicemen were "gang-members." After an Army specialist was flown in to investigate and examine their bodies, they were stripped and searched for tattoos. Few tattoos were found, and none with gang-related markings.

While Gov. Bill Lopez [sic] Richardson of New Mexico praises the Minute Men gangs along that state's border with Mexico, he seems unable or unwilling to decry the racialized profiling of Mexican American National Guard soldiers in Kuwait under the Army's leadership. (See a video of the alleged "gang-members" prior to deployment above. For original source see here.)

N.M. Guard unit alleges racial discrimination

April 23, 2007

Task force says Army searched soldiers for tattoos because they’re Hispanic

ALBUQUERQUE — At a base in Kuwait last May, nearly 60 members of a New Mexico National Guard unit were told to remove their shoes, socks and shirts so that military investigators could check them for gang tattoos.

Several members of the Rio Rancho-based Task Force Cobra alleged racial discrimination, saying the unit was targeted because of its large number of Hispanics.

Army investigators, however, found that the tattoo search was lawful and not racially motivated, the Albuquerque Journal reported in a copyright story published Sunday.
“I’m embarrassed to say that’s how the Army is,” said Adjutant Gen. Kenny Montoya, who commands the Army and Air National Guard in New Mexico. “They don’t want to admit mistakes.”

Within days of the search, Montoya wrote to a senior Army officer in Kuwait, requesting an apology be made to Task Force Cobra. None was given.

Montoya was more pointed in a letter the following month to Gen. Peter Schoomaker, then-chief of staff of the Army. “Let me know how I can help our Army to end their discriminatory practices, both now and in the future,” Montoya wrote.

Schoomaker didn’t respond.

The tattoo search was based on an uncorroborated allegation made by a Wisconsin soldier that Task Force Cobra was rife with gang members.

Members of the military are prohibited from taking part in gang-related activity if the gang is an extremist organization — for example, it advocates discrimination, hate crimes or violent acts. A soldier can face disciplinary action, including discharge for having a tattoo of an extremist group.

On May 25, 2006, agent Paul McGuire with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command arrived at the Ali Al Salem base in Kuwait to conduct the tattoo check and immediately was confronted about his expertise in identifying gang tattoos.

A lieutenant with Task Force Cobra told the agent that all of his platoon sergeants had backgrounds in law enforcement and would know if gang activities were occurring.

Nevertheless, the soldiers were ordered to strip down to their athletic shorts.

Six of the 58 soldiers initially refused to be searched but complied after being threatened with arrest and charges by the investigating agent.

One New Mexico soldier complained “that he didn’t feel like an American today,” according to Army documents. Another reportedly cried, saying it reminded him of a similar incident that occurred when he was younger because he was Hispanic.
Another soldier said the “Gestapo-like” tattoo check was the lowest point of his military career.

“During the viewing, there was high tension among the troops who related they felt as though they were being picked on ... because they were Hispanic and National Guard,” McGuire later said.

Task Force Cobra is made up of nearly 190 soldiers from various National Guard units around New Mexico. It was deployed in November 2005 to provide security for military convoys in Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar, and returned last November.

Additional members of the group were scheduled to be searched, but unit leaders and senior Army officers blocked that plan.

Capt. Ivan Forrest Salkin, the commander of the unit who had been visiting another base, ordered that there would be no more checks until the investigating agent produced a search warrant, Army documents state.

He said he had no idea that the tattoo check was an issue with his soldiers. He also objected to his soldiers being threatened with arrest for refusing to comply.

As word of the tattoo search worked its way up the chain of command, a top Army lawyer also expressed concern.

“It is too easy for this to be viewed as a witch hunt, where all of the unit members are presumed guilty until proven innocent,” Col. Ralph M.C. Sabatino, a judge advocate, wrote in an e-mail to McGuire a day after the search.

“The fact that all of this is being done on the uncorroborated vague and nonspecific accusations of a soldier ... only exacerbates the problem,” Sabatino said.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The War at Home: Guns and the Policing of the Subaltern Body

Guns and “gun rights laws” have a coterminous and nearly forgotten history in the Americas. When white or Criollo elites were the “minority,” guns were used to control enslaved bodies which were (depending where you were in the Americas) black, mulatto, Amerindian, or some combination of these or other taxonomies used to describe the enslaved majority.

Policing the enslaved body and quelling slave insurrections were part of the fiber and logic of a racism that created both the taxonomies of race and the pseudo-science that legitimated its various guises in order to sustain the emergent national economies. Whether they were called “pattyrollers” or “verdugos,” slave catchers and armed white militias protected the slave-owners’ lands from insurgent bodies on the plantation and beyond as property to be returned if any slave managed to escape.

So it is without irony, or the hint of satire, that we see the latest “insurgents” in the leaked National Rifle Association’s graphic novella (alert thanks to and the always amazing Tex[t] Mex blog). The subaltern bodies are constructed anew as threats to the now white majority, necessary targets of the fearless head-of-household dads who must protect this perverted justice a la Michael Douglass in Falling Down.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Mexican (American) Body

(left: Red from "Red Dead Revolver" video game, Rockstar Productions, 2006)

Reperire pax, “find peace,” is certainly a noble enough call to justice and the raison d’être of Red, the protagonist of the videogame Red Dead Revolver. But Red—pictured with this imperative call literally crowning one of his revolvers—attempts to find it through the pursuit and annihilation of Mexican General Diego and those of similar ilk who killed his family when he was a boy. Armed with his father’s revolver as a literal and metonymic emblem of forced penetrations, Red’s quest partakes of a cultural repertoire of images that have infused the American popular imagination with murderous Mexicans from the nineteenth century to the present.

But playing American in this context is about being played. From the serial western novel, to the Lone Ranger radio show of the 1940s and, later, the television show of the 1950s, and its heirs in the Hollywood and spaghetti westerns, all the way to Walker, Texas Ranger, "Red Dead Revolver" continues an investment in American national identity through a folk mythology that is neither historically factual nor ethically accountable. As an exemplar of the processes by which American cultural memory and amnesia find public expression, Red evinces the continued investment in an American national fantasy that requires continuous interrogation, resistance, and illumination. Reperire pax, indeed.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

PBS and the Latino Body at War

If a Latina or Latino dies at war and there is no one around to witness it or to care, does it matter? Yes, and resoundingly so, as Latino cultural industries and agents have been proclaiming from the U.S. Mexican War (1846-48) to the present spoken word revolution. So what's taken America's professed televisual conscience so long to catch on?

From El Diario, "Latinos as sidebars in U.S. history"
EDITORIAL - 04/13/2007

Latinos welcomed the news that PBS and the Ken Burns team will include Hispanics in a documentary series on World War II. But what the quality of that inclusion will be is now the question.

On February 28, this paper ran a story and editorial about how a 14-hour documentary on the American experience of World War II failed to include Latinos.

Reflecting the Hispanic perspective is an issue of respect, not just for Latinos but for history. Accurate and complex portrayals help move audiences beyond narrow perceptions of U.S. history.

The Burns project also has implications for the fierce debate on U.S. involvement in Iraq. As El Diario regularly reports, Latino soldiers are among the mounting death count in Iraq. The voices of Latino veterans and families in the documentary would help offer a fuller version of the U.S. experience of war.

PBS has annnounced that additional content on Latinos will be incorporated and a Latino
producer will be hired. This is a step that resulted from pressure by the Defend the Honor Campaign, a Latino coalition.

What bothers us, however, is that PBS has clearly stated that the existing content will not be changed. This implies that Latino stories will be added as a footnote instead of woven into the body of the series, relegated to an “extra feature” option on a DVD menu.

Depicting Latinos as sidebars to U.S. history is unacceptable. We expect nothing less than substantive representation of Latinos in the Burns project. And as Burns has a long contract with PBS, we hope that the lesson has been learned. This episode should also be a turning point in how public television, long supported by Latino tax dollars, distributes its resources for projects.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Tex[t] Mex and the Latino Body

(left: from Anthony Nericcio's Tex[t] Mex [University of Texas Press, 2007] and site)

Every once in a while a book or cultural artifact comes along that renders its contents and futures differently, and from that moment on it becomes a point of reference for what is to come. William Anthony Nericcio's Tex[t] Mex (University of Texas Press, 2007) is just such an artifact. The Mexican and Chicana/o bodies that populate it are imagined beyond their use value, or the pleasures taken from them, in order to lay bare how vision and the state's culture industries work hand in hand with the politics of national discrimination in the subtlest, and thereby most insidious ways. From a children's cartoon like speedy González, I mean, Gonzales, to scopophilic desires in the shape of Lupe Velez, or the Rita Hayworth we think we know, this is a special book.

We need books like these in order to understand broader cultural phenomena like, say, artist John Sonsini's appropriation of the Latino body, as his recent fascination with Mexican and Central American (im)migrants makes clear. Sonsini cruises and picks up day laborers on the street corners East L.A. Through hand gestures, movements, and the flashing of green some of them eventually "sit" for him in his studio, he paints their image, and the art world then celebrates these bait and tackle switches for the "honest" representation of "the common man." But I wonder in amazement about the Latino body, endlessly recycled, but never quite at home in this piece of earth whose borders render it "illegal" when convenient, "art" when profitable. We need more books like Nericcio's.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Précis of book review I would have written were it not for the fact…

Walter Benn Michaels' The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (2006)

It seems that many left progressives seem to be stuck on the concept of identity politics as it has been complicated by diversity initiatives or, worse, as they've come to understand the concept of identity politics from their armchairs. These narratives usually involve a “controversial” book with vision and myopic people of color who demand inclusion through guilt and liberal sympathy but leave the status quo and inequality largely untouched, and intellectually unexamined.

Within the expressed constraints of this academic subgenre, the protagonist (usually an English professor) is endowed with a spell-breaking and “visionary” acumen that enables him (the protagonist is usually male) to blame diversity, identity politics and political correctness for “true” inequality and the ensuing emergence of an extremely popular and literal conservatism that ultimately separates us all. Astoundingly, these modern day Delphic oracles pretend to be unaware of the ammunition they are providing to conservatives of all colors (as might be gleaned from the current banter that passes for political critique in the related video below.)

Most often, the expressed truth-bearing qualities of such exercises neglect to consider, much less ask, “people of color,” especially those whose lived and theoretical sophistication comes from direct community engagement, how the practice of "equality of opportunity" is experienced on various fronts. The self-proclaimed Delphic oracles are like Dostoyevskian leftists: they love humanity abstractly but presume to know the other better than she knows herself. In so doing, they avoid a series of ethical questions that would otherwise move them to consider the conditions under which the subaltern can speak and even talk back.

And so I propose a new subgenre of the review that refuses easy identifications with authors who claim to be saving democracy or liberating the working classes from the people of color who implicitly don’t know any better and who are coddled by the spineless sympathizers who should know better; the ones who, through their largesse, purportedly allow it all to happen.

(Also see: The Twilight of Affirmative Action or the Trappings of the WSJ's Rhetorical Storehouse of Editorials?)

And now, as promised, to the banter that attempts to pass for political critique...

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Subaltern Body Politics: How the Right Uses "Colored" Bodies

"White supremacy, sensing the need to repackage itself for consumption in polite company, partially fills the demand for racist bile by outsourcing to mercenary writers of color." See Margret Kimberley's timely, "How the Right Uses People of Color to Foster Racism." My thanks to William Anthony Nericcio's post for alerting me to this.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Latino Body: Moving to the Rhythms of Hip Hop

(left: Raquel Rivera, photo by Annabellie Rivera)

Raquel Rivera's New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone (2003) is one of the first books to account for the synergy between Boricua hip hop and its more visible and lucrative African American expressions.

See Libero Della Piana's Interview with Raquel here where she's asked, "Why has the influence of Puerto Ricans on hip hop been so often overlooked and overshadowed in the public eye by the African American role in hip hop?"

Her poignant reply is telling, "The reasons are interrelated and there have been many. But there is one overriding reason above all others: We are all so used to accepting myths of cultural purity and ethnic separation, that its hard to see the truth even when its standing right in front of you. Ethnic groups have a history of struggle over 'cultural property' and this is no different. Take for example the longstanding argument among those that proclaim salsa to be 'really' Puerto Rican, or 'really' Cuban, or 'really' Latin American, or 'really' US Latino."

It would worthwhile to explore the Boricua hustle-dance scene as precursor to break-dancing, as well as the music that went with it, with the pan-ethnic forms of performance that developed into what is understood today as hip hop. Maybe my former student and hip hop scholar Wilfredo Gómez will write that book.

Antonio José Guzmán's Zero Gravity Installations

Antonio Guzmán's emphasis on "diaspora," in the context of Latino cultural production, seeks to link the Atlantic Crossing with the obviated history of Latino cultural identity in the United States, and its relation to the Black Atlantic polemic.

See his Hip-Hop Latino inquest, unanswered.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

George López and Why "Latinos" Are "Different"

Are we so starved for nationally legitimated Latino cultural anchorings that we're willing to accept such uncreative identity scripts? Maybe we just need better comedians.

Queer Latinidades with the Incomparable Marga Gómez

La tremenda Marga Gómez plays off the dilution of Cuban American identity through spirits by demonstrating that mojitos, diluted with vodka, just miss the point...

Lolita Lebrón

The elusive dream of nation through "independence" in the Puerto Rican context moved me to write about the Latino body.