Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Latino Performatives: No Consensus on Betweenness

I am a biracial White-Latino communication scholar who lives in the Midwest in the southern tip of Illinois in the college town of Carbondale. I am a performance poet and educator. Originally from California, I moved to Illinois to pursue my graduate education. I was raised by my white father and stepmother in a predominately white area in the Bay Area. Mi madre Mexicana was diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was just one year old so I grew up somewhat alienated from my Latino identity. My dissertation is about reclaiming my biracial Latino identity, telling my mother’s story, and locating myself in relationship to place. I have come to call myself a “merry Midwest mestizo”—a self-naming for my hybrid Latino, White, and biracial being in the world. My dissertation follows and extends the work of Latina communication scholars (Viramontes, Calafell, Chavez) who have examined the meaning of Latina/o identity outside the context of the North American Southwest. I identify and give meaning to my biracial identity in the context of, what I call, the “Midwest-South.” My dissertation deals with the spaces between: between and White-Latino, between California and Illinois, between the Midwest and the South, between racial identities, between my White, Mexican, and Latino identities, and between my brown and white identities, and all their messy intersections. I often use aesthetic qualitative methods like poetry and performative writing. What follows is more a conceptual work in progress that takes a step back and examines the slippery-ness of the “Latino/a,” particularly as it stands among the black and white racial binary.

In a powerful framing article, in a special issue of Text and Performance Quarterly on Latina/o performances, Bernadette Calafell and Shane T. Moreman, discuss the difficulty of translating “Latinidad” into an English term at the confluence of performativity—“Latinivity?” they ask (123). Following their lead, it seems to me, that “Latinidad” is already defined in some very real sense by performativity, in repetitions, in reiterations, in ways of being. Latinidad is accomplished through mundane performances of race (in relationship to) culture, ritual, and ways of being. Taking the performative turn with race would allow us to see, like John T. Warren understood, that performance is a constitutive component of our racial identities, moving away from static or essential understandings of race, to a more fluid one.

This understanding may mirror the complexity of the term “Latina/o” itself. “Latina/o” is a strangely precarious discursive racial designation that is caught up with umbrella terms like “Hispanic,” and “Chicano,” or a myriad of other self-identifying terms. “Latino/a” may have more to do with self-identification than ascription by others, but at the same time never independent of ascription by others. In my experience and my experience growing up biracial in a white context, I think that identification with the term sometimes has a strong relationship with speaking Spanish; the way identity so often is immersed in language. Growing up without my Mexican mother in the home, I never learned to speak Spanish. To this day, not speaking Spanish is big issue of mine. Latina/o functions like any umbrella term, unifying a group, but at the same time also glossing substantial differences between groups of Latinas/os. In short, what I like to call “brown” doesn’t hold still; it can’t easily be held down. It seems as though a defining feature, if there is any, of “browness” is its slippery-ness. Racial betweenness actually comes to constitute the identity category. Brown. Sometimes lighter sometimes darker, but always very hard to pin down. Of course, “brown” is color, but not a race.

My experience with the 2010 census may serve as a case and point. In April of that year, along with people all over the country, I received my census form. I filled it out along with my roommate at the time, for the household that we both comprised at the time. As we filled out the first page dealing with how many people lived in the household and asking for an “X” to be put in the proper boxes, right away, I, as a person living in the household, encountered a fascinating problem. The problem stemmed from questions 8 and 9. The former was concerned with “Hispanic Origin,” asking if the person was “of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” while the latter was concerned with the person’s race. What was fascinating was that there were two separate designations prefaced by words in bold black type: “NOTE: Please answer BOTH 8 about Hispanic Origin and Question 9 about race. For the census, Hispanic origins are not races” (my emphasis here). For question 8, there were four or five possible answers, including one box for Mexican, Mexican American, and Chicano, a box for Puerto Rican, a box for Cuban, and a box for “another Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin.”

Question 9 was presumed to be exclusively concerned with the question of race. The census provided an opportunity to “mark one or more boxes,” which as biracial person, was a welcome improvement from previous surveys. Then the question provided a dizzying 13 possible races that could be checked, including “Other Asian” and “Other Pacific Islander” which were to be clarified by writing in the boxes with  “Laotian” or “Pakistani” as examples. “White” and “Black, African Am., or Negro” were, of course, present. But what was absent, what was nowhere to be found, was brown. Brown did not exist. There was no “brown” race according to the 2010 census. Brown is a color like tan or crème or khaki. But brown is not a race.

The whole activity highlighted for me the ways that “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin”—whatever you want to call it—has a possible incoherence that deconstructs the process of racialization itself. Struggling to fill out the census reveals race, with its history as pseudo-science (is it skin color?), and it’s colonial legacy (are we now the race of the conquerors?) as a dubious socially categorical, measurable, static phenomenon. It’s not just culture implied by “Hispanic origins;” it’s not just biology or phenotype implied by a racial category; it’s not just a region or a country (Cuba or Puerto Rico), it’s all of them. Or none of them. Or simply one of them— sometimes it could just be one, no less powerful identity marker, that makes a Latina/o identify a certain way.

Critical Race Theorists have for decades talked about the ways that race get stuck between the binary of black and White (Delgado and Sefancic). Racial binaries bind racial thinking. Race as an issue, comes to mean White people in contradistinction to African Americans or Black people. In the general mind about race, not much exists in between. It’s a black and white thing. But really, the census highlighted for me the potential for brown to take the whole thing down: racial categorization cannot seem to handle the betweeness that is already at work in people of Latino or Hispanic origin. Some of us our light brown, some of us are dark brown, some of us speak Spanish, some of us do not.  Specially designed surveys can’t encompass it. Historically, for example, Mexicans are already a mix of two historically hitherto discretely “distinct” races: Europeans (Spanish) and Native American Aztecs. So what did the Census Bureau do? They went right around it by parsing Latino from race, re-mapping the black-white binary onto a group that was always already between.

In defiance, I chose “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” and then I checked “White,” and, after that, I checked “Native American,” I wrote in “Mexican.” Of course, I violated the logic of the survey, nullifying its measures. I should have written “Brown.” There is already black and white. Looking back on it, I should of put in Aztec for the “name of my tribe.” That response would have been historically accurate. Needless to say, a couple months after I had moved from the house, a census person came knocking on the door to clarify the information for our household. She cleared it up, most likely glossing some part of our racial identities for the sake of categorization. But I share the story because right away it demonstrates that brown doesn’t hold.

Certainly there are Black Latinas or Afro-Latinas throughout the Americas. Latin America today is much more “Black” than people often know or acknowledge. There are 150 million decedents of slaves in central and southern America (Cevallos). This historical racial influence on the United States should not be overlooked.  Many of the slaves who ended up in Louisiana had already spent time in the Caribbean. At the same time, there are lighter skinned, White passing Latinos. There are many Mexicans with blond hair and blue eyes. And there are of course brown Latinas/os — Latinas/os who are both and somehow neither. Latina/o is already a mix that cannot be extrapolated, bifurcated, or divided, without undo pain by the terms “White” or “Black.” It may be both. It may be one. It may be neither. The term cannot be separated from a complicated biology, history, and culture.

As Latinas/os, our very existence, then, seems to undermine black and white categorical thinking. Brown bounces, slips, doesn’t hold still, changes in the light, and is contingent on what one is standing next to. It may be imbued in performativity. Or language. Or history.

There are far are more questions than answers. If Latinos in North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean came about through years of mixing, then where does “the mixed race” lay as a discrete race? What of the African influences on Latinos, because of the slave trade throughout the Western hemisphere and the world, from Virginia to Argentina? And it gets even more complex as we consider biracial people of Latino descent—are they not mixes of mixes? Latina/o seems mixed all the way down. Delving at these questions demystifies racial thinking, getting at more accurate accounts of peoples’ histories, undermining race as discrete phenotypic thinking. And when we add performativity to the conversation it changes and complicates Latina/o even further, troubling essentialist static notions of race. The term is already immersed in a confluence with performativity and other factors. That is, skin itself is already between, already mutable, changing according to history, context. Sure it’s contingent on who your parents are and who your parents aren’t. Or where you stand in the family photo...Café con leche like coffee mixed with milk. Piel Morena o peil Blanca, dark skin y light skin, Aztec noses or African noses, Blond hair and blue-eyed Mexicans, Light-Skinned Mulattos. It’s Afro Mestizaje in the Caribbean. African Creoles in New Orleans. Mestizaje is the process of mixing and thus a slippery-ness must be part of “Latina/o.”

The space between—Latinidad, my Mexican-ness, my biracial identity, California-Illinois, metaphor, and mestizaje (hybridity in the Mexican context)—is a very rich concept for my dissertation and for my identity literally and figuratively. I want to continue to embrace knowledge at the intersections of race, space, landscape, metaphor, poetry, personal narrative and performative writing. I want to stick between.
Works Cited 

Calafell, Bernadette Marie and Shane T. Moreman. “Envisioning an academic readership: Latina/o Performativities per the form of Publication.” Spec issue of Text and Performance Quarterly 29.2 (2009): 123-130. Print. 

Calafell, Bernadette Marie. “Transforming Landscapes through Performance: ‘Y Soy Chicana/o’in the New Latina/o South.”Latina/o Communication Studies: Theorizing Performance. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. 13-51. Print.

Cevallos, Diego. “Latin America: Afro-Descendants Marginalized and Ignored.” Inter Press Service News Industry. 19 May 2005. Web. 30 April 2011.

Chávez, Karma R. “Remapping Latinidad: A Performance Cartography of Latina/o Identity in Rural Nebraska.” Spec. issue of Text and Performance Quarterly 29. 2 (2009): 165-82. Print.

Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. New York: NYU Press, 2001. Print.

Viramontes, Adrienne. On Becoming Chicana in the Calumet Region: A Phenomenolog of Decolonization. Diss. Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. 2005. Print.