TOWARD A PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE LATINO/A EXPERIENCE
In analyzing what he calls “the spiritual crisis of the United States,” Jorge Portilla notes that for Mexicans (in Mexico), “the United States always appears under the aspect of a radical ‘otherness’ [‘otredad’]” (1952, 69). This observation, made in 1952, could still be made today, not only by mexicanos but by anyone who is enchanted by the very idea of the United
States as a place of freedom, opportunity, and all that comes with that way of life that is singularly “American.” The implication here is that for those living within the boundaries of the nation, particularly for its citizens, the United States is what is most familiar; moreover, we who are internal to the idea can see ourselves reflected in it. For us, in other words, the idea of the United States is not an otherness but a sameness.
The reality, however, is quite different. Latinos in the United States, for example, do not always see themselves reflected in the idea of the United States or “America”; this idea—and its implicit promises— gives itself as an alterity that is always already, or siempre, beyond our reach. As an ideal, it is always fleeing, abstract, impossible to situate. Its apparent refusal to be instantiated correlates to a refusal by Latino/as to accept it as a mere ideal. There is thus an element of zozobra in the Latino/a identity, an existing in the vertigo and in-betweenness of attraction and rejection.
Because Latino/as do not see themselves reflected in the idea, or ideal, of the United States, because they do not see themselves in harmony with the whole, with its past, present, and future, Latinos (and I count myself as one), generally speaking, are other to that idea; there is no relationship of sameness between us and it, as Portilla’s comment would suggest. Yes, we are constitutive of the idea of the United States in the sense that with every generation we help structure its contours and possibilities, but we do this mostly negatively. Thus, for instance, our modern “America” is partly shaped by its incessant rejection of Latino culture(s), the denial of the Spanish language, and an unfounded hatred of “Mexican” immigrants, all of which contribute to the “devaluation of American citizenship” (Huntington 2005, 137, quoting Schuck 1989).1 So we are part of the idea, but only as its limit, and then, only marginally; in the nativist discourse, we take part in the story of its destruction.
In these and many other ways, Latinos as other constitute the boundary limits of the very notion of “American” citizenship and American identity—it stops where we begin, so to speak. So the “United States,” as an idea and a reality, is not only other to Mexicans in Mexico but also to Latinos in the United States. That this is the case can readily be seen in the way in which Latinos interact and are interacted with in American politics, as if Latinos are a “sleeping giant” that once awakened will guard the gates to political office (Jackson 2011). Latinos are a political otherness that is quietly emerging, and whose difference must be nurtured (for instance, by the liberal rhetoric of the Democratic Party) or seduced
(for instance, by the self-reliance narratives of the Republican Party). But the otherness of Latinos is most apparent in the public sphere, where Latinos are a threat to the national culture and the death of its future (as we find in the nativist writings of Brimelow 1995, Huntington 2005, and Buchanan 2007). They are “illegals,” “aliens,” immigrants, whether they are in fact any of those things. As Jorge Gracia put it over a decade ago, “in one sense we [Latinos] are part of the country, but in another we are perceived as not belonging to it. And even when we are tolerated, we are never completely accepted” (2000, 188).
The alienation and marginalization of Latinos before the idea of “America” will naturally effect, for instance, political participation, social activism, and educational success. I could list a myriad of examples that lend support to how our otherness to the idea impacts us in these different areas, but I will stick to one—a very personal one, namely, the lack of Latinos in academic philosophy. The fact is that Latinos in philosophy are other to the philosophical profession, just as Latinos in the United States are other to that way of life that is particularly American. The realization of our otherness can be a heavy cross to bear. It might frighten us into avoiding questions that are pertinent to our lives as Latinos; and it certainly forces many of us, in philosophy, into avoiding, through denial or through ideological commitments assumed for the sake of professional survival, philosophy from south of the border all together.
In what remains, I propose that Latino/as must confront and embrace their otherness to the idea of “America” if Latino/a identity itself is to be preserved and, also, for the sake of a Latino/a philosophy that might emerge. More important, our identity as Latino/as will be positively defined in the narratives we weave as we struggle to describe and redescribe our role as citizens and intellectuals before the oppressions and marginalizations of inherited metanarratives. Those narratives we weave will be the prolegomena to our philosophy.
A model to emulate has been sketched out in the previous four chapters by philosophers that we have, perhaps unwillingly, sought to avoid in the history of our philosophical education. I believe that the attempt by Mexican philosophers to philosophically reveal their own being and identity through a rigorous examination of self and circumstance is a blueprint for a Latino/a liberatory consciousness and a Latino/a philosophy. And hence the title of this chapter is part of the question I aim to answer here: what is the value, for Latinos, of reading Mexican philosophy? This question might not be relevant to all Latinos/Hispanics in the
United States, but it is relevant, at the very least, to Latinos in American academic philosophy.
I proceed with a brief overview of the Latino condition/circumstance/ situation, focusing on the way in which Latino/as have been altered, or othered, in America’s public imaginary. I next propose the view that the value of reading Mexican philosophy resides precisely in its otherness to an ideal; this will involve a consideration of two exemplary members of the philosophical group Hyperion already discussed, namely, Emilio Uranga and Jorge Portilla. In way of conclusion, I reconsider the question regarding the value of reading Mexican philosophy for Latino life as well as the value of this reading for a future Latino/a philosophy.