THE CIRCUMSTANCE: LATINO/AS AS “OTHER”
There is, according to the sociologist Leo Chavez, a “Latino threat narrative” that filters perceptions of Latinos in the United States (2008). This narrative reproduces the fear that Latino/as, as Buchanan and other nativists propose, undermine “American” culture. It claims that Latinos are a threat to “mainstream” American society because of their relation and allegiance to other cultures or other streams. The narrative effectively alters Latino/as before the idea. The narrative has a dramatic structure: “According to assumptions and taken-for-granted ‘truths’ inherent in this narrative, Latinos are unwilling or incapable of integrating, of becoming part of the national community. Rather, they are part of an invading force from south of the border that is bent on reconquering land that was formally theirs (the U.S. Southwest) and destroying the American way of life” (Chavez 2008, 2). Of course, it is imperative, if this narrative is to have any social or cultural force, to forget that a great number of “Latinos” are US-born citizens, many of whom have never been south of the US-Mexico border—or who do not recall ever being there (as is the case with the present author/reader). Another way to say this is that this narrative assumes a strict, or essentialist, conception of Latino identity itself.
Latino philosophers such as Corlett (1999), Gracia (2005), Schutte (2004), and Alcoff (2006) have labored intensively in recent years to deconstruct, and dismantle, such essentialist notions of Latino identity. Corlett, for instance, says that “Latino” is an ethnic category that picks out individuals who are “in some way descendants of (and including) Iberians” (1999, 275). This “in some way,” he says, is a “matter of degrees.”
Corlett goes on to propose a “moderate conception of Latino identity” where one can be “more or less” Latino, so long as one can tie one’s identity “genealogically” to a Latino ancestry (288). Gracia disagrees with Corlett, suggesting the latter’s genealogical view to be a form of essentialism, where genealogical ties serve as either a necessary or sufficient condition for Latinoness. Gracia instead proposes that Latino identity is more about “family relationships” between members of historical communities that change over time than it is about lines of descent (2005). Alcoff, like Gracia, avoids traces of essentialism by conceiving Latino identity as historically situated and circumstantially informed, as changing and malleable. Alcoff, however, and like Zea and Uranga, places much more emphasis on what the recognition of one’s identity can accomplish—politically and existentially. Alcoff defines identities as “embodied horizons from which we must confront and negotiate our shared world and specific life condition” (2006, 288). As a horizon “from which” one engages and confronts the world, moreover, Latino identity is not just one, but a set of sites of resistance and overcoming. And, for Latinos, all of these sites of resistance can be differently situated, or differently grounded. Against Corlett, there is not one grounding for this horizon, but many.
Latino/a philosophers, like the Mexican existentialists of el Grupo Hiperion, recognize the value of a clear consciousness of identity. While Mexican philosophers could not escape the traps of an essentialist conception of “lo mexicano,” they nonetheless found it necessary to attempt its philosophical clarification, if only for the sake of saving the circumstances. While trafficking in a different conceptual field, Latino/a philosophers seek the same. Ofelia Schutte, for instance, proposes that consciousness of our multifaceted identities allows us to better negotiate “[our] way through the different pressures, conflicts, and tensions that bear on [our] concept of self as well as on [our] ongoing understanding of [our] social and political identity” (2004, 380). For his part, Corlett writes that for an ethnic group, “being able to name and define itself is empowering” (1999, 278).
The negation of Corlett’s insight, however, is that allowing someone else to name and define a group, no matter how complex or multifaceted that group may be, is disempowering. The “embodied horizon” that can negotiate a shared world is closed off by the “symbolic systems” (Alcoff 2006, 228) of the narrative that defines and names. The Latino threat narrative is a manifestation of such a symbolic system.
Ultimately, the pervasiveness of the Latino threat narrative, in media and popular culture, justifies a belief that the picture that it paints is right, that it is a factual account of American reality. Under such scrutiny, Latinos, Chavez notes, are seen as “alien-citizens” and “perpetual foreigners despite their birthright” (2008, 6).
As perpetual foreigners, Latinos perpetually pose the threat of trespass and violation. Latinos trespass when they “cross over” into mainstream “American” music, when they break records in sports, when they star in their own, primetime television shows, when they make a career in philosophy, or when they write a best-selling book in English. When Latinos succeed in those endeavors into which they trespass, they are heralded for their courage, their uniqueness, and their pioneering spirit; when they fail, they are exposed, at best, not as exceptions to the rule but as the rule, and at worst, as frauds, cheats, or criminals. I do not think examples are necessary, but a quick look at the sports and entertainment industries and the trespassers and violators are easy to spot. The perpetual otherness of Latinos thus has a commercial appeal, since any accomplishment or any crime can be plugged into the capitalist apparatus and sold to a culture hungry for novelty or scandal. More important, it also has political and social value, since against the foreignness and otherness of Latinos, Anglo-American culture defines its purity and its right to sovereignty.2
The Threat Narrative thus serves two functions: first, it alters Latinos; and second, it produces this alteration for the benefit of Anglo-American culture’s desire to define itself. Again, while “Mexico, Mexican immigrants, and U.S.-born of Mexican origin are the core foci of the Latino Threat Narrative” (Chavez 2008, 22), the narrative ultimately essential- izes Latinos, clumping them together despite factual group differences, and on these generalizations proposes the mythology that Latinos are “people who will not and cannot become part of U.S. society” (41).
This narrative, imbued as it is with fear and suspicion, is not explicit in the everyday lives of twenty-first-century Latinos. But it is at work, sometimes in subtle yet impactful ways. For instance, one could argue that the views the narrative espouses are responsible for the lack of Latinos in the US philosophical establishment.3 Jorge Gracia’s decade-old observation that even within the philosophical community “we are perceived as alien” still rings true (2000, 181). The sense of being other to the US philosophical establishment (a sense one gets merely from the lack of recognizably Hispanic surnames among college or university philosophy faculty) leads many of us to refrain from pursuing philosophy as a profession, or even from pursuing it as a pastime, as philosophy is not the kind of thing one does when there are other more urgent tasks at hand, such as undermining the narrative by assimilating into the consumerist-capi- talist culture and living in accordance with the demands of the American dream—which sometimes means, for instance, majoring in business or engineering, or anywhere else but in majors that promote the unproductive, lazy, life of thought. Those of us who do pursue it as a profession find that success is tied to our capacity to cleanse ourselves of our differences, to embrace a manner of thinking that eschews particular, circumstantially driven, passion-fueled, vital concerns.4 Gracia suggests that perhaps “if we abandon our cultural heritage and become ‘Americanized’ can we have a significant place in the American philosophical community” (2000, 181). And, indeed, this seems like the only, and more attractive, option. After all, the success-narrative (at least in philosophy) states that it is best to stick to the issues preordained by the “tradition,” on figures the tradition has vetted and cleared, to shy from passion projects and write without hinting at our culture, race, history, gender, or desires. If we choose to dwell on issues pertinent to the existence as Latinos in the United States, we will feel the oppressive weight of our alterity—our papers will not be published, our books will go unread, and our philosophy will always be defending itself from the charge that it is something other than philosophy. After all, as we saw in chapter 3, if it does not transcend contingency, the tradition states, it is something like poetry, but not philosophy. Gracia, for one, recognizes the danger and warns: “These are the two ways of disenfranchising philosophers: locating them in a non-European or non-American tradition, or classifying what they do as non-philosophical” (2000, 182).
It is this marginalization and disenfranchising to which Mexican philosophy can speak; it is here where we can locate the value of Mexican philosophy for Latino life. As a US-born Latino of Mexican origin, that is, Mexican-American, who is also a philosopher by profession, my experience of reading Mexican philosophy brings with it a certain sense of camaraderie and familiarity to what Wittgenstein would call a “family resemblance” or what my father would call familiaridad. This famil- iaridad might be due to my experiences within a common history, one passed down through memories and communal narratives. Or the sense of familiaridad might be due to a consciousness of a shared struggle, of the knowledge that Mexican philosophers have themselves been disenfranchised by “philosophy.”
As we have seen, philosophy from Plato to Descartes to Kant and Husserl is supported by a metanarrative of purity and universality that demands rigor, or the rigorous discipline to ignore passion and desire, a metanarrative that fiercely guards against the invasion of contingency and difference in all of its forms. This means, again, that an anthology of twentieth-century existentialism, published in the United States, will not include Uranga, Portilla, Villoro, or Zea, who clearly engaged in existential analyses in the 1940s and 1950s, when existentialism was less an academic curiosity and more of a way of life or intellectual commitment. It will not include these hiperiones because of the concern over culture that they brought into their readings and reflections. The same could be said of important Mexican Marxists, Neo-Kantians, or analytic philosophers. The claim could be made that adequate translations are at fault. But the fact is that professional philosophers in the United States will be more disposed to translate an obscure German or French text rather than any text in Spanish, or risk marginalization themselves. Sixty years ago, the American academic Arthur Berndston (1953) complained that the main difficulty in teaching a course in Latin American philosophy was a lack of available resources in his campus library. How surprised would he be to face the same difficulty today? Of course, this is due to a culture of privileging European philosophers over thinkers from the Global South (a culture that exists both in the universities and in the world of academic publishing). Or, it could be said, it is due to a thwarted understanding of what philosophy from that space-time is like. Berndston himself says that part of the reason for this absence is that Latin American philosophy lacks “original ideas . . . logical and thorough development” and is “closely related to feeling and to action” (1953, 263). As we have seen, the latter of these sentiments is not far off base—Mexican philosophy is a philosophy of action, rooted in concrete situations, that does not shy away from passion and commitment. The former reason, that Mexican philosophy lacks originality and logic, is a hasty generalization that privileges the Eurocentric standard. Nevertheless, even supporters like Berndston, who want to include this manner and style of doing Latin American/Mexican philosophy in the teachable narrative, cannot help but marginalize it, if simply for lack of self-representation.
Consequently, so long as Mexican philosophers (and Mexican philosophy) are disenfranchised, so will be those of us writing and thinking about them (and it). But instead of dissuading us, these facts should empower us to push through, especially if by doing so we gain something valuable and vital to our lives as Latino/as in the United States and in the US philosophical establishment, namely, a model to emulate in our struggle to overcome the weight of our otherness while retaining and protecting our difference. More than a simple sense of familiaridad that appears when confronting Mexican existential philosophers, the shared experience of disenfranchisement also offers an experience of familia.