"The Cinnamon Tsunami is Here": A Latin@ Writers Roundtable

Gustavo Arellano, Angie Cruz, Carolina Ebeid, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Juan Felipe Herrera, David Tomas Martinez, and Carmen Giménez Smith

This roundtable brings together a number of prominent Latin@ writers. The term “Latin@,” which signifies both Latinos and Latinas, is a semiotic gesture by Latinidad scholars intended to mitigate gender privileging in language. Or, as the scholar Gloria E. Anzaldúa argues, “Language is a male discourse.” This becomes obvious in a language such as Spanish where words can denote gender, but this is also inherently true of all language because it reflects the intended and unintended values of the speaker and of their greater society. I believe there are essential values to be unearthed by our tongues. And of these values, some should be honored and remade and some should be rejected, as they are no longer of use; thus, archeologist, archivist, and inventor are some of the vocations of the writer. This roundtable is one sluice of the larger wave of individuals working, not to supplant the rights of some, but to support the greater rights of all. I solicited each of these writers with the intent of encapsulating as much variance of the Latin@ writer experience as possible, which, of course, is tilting at windmills. But do not be fooled, this is not a space exclusively for Latin@ voices in this issue of Gulf Coast, but an inclusive space for writers to speak about their perspective, experiences, and values. But I guess, dear hypocrite lecteur, whether you view this roundtable as inclusive or exclusive depends on which side of the fence you reside. Enjoy, compas.

                                        —David Tomas Martinez

David Tomas Martinez: Roland Barthes said “language defines reality,” which feels to me pretty damn accurate. This statement implies that silence is a lack of being, and in a lack of language, or lack of discourse, or with an absence of perspective, comes an existential unmaking. For this reason, it’s an interesting time for Latin@s. On the one hand, both major political parties are cognizant of our voting power, and have pushed Latino candidates to the forefront in an effort to harness the political power of the country’s fastest-growing minority group. But simultaneously, there’s a subtle censorship occurring in places like Arizona, where harsh immigration laws, such as SB 1070, are being enacted and where “Latin@ Studies” are being banned from the classroom. The censorship is also taking place in as many as sixteen other states that are attempting to pass voter laws necessitating birth certificates and more stringent forms of identification. Latin@s seem to be at the forefront of American consciousness in a way that is unprecedented. How does that differ from your experiences growing up, and how did the literature by Latin@s, and from other minority perspectives, or a lack thereof, influence your perception of yourself and your immediate and larger world? 

Rigoberto González: I was raised in Mexico, and when I was ten my family migrated to a mostly-Mexican community in southern California, where my grandparents had been living since the sixties without having to learn much English. They died not knowing much of the language at all. So my personal journey is Spanish, it’s Mexicano, it’s culturally and politically strong. I didn’t understand the word “minority” until I went to college and had to call myself that on paper in order to attain a scholarship. I didn’t realize my community was so threatening until it started to disappear from the books I read, until it started to be called   “illegal” in government policy-making. I was a graduate student during the dreaded California Propositions 187 and 209. This filled me with an anxiety, but it also fueled the urgency I had to keep my community visible and complex on the page, to do what I was discovering was taking place through literature—to perform activism with ink. Fortunately, twenty years later, there are new laws, louder protests against people like my family, like me—children of undocumented aliens—more stories, and more poems, from many of us. It’s clear to me by now that we are not erasable, that we can’t be forced into a few buzzwords that make it easy for politicians, pop culture, or even the American government to contain, define, dismiss, or expel us. We have stayed. And the beauty of our numbers is that young people who are feeling that same sense of anxiety I felt can still access the bookshelf—such a great thing that is, even if our books are banned, they continue to exist! The big lesson here is that our perseverance is unassailable. I keep hearing, “Nothing’s changed.” And if I think back on the community I came from—resilient and proud—my response is, “That’s great!”

Angie Cruz: Much like Rigoberto, I never thought of myself as a “minority.” I grew up in a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood in New York City (Washington Heights). I understood that there was an “us” (Dominicans) and a “them” (Blanquitos), but also another “them” who were often part of “us”: Cubans, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, etc. And because my family’s world was, for the first fourteen years of my life, split between Washington Heights and the Dominican Republic, “the American consciousness” was not something I ever thought about. However, I was aware that the newspapers categorized our neighborhood as dangerous: “Little ’Nam.” Such articles were the seeds of my consciousness raising, of my understanding that the “news” should be read critically, and that point of view and intention were significant when telling a story. It wasn’t until college that I discovered Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Junot Díaz’s Drown, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands and Ana Castillo’s So Far from God. I remember feeling betrayed that I didn’t know these books, and others like them, were out there. In many ways, books by Latin@s offered me a key on how to tell my story, but also made me understand that my story was significant enough to tell. Also incredibly influential were books by James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, Edwidge Danticat, and other African-American and Carribbean writers. They truly changed my self-perception, because I started to understand the connections and overlaps in our histories and communities. These books offered a reconciliation between how I thought I was perceived and how I perceived myself. 
       I call on Anzaldúa, who says it so beautifully: “By creating a new mythos—that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave—la mestiza creates a new consciousness. The work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended. The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war.”
    As for politics…ha! The other day, while waiting for the bus, an English professor asked, “Isn’t Romney half Mexican?” That’s when I realized that maybe many people thought the same thing and, wow, how little Americans actually know about the spiritual, political, economic, and physical fight Latin@s are in today. It’s apparently enough that he says his father was born in Mexico repeatedly. Scary, no? That’s why it's so important that we continue to write, read, and challenge that kind of political appropriation of our community.

Gustavo Arellano: I don’t think we’re at the forefront of anything other than being an eternal cipher that looms larger and larger with every election cycle as our population power grows larger, while our political and economic power also grow, although not at the same level. As a student of journalism history, the media has been proclaiming the awakening of the sleeping Mexican giant (to use that cliché, which the media loves) since the Chicano movement of the 1960s, and, even before, in the nascent rise of what Chicano Studies scholars call the Mexican-American generation (i.e., LULAC, American GI Forum, Felix Tijerina in Houston, Ed Roybal in Los Angeles, etc.). We all know our power grows with each year, yet why is it that the media and political classes are always surprised seemingly every five years?
       I grew up in an entirely Mexican environment—not Chicano, but Mexican. We differentiated ourselves by the state we were from, and usually by which ranchos our parents or ourselves came from. Like Rigoberto, I didn’t realize Mexicans were a “minority” until my college years, when a trustee for the Anaheim Union High School District proposed to sue Mexico for $50 million, the apparent cost of educating the children of illegal immigrants—children like myself. My dad was illegal until the 1986 amnesty, and I knew other undocumented folks—but I couldn’t imagine people would be so freaked out by it. It was that lawsuit—not literature, which I wouldn’t absorb until after college—that got me on the path to go after the haters and to laugh at how inept their continued freak-outs against us are. 

Juan Felipe Herrera: There is also a language of “silence.” It’s hard to talk about since there are so many variations on “silence,” but we have been vocal since day one. The issue of political and ideological and institutional silencing is another thing. As Raymond Williams said in the ’70s in his work on Marxism and Literature, there are “emergent” and “residual” currents going on at the same time—expanding and contracting movements regarding, in this case, the “new” Latin@ presence and action. So all this seems to be a simultaneous motion. Of course. What is cool, I hope, is the wide and deep acceleration of Latin@ and Mexic@ political, artistic, literary, and political voices and acts. And all this and more fans out in multiple directions.
       I enjoyed my experience in the fields, in a real way, as harsh as it was, and as lacking in resources and new potentials. Some nostalgia—mixed in with the open eyes and heart of a child under the big sky, unaware of what was going on—moves me to say this. And there was trauma, too—the tiny, loose orbs of my family that went their own ways and split apart and came back together again. It took time and a lot self-reflection and talking it out, writing it out. That’s it—I was blessed—I could write it out.
       In 1962, I met Alurista, who lived across the way, about seven feet from my window screen in a forlorn gray apartment building near downtown San Diego, Eleventh & D Street. From there on, little by little, day by day, I became part of a most beautiful life, the literary and artistic world of El Movimiento, along with all the magnificent ingredients of the ’60s—sitars, incense, organic juice, Krishnamurti’s lectures, Borderlandia, Black Arts poetry movements, North Beach chapbook stands, Haight-Ashbury, the seeds of UMAS and MEChA, SDS, the UFW, the beginnings of post- ’50s Teatro Chican@, open-air public art movements, experimental performance and writing, and so on.
       Everything influences my perceptions and my sense of self. There are no specific molecules that stand out. The thing is to wash it all away, in a sense, and be part, a real part of the whole.

Carmen Giménez Smith: In a twentieth century literature course I took as an undergraduate the only female author we read was Virginia Woolf. When I asked the professor why, he replied, “She’s the only woman worthy of being in the canon,” and proceeded to educate us on the Great Chain of Being. That was a very early exposure to the idea of “silence.” It hadn’t occurred to me to ask why there weren’t Latinos or Latin American writers on the list; that was how it went. I got to study with Elmaz Abinader a year later, and she introduced the class to writers like Kazuo Ishiguro, Bharati Mukherjee, and Jessica Hagedorn, and the class prompted me to question why the first professor wasn’t aware of the groundbreaking work of these contemporary writers of color. 
       This was my “aha” moment, the one many burgeoning writers of color experience: I exist, but on the margins, and I don't want to be on the margins. For much of my early writing life, I struggled to negotiate how to tell myself, especially since in the monolithic universe of Latinidad, my historical narrative (first generation American daughter to South American immigrants), didn’t match a lot of the expectations defining bodies had about me, and there weren’t many master narratives that corresponded with my experience either. 
       I think my ignorance was a blessing in disguise because once I began reading more widely, I felt compelled to correct the wrongs I saw in the literary world and in the academy, a veritable bull in the china shop of hegemony. I paid a lot of attention to the ways in which literature was being told, and then I tried to fill in the gaps in class or on my own.     
       At the time, however, I didn’t have the language to describe the circumscribed American ideas around privilege, especially in relation to class, race, and gender, ideas I recognize, struggle with, resist. Privilege is a very valuable commodity, and people won’t give it up without a fight, which is why I think Arizona has become so nativist and reactionary. I also think that nowadays—thanks to the pioneering work of Chicano and Latino movement activists of the ’60s and ’70s—an amazing infrastructure of resistance exists to take that bigotry down. I feel privileged to be alive in this moment for that reason. 

Carolina Ebeid: I grew up in New Jersey in a house with three languages: Spanish, Arabic, and English. Everything had three words at my kitchen table, and so every day I had to drink my lechehalib, milk. My mother was born in Cuba and my father in Palestine. My Cuban grandmother and her sister lived with us, which is to say that my house was a regular Babel at times, with a lot of mishearings and misunderstandings across the languages. West New York, New Jersey, was largely Latino, and growing up, all of my friends were like me, first generation Americans with parents from Cuba, or Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, etc. It was impossible to feel any “minority” status in such a setting, but I did feel like a bit of a “misfit.” I remember sensing I wasn’t Latin@ enough in high school, because I looked more like an Arab girl and my Arab last name did not immediately reveal I had this whole other hemisphere to my cultural experience. And I definitely did not feel Palestinian enough within my extended Arab family; I knew so little of the language.
       In college, I learned intellectually what these positions of “minority,” of “otherness,” of “powerlessness” were. I wish I could remember what it was like to first read Edward Said’s ideas inOrientalism. I imagine it was an expansion of consciousness, a minor birth, white light and all. It helped me form a worldview through which I could read history and current events. I was lucky, I think, to begin at a hippie-like college where people (friends, professors, including my very first poetry workshop with Martín Espada) were reading authors such as Gabriel García Marquez, James Baldwin, Amy Tan, César Vallejo, Octavio Paz, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Toni Morrison, Cristina García—the list is long, and of course some of these writers are in the canon, but it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I began to read Hopkins and Keats and Dickinson, authors we tend to call by their last names only. How did these books influence my perception of self? I could see my figure reflected in their pages as on a body of water. I experienced “identity.” I guess I’d like to think of each of these writers inhabiting a minority perspective, each a minor “I” in the annihilating world.

DTM: Buried within the word identity is the Latin root idem, meaning “the same.” This seems to me very contrary to the way most people speak about identity as being that which makes a person unique. I think the broken bridge between idem and the popular understanding of identity is best exemplified in legal scholar Kenji Yoshino’s idea of “covering,” or the compulsion to downplay a disfavored trait in order to blend into the mainstream. Could each of you talk about how your idea of Latin@-ness intersects with other factions of your identity (e.g., gender, sexuality, political affiliations, socioeconomics, class, career)? How are they supplemented or complicated? Has this idea of “covering” affected your own life? 

RG: “Latino” is simply a term of convenience, a starting point. And yet it’s always presented as a monolith to make easy and catchall assumptions about who we are as a people or a political/cultural/social movement. I get so annoyed (of late) hearing about “the Latino vote”—as if there’s only one—and the rumor (before Romney selected a running mate) that the vice presidential candidate was going to be Marco Rubio, a Cuban, in order to attract “the Latino vote.” Such absolute ignorance of the differences between communities and their political trajectories! “The Latino vote” will quickly fade but other terms will continue to corral and imprison us. Thank goodness we have our literature, our art and music, that investigate and explore specific heritages and concrete paths from the homeland (wherever that is) to the adopted land (the embattled U.S. of A.). I suppose that this impulse by mainstream culture (and American letters, truth be told) to hammer our communities into a single shape has encouraged me to resist and defy, reshape and clarify through my work what it is to be a Chicano, an immigrant from Mexico, a gay man. I think of this creative process as an extraordinary freedom, an unshackling, an agency. Quite the opposite of what I sometimes hear from young and naïve writers who think of “labels” as limitations. I’ve got news: if the writer doesn’t claim the space, that space—a very small seat in the back of the theater—will be assigned to the writer. Oh, what a terrible lesson is surrender. But back to my starting point: embracing “Latino” is also an act of solidarity. What my work doesn’t do is sit there, unmoving and inert. My work travels with its fabulous queerness and pro-feminist masculinity, with a critical voice and an observant eye, and most important, a conscience borne out of a deep respect and awareness for my many communities. In brief, I’m empowered by identity, not burdened.
AC: Rigoberto, I love what you have to say about the unshackling, agency, and  freedom experienced when writing. One hopes that those who can’t get past our “Latina-ness” would read our books and try to connect with us on a human level and embrace our complexity.

GA: There was a Mexican artist in Orange County named Sergio O’Cadiz—fabulous, forgotten artist. He once told the Los Angeles Times, “My idea of America is the right to be as Mexican as I want.” Brilliant. And that’s always been my perspective on my “Latino” identity. For me, my identities are more based on geography than a presumable shared ethnic experience, but the great thing is that I can change my labels at ease. Some days, I do feel like a down-ass Chicano; other times, just a plain-and-simple American (how quaint, huh?). But the identities that I emphasize the most to people are that of being from Orange County, and of being from Zacatecas, as those are the identities that mean the most to me. “Mexican” really means little to me, no more so than “American” does, because those are such broad, empty terms—but being from Orange County means something more tangible, as does being from Zacatecas. And actually, the identity I refer to the most is “reporter”—when I wake up, I have stories to tell, and I want to find new ones.
       Yet what’s most hilarious is that I’ve achieved nationwide notoriety as a “Mexican.” Only in America…

JFH: I don’t know. “Identity,” in a way, was a trick word to get ourselves back to our humanity. We have moved closer to it, just maybe. As long as we continue to express ourselves, to be fully ourselves, and to assist others to do the same, then we are living in the bigger life-whole in which we breathe. We are on our way.

CGS: I vacillate between finding a great deal of value in acknowledging identities (mother, poet, teacher, Latin@, feminist, Gen X-er, publisher, editor, etc.) and feeling constricted by them. In this moment, I’m catalyzing all my identities to make the world more accommodating to Latin@s younger than me, so “…that [our] writing should often appear much more conventional, with the notable difference as to whom is the subject of these conventions, illuminates the relationship between form and audience.”1 
       Right now I’m writing and thinking a lot about the work of Ana Mendieta. I feel a deep kinship to her work, especially her engagement with the female divine, and I think it’s deeply tied with her status as an exile in the United States. Her art emerges from that particular tension, which also forms her identity/subjectivity. Where’s the discourse for that? In her work, I think the idea of Latinidad is especially significant, and there are plenty of places in my work where the same could be true. Speaking into or through Latinidad is one of many things I do in my poetry. As a woman of color in the literary world I want my identity and I don’t want it. I use my identity and my identity is used for me and against me. These issues affect how I get read as a poet and as a person, so I can’t avoid it. I have to work it out. Attending CantoMundo helped me with this because it felt like home. Latinidad was implicit in all of the conversations we had about art-making. 

CE: A great question, and terrific answers! I especially appreciate Rigoberto’s introduction of the word “solidarity” into the conversation. Part of me wants to respond with an entire book, another part of me wants to answer with what’s inside a fortune cookie. I think I am usually trying to uncover my Latin@-ness whenever I can because an external Latinidad does not naturally claim me as easily as it does others. But that does not mean I would perform an assumption of Latinidad that is false or ornamental, like carrying a Carmen Miranda bouquet of fruit on my head. My brother tells me I spoke Spanish before I learned English, which is plausible, since my Cuban grandmother raised me daily while my parents worked. I’m sure everyone at this roundtable grew up bilingually, and that the two languages met to make the beautiful animal: Spanglish. Language is the seed out of which my sense of self grows. As others have expressed here, there are many facets to a personhood, for which we have a ready nomenclature. For me, being a mother, a mother to an autistic child, a wife, a poet, a kid of the ’80s, an Eastern Rite Christian, a Jersey girl, a political progressive, and a lover of Austin, Texas—each of these continually redefines me, and I, in turn (the motley group of me), continue to redefine these terms.