Exotic or Toxic? Latinos in America

By Justin Burke in Sydney, Australia

29 August 2011

Cover of Business Week magazine illustrating a Latino man transitioning from a desert to a suburban environment

Manuel Vasquez, an associate professor at the University of Florida, recently delivered the keynote address to the Imagining Latin America in Australia [PDF] Workshop at the University of Western Sydney. His address was titled The Exotic Other or the Toxic Other?: Images of Latin American Immigrants Post-9/11.

Vasquez highlighted that:

  • Latin American immigration shifted in the 1990s from the traditional "Gateway" cities of Miami, Los Angeles and New York to places less accustomed to immigration, such as Raleigh, Atlanta and Omaha.
  • Whilst digital media has enabled groups to organize and find a voice, this also includes "nativist" and far right wing groups.
  • 9/11 led to the "securitizing" of the border and a public panic about "otherness," with similarity to past panics like the Yellow Peril. Many Americans have sought refuge in Kantian certainties and shunned complexity: Latino equals Mexican, which equals illegal, and illegals should be deported — therefore all Latinos should be deported.

Vasquez presented some fascinating images. The first was the July 2005 cover of Business Week. It’s a great representation of the notions of otherness and assimilation. The left hand side depicts a darkened and threatening borderland, and a man in dirty clothing clutching belongings — perhaps in a sheet or a cheap bag. The right hand side shows the man stepping into the light of American suburbia. He wears nice clean clothes, sports, carries an armload of consumer purchases, and looks forward with optimism. It struck me how many of the same themes were explored in John Gast’s American Progress — darkness and light, barbarism and civilization — but with the migration occurring in reverse.

American Progress by John Gast

American Progress, by John Gast

Vasquez explained how the image of Latinas had morphed from the hypersexualised exotic woman — Jennifer Lopez, Shakira — and the devoted Latina mother into the hyperfertile producer of an invasion force of (brown) anchor babies, threatening the English language and Anglo-American norms.

He showed a short clip from August 2010 of Texas lawmaker Debbie Riddle, who claimed that irregular immigration and so-called "anchor babies" were in fact part of a long term terrorist plot. It shows how quickly being "illegal" can be conflated with "terrorist."

Moreover, that was the message of Vasquez’s presentation: Don’t be passive to stereotypes — even if they appear benign or even positive. In times of stress, they can quickly become toxic.

Vasquez discussed how impossible progress was at this time, as signified by the failure of Congress to pass the DREAM Act. This bill was meant to create a pathway to citizenship for people who had been brought to America as young children by their parents as irregular migrants. These children grew up as Americans, went to American schools and only perhaps as young adults found out that they are not American citizens. President Barack Obama has recently reversed his policy of “enforcement” and accelerated deportations, aimed at winning Republican support for this bill. It failed to pass and is not likely to be reattempted.

It was clear from Manuel Vasquez’s presentation that in dealing with this climate of toxicity, plus the pain of the depressed economy, it is a very tough time for the Latino community in America.

Tags: Debbie Riddle, Dream Act, Guest Post, Imagining Latin America In Australia, Immigration, Immigration Reform, John Gast, Latinos, Manuel Vasquez

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