[This is by Sandy Florian.]
When we think about Latino Literature, we often think about a certain kind of Latino Literature, a type of sociological or ethnographic literature that gives voice to people with Latin American heritages who grew up in the Latino ghettos of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Rightfully, those voices are canonized and taught in classrooms, presumably in celebration of the cacophony of multi-cultural America. What happens, though, when someone who claims to be a Latina writer doesn’t write directly about her heritage? What happens when the African American student writes whatever the hell she pleases? We are told we aren’t “really Latina,” that we aren’t “black enough,” by our peers, our professors, our own people. We are told that our writing doesn’t contend with the struggle of being a minority, different, an “other.” If we want to write novels and poetry without place or placement, we have to quietly erase our heritages and try our damnedest to be white.
In an article about art, Johannes writes that he got into an argument with a Latino poet who claimed I am not a Latina writer, and I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, namely because claims on my heritage seem to be blocking my professional path. And I’ve been doing a bit of research here and there in preparation for a long and angry sabbatical. I won’t get into postcolonial theories here, though, because here I would like to explore this problem personally.
To the point, I am Latina through and through. My mother is a native of Puerto Rico and my father is a native of Colombia. Because my father worked in telecommunication, he was transferred from country to country by the American and French companies that employed him. As a result, I was raised in Caracas, Panama City, and Mexico City as well as Queens, Long Island, and Westchester County. I spent my summers in Bogota, San Juan, and Paris. It seemed I went everywhere, and everywhere I went, I was not considered a native. In Colombia, I was Puerto Rican. In Panama, I was American. In the United States, I was Latina. My best friends in each of these places were South Korean, Japanese, Midwestern, African American, Latino, whatever. I was completely internationalized from an early age, and from this internationality, I learned quickly and without struggle that there is no such thing as an “other.” That underneath our thin facades of language and representation, we are all the same. We are all human. We are all afraid.
So the question is, if I’m writing from the perspective of a human, why then do I call myself Latina? Why advertise my cultural heritage if I’m not going to exploit it? Especially when you consider that it may be damaging to my career? Why indeed?
I’ve always had a distaste for the term “avant-garde” for any kind of writing simply because in French it means soldiers on the front line of battle, and I’ve never wanted to equate even unconsciously the activity of writing with the activity of battling. I’ve equally had a distaste for the terms “hybrid” and “experimental,” but that’s material for a different essay. Because today, I feel avant-garde. Today, I feel very much like I’m on the front line with a population of minority soldiers who battle fiercely these burdens of representation. It feels like war against the white majority who presume that the publishing and teaching of only stereotypical Latino literature is celebratory. Likewise against those liberal academics who presume that the employment of only minority writers who write about their “race” (whatever that is) is liberating because it validates to their own minority students the value of their multi-cultural minority voices. The message from the opposition is, “Your voice counts,” but it clearly reads, “Only your strangled voice counts.”
I’m on the front line because eventually that Latino poet who argued with Johannes will understand his own dilemma, that he will feel the choke of his own hands on his own throat. If some minorities want to write about their cultural experiences, they should do it well. But if some minorities want to write about asteroids, if some minorities want to write about soap dishes, if some minorities want to write without place or placement, their work should have the same reception that the white majority so blatantly hoards.