Today I continue my series on ReaderCon with notes on the panel "Latinx authors break down the wall." The panelists discussed their experiences growing up, the history of immigration to the US, the community's struggle with racism, and the role of fiction in helping combat racism and break stereotypes. Below, I'll share some of the highlights from the discussion.
I've paraphrased the panelists' words, and apologize in advance for any mistakes or mis-representations - let me know by leaving a comment and I will fix it.
Panelists: Lisa Bradley (moderator), Carlos Hernandez, José Pablo Iriarte, Julia Rios
Description: Isolationist governments portray immigrants (and citizens perceived as foreigners) as vectors for disease, crime, and terrorism. Currently, the U.S. administration is demonizing Latinx immigrants in this fashion, and oppressing asylum-seekers from Central America. How can authors dismantle anti-immigrant myths while portraying immigrants in all their human complexity? Led by Lisa M. Bradley, Latinx writers will discuss their work regarding borders and immigration, providing historical context and exploring possibilities for future stories.
Highlights from panel discussion:
CH: After Fidel Castro took power, the US had the wet foot dry foot policy: If a Cuban could put one foot on American soil, they were allowed in and embraced, and if they were caught on the strait, they were sent back. (The policy was recently rescinded by the Obama administration.) After Castro came to power, Cubans went from being perceived as exotic like other Caribbean people, to being perceived as freedom fighters. This gave Cubans a position of privilege compared to other Latin Americans, though they still faced racism.
White is not a color; it is an ideological position. The Irish were not considered white for a long time.
JPI: There are differences in status within the Miami Cuban population - people divided themselves based on who had left the country earlier.
JR: My father is from Mexico, but in our family we internalized the idea that the best way to be successful is to be as white as possible. My parents didn’t want to teach us Spanish. My dad wanted me to know my heritage without being part of it.
LB: Where we settle in the US has an effect on how we’re treated.
CH: Florida is its own brand of weird - ask Google to auto-complete “A Florida man.” I grew up in Sarasota. The average age is deceased (older than the average life expectancy). It is the high school drinking capital. Even within the Latinx community, people have set up microwalls with each other. There is homophobia and different levels of racism based on skin color.
JR: There’s a difference between rural and urban communities.
Los Angeles has a giant Mexican population, with more Mexican-Americans than whites. It still feeds to white privilege, but urban communities benefit from having a big community, through newspapers, festivals, and activism.
Rural communities don't enjoy those privileges. We moved to rural Southern California. It is very red and has a significant Latinx population, much of which was farm workers. White people own farms, and Latinx people work.
I picked strawberries in the summer. Latinx workers were devalued and paid little. People who were much better at picking than me were likely paid less because the owners thought I was white.
LB: Children of immigrants are part of two different cultures. What kinds of conflicts and identity issues arise?
JPI: I keep writing about children of immigrants “stuck between two cultures.” We are expected to honor our heritage, but it conflicts with the dominant culture. I grew up in the “shadow of Havana,” in its re-creation in Florida. I have never been to Cuba, and if I traveled there, it would be as a tourist, but I feel a loyalty to the culture, and obligations to the land.
CH: I visited Cuba in 1997 as part of an educational exchange (and brought back $200 worth of cuban cigars, legally). I saw the devastation of Havana. It looks like a slow-motion bombing had happened over four decades. The Cuba that existed is preserved in Miami now - the idealistic version, with money. It’s said that the “three failures” of the revolution are breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
JR: I’m half-Mexican; my mother is white and Protestant. I didn’t fit with either side of my family.
People who spoke Spanish as their first language were often defensive, lashing out at anyone who didn’t speak Spanish. When you feel powerless, you gain the only power you can, by lashing out at other people.
I took Spanish in high school. My father yelled at me when I made mistakes; I had a big mental block from learning the language for a long time.
JR: My ideal world is a world without borders. Open borders create economic prosperity. After Brexit, people didn’t actually want to leave, because no other deal looks good; they need immigrants for industry.
There was a community meeting on immigration policies in Somerville. The major said: we love immigrants, and we need you to work in the hotel and casino that’s opening. The meaning was: We want you here - and out of sight.
JR: We need fiction showing Latinx characters being human, and we need a variety of voices, for a chorus effect.
JPI: Studies show that readers are more capable of empathy; they learn to live outside themselves. Marginalized communities get value from seeing themselves in print. Non-marginalized readers get value from seeing us in print and identifying with us.
JR: People change when they see others who don’t seem to share an identity with - and then see themselves in those people.
CH: Fiction plays the long game. A book here now can keep talking 75 years from now, reverberating and inspiring others to write things.
There are things to work on inside our communities: the bullshit machismo that permeates the culture, homophobia, and position against women. I grew up on the show Salvador Gigante, which had naked women dancing around onstage.
JPI: Criticism is easier to take from people within the community.
JR: Racism is not just a problem in the US; it’s also in Latinx countries. When a country is colonized, being like the colonizer is ideal, so people prized whiteness. “Limpia de la sangre,” purity of the blood, is racism based on how much Spanish/Indio heritage one has.
Check out Polloman, a Mexican mythology comic coming out in 2020.