Central Americans, in many ways, are a “transnational” people: their cultural, political, social, and economic practices, and the families and communities of the population itself, reach across international borders. What kinds of cross-border attachments, exchanges, and cultural practices or understandings connect people in Central America with people of Central American heritage in the United States? How do such connections operate, and what are their effects in Central American people’s lives in Central America and in the U.S.? Drawing from multiple sources of course material you may choose to discuss the transnational characteristics of Central American political or economic activities, family dynamics, racial or ethnic stereotypes or generalizations, and/or the social reproduction of Central American “places” outside of Central America itself.This short paper should be between 750 and 850 words.APA FORMATUSE ONLY THE SOURCES I POSTED CANT USE OUTSIDE SOURCES!!!





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Ar turo Arias
University of Redlands, CA
A b s t ra c t
This article examines the specificity of Central Americans in the United States in
relation to issues of identity, history and politics. It also examines the
contrasting relationship between Central Americans in the United States and
Mexican immigrants, by historicizing the dynamics of power between these two
Mesoamerican regions since colonial times, with the idea of advancing our
understanding of inter-Latino relations in the United States. The article also
seeks to address the invisibility of Central American refugees in the United
States, arguing that the historical memory of rape and violence on the part of
refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador has led Central Americans in the
United States to keep themselves on the margins of social visibility and
presentability. This strategic non-identity, which to some extent is historically
related to Central Americans’ subordination to Mexico, as well as to their illegal
status within the US, contrasts the identity politics of reaffirmation that
constituted the Chicano and Nuyorican movements, with the present day
situation of ‘Central American-Americans.’
Ke y wo rds
Central Americans; identity; historical memory; representation;
power; immigrants and refugees
Latino Studies 2003, 1, (168–187) c 2003 Palgrave Macmillan Ltd 1476-3435/03 $25.00
I n v i s i b i l i t y, P o w e r A n d R e p r e s e n t a t i o n
Arturo Arias
The Tattooed Soldier, the first novel written in English by a Guatemalan–
American author, Hector Tobar (2000), begins with the eviction of the
main character, Antonio Bernal, from his apartment in downtown Los
Angeles.1 A funny element is introduced. Antonio cannot understand his
Korean landowner, because in this city both of them ‘could spend days
and weeks speaking only his native tongue’ (3).
Antonio, once a middle-class government worker in his native land, is
now homeless in LA. Seven years before, he missed the death squad that
came for him but instead killed his wife Elena and young son, a boy of
two. His despair and shame at having fled continue to haunt him. In
MacArthur Park, not far from Antonio’s apartment, Guillermo Longoria
is playing chess. Longoria was a member of the Jaguar Battalion of the
Guatemalan army, and, it was he who killed Antonio’s wife and son in
Guatemala. The Tattooed Soldier is the story of these two tormented,
defeated men and the intersection of their lives in the LA area. By chance,
Antonio sees Longoria in MacArthur Park one day, and as he lifts his
arms to move a chess piece, Antonio sees the tattoo, and recognizes the
man: ‘For several seconds, the man’s bare arm was suspended above the
tabley . The arm was raised just long enough for Antonio to make out
the tattoo of a yellow animal’ (77). Later, in the middle section where
Elena’s obsession to learn Maya languages is detailed, the image of the
jaguar is recast as ‘Balam,’ the ancient Maya symbol of the warrior.
Having seen Longoria once again in an environment where their relations
of power are more symmetrical, Antonio is electrified by the possibility of
avenging his loved ones. This chance encounter provides a means for the
story to unfold, and takes us back to a lived past in Guatemala. As a
result, the drama begun in their homeland, will be played out in LA
during the riots of 1992.
The tattoo that gives the book its title is a mark, a sign left in a body. It
leaves the character marked for life, scarred for life. What interests me
here about this novel is that, whereas both characters live in LA and they
are represented as ‘Latinos’ by a Latino writing in English, their life is
‘unpresentable’ in this topographical site of migration. It has no meaning
outside of Guatemala. Longoria now works in El Pulgarcito Express,
a courier service specialized in sending money and goods to Central
America. However, he had ‘angry eyes’ (25). As the text reminds us, ‘this
was his practiced soldier’s gaze, his cara de matóny . Anyone in Central
America recognized this looky. Dead dictators and demagogues lived on
in these cold brown eyes’ (25–26). Longoria’s eyes, scar and demeanor
take Antonio back to Guatemala, and the entire middle section of the
novel is devoted to the relationship between Antonio and Elena in their
country of origin, prior to her murder, and his escape to LA. Once the
novel returns in its third part to the Angeleno landscape, their respective
1 Some critics have
noted that Francisco
Goldman’s The Long
Night of White
Chickens (1992) is
the first Central
American Latino text.
However, Goldman’s
identity is that of a
bi-national writer:
Goldman was the son
of an American citizen living in Guatemala, who acquired
his knowledge of the
country while attending an American
school there for some
years. Others have
pointed to Carlos
René Garcı́a Escobar’s La llama del
retorno (1987).
However, this novel,
though it deals with
Los Angeles immigrant life, was written
in Spanish for a Guatemalan audience by
a writer who spent
only a short period in
California, and has
never been translated
into English. In this
sense, Tobar’s novel
fits the mold of being
a true Latino novel: it
is written in English
by the son of an immigrant Guatemalan
couple, who was
himself raised in the
United States within
an immigrant Latino
community, and it
narrates some of the
doings of this same
community in the US.
latino studies – 1:1
2 In ‘Central American-Americans?
Re-Mapping Latino/
Latin American
Subjectivities on Both
Sides of the Great
Divide,’ I stated that
we need to think of
the definition of categories such as ‘Central American’ as
multiple and discontinuous, and not as a
category with ‘ontological integrity.’ We
can all be Central
Americans only to the
degree that we accept
a history of identifications generated by
the isthmus’s own
‘grand narrative’ of a
mythical geopolitical
unity existing already
in this region since
the time of the ancient Mayas, 2000
years ago. This would
include, of course,
Chiapas, Tabasco and
all of the Yucatan
Peninsula, throwing
into question Mexico’s own ‘grand narrative’ of origin in
turn. Indeed, we can
always activate any
part of this history
of identifications, and
it can always be
invoked in new contexts such as the present-day diaspora and
exile. Precisely because each part is
imaginations are no longer central to their agency. Neither man has
dreams of reimagining himself, of constructing a new subjectivity. The
uncanny situation lived in their home country shaped their attitudes
This Central American ‘impropriety,’ this inability to represent
properly a stereotypical immigrant narration, is the focus of this paper.
I want to examine here the different baggage that Central Americans2
bring to the United States as immigrants, and why they remain ‘invisible’
to the great majority of US citizens despite their overwhelming presence
in the country, especially since the wars fought in the 1980s, when about
three to four million Central Americans fled from the nightmare of
violence and massacres. I would therefore like to create in this paper a
theoretical space for those dispersed faces of ‘otherness’ that do not fit
within the validated limits of either Latin Americanidad or the recognized
marginality of the United States.3 I will do so by naming locations and
relations selected from specific aspects of Central American intellectual
and political history, as well as their representations in literature and film,
in order to articulate the diasporic4 consciousness of this new identity
paradigm, ‘Central American-American,’ an awkward linguistic oddity,
in relation to other US Latino groups.5
As I stated above, it was the civil wars of the 1980s that created the
model described by Hamilton and Stoltz Chinchilla (2001: 2), in which
Central Americans ‘differ from many other immigrant groupsyin that
they are neither strictly economic migrants nor accepted as refugees, but
have the characteristics of both’. This population entered the country
primarily through California and Texas, and then fanned out through the
vast North American territory. Thus, although the bulk of Central
Americans still live mainly in California and Texas, with both Los
Angeles and Houston as the dominant urban areas where they are
clustered, significant pockets of Central Americans are present and visible
in such diverse cities as Miami, Chicago, Washington DC, New York,
Providence, and Boston. They are also present in rural areas of the United
States, including Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, and Nebraska.
Despite its numerical presence, the Central American population
remains nearly invisible within the imaginary confines of what constitutes
the multi-cultural landscape of the United States. To take a very recent
example, I wrote this paper amid great media excitement regarding the
Oscar chances of the film ‘A Beautiful Mind.’ Nonetheless, lost in the
speculation over whether Australian actor Russell Crowe, who plays
mathematician John Nash, would win back-to-back Oscars, or whether
Nash was gay or anti-Semitic, was the fact that Nash’s wife happened to
be a Central American woman, Alicia Lardé. In the film, no mention of
her Salvadoran origin and nationality is made, nor is she played by a
I n v i s i b i l i t y, P o w e r A n d R e p r e s e n t a t i o n
Arturo Arias
Latina actress. Alicia Lardé was herself a student of physics at M.I.T.
when Nash met her in the late 1950s, no mean accomplishment for a
Central American woman in those days. Lardé is the niece of Salarrué,
one of El Salvador’s most distinguished writers of the 20th century, who
was married to Zelie Lardé.6 The only other recent Central AmericanAmerican ‘celebrity’ I can think of is Rosa López. Followers of
sensationalist journalism might remember that she was O.J. Simpson’s
maid, whose testimony was decisive in his being declared not guilty. She
was a Salvadoran woman, too.
As I indicated in a previous paper (Arias, 1999–2000) ‘US Latino’ is a
complex category, whose specificity has come to refer to a variety of
groups living in this country – Caribbean, even Mexican – but we seldom
link the word with that singular and contradictory trope, ‘Central
American-Americans,’ an anadiplosis that sounds more like a redundancy, a radically disfigured projection of what ‘Latin Americanness’ has
been assumed to be. I am troping here of course, in a fashion analogous
to Aparicio and Chávez-Silverman’s (1997) usage of ‘tropicalization.’
Unlike them, however, I do not believe that the latter, marked by its
Caribbeanness, should be extended to embrace all of Latin America.
There is too much risk of homogenizing and grouping what is in reality
a very heterogeneous array of cultural experiences and effects. The
Guatemalan, Salvadoran, or even Central American experience as a
whole is independent and irreducible to large unities that seek to
discipline its singularity. In this context, it works more like Sommer’s
(1999) ‘rhetoric of particularism,’ and, like her, I would see the very term
‘Central American-American’ as a dissonance, which is, in reality, a
‘performative contradiction’ that opens up the possibility for recognition
of this as-yet-unnamed segment of the US population.7 Besides, the
clumsiness of the sound itself, ‘Central American-American,’ underlines
the fact that it is an identity which is not one, since it cannot be
designated univocally either as ‘Latino’ or as ‘Latin American,’ but is
outside those two signifiers from the very start. It is not quite life on the
hyphen as Pérez Firmat (1994) put it, but more like life off the
hyphen, as Juan Flores (2001) asserted in a different sense. Not off
the hyphen because these people already inhabit a world that is a
montage of cultures, a hybridity so advanced that it has already
conformed to a new subjectivity. Rather, they are off the hyphen because
they are on the murky margins, not even of the Anglo, North American or
South American center: it is life on the margins of those hyphenated
others (Cuban-Americans, Mexican-Americans). It is a population that
has not yet earned the hyphen to mark its recognition, its level of
assimilation and integration, within the multi-cultural landscape of the
United States.
only one of many
conflicting histories,
it cannot point back
to an internally coherent and total history of a people or a
3 Subjectivity is,
after all, a transgressive position that reconfigures traditional
understandings of the
self, the nation, and
of citizenhood. In this
respect, the textual
in-betweenness enacts
a space of resistance
that critiques a normativity conceived
within the parameters
of ethnic sameness.
4 As Barkan and
Shelton (1998) argue,
the concept of ‘diaspora’ is an explanatory paradigm that
creates a ‘non-normative’ community,
in which ‘the restoration of a collective
sense of identity and
historical agency in
the home country
may well be mediated
through the diaspora’. (5). Thus,
diasporic identity
provides only aleatory responses that
are discontinuous and
open-ended, while intertwining margins
and center.
5 It most be noted, as
some critics have observed, that MexicanAmerican authors
such as Demetria
Martı́nez (1996),
latino studies – 1:1
———————————————————————————who was involved in
the Sanctuary Movement to harbor Salvadoran War
Refugees in the
1980s, and Helena
Marı́a Viramontes
(1995) have also explored these identity
issues about invisibility, silence and representation among
Central Americans.
Moreover, their texts
also deal with the
relational identities
between Salvadorans
and Mexican-Americans within the United States.
6 A similar point was
made in the Los Angeles Times, Calendar
Section, in an article
titled ‘Why the
Whitewashing of Alicia Nash?’ by Lisa
Navarrete (Monday
April 1, 2002: F3). In
it, Navarrete argues
that ‘We could have
witnessed the portrayal of a true rarity
– a three-dimensional
Latina role model –
by a well-known, critically acclaimed actress. Even better, this
could have provided a
career-making opportunity to a Latina
actressy At the very
least, Howard and
Goldsman owe the
Latino community an
7 Jorge Tetzagüic, a
Guatemalan immigrant who works
with Latino urban
To complicate matters further, we cannot even speak of ‘Central
America’ without running the risk of a greater homogenization of
national identities than is truly the case in the region. Central American
migration to the United States includes, after all, a heterogeneous array of
social groups, among which we can name anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans,
small groups of Hondurans and Costa Ricans, as well as Indigenous,
Afro-Caribbean and ‘Ladino’ (mestizo) sectors from each of these
nations. This does not take into account Belizeans and Panamanians,
who have a greater degree of integration with African-American and
Afro-Caribbean US populations as opposed to Latinos. We cannot but
recognize, as a result, the unevenness of representation that is present in
this very paper. For the opening up this possibility of recognition, as we
stated above, we play with the category of ‘Central American.’ Nonetheless, we primarily emphasize the experience of Guatemalans and
Salvadorans, who comprise the largest Central American groups in the
United States.
The last step constitutes an inevitable risk, of course. If we are tempted
at times to run the risk of reifying the Central American identity, it is
because the Latino identity is often constructed in areas of the United
States like Los Angeles through the abjection and erasure of the Central
American-American, in much the same way that the Latin American
identity was often constructed in regions of Latin America itself – such as
the Southern Cone – through the abjection and erasure of the Central
American, indigenous or African subject, ‘within the larger theater of the
establishment of meritocratic individualism’ (Critique 119). We might
recall that, when Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1999) criticizes Fernández
Retamar’s substitution of Caliban for Rodó’s model of Ariel as the
emblematic Latin American, she reminds us that both of these binary
opposites are cast in the function of Europe. They exclude ‘the
civilizations of the Maya, the Aztecs, the Incas, or the smaller nations
of what is now called Latin America’ (117). She reminds us of Gordon
Brotherston’s ‘effective foreclosure of the native Americans in the debate
over the question of Latin American identity’ (118), and she uses this
argument to confront the ‘ethnocentric and reverse-ethnocentric benevolent double bind’ (118) that effectively denies natives their own
‘worldling.’8 Is the marginalization of Central Americans somehow
linked to our indigenous ancestry, which is as plain as the nose on my
face, or our skin color? Or are we marginalized because, as Spivak notes,
hegemonic subaltern groups, however oxymoronic that phrase may
sound, run the risk of effacing other groups in their own quest for power,
reducing others to the ‘inaccesible blankness’ when they ‘claim to be
Caliban’ as a mechanism of legitimization?
I n v i s i b i l i t y, P o w e r A n d R e p r e s e n t a t i o n
Arturo Arias
Of course, when we speak of indigenous groups in the Central
American context, we run into another conundrum: in Guatemala alone
there are 22 different Maya groups, and their own rivalries can be fierce.
El Salvador has Lencas and Pipiles who are Nahuatl speakers and, by
extension, not descendants of the Maya; thus, Maya history does not
apply to them. Nicaragua has Miskitos and Ramas, who are not Maya
either. Costa Rica had the Chiriqui, Chorotega and Chibcha, who were
culturally closer to the Incas and related to the Rama of Nicaragua.
Panama has the Kuna of San Blas. Although Mayas are clearly the largest
indigenous population in Central America (close to 6 million at present),
the most powerful economically, and have come the closest to asserting
their own rights and even dreaming of their own nation-state in recent
years, their experience is not shared by other groups. Thus, when
speaking of Central American indigenous groups, we also run the risk of
homogenizing their identity. Given the actual conditions and numbers of
Mayas both in Central America and in the United States, we will thus
limit our analysis to this group.
There is another connection between these exclusionary processes of
identity formation – Latino and Latin American. As in the superstring
theory of the universe, which sees all matter generated by the vibrations
of microscopically tiny loops of energy, we can see that, in representational issues, the identitary factors of mobile, deterritorialized transnationals in polyglot communities are, willingly or not, connected to the
territorializing forces of colonialism.
I would like to suggest that the superstring that glues the smallest
quarks to the most gargantuan supernovas in this case would be the
articulation of body/power relations by the colonizing gaze and
discourse, throughout the history of the region, including the neocolonial forces at work today. The self-image imposed upon colonized
peoples by their conquero …
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