MARCH 24, 2020
IT’S A STRANGE TIME to be Latinx and, especially, a scholar of Latinx Studies. While the Trump administration imagines and enacts a comprehensive program against Latinx (and especially Central American) bodies, there’s the continued attempt by Latinx scholars to theorize what latinidad is and what it means. In fact, we might even say that the terrors of the Trump presidency have pushed theories of latinidad into a crisis. The surveillance and detention centers at the United States Southern border have exacerbated a tension latent in the concept: that it foregrounds Mexican American experiences. Like the US Border Patrol’s “Other Than Mexican” (OTM) phrasing, latinidad conceives of entire populations and peoples in relation to Mexican immigrants first and foremost. This homogenizing tendency extends into considerations of how latinidad is raced: is it capacious enough to account for the racial heterogeneity of people of Latin American descent? Or does it erase Black and Indigenous Latinxs by assuming whiteness? As Cristina Beltrán has demonstrated, the idea of a unified Latinx identity assumes a “sociohistorical process whereby various Latin American national-origin groups are understood as sharing a sense of collective identity and cultural consciousness” despite differences in race, religion, and class (among other identitarian categories).
While such critiques of latinidad can seem to lead to a return to cultural nationalist forms of identification, as exemplified by the Chicano movement, they also point to the potential and possibility of a latinidad that can account for and incorporate such critiques, while also offering a more inclusive framework for what it means to identify as Latinx. Ricardo L. Ortiz’s Latinx Literature Now: Between Evanescence and Event offers just such a vision, as he draws upon (and calls into being) the speculative futures of Latinx scholarship. He begins his book by highlighting the strange relationship between Latinx scholarship and its historicization — how it has happened, will happen, and is still happening. He writes:
This essay offers itself as an opportunity to reflect on […] how some rough concatenation of US Latinx literary production, and a corresponding concatenation of US Latinx literary studies, might be said to have done (and to continue to be doing) whatever work defines them in their respective spaces and modes of practice.
Through words like “rough” and “whatever,” Ortiz underscores the unknowability of Latinx literary production and Latinx literary studies. But these qualifiers do not necessarily reflect a critique of the field or the literature it examines; rather, they demonstrate and enact other sites of possibility for both. Through such rhetorical gestures, Ortiz points to the future project of latinidad as one in which definitions are fluid and in flux, including that of literature itself, which he argues “mim[es] extra-literary discourses, like history or philosophy or criticism or theory, in order to enact that self-naming, that claim to self-knowledge.”
Drawing upon the work of José Esteban Muñoz, Ortiz argues for an analogous relationship between latinidad and queerness to think about how latinidad emerges “as desire, as wish, and as project: that is, as a not-yet-realized occasion for the production of resources for survival and cultivation.” In creating such a parallel between latinidad and queerness, Ortiz highlights the utopian possibilities for latinidad. With this framing, Ortiz moves beyond the “prison house” of the present, as Muñoz describes it, to imagine the future perfect of latinidad. He projects a future site of knowing — a future perfect when Latinx Studies, and Latinxs themselves, will know what Latinx literature and latinidad was. In pointing to the “still-just happening, or not-yet happening, or about-to happen,” Ortiz suggests the unique position of Latinx Studies within Ethnic Studies as the former operates within the realm of the speculative, the site of future possibilities.
Such moves characterize his book, which frequently turns to the conditional to imagine what Latinx scholarship could look like. For example, at the end of his third chapter, on Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies and In the Name of Salomé, he writes, “A more extensive version of this discussion might have turned next to Alvarez’s parallel narration of Salomé’s daughter Camila’s life story,” and, “Such extended work could also revisit the question of the archive.” These and other uses of the conditional demonstrate how Ortiz resists a singular narrative of latinidad. Instead, he offers multiple conceptualizations that open up Latinx literature and literary study and, more importantly, cue us in to a latinidad that we can use. Our current political moment may be characterized by fear and disbelief as Latinx futures appear to be foreclosed and negated, but Ortiz presents a theory of latinidad that offers hope by opening up new horizons of study.
Indeed, Latinx Literature Now posits imaginative sites of inquiry for theorizing latinidad that are far from mainstream practices, such as joining together Area and Ethnic Studies by incorporating Latin Americanist critics like John Beverley to theorize Latinx literature. Ortiz also argues for the inclusion of Edwidge Danticat as a Latinx author. The latter is an especially useful intervention as it highlights the shared histories of colonization between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Further, his project foregrounds blackness in latinidad, rather than reinforcing its complicity in white supremacy and the continued prevalence of the idea of mejorar la raza — to better the race by marrying lighter-skinned people. Incorporating Haiti and the Caribbean beyond the Spanish Caribbean operates against such racial logics and instead highlights shared histories of colonization, occupation, and resistance. Latinx Literature Now is thus uniquely suited for thinking latinidad in the age of Trump. Where Trump homogenizes Latinxs, Ortiz expands definitions.
Ortiz further complicates notions of latinidad by theorizing “always-already” Latinxs as those who are already enmeshed with the US because of mixed-status families and/or the need to flee their home countries because of US exports like the MS-13 and the 18th Street gangs. The always-already Latinx formation offers a view of latinidad that is not reliant on static conceptions of identity but focuses instead on transnational historical and political processes that entangle Latin American countries with the US — from the fear of communism to the United Fruit Company to the drug trade. In this way, the always-already Latinx framework looks backward to examine such histories and how they have influenced contemporary understandings of latinidad. Such work builds on Kirsten Silva Gruesz’s idea of errancy and Robert McKee Irwin’s notion of the “almost Latino.” Gruesz offers a way to rethink immigration such that we “would stop caring about whether the migrant has intention or not, whether he ultimately takes root or moves to another place. It would take him in no matter what.” Irwin’s formulation, meanwhile, considers how the “almost Latino” describes “one whose process of becoming Latino is thwarted,” leading to “truncated, disrupted, obstructed Latinidades.” Thus, while Gruesz and Irwin focus on latinidad as errant and truncated on the way to the US, Ortiz gestures outside of the US to further highlight how US economic and political interventions have led to entanglements with US-based latinidad even if one is not within the US.
Latinx Literature Now is a particularly timely piece of literary criticism, not only because of our current political moment, but because of the increasing institutionalization of Latinx Studies. Colleges and universities are dedicating resources to departments, programs, and centers and continue to hire tenure-line faculty within the field, but as Lorgia García Peña’s recent tenure denial at Harvard demonstrates, Latinx Studies as a valued and viable area of study is still far from secure. In fact, what García Peña’s tenure denial and others like hers illuminates is that even during the Trump presidency, when Latinxs are being caged and killed, institutions of higher education still do not see the value of Latinx lives, much less literature and culture. In this way, one of Ortiz’s major accomplishments in Latinx Literature Now is to demonstrate how Latinx literature is a literature of survival, despite active and ongoing state violence in places as varied as Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and, well, the United States.
Ultimately, Ortiz reveals that because Latinx Studies as a field is still in flux, it is up to those of us writing and living in the “now” to create Latinx imaginaries that include “rough concatenation[s]” and “whatever” to reach for the utopian. A series of provocations, Latinx Literature Now suggests frameworks that can account for a diverse range of Latinx authors who are publishing in the “now,” from Myriam Gurba, Carmen Maria Machado, and Valeria Luiselli to Daniel José Older, Lilliam Rivera, and Adam Silvera. Rather than hypostatizing Latinx literature, Ortiz encourages us to embrace the realm of the speculative in our conceptions of latinidad so that we don’t falsely adhere to the idea of a unity that doesn’t exist but, instead, turn to shared histories, affinities, and dreams while also creating a future for a latinidad that does not yet exist.