"AM I LATINA? OR AM I JUST ANGRY?" (by Sandy Florian)

by on Mar.22, 2013

[This is by Sandy Florian.]

sandyWhen 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.

15 comments for this entry:
  1. Sheryl Luna

    I think if someone identifies Latina, they are Latina, no matter what they write about. Similarly, not being viewed as “political” enough or “angry” enough is something I’ve struggled with as a Latina. All I can say is to write and to be who you are!

  2. Ken Chen

    Hey Sandy, thanks for writing this. I think you’ve echoed a lot of people’s feelings and I thought I’d write back a few very quick thoughts.

    First of all, I’m an anti-authenticity writer who’s been more influenced by an idiosyncratic, weirdo tradition of writers (from The Prisoner and Dennis Potter to zine culture to alternative comics to the historical avant-garde), who happens to run an ethnic literary organization, The Asian American Writers’ Workshop. What I’ve learned is I think that people like you (or I) feel like we’re the outliers (and why not? we’re writers after all), but in fact, we’re much more representative of most writers. I would say one of the central question of being an ethnic writer isn’t necessarily, say, writing about the border or the great migration from the south, but an inherent ambivalence about being racially categorized, especially since a big part of being a writer is being an anti-social introvert, ideologically opposed to groups. You want to write, say, crazy monster vomit recursive poems and you feel like everyone else wants you to be like this guy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFY2kJ96jNY. (Even people like Jhumpa Lahiri and Chang-rae Lee hate this.)

    But this isn’t a new phenomenon and it’s not one created by multiculturalism–just think about WEB Dubois talking about double consciousness, which parsed in a certain way explicitly sets out the ethnic identity as ironized and performative rather than authentic. I would say that probably 80% of most “ethnic” literature is not about essentializing themes, etc. I know so many people who work in ethnic institutions where the challenge is spending half the time challenging stereotypes not about racism but about multiculturalism.

    I have a lot of problems with multiculturalism–it’s essentializing, creating its own racialized box, reifies nationalisms, and foregoes real political change in favor of symbolic accommodations–but most anti-racist writers I do have those same problems and don’t believe in diversity or multiculturalism. (I believe in many ways that multiculturalism is an invention of a largely white publishing industry and humanities culture–and that being opposed to “authenticity” literature can often be simply a more countercultural kind of racism.) Someday I will write a long essay about how the ethnic American literary tradition is inherently avant-garde. Think of writers like Ishmael Reed, John Yau, Cha, Sam Selvon, Maxine Hong Kingston, Rushdie, Bhanu Kapil, Mei-mei, Paul Beatty, Sesshu Foster, Etel Adnan, etc. A truly living, imaginative response that happened to include your ethnicity would not include

    I don’t think the lesson from your living in all these places is that we’re simply human, but as you describe, we are all humans set loose in political allegiances and identities beyond our control. I think it’s important that you are seen (by yourself and others) as a Latina writer. If this other writer is saying that you are not a Latina writer, then they’re essentially saying that the identity is a construction that’s up for grabs–and if that’s the case, you should be the one owning it, rather than someone else. This is a structural issue: if the large majority of writers feel uncomfortable being labeled as, say, Latina or black or Asian, then they will essentially opt out of the identity, being complicit in the ghettoization of these identities. So this is not simply a personal and aesthetic identity, but a decision to be opt in or out of a political allegiance.

  3. Johannes

    I wonder how you might use this framework to make sense of Ken Johnson’s criticism of Marjorie Perloff’s American-centered idea of “avant-garde.” Here’s the link: http://humanities.uchicago.edu/orgs/review/573_johnson.pdf


  4. Peter Grandbois

    Beautifully articulated, Sandy! And much needed! Thank you.

  5. Sueyeun Juliette Lee

    Race logic makes us stupid and blind.
    It cuts us in quarters and thirds and halves.
    Even the occupiers of racial privilege–if they are whole, it is
    With dissected arms and legs, tar eyes.

  6. Dan Hoy

    re: in Kent’s critique of Perloff’s topography of the avant garde, he says “Not to name the many-named and -personed Pessoa in an overview of avant-garde poetics is something like not naming Wilt Chamberlain in an overview history of the NBA.” This is incorrect. It should say “is something like not naming Oscar Robinson”, the mutifaceted guard and only player in NBA history to average a triple double in a season. Not naming Wilt Chamberlain is like not naming Ezra Pound, a “center” of literary circles whose achievements (Cantos, etc) while towering have filtered up the main-stream into an “important” but not “best” port of entry. You could probably make an argument for Gertrude Stein as Bill Russell.

  7. Dan Hoy

    William Carlos Williams is the Bill Walton of the historical avant garde. You heard it here first.

    To Sandy’s point: The real first question is always Is it human enough?

  8. Natalia

    Totally agree with you. I would change every place that you put the word “minority” with “people of color”. One because we are not minority, not really, there is too many of us. Two because that term has been use in a derogatory way always, and I feel your text is not. That’s my two cents.


    It’s the Rita Hayworth problem, as Salvador Plascencia observes…

  10. Dave Smith

    How refreshing. Yet another person constructing a cultural logic wherein s/he is a hero.

    How refreshing. Yet another minority writer claiming victimhood.

  11. Kent Johnson

    That’s an interesting qualification, Dan, will think about it. In fact, my father, who was a YMCA executive in Milwaukee, *knew* Oscar Robinson and other members of the Bucks, because some of them worked out at the Y in the off-season. And I met OR, along with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and some others, back in the 70s. Also, In some relation to Johannes’s link to my article there’s this, just posted today, I believe: Kenneth Goldsmith’s “inaugural address” as First Poet Laureate of the MoMA (presented on 3/20/13). The talk is titled “”My Career in Poetry, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Institution”

    Fascinating to me, in particular, is during the Q&A(you have to get through a long slide-show about his White House visit), where Goldsmith is
    prodded into talking glowingly about his wealthy friend and ally, the artist Richard Prince– in particular the latter’s facsimile reproduction and authorial appropriation of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (signed copies of which Prince sells for $75,000), a move made about a year after I’d carried
    out the same exact fabrication with Goldsmith’s own DAY, pushing Goldsmith’s rather banal “original” gesture into paratextual areas that
    his hyper-Self-framing aesthetic really can’t countenance (i.e. KG appropriated an issue of the NYT, plastering his name all over it; I did that, too, and simultaneously appropriated KG’s Author Function). In the video, Goldsmith doesn’t mention my bracketing and repurposing of his book. But it’s hardly surprising that he can’t (he never has been able to) bring himself to engage it. And his studied silence, I must say, especially when it’s so obviously there as sub-text, makes the matter all the more fun.

  12. adam s

    In response to DS: not sure victimhood is aptest term–maybe dilemma? I guess I associate victimhood–the word, its sometime usage suggestions–with whinny and Florian’s piece strikes me as “knowinger” than that. It’s this dilemma, or a linked one, which for me makes Afro-American poetics so extremely interesting; and yes I get that I’ve switched “ethnicities.” Harlem Gallery and its receptions constellates really interestingly with this issue: a text surely as black as Baraka has so often been deemed not so, and like something kin bad for the “integrity of the race.”

  13. Monica Mody

    Hi Sandy, thanks for this post, for starting this discussion! I especially liked hearing Ken’s take. Ken, this provoked much recognition in me: “if the large majority of writers feel uncomfortable being labeled as, say, Latina or black or Asian, then they will essentially opt out of the identity, being complicit in the ghettoization of these identities.” I remember calling myself Hindu in the wake of the 2002 Gujarat genocide in India precisely because it was important that the identity/affiliation not be co-opted by the fundamentalists. But I’ve hesitated in making these same moves of reclaiming ethnic writing – reclaiming myself as an ethnic writer – because it’s easier to push/pull away than to come into relationship (however fraught or inconsistent). In this case I was pulling away from an almost institutionalized essentializing of ethnic writing. Today I admit my detachment is growing flimsier as I reconceptualize both “ethnic” and “American”. And as I meet, and recognize, more of “others like me”. In fact, when I was at the Delta Mouth lit fest in Baton Rouge a couple of weeks ago, at one point I looked around and realized more than half of the invited readers were Asian American/POC women/trans folks. And it was not, one of the organizers later confirmed, intentional, which must be marked & celebrated. We might, if we peer, find the canon bent. And in my own looking around and SEEING – a seeing that I proceeded to share with the group – I recognized myself as “Asian American”. And thereby hangs a tale of construction of identity via migration and opting in.

  14. adam s

    Monica: I love your post.