- 11.15.16: What I Know about Racist White America
- 11.01.16: Chicanuck (Chicano + Canuck), Xicanadian (Xicano + Canadian), and/or North American?
- About Pablo Ramirez
In 1999, in Toronto’s busiest subway station, Latinx Canadians were confronted with a poster featuring a Latino gang and the following message: “Help fight crime by electing candidates who are prepared to take on the drug pushers, the pimps and the rapists.” The poster, paid for by the Toronto Police Association, was part of an election campaign and urged Torontonians to consider issues of law and safety in the upcoming provincial elections. Toronto’s offended Latinx community immediately protested, creating an uproar that reminded surprised Canadians that there was indeed a Latinx community in Toronto.
It turned out that an American ad agency based in Los Angeles had created the poster using an L.A. Chicano gang to represent the dangers of crime and social disorder. Community leaders complained that this gross misrepresentation of Toronto’s Latinx community was a geographical mistake. As the president of the Toronto chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council pointed out, “One fact that the police association does not see is that Toronto is not east L.A.” Community leaders were quick to characterize these images as “foreign” products that should have been contained in the United States. What the poster demonstrated, however, is that there is no pure untouched place where stereotypes do not play a role in the constitution of Latinx identities in the US and increasingly in Canada. Due to the porous nature of the U.S.-Canada border and the dominance of the U.S. media, the Latinx communities on both sides of the border do not have the luxury of being able to define themselves without interference from racial stereotypes and racist fantasies.
A public service announcement produced by Toronto's Latin American Coalition Against Racism in response to the Police Association poster.
Despite the small Latinx population in Toronto, the Toronto police had been exposed to enough stereotypical images of Latino criminals that the American-produced poster was not entirely foreign or incomprehensible––quite the contrary. A mostly white police association saw these young Latinos and decided that they would be perfect the bogeymen for their election-campaign scare tactic. In other words, the stereotype of the Latino criminal was a completely familiar trope and therefore the perfect medium for their alarmist message about crime in a Canadian city.
I bring up this incident to show how Canadian Latinx, like most Canadians, exist in a borderlands space that Canadians call “North America.” I would argue that it is as North Americans that Latinx often, but not always, become targets of racism. North Americans? Americans might ask. This confusion is understandable. After all, “North America” is a term you learn in your third-grade geography class and promptly forget until you’re confronted with a map. At least most Americans, however, remember that North America includes Mexico. Canadians tend to lop off Mexico in order to use the term to embrace both the United States and Canada.
When I first arrived in Canada, I noticed how Canadians would refer to themselves as “North American,” almost as many times, I dare say, as I heard them identify as “Canadian.” I learned that there was a “North American outlook,” a “North American fashion trend,” and definitely a “North American media.” I soon understood that this term was a necessary shorthand that helps Canadians acknowledge not only the commonalities between the U.S. and Canada, but also how both countries work together to create, perpetuate and legitimate certain outlooks, fashions, social mores, and so much more.
In this North American space, racist (mostly U.S.-produced) Latinx stereotypes circulate freely. However, this North American borderlands space also allows Canadian Latinx to tap into the long history of political action and cultural production by Latinx in the United States. In Canada, playwrights like Carmen Aguirre, Guillermo Verdecchia, Marilo Nuñez, and Latinx theatre groups like Alameda Theatre (Toronto) and Latino Theatre Group (Vancouver) have begun to draw on the resources of U.S. Latinx collective memory to create their own Canadian-specific Latinx narratives. Guillermo Verdecchia’s Fronteras Americanas, which won the prestigious Governor-General’s Award for Drama in 1993, is clearly influenced by Guillermo Gomez Peña’s performance art and informed by Gloria Anzaldúa’s borderlands theory. The play provides an excellent example of how stereotypes both shape and distort Canadian Latinx identities.
When Canadians hear that Donald Trump’s popularity is based in large part on his promise to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, they don’t understand that this rhetoric is a symptom. I, on the other hand, know this is a hysterical reaction to the simple fact that Latin America is already inside the United States—and blossoming. Latinx are so intertwined into the fabric of U.S.life that half of the leading Republican candidates promising to protect white America from the invading horde of Mexicans were Latinos (Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz). The other main candidate, Jeb Bush, is married to a Mexican woman. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee of the 2012 election, is the son of a Mexican Mormon father. A wall and mass deportations won’t give the United States back its white Anglo-Saxon purity—if it ever had it. Latinx aren’t simply a gangrenous limb that can be safely amputated to save white America.
When I tell my white Canadians about my experiences with racism in the United States, I realize that they don’t understand the obsessive nature of American racism. I know they find this difficult to understand when they ask me, “But how would they know you’re Hispanic?” While Latinx come in many different shades and colors, for the most, I explained, white Americans can spot a Latinx from a mile away.
I also understood by their question that here, in Toronto, it is difficult to distinguish one “brown” ethnicity from a multitude of “brown” ethnic groups. It is the very multiplicity of these ethnic groups that—in central Toronto anyway—live in the same neighborhoods, intermingling and inter-marrying, that creates a kind of ethnic “mélange.” In Toronto, I seem to waver between “off-white” (or not-quite-white) and “brown” (a group composed of Middle Easterners, Southeast Asians, and Latin Americans, but oftentimes Portuguese, Greeks, and Italians, as well).
I remember when I first had cable TV installed. I went straight to the Telelatino channel, assuming it was Canada’s version of Univision. For the first few seconds I thought that I was hearing some Spanish dialect that I had never heard before. I soon realized it was a show in Italian. I looked at the TV guide: shows in English, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. All “Latino.” Recently, the channel has started to air a show titled “Desi Rascals,” so perhaps Southeast Asians are now included as “Latinos,” as well.
To be honest, I’m not ready to claim any expertise on being a Latino in Canada. I cannot speak as a Latino Canadian. I know that I do not approach Canada as Latinx born and raised here do. I don’t even know if I can speak as a landed immigrant because, in many ways, I feel I have simply migrated within this larger North American borderlands that encompasses both Canada and the United States. However, I do feel confident that I can speak as a North American—but from a North America that includes Mexico, as well.
I do share this common project with Latinx Canadians: I would like Canadians to include Latin America in their conception of “North America.” I would like them to see Canada as participating in another kind of borderlands—the one that exists between North America and Latin America. In other words, I would like Canadians to understand themselves as located in a predominantly Latin American hemisphere.
All I know for certain is that Canada (or Toronto) is slowly and surely shaping this Chicano into something different—A Chicano Canuck (Chicanuck?)—or maybe a Xicanadian—who constantly engages Chicanx and Latinx history, myths, and literature to shape his perception of not only the United States, but of North America, as well.
What I Know about Racist White America
I’m here in Toronto, Canada, on the day after the election. Even my Canadian friends are in shock. I’ve been on Facebook, grieving, reading post after post of friends expressing their grief but also their determination to fight and resist Trump’s white nationalist dream.
There are some grim attempts at humor. One Puerto Rican poet and academic posted, “I wonder if I will be interned in the Hispanic camp or the homosexual camp?”
One Chicana, who is retiring to Italy, in a moment of despair says, “I’m tired of fighting.”
When I read this, I sympathized. I was glad she was moving to Italy. She deserved a break.
But she apologizes less than an hour later and, like all my Latinx friends, promises to keep fighting the good fight.
But I understood her moment of “weakness.” I also understood her retraction. God forbid, we Latinx abandon our fighting stance.
Because, really, how else do you live in a country where the president elect bases a good part of his platform on creating a wall between the US and Latin America, deporting millions of our family, friends and neighbors, and removing “biased” Latinx, such as an Indiana judge, from positions of authority? How do you deal with the fact that Trump rose to power by using you as a scapegoat for the nation's problems? How do Latinx live in the US and not lose their minds?
You do it because you have to “keep keeping.” You have to be strong.
As a kid, I saw my mother fight day after day with a racist cashier, a racist grocer, a racist teacher, a racist mailman and on and on and on.
At times, when she was bone tired, she would tell me, Back in Mexico. I was so sweet (dulce), m’ijo. You wouldn’t have recognized your mother. This country has changed me, she would always say, sometimes proudly, but almost always sadly.
I thought of my Mexican immigrant mother after my disastrous campus visit to Potted Ivy College. She had taught me to be strong in the face of bigotry, and I had been weak.
Writing from Canada, the memory of me laughing at their stupidity fills me with an almost childish glee. But that is not how I felt about my laughter, my Llorona wail, after the incident. I felt shame. I was ashamed that I had lost my professional composure.
I was ashamed that I had “snapped.”
Reading the reactions to Trump’s victory, I think of that moment of weakness, and I’m reminded how we Latinx demand so much of ourselves. We tell ourselves to keep it together in the most humiliating and daunting of circumstances. We make sure not to lose our temper or our composure even when racists are making our lives close to intolerable. Because God forbid you be accused of being an angry, emotional, irrational Latinx. I used to think that being cool in the face of hatefulness was a necessary survival strategy—a sign of inner strength.
Living in Canada, however, has made me realize that the demand for composure in the face of outright racial hostility is a completely unreasonable one. But that is the demand you often have no choice but to place on yourself day in and day out as a person of color in the United States.
It strikes me as so unfair that white Trumpers get to be weak and give in to their worst impulses, their basest emotions, all the while reveling in their suspension of logic, reason, and civility—only to be rewarded with a president who turns their weaknesses into a position of political strength.
Build a wall! Build a wall!
We Latinx have always known that a wall existed between the reality of our lives and the reality white America has created to protect itself.
Trumpers have no idea of how a century of American capitalist and political interventions in Mexico and Latin America, up to and including NAFTA, have destabilized Mexico and created a flow of undocumented migrants across the border. They don’t want to understand how the United States has contributed to the problem they denounce. They don’t want to understand how they are all complicit.
Build a wall! Build a wall!
I think about the wall I see and the wall they want, and I remember the white woman’s criticism (a policeman is every child’s friend!). I marvel at how the wall allowed a grown woman (with a Ph.D. and a prestigious academic position, no less) to remain so ignorant…so soft and stupid…and entitled (the story was unrealistic). As a Latino growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago, I can’t even remember if I ever lived in such an innocent world where a benevolent system of law and order prevailed.
In one of my earliest memories, it is 1975, and I am six years old, looking down from the picture window of my family’s second-floor apartment. A police car parks in front of the house that belongs to los hippies, as my parents called them because they were white people with long hair and unwashed clothes. But they weren’t hippies; they were just petty drug dealers.
I didn’t like los hippies. Whenever they saw me or any other brown child, they would sic their Dobermans on us, and we would run for our lives, jaws snapping behind us. Los hippies would just laugh and laugh. We had called the police to complain, but they never did anything.
One of los hippies, a woman, comes out to greet the officers. She pulls down her orange tube top, and the cop nuzzles her breasts through the police car window.
My mother comes up behind me and looks over my shoulder down at the scene below.
Don’t let the police catch you watching them, is all she says, and she gently pulls me away from the window.
Even as kid, I knew that the cops would never help us. There was no one to protect us from the bad hombres. I knew this at five, and I resented the fact that this white woman had been allowed to live in her bubble for so long.
The faculty at Potted Ivy didn’t see themselves as ignorant, though, but as innocent. They didn’t see their students as entitled but as innocent.
What is offensive, they wanted me to understand, is not that Latinx have experienced racism, but that I would discuss these experiences in a literature class, daring to expose their students to such ugliness and to cast their ignorance as complicity.
Could I teach Latinx literature, they wanted to know, without talking about racism, discrimination, or inequality?
Could I talk about beauty, aesthetics, and avoid the unpleasantness of “politics”?
(Build a wall! Build a wall!)
Something about that campus visit depleted my stores of strength.
I felt broken and exposed. It was as if my laughter had shattered into pieces the steel sarcophagus that had preserved my Latino composure.
I was tired of fighting. I’ll admit it. I wanted a break.
When I told my parents I was going to Canada, my father was overjoyed. He seemed proud of the fact that I would be following in his footsteps and going to another country to make my fortune.
My mother, however, couldn’t hide her disappointment. I knew what she was thinking: I had stopped fighting.
“We came all the way from Mexico, and endured so much, so you could become Canadian?” she asked sadly.
She had always urged me to insist upon my rights as an American. America is your country, too; claim it as your own!
But I was tired of being an alien citizen in my own country. After a few weeks in Canada, I began to enjoy the freedom of being a foreigner. It felt liberating not to feel duty bound to claim this country as my own. Then again, no one ever challenged my right to be here. Such a challenge would have been ridiculous in Toronto, the most diverse city in the world with 51% of the population born outside of Canada.
Here in Toronto, I seem to exist in multiple categories at once: white, off-white, and brown. I do experience micro-aggressions; I do deal with condescending whitesplainers; I do experience moments of racism. White Canadians can be racist. I know this because as an off-white person they happily share their racist thoughts about Blacks and Asians with me. I know that my Black and Asian Canadian colleagues suffer indignities that I have not had to endure.
But I have never felt that I didn’t belong and that I shouldn’t be here. I have never felt the kind of hatred that comes when half the country blames me for their unhappiness and frustration. Whenever I return to the United States, it is clear that my years in Canada have turned me into a true alien. Racism in America has come to feel like the weight of gravity on a denser planet—more oppressive, pervasive, and immobilizing.
I confess that I am not as tough as I used to be. Thirteen years in Canada have softened me. My old Chicano self has become a haunted suit of armor, and it began to rattle and moan at 2 a.m. when Donald J. Trump had accumulated 269 electoral votes.
The new president-elect.
As I watched the news across the border, I could hear the prayers of millions of Latinx taking the form of a long familiar chant: I belong here; I have rights; I am a fellow American; I am your neighbor.
How could I forget our Latinx mantra? I’ve been chanting it since I learned English in first grade. One day our chanting will break down the wall between us and the rest of America—or so we hope.
I turned off the TV; turned off my bedside lamp; and snuggled next to my partner and my dog. In the dark, eyes wide open, I could hear another long familiar chant: Mexicans have taken my job; they have taken my happiness; they have taken my country; I want my country back and I don’t want to share.
Build a wall! Build a wall!
To understand the Trump victory you have to understand American racism. Before my family and I moved to an all-white neighborhood, we had a very simple and very mistaken idea of racism. We naively thought racism was merely a misconception about our aptitude, our character and our work ethic. My mother would tell us that once “the Americans” saw how hard my father worked; how well we performed in school; and how she had raised such well behaved, polite children, they would abandon their mistaken views and accept us.
To understand why Trump won, you have to understand that this is not how racism works.
Character, aptitude, and work ethic have very little to do with racism. Look at President George W. Bush, a completely incompetent white male; look at president-elect Donald J. Trump, a completely unqualified white male; and then look at President Barack Obama, an African American man many claim might be one of the best presidents the United States has ever had.
Racism is not about a poor judgment of character; it is about blame. Trump has only proven what Latinx and other people of color have long known: for racist whites, it doesn’t matter how stupid, incompetent and unprofessional a white man may be, whiteness is merit enough. Moreover, you don’t fault the white man, you blame the black man; it’s always Obama’s fault. He is to blame for everything wrong in their lives—even for 9/11. Their blame game became so ridiculous that joke memes like “I burnt my toast; I blame Obama” started cropping up.
Before we moved to an all-white neighborhood, we didn’t understand our naiveté or the near-insurmountable wall that separated us from whites.
Living in our multi-ethnic working-class neighborhood, it seemed possible for Latinx and Muslims to come together and defeat the white racists.
One day, my mother, siblings, and I were walking down our alley, returning from Our Lady of Mercy. My mother held my youngest brother’s hand on her right and my sister’s on her left. My other brother and I walked behind them.
All I was thinking was that I wanted to get out of my Catholic school uniform.
I saw one of los hippies, a tall, smelly, unshaven guy, in his garage, trying to fix his truck. I peaked in his direction, mostly to see if his Dobermans were with him. He suddenly threw down his wrench, enraged. At that moment, he saw us passing by, and he shifted his attention from his truck to us like some stupid predatory lizard.
He headed straight for us. We instinctively hurried up, but he blocked our way.
You people breed like cockroaches, he said resentfully as if we were the cause of his bad day.
He came close to my mother and spat in her face.
Fuck off back to Mexico, he said.
My mother wouldn’t let go of my siblings’ hands, so we ran to our home, spit running down her cheek.
My mother was so upset. We all were. The landlord saw my mother near tears and asked what had happened. She briefly recounted her encounter with el hippy and ended by saying that she didn’t know if she could continue living in this neighborhood. It had gotten so ugly. The landlord told my mom to point the man out to her. Peeking from behind the garage, she saw he was still in the alley, smoking. Him, she signaled with her finger.
The landlord nodded. He said that he liked us. We paid the rent on time; we were clean, and we were quiet. He would take care of it.
My mother’s eyes widened. Then…she smiled.
Thank you, she said, and shook his hand.
I had been feeling so impotent because I had not been able to protect my mother, but when I heard the landlord’s promise, I also smiled. You didn’t mess with los gypsies.
Los gypsies were a group of brothers who had amassed enough money among them to buy four properties on our block. We didn’t really know for sure if they were Roma. We knew they were Muslims, and that the landlord’s four children had been born in four different countries: the former Yugoslavia, Romania, Spain, and Italy. We also knew that no one messed with them. First of all, they had guns. At the end of Ramadan, they would celebrate by grabbing throw pillows, dancing in a circle, and shooting off their guns. People in the neighborhood simply drew their curtains and stayed away from the windows.
The next day we heard from our scandalized elderly Irish neighbor, who also hated los hippies, that our landlord and his brothers had found el hippy at the corner bar, where she had been having her nightly shot of whiskey, and beaten the stuffing out of him. The landlord had warned el hippy that we were his relatives and that if he ever messed with his family he would not live to regret it.
A couple of days later, we were on our way to school and we saw el hippy on his front stoop with two black eyes and a swollen lip.
“Good morning,” said my mother. He didn’t answer.
“GOOD MORNING!” I shouted, full of spite and glee. At eight years old, it felt like the first time I had ever witnessed justice done.
Los hippies never bothered us again. This arrangement worked well for us until one awful day when we were rushing down the stairs on our way to school. My mother was in front with my youngest siblings in hand. When she came to the bottom of the stairs, she stopped, pivoted, and ordered us back upstairs.
“But I have a test!” I complained. (Even then I was a real nerd, and I loved tests.)
Back in our apartment, I wanted to know what had happened, so I asked my little brother and sister if they had seen anything.
“I saw a man lying on our front steps through the glass door,” said my little sister.
“Bleeding,” whispered my brother.
The man turned out to be one of the landlord’s brothers, who had been stabbed by a member of a feuding Roma family from New Jersey. The landlord’s entire extended family was in danger. Since everyone in the neighborhood thought my family was related to los gypsies, we were in danger, as well.
We had to move.
From years of overtime pay as a polisher at a sheet-metal factory, my father had saved enough for a deposit on a five-bedroom house, the largest house on our new block. We had finally achieved the American Dream. I was teaching fellow Chicagoan Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street to my Canadian students last week, and I was reminded of how our new house was like the one Esperanza had always dreamed about. It had “real stairs, not hallway stairs, but stairs inside like the houses on T.V.”
We would each have our own bedroom. No more sharing!
It had two bathrooms. No more lines!
There was a basement where we could put a washer and dryer. No more laundromat!
No more drug-dealing hippies!
No more gun-toting gypsies!
But it was the moment we achieved our American Dream that we learned the true nature of racism. I didn’t understand that for racists America was a zero-sum game. Every gain a Latinx made was something taken away from them. To them my father was a Mexican who had stolen that American dream, that house, from a good, deserving white person.
It was winter, a cold one, when we moved into our house. It was freezing, and the thermostat didn’t seem to be working, which was odd since the house inspector had found nothing wrong with the heating. My father went down to the basement to discover that one of the windows was broken. Apparently when the neighbors found out that Mexicans had bought the largest house on the block, they broke into our basement and destroyed the furnace to “freeze the spics out.”
That year we had a lesson in true American racism:
The neighbors threw bricks at my brother and me.
They covered our front door with dog feces.
They cut our cable lines—several times.
They uprooted my mother’s flower bushes—over and over again.
The cashier at the local drug store ignored us and served everybody else while we stood with our items in our hands.
A pimply teenager told us that he wasn’t going to deliver a pizza to Mexicans.
One day, we saw our phone bill ripped open, revealing our unlisted number. Soon after, there was a call at 2 a.m. It woke everyone up. We all gathered around the phone. Was someone calling from Mexico? Had one of our grandparents died? My father picked up and was subjected to a string of racist obscenities and threats. It turned out to be a local call.
This happened every night for days. Finally, we began to disconnect the phone before we went to bed, so we could sleep undisturbed.
Then one year, caller ID became available.
I remember the first day we got caller ID installed on our phone. That night, my mother stayed up late, sitting by the phone, a mug of coffee on the table, our border collie sleeping at her feet, and a word-search puzzle book in her hand (she liked how the English words just seemed to emerge from a jumble of letters).
On the third night, from my bedroom, I heard the phone ring late, late at night. My mother picked up on the second ring, and triumphantly shouted the phone number of the racist caller.
“I know you! I know you!” she said.
Andale, cabrón, she said and hung up.
I could hear my brother across the hall, giggling.
My mother maintained her tireless vigil for weeks, and soon the calls stopped. But we never forgot that we were not welcome.
On Tuesday, Election Day, before I began my lecture on Alurista’s Floricanto, a student asked if I thought there was any chance that Trump would win.
I told my Canadian students about the 2004 election, which occurred one year after I came to Canada. Bush was running for reelection against John Kerry, and he had effectively used gays and lesbians as his scapegoats. Only he could save America from the horrors of gay marriage! At the time, I told my Canadian friends that Bush was going to win. “Oh, Pablo,” they chided me, “Don’t be ridiculous. He’s an idiot! He won’t ever get re-elected.” But I wasn’t being cynical. I was being realistic. Scapegoating is an effective Republican strategy. I dutifully mailed in my vote for John Kerry, but I knew it was useless.
Eventually, opinion on gay marriage shifted and the Republican Party didn’t use their usual strategy of scapegoating to full effect in the 2008 and 2012 elections. They didn’t want to completely antagonize the Latinx vote. Then along comes Trump who launches his campaign by calling undocumented Mexican migrants rapists and thieves. It was an audacious move. He wasn’t even going to bother about the Latinx vote.
I know racist white America, I told my students. He’s scapegoating Mexicans and Muslims, and racist white America loves the blame game. At the very least, it was going to be a close race, I told them.
Now let’s focus on Alurista’s poetry and discuss Mr. Jones…
The night Trump won, the Canadian immigration website crashed, and it crashed again for days after the election. Liberals began urging people not to leave for Canada, but to stay and fight. But I have made my home here in Canada. I will fight Mr. Jones through my writing and my teaching, but I will do it across the border, in one of the last western countries to embrace multiculturalism. I will not put on my suit of armor.
I must confess that I have become soft, unguarded, and happy in Toronto. This country has changed me. You would barely recognize me here.
Chicanuck (Chicano + Canuck), Xicanadian (Xicano + Canadian), and/or North American?
In the following ARROB@ entries, I want to use the freedom of the genre to blend the academic and the personal—to make some personal observations about my life and my academic work without the support of footnotes or references. Specifically, I want to examine what it means for me to be a Chicano academic living and working in Canada and how that affects the way I approach Latinx Studies. Although I have lived in Canada for thirteen years, this is the first time I have put my reflections down in writing. Wisely or not, I am taking advantage of this opportunity to present the first draft of my thoughts to an audience.
I like to joke that it was American academia that pushed me across the border, but it’s not far from the truth. Thirteen years ago, I definitely blamed a certain small, elite New England college, which I will call Potted Ivy College, for the fact that I ended up in Canada. Now, I am grateful for the disastrous campus visit that helped me make the decision to leave the United States. Therefore, I think it is only appropriate to begin with my one and only experience on the job market.
My dissertation advisors at the University of Michigan, as well as my more career savvy friends, suggested that I do a “trial run” in the academic job market. I didn’t feel ready, but I dutifully applied to three positions. The job market, even before the crash, was already pretty bleak, so I was surprised to have two interviews and to be invited for two campus visits.
But I was only excited by one job prospect: a tenure-track position in an English department at a preppy, prestigious New England college.
The visit started out well. The chair of the English department went to great pains to make me feel welcome, and I took an immediate liking to him. He took me on a tour of the college campus. It was picture perfect: ivy-covered nineteenth-century buildings, a beautiful chapel tower, and copses of trees everywhere. Potted Ivy College also had a large endowment, small classes, and generous faculty travel and research grants.
This, I thought, is what I’ve been training for all these years. This was my dream job. Looking back, I’m embarrassed by how desperately I wanted this job; this job in my mind, became my ticket to attaining the kind of ideal academic life I had dreamt about as a working-class student in college.
This perfect picture began to waver out of focus, however, when the Chair introduced me to the English faculty members who would be my colleagues.
One English professor told me that in the early eighties, the college had decided to recruit small-town Chicanos rather than the more urban Nuyoricans since they thought these small-town students might fit in better at an isolated college. (My translation: urban Latinos = scary; rural Latinos = folksy and quaint. Got it.)
‘To our surprise, the first cohort of Mexican American students went on a hunger strike, and after all we did to welcome them,’ he complained.
I opened my mouth and then snapped it shut again. It was not my proudest moment, I confess. However, I wanted this job so much. I thought I would challenge and correct him when I became his colleague.
Keep your eyes on the prize, I reminded myself.
Another English faculty member assured me that there was no sense of class privilege on campus because “everyone wears sweatshirts and jeans, so no one notices class here.” I briefly stared at him with my mouth agape and then deflected the conversation.
But as I went through the grueling two-day interview process, each conversation felt as if people were adding a brush stroke to the circles that were forming a target sign on my forehead.
It was the meeting with a dean and an assistant dean that made me understand I might be fighting a losing battle. I don’t remember what the dean looked like, but I do remember the assistant dean. He was very blond, with a face that my education had taught me to describe as “patrician.”
He took charge of the questioning, and his first roundabout questions could be boiled down to: ‘Does ‘Hispanic literature’ have literary value?’
Apparently Potted Ivy College had never experienced the canon wars of the 1990s. He didn’t seem to understand the roles that institutions and academia played in constructing literary value.
“Do you think our students would enjoy reading Hispanic literature?” the blond assistant dean persisted.
“If student enjoyment were a criterion for teaching literature, Chaucer and others would never be taught,” I joked.
He didn’t laugh. I thought I knew where he was heading, but I continued to play dumb.
“If you’re asking whether or not students would be entertained by Latina and Latino literature, I don’t think it’s our job to entertain our students but to help them appreciate a literary text by paying close attention to language and guiding them through an in-depth study of how the text creates meaning. ”
He was not talking about entertainment, he explained. He was talking about aesthetics, and he made it clear that a study of aesthetics should not engage the political sphere.
“So how would you teach Uncle Tom’s Cabin without discussing abolitionist politics?” I countered.
He dismissed my question by claiming that slavery was a “historical issue” and not a political one.
He continued, “Don’t you think a focus on politics will only serve to make our students feel complicit in whatever racism Hispanics experience?”
You’re all complicit, I thought bitterly. I briefly glanced over at the corner where the Chair was quietly seated. He looked embarrassed by his colleague.
“I think one of the goals of an undergraduate education is to challenge students—”
I was about to discuss my work. I wanted to discuss how Latinx literature engaged and addressed unauthorized experiences and knowledges that could not allowed to be translated into the law’s language of equivalence and neutrality. I wanted to discuss Lisa Lowe’s observation that fiction can serve as an alternative cultural arena or site that gives voice to what official legal discourse could not or would not represent.
But he cut me off.
“But the goal is not to insult our students, is it?” With that, he looked at his watch and declared the interview over.
As the English Chair led me out of the room, he quickly and quietly said, “I’m sorry about that.”
He didn’t need to elaborate on what he meant by “that.”
“It’s okay,” I said weakly. Eyes on the prize. Eyes on the prize.
It was the English faculty symposium, however, that provided me with a much clearer understanding of what was going on.
Ten English faculty members had read Helena María Viramontes’s short story, “The Cariboo Café” and my dissertation chapter, which discussed borderlands ethics and ghost stories of the undocumented (later published in 2010 in Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies as an essay titled, “Towards a Borderlands Ethics: The Undocumented Migrant and Haunted Communities in Chicana/o Fiction”).
We were all seated around a long table with me placed at the head. I gave a brief presentation and then waited for the faculty to ask questions. There was a moment of silence.
Then a faculty member raised her hand and in her best kindly-white-woman manner, whitesplained the flaws of the story to me: “I don’t know much about Mexican American literature, but I just found the story unrealistic.”
I gave her a quizzical look.
She explained, “Why would those Mexican children run and hide from a policeman?! A policeman! That’s just so unbelievable! A policeman is every child’s friend!” She laughed in exasperation. “It was a real flaw in the work.”
I stared at her for several moments in disbelief. I thought of the blond assistant dean, and disbelief slowly turned into comprehension. Aesthetically flawed.
She must have thought she had stumped me because a look of satisfaction suffused her face. Gotcha!
Then I stopped.
I saw the white woman shifting in her seat, discomfited. The white faculty members glanced at each other nervously, and I began laughing all over again, laughing so that the walls shook, laughing enough for all the Latinx academics who had ever had to deal with all-white hiring committees. My battle fatigue had transformed itself into a hysterical Llorona wail.
Later, back in Ann Arbor, I didn’t expect good news when my phone rang.
The Chair told me that I had not gotten the job because… he paused. I could tell he was upset and was considering how honest he should be. He went on, ‘…the English faculty was not fully convinced that there was such a thing as Latino literature. The position has been cancelled.’
I was expecting to be told that another candidate had been hired; despite everything that I had experienced, I was not prepared for this news. I knew he had told me to make it understood that this decision was not about me; it was about them. But I was still devastated. To be told that the English faculty at Potted Ivy College thought Latinx had no literature was like being told that we … I ... had no soul.
I fell into a deep funk. All I wanted to do was to lie on the couch, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns.
© University of Guelph (uofguelph) on Instagram | A view of the University of Guelph's campus from up in the MacKinnon Building.
I had a scheduled campus visit to the University of Guelph, but I thought it would be a waste of time. If Americans thought Latinx literature was irrelevant, what would Canadians think? I didn’t want to go.
My two roommates, Jose and Constanza, tried to talk sense to me.
Jose, who is from Puerto Rico and seemed to win every graduate-student grant or fellowship available at UM, said, “Fuck Potted Ivy College, Pablo! If they had offered you a job, you know you would not have taken it,” he said.
“Wrong! I would have accepted it in a heartbeat,” I whined. (Pathetically, this was true.)
“Coño!” he said, throwing his hands up.
Constanza took over. She is a tall Argentinian, and she knew that her height intimidated me. She towered over me and wagged a finger in my face.
“You are going! This is your eighth year in graduate school! Are you seriously going for a ninth year?!”
“That’s cold,” I murmured. But she had made her point. I was tired of being a poor grad student.
Jose and Constanza drove me across the US-Canada border to the train station.
Ontario was going through a SARS outbreak, so I thought this was very brave of them. At the train station, I began to get a little worried as I saw about a half dozen people wearing surgical masks.
“Don’t touch anything,” ordered Constanza. “Wash your hands a lot,” added Jose.
The train arrived and a VIA Rail employee came out, wearing a surgical mask, as well. This depressed me more than anything else. Jose and Constanza hugged me, and off I went into the night, not expecting much.
At the University of Guelph, a graduate student gave me a tour of the campus. I looked dejectedly at the unattractive buildings clearly built in the 1960s and 70s.
“What’s that smell?” I asked my guide.
“That’s manure. The agricultural college has a couple of fields near here. You don’t always smell it, though,” she said.
I was introduced to the faculty, and I steeled myself for clueless comments about race or class, but none ever materialized. I gave my job talk, and the faculty actually asked intelligent, probing questions about my work. Something that had not happened at Potted Ivy College. I had never heard of the University of Guelph until I had applied, but I came away thinking that the faculty there seemed so much smarter than the faculty at Potted Ivy College.
Therefore, when they offered me a job, I accepted.
On July 1, Canada Day, I crossed the US-Canada border again and officially became a landed immigrant. Alone, in my cheap hostel room (I had to save my money for a deposit on an apartment), I heard fireworks. I went to the window and watched the exploding lights. I felt like a true foreigner at that moment. I had never heard of Canada Day until that day.
What have I done? I wondered. I felt homesick already.
I looked at my work visa. The shiny golden maple leaves caught the light as I idly examined it. I’ll stay here a couple of years and then I’ll go back out on the job market, I reassured myself. Back to the United States.
At that moment I had no idea that crossing the border into Canada had given me a new body and a new racial identity. (It would take me a couple of years to fully register the change.) At that moment, I could not imagine myself, six years into the future, anxiously awaiting my tenure decision, afraid that I would have to return to the United States. At that moment, I had no idea that I would never want to return.
Becoming Canadian. Becoming North American.
Pablo Ramirez received his Ph.D. in American Culture from the University of Michigan. He is currently an associate professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. He has published essays in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance; Arizona Quarterly, Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies; and Canadian Review of American Studies. Ramirez is currently working on two book projects: “Consent of the Conquered: Californio Romances and Contractual Freedom in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction” and “A Borderlands Past: Collective Memory and Community in Contemporary Latinx Fiction.” He lives in Toronto with his partner and dog-child.