March 2020 Latinx Talk Special Series on Latinx Migration Literature
Like a series of mixtapes, my Latinx literature syllabi feature a rotating cast of writers and performers, with the up-and-comers, forgotten, and obscure joining the stars. My yearly revisions attempt to keep up with the times by incorporating new texts. One star appears on every playlist: the Chicana novelist Helena María Viramontes. Some semesters, we follow Estrella—whose name, “Star,” extends the metaphor—through the fruit fields in Under the Feet of Jesus (1995). Others, we accompany Turtle, Tranquilina, and their neighbors down alleys and sidewalks, over and under freeways, and through bulldozed and blockaded streets in Their Dogs Came With Them (2007). I have long resisted the seasonal urge to include both novels in the same course, unable to bear the regret of making space by dropping Lorna Dee Cervantes or Juan Felipe Herrera or, more recently, Yuri Herrera’s hard-boiled allegory of a border crossing Signs Preceding the End of the World (2009, in Spanish; 2015, in English translation by Lisa Dillman).
Their Dogs is foremost a narrative of belonging and dispossession in East Los Angeles during the Chicano Movement era. Yet notable exceptions to “the city’s working migration” call attention to migratory routes from Mexico. Nacho is the “not really cousin” of Ermila, whose high school friends brand him a “fresh-off-the-border” outsider, thus dramatizing divides between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. A 19-year-old aspiring muralist and English-language learner, Nacho eventually gets fed up with his stagnating life in the US and decides to head home to Reynosa. And then there’s the evangelical Tranquilina, whose father summons the Aztec volador to soar above the Sonora after her hallucinatory desert birth. Despite vast differences in their migrant stories, suggesting that no two are alike or “typical,” Nacho’s and Tranquilina’s tragic fates collide at the bus station, where the novel ends.
In the past two semesters, I have compromised on my one Viramontes policy. I am teaching both Their Dogs and Under the Feet of Jesus, the latter through the chapter that appears in the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2010). Although this excerpt narrows the novel’s affective and lyrical range, it highlights how Viramontes writes against nefarious representations of migrants. I ask students before they embark on the reading, Where does your food come from? In class, we read aloud the opening paragraphs: Estrella labors under the eye-stinging sun while she catalogues the Sun-Maid’s profound ignorance. Then I hand out boxes of raisins, trying to remember to warn students not to eat them—my current crop approaches four years old. Comparing text to image, they see how precisely Estrella condemns the misrepresentations embodied by the white fruit-picker on Sun-Maid Raisins boxes. As students describe what they see, they arrive at materialist, feminist, and Marxist positions regarding representation, ideology, class, labor, and alienation. The trademarked motto on the side of the box—“Just Grapes and Sunshine”—erases Estrella’s body, mind, and heart, as she pointedly says near the novel’s end. If, as Alan Pelaez Lopez argues, the “X” in “Latinx” is a wound, then Estrella’s effaced presence constitutes a wound airbrushed for supermarket shelves.
By emphasizing 12-year-old Estrella’s knowledge, the passage suggests that what’s usually described as “unskilled” labor in the public discourse about immigration is in fact highly skilled. The chapter dispels another pernicious stereotype: that U.S. citizenship protects Latinos from harassment by immigration authorities. (Migra!, Kelly Lytle Hernández’s history of the Border Patrol, has the receipts.) By this point in the semester, my students recognize this idea as a “cruel fiction.” They’ve already read Wendy Trevino’s Cruel Fiction (2018) sonnet, which begins: “A border, like race, is a cruel fiction / Maintained by constant policing, violence / Always threatening a new map.” Although Estrella has papers and was born in the U.S., this legal fact fails to stanch the endemic fear produced by the surveillance state and its media apparatus, which disciplines migrant bodies though, crucially for Viramontes, not their imaginations.
After reading Under the Feet of Jesus against the Sun Maid we turn to two visual parodies: the Chicana artist Ester Hernandez’s Sun Mad (1982) and Sun-Raid (2008). Her antic parodies ask students to think through the various ways corporate images are remediated by Chicanx cultural producers. They also facilitate an encounter with the specific contexts for the exploitation and disciplining of migrant bodies in contiguous historical periods. We compare the emphasis on environmental injustice (what the critic Rob Nixon calls “slow violence”) and righteous anger in the early eighties in Sun Mad to the ICE wrist monitor and indigenous dress of Sun-Raid. The second piece, from 2008, marks the beginning of the era of DREAMers and Deporters in Chief. Together, Hernandez’s works present pre- and post-NAFTA snapshots of despair and resistance in “migrant imaginaries,” as Alicia Schmidt Camacho names the resilient world-making powers of migrants.
This sort of intermedia analysis also guides my teaching of Their Dogs. Late in the novel, Ermila is puzzled by a beachside billboard of the (in)famous Coppertone advertisement in which a small black dog grips a young white girl’s bikini. Her exposed bottom’s “natural” paleness emphasizes her unnaturally tanned body. When my students consider the white audience for this ad, its racial overtones come into stark relief, and they see why the image is nonsensical for Ermila: within the ad’s narrow frame, her brown body experiences social death, much as Lisa Marie Cacho argues in her book Social Death.
I taught Viramontes’s novels for nine years at Hunter College/CUNY and for the past four at the University of South Carolina. For all the differences in these student populations, their responses to Under the Feet of Jesus and Their Dogs Came With Them have been remarkably convergent. After all, every student everywhere shops and eats. They also consume (and produce) images. And some produce food. I hope that Viramontes helps them reject the pre-packaged consumption of migrant bodies while also resisting their own consumption by capitalist ideology.
Cacho, Lisa Marie. Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected. NY: NYU Press, 2012.
Hernandez, Ester. Sun Mad. Screenprint. 1982.
Hernandez, Ester. Sun-Raid. Screenprint. 2008.
Hernández, Kelly Lytle. Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
Herrera, Yuri. Signs Preceding the End of the World. Trans. Lisa Dillman. Señales que predecerán al fin del mundo. 2009. NY: & Other Stories, 2015.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Pelaez Lopez, Alan. “The X In Latinx Is A Wound, Not A Trend.” EFNIKS. 13 September 2018.
Schmidt Camacho, Alicia. Migrant Imaginaries: Latino Cultural Politics in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. NY: NYU Press, 2008.
Stavans, Ilan, et. al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. NY: Norton, 2010.
Trevino, Wendy. Cruel Fiction. Oakland: Commune Editions, 2018.
Viramontes, Helena María. Their Dogs Came With Them. NY: Washington Square Press, 2007.
Viramontes, Helena María. Under the Feet of Jesus. NY: Plume, 1995.