Interview with Yajaira M. Padilla, Author of From Threatening Guerrillas to Forever Illegals: US Central Americans and the Cultural Politics of Non-Belonging (University of Texas Press, 2022)

Interview conducted on May 3, 2023.

Theresa Delgadillo: Why did you write From Threatening Guerrillas to Forever illegals?  

Yajaira M. Padilla: Well, I am a U.S. Central American and for those of us who are scholars in particular there is a sense that we have been missing in the conversations about Latinx studies. For me, I had many questions, questions that echoed earlier scholars such as Ana Patricia Rodriguez’s concerns about invisibility, about understanding this experience and translating it. Yet I also understand that we are very visible in representation and public discourse but we are still not being seen fully. This is why I talk about legibility. Once I start looking at representations of U.S. Central Americans in media, I do find many ways in which Central American populations are posited either as terrorizing or forever illegals, but those are problematic representations and I think we need to talk about them. I also wanted to ground this work in the literature of the 1980s, which is not only when I grew up but also because we need to think about that earlier body of work that thinks about Central Americans in literature. My book complicates the current emphasis on the newness or suddenness of the U.S. Central American presence, which is opening up new spaces for discussions in Latinx studies but also ignores earlier representations of Central Americans in literature or film and their wider imaginary influence. Because, obviously, from outside the community, every time there is a “migrant surge” or whatever suddenly we are visible and new, but these current episodes really parallel the things that happened in the 1980s, and I think that is important to consider. Within Latinx studies we are often described as “some of the newer groups” to make up this population. And that’s true in terms of historical thinking, but what are the trajectories of that conversation? I want to think about the different conversations among and impacting different generations of U.S. Central Americans. These are the kinds of conversations happening within U.S. Central American studies, in which many younger scholars are pursuing and creating fascinating work. Yet, at the same time I felt that something we were missing was thinking about  the trajectory of those earlier representations,  contextualizing them and theorizing some of the ways we have been represented, discussed, plotted, and so on, so that we can continue to have an evolving conversation.

Theresa Delgadillo: Your work then is not only about examining contemporary representations of Central American experience, but also the way that a wider U.S. public has apprehended U.S. Central Americans in previous kinds of representations and cultural artifacts?

Yajaira M. Padilla: Yes, and I also think this is about how we as U.S. Central Americans have seen ourselves. We’ve been having conversations about our differences within our communities. You know, there are younger generations whose parents came during the war or after the war yet for whom the war is not necessarily the context from which they’re making interventions, or discussing their presence, but for some of us it is. For some it is more transnational, and for others it is less transnational. I wanted to be able to at least point to some of these differences, and engage with representation from that angle, while others engage it from other angles.

Theresa Delgadillo: Your concern with thinking about different generations of U.S. Central Americans resonates with the approach to a survey of U.S. Latinx literature that might start in the nineteenth century and move forward to consider what we produced in different eras, how we saw ourselves, and how others saw us. Your book then is a contribution to doing this in U.S. Central American studies?

Yajaira M. Padilla: Yes, that, but also thinking about this regionally, considering regional differences. Growing up in Southern California has definitely informed my understanding of where I’m coming into this, as has my earlier experience at University of Kansas and now at University of Arkansas, because here there isn’t a generalized understanding of Latinx studies. I see many young people here from newer generations that hunger to figure out who and what has come before them as they’re looking at the contemporary moment, and I am really interested in the spaces where students seek that kind of social justice consciousness. Yet, what we have here is not like it is in the Southwest or on the East Coast. The generations do not run as deep, so it’s a really interesting thing to step back and consider that a long-standing presence is not a given and that means the experience is going to look very different here. The conversations I can have about Latinx studies here are more general rather than specific to U.S. Central American studies because I have to be more of a generalist in my teaching to cover all the different Latinidades. And I do work to convey how Latinxs were part of the Civil rights movement, that we are not all immigrants, that there are multiple generations of Latinxs in the U.S. and more.

Theresa Delgadillo: The 1980s was an era of active solidarity movements in the U.S. against U.S. support for war in Central America, and some Chicana writers who were active in those movements wrote fiction and poetry about the war and refugees—here I’m thinking of Demetria Martinez in particular –while others wrote about it as a compelling issue of that time that needed more attention from a reading public. Of course, non-Chicanx writers also took up the Central American wars. What are some of the distinctions, or interrelationships, or convergences between Chicanx literatures, non-Chicanx U.S. literatures, and Central American texts about this past?

Yajaira M. Padilla: I know where I started because I needed a period that made sense to me and that works demographically, and that’s often what we have, the personal reasons for why we are invested in our research or how we’re working on it or why we’re doing it. Having grown up in the U.S. in the 1980s, that was a space for me to investigate. But I’m aware that other scholars are working on earlier periods. I also want to recognize that we don’t want to be defined just by the 1980s.

As you mentioned, there is this kind of wider framework of thinking about solidarity on some level, and, as you know I cite Ana Patricia Rodriguez’s work in pointing out that we can’t just assume that solidarity is free of hierarchies. Of course, we do have Chicana authors who are marginalized within this larger hierarchy within the U.S., and are compelled, by their identification as fellow Latinxs and by their own social justice work to write about these experiences, but I think it’s important to ask how much they could know, to what extent could they know about these US Central American experiences. What’s the line between solidarity and appropriation? And to what extent are the narrators in these books  funneling another experience through theirs so that it’s ultimately about their experience. What is gained and what is lost by that? I read Demetria Martinez in college as an undergraduate, but I revisit it in this book. I do think that it’s an important work within the context of Chicana Literature, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a work of U.S. Central American literature. I do think that the question of telling our own stories is important because it brings the added nuances of being able to tell stories from the perspective of those who have lived it, or who have a different stake in telling the story. It’s interesting that you raise that because we are seeing a parallel to this today where we have Latinx authors who are writing young adult fiction or other works of fiction on the most recent crisis of undocumented youth from Central America but who are not themselves Central American and do position themselves as trying to bring greater light to the issue. Some have perhaps even worked with these youth, and I’m trying to understand if this is an act of solidarity or an act of appropriation? I don’t know. Is the intra-ethnic lens that Frances Aparicio proposes a way of looking at this that has potential and takes us beyond the arguments of who is and who is not Central American?

Theresa Delgadillo: So that the answer comes from somewhere in between those spaces between different groups?

Yajaira M. Padilla: Yes, could they also be evidence of authors or people wanting to explore a new reality of what constitutes a community that they know, that is intra-ethnic and that they feel committed to developing. This is not the same as someone writing from the lived experience of being Central American themselves, or having that in their background, but these are things we are wrestling with. As a literary scholar, I don’t often see  Latinx authors writing about different Latinx groups, instead they write about what they know. You don’t even see characters from other Latinx groups appearing in literature by an author from one group. But I have slowly started to see changes in this, though I find that this has happened with Central Americans quite a bit and it makes me wonder what do I do with that? And maybe it doesn’t happen more, it’s just that I’m looking at these works. What are the politics and stakes of that, about thinking about intra-Latinx relations in new ways, and of recognizing identifications? I don’t want to detract from the potential of the work and the good reasons behind it, but I do feel that something is lost if a work by a U.S. Central American writer isn’t being read, or U.S. Central American work isn’t being published.

Theresa Delgadillo: In From Threatening Guerrillas to Forever Illegals you examine several documentaries. What kind of different work are the documentaries doing, mostly created by non-Salvadorans about Salvadoran migration, than literature by or about Salvadorans?

Yajaira M. Padilla: Well, I think two things. One, I purposefully focus on documentaries that look at the journey through Mexico in particular, rather than the arrival in the U.S. That is doing something really important and different because it’s also uncovering this other complex layer of what migration looks like for a lot of folks, and also about who are the players and how this is much more complicated when we start talking about bi-national collaboration. Second, I think the ability of the documentaries to reach global audiences in the way they travel and circulate gives them a different kind of power. I’m not arguing that literature is not impactful but that there’s something about the expediency of a one and a half hour or two-hour documentary. These films in particular prompt me to consider the role of the Mexican government and Mexican authorities in policing and dehumanizing migrants, which is really important.

Theresa Delgadillo: Are you concerned about the representation of suffering as spectacle that might occur in a documentary form?

Yajaira M. Padilla: I am, and that’s something that I contend with in Chapter Two, where I discuss  the risk that  filmmakers won’t meet their objective. I think about Lauren Berlant’s work on compassion in relation to that. There’s no guarantee that you are going to inspire empathy, or lead viewers to action through these works. In fact, you may just reaffirm an already existing idea about migrants or your distance from them, the “this happens to people over there, that’s so sad” kind of thing. But I think there are strategies that some films, though not all, are able to employ to mitigate that. And that’s part of the same reason that these films interested me. As documentaries they flesh out the macro context of what’s really happening by including the voices of human rights activists and directors of migrant shelters. This larger context provides a  more nuanced view of the suffering. The best films ensure that migrants are seen as agents and not just victims of abuse, though that’s not always the case. You know, the documentaries that women create tend to do this–and there’s not many—but they tend to do this a lot better. Revealing of a more complex process that people are experiencing takes it out of the realm of a lone individual immigrant and instead reveals the social, economic, and political dimensions of the problem in which people are enmeshed as opposed to the other way around.

Theresa Delgadillo: How is this book in conversation with current debates and discussions in Latinx and ethnic studies?

Yajaira M. Padilla: I’m thinking about the establishment of organizations like the Latino/x/a Studies Association and the kinds of paradigms that inform the formation of this and other organizations and ethnic studies. The need to move beyond nationalist paradigms and to also think about what groups haven’t been brought into the conversation that these organizations advance is part of the project of this book by focalizing a very heterogeneous group. Though I’ve discussed much Salvadoran work in this book I am also trying to cover more than Salvadorans while still recognizing that I’m leaving out Panamanians and those from Belize. At the same time, it’s an impossible project to include it all, and this isn’t even considering the differences in gender and race and language that we must also address within the Central American region. This conversation in Latinx studies and ethnic studies is also one about context, about considering historical links as well as what’s happening in the imaginary, culturally, and then what’s happening legally. What’s happening with white supremacy and marginalization. In Chapter One I take up the fact that you have Reagan discussing the guerrilla threat in Central America and then you have the film Red Dawn. I could have talked about Predator and other films, too, to discuss what’s embedded in those discourses about the U.S. relationship to Latin America and Central America in particular. I am trying to work in the spirit of ethnic studies while adding something new that helps to create new spaces and new ways to complicate our understandings and myopic visions of immigration in the U.S., complicate not contradict those histories and reasons. We need to engage and open up, find that balance between working on specific sub-fields and trying to consider heterogeneity across the field.

Theresa Delgadillo: What do you hope that readers take away from this volume?

Yajaira M. Padilla: This project started so long ago, and it probably would have been really different if I had started it not 10 years, but 5 years ago. It changed a lot once Trump got elected and there was a different kind of urgency and a different feel to thinking about it. I wasn’t initially thinking about what I was leaving out, such as the absences of Indigeneity and the absences of Blackness even as I recognize that I’m not an expert in either of those. I do think there is this pressure sometimes to do it all, particularly on Central American scholars, to do all of that, but this is my contribution to the field. I hope that others will engage with it, critique it, debate it, and build upon it. I have presented on the book a bit and it’s always interesting because when I present in California, for example, students say “this is great” and that happens for the few of us who have published books in U.S. Central American studies, and then there are the follow-up questions: “But do you do this? Do you do that? Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that? And I answer: “That’s your job.” The questions I began with may not have been the questions I brought to it at a later date, but that’s just where my formation and career took me. We work with the questions that we have at a particular moment. I hear from people that they want to see works that are theorizing about us, not just talking about us. There’s a lot of work in the social sciences and history, but U.S. Central American cultural studies is still evolving, and that’s where I’ve seen the most interest in theorizing our lives.

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