Readings on Belonging by Petra Salazar

Friday, 20 November 2020

The existential bodies of marginalized people are the new frontier for colonial land grabs. I was recently told, “I have una alma Latina (a Latin soul),” by a man who most certainly did not. He and Jessica Krug, the GW professor who forged an Afro-Latinx identity, are not alone in their desire to occupy marginalized bodies. Since moving to North Carolina, a number of people have introduced themselves as Native American despite their inability to identify a concrete connection besides unsubstantiated rumors about a Cherokee ancestor. Perhaps claiming indigeneity is a way of saying: “I belong here.” Regardless of conscious motives, it is clear that feelings of belonging—or not belonging—are central to most cases of racial or ethnic fraud.

What is true for Latinx and Latin American folks is that the conquistadores did not bring women when they commenced with colonization and genocide in the Americas and Caribbean. Mestizaje, the mixing of indigenous and European bloodlines, primarily through rape and coercion in the early days of Spanish occupation, is a major feature of Latinx identity. We are variously mixed, carrying the heavy legacies of colonization, the enslavement of indigenous and African people, genocide, rape, and violent displacements deep in our genetic makeup.

While I do love ranchera, cumbia, and tamales, affinity alone doesn’t give me “una alma Latina.” I am Latinx because my entire body is a reckoning of this history. No amount of appropriating or falsely occupying marginalized identities will help folks from other backgrounds to escape their own familial legacies and reckonings. This is hard work we all must do for ourselves, if we have the privilege to even know, to any extent, our family history.

It is one thing to act as an ally or an accomplice supporting marginalized people, but it is another thing entirely to use them for the self-gratifying alleviation of one’s sense of not-belonging, to steal their stories and take on their skin, which, using symbolism of the North American Southwest, could represent a kind of skinwalker—a dangerous witchery.

Occupied America:A History of Chicanos (8th Ed) By Rudolfo Acuña

In an effort to interrogate my own identity, I started a Chicanx reading group this fall. Occupied America, known as the “Chicano Bible,” is the first book we read. The book has a reader-friendly textbook format, which is helpful if ever skimming is necessary to get through this tome. Acuña, who’s mother was from Sonora and who, himself, is from Los Angeles, occupies a valuable and vested position from which to examine the past. He starts in Mesoamerica, following the lives of our people over thousands of years. He moves readers through shifts in climate and power, through genocides and colonizations, introducing readers to the early race constructions that evolved into the complicated racial identity experienced by Latinx folks today.

This book is a weighty, necessary balance to the biased histories taught in U.S. schools, providing context and background for the tense Mexico-U.S. border conflicts. This is a history most people do not know and do not seek, leaving many U.S. Americans unable to articulate their connection to those with long histories on this land.

Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza By Gloria Anzaldúa

As talking heads tried to decode the increased support from Latinx voters President Donald Trump received in the 2020 election, what they failed to understand was that the source of this support wasn’t the “machismo” of Latinx men, as some ignorantly suggested, but rather the complex racial constructs and caste systems operating within the Latinx community. These constructs and systems are invisible to mainstream U.S. America, but Gloria Anzaldúa’s work makes them easier to understand.

In my graduate studies, I’m returning to Anzaldúa’s work after well over a decade. This collection of essays and poetry represents one of the most important Latinx texts out there. Anzaldúa was a radical lesbian Chicanx scholar who’s work helps us articulate what being Latinx means and what being “in-between,” nepantla, means.

The racial constructions of the U.S. fail to account for the people whose lands were occupied and stolen, leaving large segments of the population to live out invisible experiences of race, alienated from conversations about race in the U.S. The black/white racial construction, which was created in the interest of slavery, was imposed on a people already operating by their own racial constructs, which were imposed on them by the Spanish and related to the various racial mixings of New Spain. Anzaldúa takes these constructs and makes them visible, helping Latinx people better understand their experience of skin color and culture, especially in the context of the United States. In this book, she famously articulates the “borderlands” of existence in which we live.

Ceremony Leslie Marmon Silko

Leslie Marmon Silko is a member of the Laguna Pueblo and a fellow New Mexican. Her work offers valuable insights into the lives and minds of indigenous people of the North American Southwest. Like many of the texts I find myself reading these days, the novel explores a complicated experience of race.

Tayo, a mixed-race member of the Laguna Pueblo, returns from WWII traumatized, suffering physically—in his “belly”—and existentially from his many losses. In his dissociated state, Tayo is reckoning with the past, both the past of his Laguna ancestors and the past of his White ancestors. In order to heal, the Medicine Man named Betonie tells Tayo that he must complete “the ceremony,” which I interpret to mean the grief process, a kind of digestion. In herbalism traditions from this region, betony refers to a plant used to heal the stomach. Ceremony is loaded with this sort of beautiful symbolism.

Silko knows the land of New Mexico. She knows the flora and fauna. They are as animated as the humans, with names and caring narratorial attention. Traditional prose and Laguna storytelling shaped like poems are interwoven to create a coherent and compelling narrative about psychological integration and spiritual healing.

There There Tommy Orange

True to my obsessions, I’m going to recommend There There, a novel about a mixed-race character filming a documentary, who, like Orange himself, is grappling with indigenous identity. The book is not just about this single character, though. It is actually a chorus of indigenous voices, following the journeys of 12, mostly Cheyenne, characters on their way to The Big Oakland Powwow.

In this novel, Orange explores one’s connection to the land, to home, to the past, to one’s own racial and cultural identity, all in the context of displacement and urbanization. The characters, funny, loveable, and idiosyncratic, are all strangers drawn together by history, family, and tradition. Their stories are connected in ways they are never even made aware of. Using the metaphor of bullets traveling across time and space, Orange weaves together a powerful narrative about intergenerational trauma as well as intergenerational resilience.

Slow Lightning & guillotine by Eduardo Corral

guillotine is Corral’s second published collection of poetry, released just this fall. The pressing sensuality of Slow Lightning, his first collection, persists in guillotine. If I had to guess Corral’s Myers-Briggs type, based on the inwardness and sensuality of his work, I would guess INFP (introverted, intuitive, feeling, perception). Entering his work is like entering a desert-colored dreamscape with a well-established affective ecosystem full of pleasure and pain, where form is shaped by feverish desire.

The staggering lines of guillotine are full of ambivalence and anticipation, reminiscent of the BDSM motifs in Slow Lightning, which begins with “obedience” and concludes with “As my master ate, I ate.” Whereas Slow Lightning evokes the serpent, guillotine evokes the scorpion, which like los narcos in the collection, are a source of awe and dread in Mexican culture.

The sinuous movement of guillotine’s form, the movement between Spanish and English, and the movement between speakers—migrants, their loved ones, and border agents—have a powerfully disorienting effect, depicting a kind of wobbling anxiety referred to in Spanish as zozobra.

The Disintegration of Community: On Jorge Portilla’s Social and Political Philosophy, With Translations of Selected Essays by Carlos Alberto Sánchez & Francisco Gallegos

My spouse happens to be one of the leading U.S. scholars on the phenomenon of zozobra, that disorienting affective experience represented in Eduardo Corral’s work. He, Francisco Gallegos, and Carlos Alberto Sánchez wrote this fantastic book of philosophy highlighting the work of Mexican phenomenologist Jorge Portilla (1919-1963). In addition to contributing their own positive accounts to the field of Latinx philosophy and the philosophy of emotions, the authors translate three previously untranslated essays by Portilla on the subject of community in Mexico, the U.S., and Germany.

According to Portilla, communities are bound together by shared norms, a shared sense of how things matter, or what Portilla calls a shared “horizon of understanding.” Portilla examines the ways that national communities, nations, can break down and become dysfunctional as these horizons of understanding disintegrate, giving rise to zozobra, the unsteady feeling of losing your footing. Mexican philosophers such as Portilla have much to teach us about the unstable ground we stand on in the U.S.

Studying the disintegration of communities abroad, Portilla concluded in 1952 that the U.S. was undergoing a profound “spiritual crisis” as U.S. Americans were beginning to lose their characteristic “innocence” and naivety and being forced to reckon with their participation in “sin, evil, and death.” Portilla presciently warned that this reckoning would likely provoke aggressive retaliation against those within the U.S. who hold grievances against the U.S. government or mainstream society, as well as a widespread sense of nostalgia as U.S. Americans yearn to return to their innocence and make America “great” again.

Interestingly relevant as well, in 1955 Portilla argued that in Mexico the shared horizon of understanding or sense of community was being undermined by the “weaponization of political correctness,” in which the leftist intelligentsia demonized anyone deemed insufficiently radical and loyal to the revolutionary Cause.

It is clear the U.S. exhibits all the symptoms of zozobra, a malady that has the potential to destroy our communities or bring us together, in our shared experience of grief, cast out of puritanical certainty and a sense of belonging.

Petra Salazar is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Find her online at https://othersink.wixsite.com/petrasalazar.

Category: Creative Nonfiction, Essays, Students

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