Esta Tierra es Nuestra Tierra
(This Land Is Our Land)
Reclaiming our Place in American History
As I sat down to write the essay to accompany our exhibition, “Esta Tierra es Nuestra Tierra” in Four Freedoms Park, I found myself confounded by a seemingly simple question. How, should I refer to you when I am speaking not about you, but with you. In this context are we Latinos? Are we Hispanic? Are we Latinx? For a moment, I felt frustration: ‘Can’t we just settle on a name for ourselves, so that we might can move on to more urgent conversations?’ And then, I remembered: to name something is to tame something. And now, gente, is not the time for us to be tamed.
Besides, I thought to myself, these labels are not for us by which to call one another. To one another we call out ‘mana, pana, primo, comadre, compadre, compas y familia. In other words, we know who we are. We need no new words to call out to one another. The labels are for “the mainstream.” For those who are not us to try and categorize and define us. To “make sense” of us. Us, a people who delightfully refuse to fit neatly into any American taxonomy.
For generations we have bucked against definitions put upon us by government agencies, political parties, the media and, perhaps most aggressively of all, brands. We’ve defined ourselves less by stating who we are than by our assertions of who are are not. We are not one race. We are not of a unified national origin. We are not mono-faith, nor are we a predictable voting block. We are neither all immigrants nor are we all citizens. And perhaps, most perplexing to the mainstream (and exasperating to many of our parents and grandparents): we are not even all Spanish-speakers.
For a long time, I saw this anti-definition to be a bold act of defiance. A collective refusal to be saddled with presumptions and assumptions that did little for our community except to make us more discernable and digestible for those seeking to extract things from us. Yet lately, I’ve come to fear that in our resistance to define ourselves, we’ve ceded our narrative to the mainstream. And in ceding that narrative, we have been relegated to the margins of this country.
Although we are the largest minority group in the U.S.A[i]., somehow, we continue to be “othered.” Habitually rendered foreign to that which the mainstream tells us is truly “American.” While as individuals or families, many of us may be new to this country, it is erroneous at best, to paint Latinos, as a collective, as “brand new” to the American experience. The pervasion of this lie discounts centuries of American history written in our ancestors’ blood. But also, in allowing this lie to perpetuate, we unintentionally enable the “White American Myth” that has been so damaging to our diversifying nation.
In 1941, against the backdrop of World War II, F.D.R gave his Four Freedoms Speech, for which this park is named. The speech exalts four universal rights: freedom of speech, a freedom to worship, freedom from fear and a freedom from want. Beautiful intentions, but for Latinos living in the United States, as for many minority groups, the irony was likely rich. The speech came at the tail end of a decade long “Mexican repatriation” campaign, where nearly 2 million people—60% of whom were U.S. Citizens of Mexican descent—were forcibly deported[ii]. The deportations were part of President Hoover’s “American Jobs for Real Americans” program. Working through his department of labor, the program not only branded Mexican-Americans as being inauthentically American, it systemically worked with local governments to ban anyone of Mexican descent from government employment. Privately, the government worked with major American companies to purge their rolls of Mexican-Americans. The deportations were enacted through local governments, many of whom were reimbursed by the Hoover administration.
Forget about due process: families were ripped from homes and workplaces—even hospital beds– and shipped en masse on trains, on trucks, all bound to Mexico. A place many of them had never even been before. Though these efforts were begun by Hoover, its notable that the Roosevelt administration did nothing to stop them. (The irony would be that by 1942, faced with a wartime labor shortage, F.D.R. would create the Bracero program, effectively “importing” millions of Mexican men for short term farm work.[iii])
Today, legal scholars classify this repatriation as an ethnic cleansing. But in the moment, in the mainstream, the justification for the act was that Mexicans were “new here”. Foreigners taking the jobs of real Americans. Of course, the conflation of “Real Americans” with “White Americans” is a foundational tenet of the American Myth[iv]. Yet make no mistake, Latinos have been in the United States since before the United States even existed.
While we may hail from many nations, and be of many races[v], what all Latinos share is an origin story rooted in Spanish violence and dominance. We are a people born from rape and exploitation: of the indigenous people whose lands were pilfered, of African slaves, who were often forced to work that stolen land. And while the Spanish conquered what would become known as the Caribbean, Mexico, South and Central America, we should never forget that they also came to the areas we now know as the American South[vi]. In 1565, more than forty years before Jamestown was settled, the Spanish founded St. Augustine in Florida[vii]. They brought with them both free and enslaved African people, their Catholic faith and their language. Meaning that, not only is Spanish hardly foreign tongue to this country, but also that the first “native born” children to this “New World” spoke it. And that it is highly likely those first babies were mestizos. The first and earliest iteration of Latinos on our mainland.
A few hundred years later, when the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, the U.S. “acquired” vast swaths of Mexico that are now known to us as the states of Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, as well as parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. Overnight, the Rio Grande divided two nations and Mexicans north of that border were suddenly American[viii]. Mexican immigrants did not bring language and Mexican culture to America, America brought itself to Mexicans and then railed against them being there[ix].
The Spanish-American War, similarly, brought yet more Hispanics into the fold of America’s History when in 1898, the U.S. seized Puerto Rico, along with Guam and the Phillipines. (Cuba evaded the U.S.’s grasp.) In need of troops to draft into World War 1, once again, the United States wielded “American-ness” onto Latinos. This time, of a more conditional sort: one subjected to taxation without representation—in Congress, in Presidential elections[x]. I could go on and on.
Despite our history in this country that can be counted now in centuries, this myth of Latino “otherness” perpetuates. This is not an accident. Erasure of non-white, non-Christian history has long been a tool of White Supremacy. With an unknown history, we—our language, our cultures—can perpetually be labeled as “foreign.” And when we are named, we are tamed. Often by acts of cruelty and violence.
It was our “foreign-ness” that justified the horrific lynchings of Mexican Americans by the Texas Rangers[xi]. It was our “foreign-ness” that led to Latino school segregation[xii]. It was our “foreign-ness” that justified mass sterilization efforts of Latinas in Puerto Rico[xiii] and California[xiv]. It was our “foreignness” that enabled American Pharamaceutical companies to blindly run human trials of birth control pills—the very backbone of Modern American Feminism– on Puerto Rican women without their permission[xv]. And it is our perceived foreignness that allowed all of these atrocities to be erased from mainstream American history. Why should any American be allowed to forget about any of this? How can every American not know?
Because many of our personal histories in this country have involved discrimination and racism and fear– of violence, of deportation, of loss – I think many of us, like myself for many years, stuck to our assigned role in the margins of U.S. history. Deciding that it was easier to play along and wear the cultural shorthand that has been attributed to us– family oriented, fiery, sexy, timid, yet also too loud, boisterous, lazy but, paradoxically, hard-working too?
Many of us have lived constrained by this shorthand, because we have come to accept our “foreigness.” How many times have we heard or said ourselves, “No de aqui, no de alla.” When in actuality we are of here and we are of there. Others of us have politely worn this short-hand assuming that it was just a matter of time before we will be invited, finally from the margins, into the mainstream. That one day, it will be impossible to ignore our population size and our spending capacity and our cultural influence on food and music and literature and they will have to give us permission to take up space and tell our stories. Explain our real histories.
The invitation will never come. Not unless each of us, in our daily lives, commits to asserting our lived experience and our communities’ true histories. There is power in not waiting for permission. There is power in seizing the narrative. There is empowerment in seizing the narrative.
And we are. I feel it beneath me, the ground shaking. It is, right now, a quiet rumbling growing louder. It is the collective stretching and yawns and opening of eyes that, after a long slumber, have new clarity. The grumblings of stomachs, ravenous for all that they’d dreamt of while they quietly slept. I can sense ears being cleared to hear fresh truths and mouths opening to speak them. What I feel, as I write this, is a mass awakening of my people to our collective power.
It is pulsing in our music, which is taking over the charts. It is in our literature and in our poetry—a refusal to perform the role of “Latino,” to perform “foreignness” in our words– and instead to write from the heart, for our panas. It is in our efforts to celebrate our cultural legacy: like the archival work of Djali Brown-Cepeda and Ricardo Castañeda for Nuevayorkinos, the gatherings of Sociedad Life or the monumental curatorial triumph of Marcella Guerrero’s No Existe Un Mundo Poshurucán at the Whitney. It is in our activism: from protests in Arizona against Joe Arpaio and racist government officials[xvi] to voter-mobilization efforts in Florida to protect the queer community from discriminatory legislation[xvii] to rallies to save Toñita’s Social Club. Our activism is in the academe—like the recent, successful efforts of Javier Zamora, Ingrid Rojas Contreras and the Undocupoets to petition the Pulitzer Prizes to recognize the work of undocumented Americans[xviii]. And our activism is on the ground: like the grass roots advocacy work done by the late, Transgender activist Lorena Borjas, pictured here in our mural.
This mural is Mata Ruda and my humble effort to contribute to this awakening.
When I was approached by the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy to curate an installation, their impetus was to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month. I normally bristle at these “months” as performative, but the opportunity to work with the Conservancy—whose dedication to using their park as a platform to artists to present restorative narrratives to history—intrigued me. The lack of corporate involvement and the scale and beauty of the park made this feel unique. An opportunity to make an assertive visual statement about the power of Latinidad—in all its complexity and beauty—as an integral part of America. But of course, the question was how and what?
There is no iconic monument to the Latino experience in America to draw from. And so, I turned to an artform that our communities have long embraced: the mural. From East L.A. to Santurce, Cleveland to Chicago, murals have long celebrated the histories and heroes of our communities. The next question of course was, a mural of what?
In thinking of America and our place in it, I found myself continually dwelling on an iconic 1970 cover of Ebony Magazine, entitled “Which Way Black America?” [xix]It captured, visually, the diversity of thought and experience and challenges and triumphs of a Black experience that was inextricably linked to the identity of America. This too, seemed a perfect homage. Not only would there would be no Latino Civil Rights without the groundwork of the Black Civil Rights movement, there is no Latinidad without Afro-Latinidad, a fact too often forgotten.
But also, it felt necessary for this project to speak to the spirit of the park and to the spirit of the park’s location: New York. While, historically, the mainstream of America has done little to protect our Four Freedoms as Latinos, we have done much to protect one another. I’ve already made small mention of Lorena Borjas[xx], whose work protected countless Transgender women from fear: of being trafficked, of falling ill, of being deported. Who better embodies protecting the freedom of want than Candido Arcángel[xxi]? For 14 years, the Brooklyn bodega owner turned his basement into a makeshift homeless shelter for men who had fallen on hard times. Freedom to worship seems for many a given, yet for generations on the mainland, practitioners of Santeria and other Afro-diasporic faiths, found their faiths demonized. As a writer, educator, cultural leader and Yoruba priestess, Dr. Marta Moreno Vega has done unquantifiable work to destigmatize and contextualize these faiths[xxii]. Finally, there is freedom of speech, a freedom that felt important enough to be represented twice. From our past, is Olga Garriga, the Brooklynite turned freedom-fighter, jailed for speaking in defense of Puerto Rican liberation under the gag laws of the late 1940s[xxiii]. And in our present—representing our future really- one of the Dreamers, all of whom have refused to be relegated to the margins[xxiv].
And what to call this project? Being a writer, my thoughts went to Langston Hughes, who took up a similar task with his poem, “I, Too.[xxv]” This sent me down a lyrical path that ended with Woody Guthrie, who penned his song “This Land Is Your Land” in 1940, in response to the saccharine patriotism of the mega-popular “God Bless America.” Guthrie felt we could celebrate our country without glossing over the struggles Americans were actually facing. The song was, in essence, his attempt to seize the narrative[xxvi]. It also seemed to me, a perfect title to make our own.
And this is what I approached the phenomenal artist Mata Ruda with: A title, a magazine cover and a list of names. What he gave back is a testament to the power of art. In one glance, he can convey what it has taken me more than 2,000 words to do. A visual statement not about us, gente, but of us. Of our generosity, of our spirituality, of our sense of community, of our sense of fight. Of our beauty. And of course, our rich, long, sometimes painful history here in the United States. A place where we have had to remake ourselves again and again and again. And again and again, we rise.