Literatures of the Americas, Latinidad, and the Re-Formation of Multi-Ethnic Literatures

By Sugg, Katherine | MELUS, Fall-Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Literatures of the Americas, Latinidad, and the Re-Formation of Multi-Ethnic Literatures


Sugg, Katherine, MELUS


In December 2002, The New York Times informed readers of a linguistics study that compares pronoun usage among Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, and Mexican communities in New York City. This study of the consequences of the collision of Spanish dialects in New York is motivated by a root interest in "the evolution of Latino identity in the city and beyond." If the linguists find dialects converging, they say it may signal the rise of a New York Spanish and perhaps signify an eventual convergence of identities too. Professor Richard Otheguy explains, "it could suggest that Latinos in New York are thinking of themselves less as members of national groups than they did in the past and more as members of a broader community." However, he also emphasizes "the possibility may be that the contact with other Hispanics does not create a sense of Hispanic fraternity but just the opposite. It creates a sense of wanting to be not mistaken for Mexican or Cuban. 'I want to be Ecuadorean'" (Scott, B1).

Among other things, this study and its rationale suggests a shift in how the nation is figured in contemporary discussions of ethnic identity in the United States. Together, these immigrants from across the Americas (Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Central America, Mexico, etc.) and the linguists who parse their dialects demonstrate the persistence of national identifications in Latino communities. And yet the linguists' study and its guiding questions also suggest a perceived "convergence" of these groups into a new Latino identity and community in the United States. In tracing the linguistic origin point of a US-based latinidud, these scholars are participating in the academic growth industry located at the intersection of diasporic migration orders and the dynamics of US ethnic community formations. Such enterprises are flourishing partly because of rising media interest in "the Hispanic population explosion," but more importantly, I argue, also because the example of Latinos suggests a number of cataclysmic shifts in how we understand ethnicity and community in the United States. (1)

Recently, Romain de la Campa offered the model of the "split state" as a means of conceptualizing these Latino communities in the US who maintain economic, familial, and cultural ties to the various homeland nations in Latin America and the Caribbean from which (and to which) they migrate. (2) Numerous scholars working in the many subfields of US ethnic studies are likewise concerned with the constitutive transnational histories and relations that define contemporary conditions of minority ethnic communities in the United States and elsewhere. (3) These projects highlight the multiple national imaginaries (and government policies and economies) that constitute cultural and demographic realities in a transnational, multicultural United States in this epoch of globalization. Likewise, the study of "multi-ethnic" literatures has begun to acknowledge its own transnational and diasporic dimensions.

In contrast, and perhaps with these trends in mind, MELUS editor Joseph Skerrett in 1998 describes his understanding of ethnic literatures in the US as an "old fashioned construction of the field" (1). In Skerrett's view, multi-ethnic literatures need to reflect "the range and depth" of the literary output of particular ethnic communities in the US, which he defines by nation-state origins. Thus, Skerrett bemoans the paucity of scholarship that prevented MEL US from being "able to devote whole issues to Puerto Rican Literature, or Cuban-American Literature, or Brazilian-American Literature," but instead generated the umbrella "Latino/a Issue" in 1998 (1). The paradigm of ethnic Americans that Skerrett invokes runs counter to most discussions of latinidad, as well as the implicit de sign of those linguists who anticipate the emergence of a New York Latino identity that reflects new political formations and goals rather than old nation-state origins and histories. …

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