Public Signs, Civic Inclusion, and
Language Rights in New York City
Some years ago, when I was teaching courses on Latino identity and culture at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, my Latino students would argue that the course material I was assigning was too dark. 1 Drawing upon my training in anthropological modes of cultural critique as well as my own knowledge and experiences in and of the United States, I wanted my students to challenge essentializing definitions of cultural identity as well as received historical accounts that reduce the complex processes shaping ethnoracial histories in the United States to dominant narratives of eventual assimilation, incorporation, and success derived from typified (and somewhat dubious) “white ethnic” experiences (di Leonardo 1998; Urciuoli 1996).
This, I believe, is crucial in these times when dominant neoconservative discourses capitalize upon widely held beliefs that inequality and exclusion in the United States have been vanquished through institutional, legal, and sociocultural advancement. In these discourses, current advocacy is often represented as the product of self-interested ethnic political activism. 2 Contemporary demands for equality, entitlement, and inclusion are deemed unnecessary, even spurious. 3 Yet, even admitting to some degree of change, the multiple Latino histories in the United States are still embedded in a sociocultural context permeated by inequality of conditions. Latinos are also affected by monocultural and monoglottic 4 ideologies and practices that prevail in spite of current mainstream claims to multiculturalism and plurality (Darder and Torres 1998). The trend for acknowledging the Latino